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Germany fails to face colonial legacy in Tanzania

Philipp Sandner
June 14, 2023

The German government says it wants to confront the legacy of its colonial rule in Africa. But it is still failing to address issues such as its brutal repression of the Maji Maji uprising in Tanzania.

Tansania | Detailaufnahme der Tansania Flagge vor blauem Himmel
A contemporary account distorts the brutal actions of German troops in the Maji Maji uprisingImage: Valerio Rosati/Zoonar/picture alliance

An impressive, yet painful reminder of the ups and downs of German-Tanzanian relations can be found in the Museum of Natural History in the German capital. The 150-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton — one of the tallest mounted dinosaur skeletons in the world — dominates the Berlin museum's central atrium.

In the early 1900s, German paleontologists and their African helpers excavated it near Tendaguru Hill, a region famous for its fossils, in the Lindi region in present-day Tanzania. The skeleton has thrilled school classes and visitors to Berlin since it was first displayed in 1937, but few are aware of its history.

The dinosaur is also on the travel list of Tanzanian historian Philemon Mtoi, who believes the skeleton came to Berlin illegally. "This animal is not originated from Germany. So I think it should be displayed in its country of origin," Mtoi said, adding that it was one of the very special animals in the world.

"It will attract a lot of people. A lot of people are coming to see the display of this animal in the Berlin museum. It does not benefit the country where it was taken first."

A virtual reality exhibit of the Brachiosaurus Brancai
The Brachiosaurus Brancai, the world's largest complete skeleton of its kind, made its way to Germany during the colonial eraImage: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Talks on repatriations

Since his childhood, Mtoi has heard discussions in his home country about the possible repatriation of fossils and other natural and cultural artifacts that Germany collected. 

These are "very important discussions," Mtoi told DW. Such discussions are an "opportunity to have a dialog which will end up in a positive way," he said. "But if people don't discuss, the environment will be very hostile for these two parties."

Germany has recently been trying to tackle this aspect of its colonial legacy.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to Nigeria last December to return Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Britain colonized Nigeria until its independence on October 1, 1960. The 21 artifacts had been looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin, now in Nigeria, and were then sold to German museums. These are the first of 1,130 Benin Bronzes that Germany promised to return.

Samia Suluhu Hassan (right) and Katja Keul
President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania (right) pictured with Germany's Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Katja KeulImage: Tanzania Statehouse

The German colonial government also "stole the skeletons of thousands of the dead from cemeteries in order to measure and collect them," a government website admits.

Skulls to be returned to Tanzania

Around 200 skulls will be returned to Tanzania, as well as more than 900 to Rwanda, which along with Burundi and small parts of northern Mozambique, made up German East Africa.

Historian Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor at the University of Hamburg, said he finds it interesting that after "decades of colonial amnesia and the refusal to take colonialism, colonial violence, colonial crimes and injustice seriously," Germany has changed its heart.

"But Germany focuses on the area of museums and art, it returns objects," he said. "What it wants to avoid is recognizing the structural, racist nature of colonialism as such, because that raises very fundamental questions about reparations, about apologies."

German politician Sevim Dagdelen, a member of the opposition Left Party, also thinks Germany should be doing more to examine its legacy in East Africa between 1885 und 1918.

"Anyone who, like Chancellor Olaf Scholz, proposes a new start in relations with African states mustn't try to sit out the political and legal processing of colonial crimes," she said.

Berlin favors dialogue 

Dagdelen and several other Left Party members recently submitted a parliamentary question about the reappraisal of colonial crimes in present-day Tanzania.

The government's response to the parliamentary question is quite concrete when it comes to artifacts: "With regard to the repatriation of human remains and the return of cultural property, there are offers of negotiations, and the German government is in favor of a dialogue with the Tanzanian government in this regard."

One of Dagdelen's central questions, however, remains unanswered. She had asked whether German colonial troops' bloody suppression of the Maji Maji rebellion in southeastern Tanganyika could be described as genocide from today's perspective.

Germany's repression of the Maji Maji rebellion

A precedent for this is Germany's official acknowledgment in 2021 that it committed genocide during its colonial occupation of Namibia when it massacred the Herero and Nama peoples in the early 1900s.

Between 1905 and 1907, the Germans quashed the Maji Maji uprising "with extreme brutality, using scorched-earth tactics to starve localities into submission," according to the Oxford Research Encyclopedias.

It's thought that some 200,000 to 300,000 died from causes including battlefield deaths, livestock and food confiscation, and subsequent disease and malnutrition.

Some scholars have found strong evidence to support a claim of genocide in Germany's conduct in Tanzania.

Evading the genocide question

While the German government admitted in its parliamentary answer to being aware of the nature of the Maji Maji crackdown, it dodged the question of genocide. Instead, it said it faces up to its "moral and political responsibility" and referred to "trustful discussions" with the Tanzanian government.

For Sevim Dagdelen, however, exploring whether a genocide took place is part of a constructive and goal-oriented dialogue. She also wants the government to learn from its mistakes in dealing with Namibia.

Two people holding a placard calling Germany to pay reparations to Namibia
Germany's handling of the genocide in Namibia remains controversialImage: Paul Zinken/dpa/picture alliance

While both Germany and Namibia have made a joint declaration about the Herero and Nama genocide, the Namibian government is yet to ratify it. That's because the descendants of the genocide victims want direct reparations, rather than the €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) promised to the Namibian government.

"From the beginning, the German government, in close coordination with the government of Tanzania, should also genuinely take into account the descendants of the victims or the communities particularly affected by the genocide and seek dialogue," Dagdelen said.

Wary of setting a precedence

Historian Jürgen Zimmerer believes the German government is avoiding the issue because it is worried about setting a precedent.

"People are afraid of precedents when they officially acknowledge colonial violence in connection with reparations or apologies," he told DW, noting that there are demands for reparations from World War II. So the outcomes of ongoing debates on recognizing colonial injustice are being watched very closely.

"The German government thought it could sweep Namibia under the rug, [but] it can't do that," he said. "And now, it wants to avoid a repeat of Namibia at all costs, in that it won't admit anything that in any way has similarities with Namibia — with the genocide back then — or could be construed in that way."

Dr Abdallah Saleh Possi
Tanzania's Ambassador to Germany, Abdallah Possi, called for negotiations on reparations in 2020Image: Saleh Mwanamilongo/DW

Embracing reconciliation

The Left Party's parliamentary question also raises the reparations issue. The German government's answer: There has, so far, been no official demand from the Tanzanian government.

Tanzanian historian Mtoi, however, said he considers it inappropriate to wait for such demands to be made. Instead, Germany should make a clear signal of reconciliation, he said, because if Berlin hesitates now, it will strain relations for years.

Mtoi proposes a joint commission incorporating historians and academics from the former colonial countries.

"Germany is one of the strongest nations in the world," he said, and many countries look to it as an example. "It is not bad to say sorry. It does not show that you are weak. It shows that you are responsible for the humanities in the world."

Daniel Pelz in Berlin contributed to this article

The article was originally written in German and adapted by Kate Hairsine

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu, Chiponda Chimbelu and Benita van Eyssen

A previous version of this article included an image showing the 1903 massacre of a German garrison in Damaraland (present-day Namibia), not Tanzania, as was previously stated. The image has now been replaced. DW apologizes for the error.