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Late justice

September 30, 2011

A Berlin hospital is returning to Namibia 20 skulls that were stolen by colonial Germany, after a brutal repression of an uprising at the start of the 20th century. Some say the gesture does not go far enough.

one of the Namibian skulls being returned
There are 7,000 skulls from Namibia in German collectionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It is a gruesome sight for those visiting the big auditorium in Berlin's Charite hospital. There are 20 human skulls on the podium. Only two of those are on display, the rest are packed in cardboard boxes, surrounded by flower arrangements.

The skulls are the remains of Namibians who died a horrific death at the hands of German colonial forces. And although skulls are not an unusual sight in medical lectures, they still leave you feeling uneasy.

For German scientists these skulls have a highly symbolic meaning. "It's the first time that we've returned a sizeable stock of skulls from a university," said Thomas Schnalke, head of the Charite's Medical History Museum.

"These skulls were collected in Namibia in a highly dubious ethical context between 1904 and 1908 and then prepared and sent off to Berlin for research purposes," he added.

Herero prisoners
German colonial forces brutally crushed the uprisingImage: ullstein bild

They belong to victims from the Herero and Nama tribes in the former colony of German South-West Africa. Under pressure from Berlin, the German colonial government brutally repressed an uprising by indigenous people.

An apology

At the beginning of the 20th century, Berlin was a major hub for anthropological research. The Namibian skulls were sent to the German capital for racial analysis, according to the Charite's research.

"In this case, scientists took advantage of the political circumstances and that was wrong," Schnalke said.

"The Charite hospital would like to apologize, or rather ask for forgiveness, from the Namibian people, and we'd like to return the skulls that we have been able to identify."

A delegation of 73 representatives from Namibia, among them senior representatives of the Herero and Nama victims' associations, traveled to Berlin to receive the skulls. The handover reignited the debate about Germany's colonial past.

Calls for recognition of genocide

In 2004, then Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul finally issued the apology many in Namibia had been waiting for - an apology for the brutal repression of the Herero uprising. Since then, the Foreign Ministry has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to improving bilateral relations with Namibia, but for many in Namibia, it does not go far enough.

The handover of the skulls has been accompanied by debates, news conferences and a church service. The Left Party and various NGOs have called on the German government to recognize the murder of Herero and Nama people during the uprising as genocide.

'We want to be part of the process'

In addition to that, Utjiua Muinjangue, chairwoman of the Herero Victims' Asociation, has called for a change in attitudes.

"We want to be part of the process. There must not be a discussion without us. The German government has never spoken directly to those affected, to hear about our feelings and to give us a platform so we can be heard," she said.

She also says the money from Germany is not serving its purpose.

"Whatever the German government is paying the Namibian government in terms of money, we regard that as a payment between two countries. That's not the kind of compensation we have in mind."

The dispute is likely to continue and remain in the public eye, not least because there are roughly 7,000 Namibian skulls still in German collections, according to the Charite.

"We want to set an example and set a precedent on how to deal with future demands for returning those human remains," Schnalke said.

The Foreign Ministry has said that the Charite would act as a consultant in this matter, emphasizing that all parties had already worked well together on this occasion.

Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz / ng
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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