Germany Returns Skulls, Other Remains From Colonial-Era Massacre to Namibia

August 30, 2018 Updated: August 30, 2018

BERLIN—Germany has handed over to Namibia the skulls, bones, and other remains of massacred tribespeople used more than a century ago for now-discredited research that sought to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans.

In what historians call the first genocide of the 20th century, soldiers of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm slaughtered some 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama indigenous people in a 1904–08 campaign after a revolt against land expropriations by German colonists. At the time, Namibia was under German colonial rule.

At a church ceremony in Berlin on Aug. 29, a Namibian delegation received the remains from German Foreign Ministry representatives. They will be taken to the Namibian capital Windhoek on Aug. 31. Namibian education minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa has said the government will create a group to decide whether to bury or display the repatriated skulls.

“Today, we want to do what should have been done many years ago—to give back to their descendants the remains of people who became victims of the first genocide of the 20th century,” said Petra Bosse-Huber, a German Protestant bishop.

Members of the Namibia delegation at a ceremony
Members of a delegation attend a ceremony to hand back human remains from Germany to Namibia following the 1904-1908 genocide against the Herero and Nama in Berlin on Aug. 29, 2018. (Reuters/Christian Mang)

Germany has acknowledged “moral responsibility” for the killings, but to avoid compensation claims, has avoided making an official apology for the massacres.

Ignored for decades, Germany’s colonial history is drawing increasing attention. Germany, which lost all its colonial territories after World War I, was the world’s third-biggest colonial power after Britain and France, which lost their territories after World War II.

During its 1904–08 campaign, in what was then called German South West Africa, the German Reich sent reinforcements to put down an uprising by tribespeople over their expulsion from their land and recruitment into forced labor. The Hereros had killed 123 German traders, settlers, and soldiers.

In addition to the slaughter, thousands of Hereros were driven into the desert and died of thirst and starvation, and the rest were sent to concentration camps.