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“These skulls are not enough” – The Repatriation of Namibian Human Remains from Berlin to Windhoek in 2011

by Larissa Förster
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

“These skulls are not enough.”[1]

Berlin: Handover ceremony in Berlin. A Photo Report with Extended Captions (Part 1)

Fig.1 © Larissa Förster

Fig.2 © Larissa Förster

Press conference at the university hospital Charité in Berlin on September 26, 2011. The human remains identified in the Charité Human Remains Project (CHRP) and the findings of the latter are presented to the media. The CHRP consists of a team of five researchers investigating Namibian as well as Australian human remains in the collection of the former Institute of Anatomy of the University of Berlin (now Centre for Anatomy of the Charité). The provenance of the Namibian human remains was established by a historian in collaboration with a physical anthropologist. The CHRP decided to rely mainly on historical information (from collection documentation and contemporary publications) in order to establish the provenance and ‘acquisition history’ of the skulls, substantiated through morphological information based on non-invasive methods of investigation. The majority of skulls were identified as the remainders of heads who had been purloined from the dead bodies of Herero- and Nama-speaking inmates of the prisoner-of-war camp on Shark Island (in the bay of Lüderitz) in the colonial war of 1904-1908 in then German South-West Africa (today Namibia). The heads had been requested by the then Institute of Anatomy of the University of Berlin via personal and professional networks in order to conduct comparative anatomical research on ‘human races’. Since colonial medicine considered the human remains mere ‘specimens’ for racial variety, they were stripped of individual identities and inventorised as typological objects (as can be seen from the inscription “Herero E” on figure 2, accompanied by the name of the investigator, the anatomist Paul Bartels). As a consequence, the individuals behind these skulls could not be identified by the CHRP. The findings of the CHRP were handed over to the Namibian delegation together with the human remains: see summary of findings. In October 2012 the Charité discussed their approach in an interdiscliplinary workshop.

Fig.3 © Larissa Förster

Fig.4 © Larissa Förster

The first ‘re-encounter’ of the Namibian delegation that had been flown in for the handover, with the human remains. The delegation consisted of interest groups, government officials and museum professionals, their stay in Germany was organised under the auspices of the Embassy of the Republic of Namibia in Berlin. The viewing of the remains (fig. 3) was followed by a short report on the findings of the CHRP by project leader Dr. Andreas Winkelmann and a Q & A part moderated by Hoze Riruako and Petrus Simon Kooper, members of the Namibian delegation (fig. 4). Questions were asked about the ‘acquisition history’, methods of investigation, marks of violence discernible with these methods, the lack of individual information on the skulls, objectives underlying research in the early 1900s, the use of the data produced by this research later on, and finally the care for the skulls in past decades. Some of the questions could not be answered by the CHRP team, as it became clear that the limited information available to the Charité could not speak to the many issues brought up by Namibians in their discourse on the war and on colonial violence.

Fig. 5 © Joachim Zeller

Representatives of the three interest groups that formed the Namibian delegation spoke at a press conference and a panel discussion organised by an alliance of Berlin-based NGOs[2] at Haus der Kulturen der Welt on September 28, 2011. Both events aimed to create a platform where the groups could present their concomitant demands for an official and formal apology of the German government for genocidal colonial atrocities (official/formal in the sense of having been formulated and agreed on by e.g. the German parliament), for material compensation and for programmes of restorative justice. German participants of the panel were solely representatives of opposition parties.

Fig. 6 © Larissa Förster

Fig. 7 © Larissa Förster

St. Matthew’s Church in Berlin was chosen as venue for a memorial service organised by the Namibian embassy on September 29, 2011. The service carved out a space for mourning outside the institutional framework of the Charité. Brief speeches were given by the Minister of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture Kazenambo Kazenambo and the chiefs leading the Namibian delegation, as well as by Bishop Zephania Kameeta of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia and representatives of the Evangelical Church in Germany. The event was also attended by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, former Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany, who in 2004 had already delivered a cautiously worded apology for the genocide at a commemorative event in Namibia. However, her apology – even though well received in general – was and still is criticised by Namibian activists for not having been delivered on behalf of the German government as such, but rather by the minister in her own capacity.

Fig. 8 © Jürgen Salm

In front of St. Matthews Church: the Namibian delegation consisting of representatives of the Namibian government, the National Museum of Namibia, Namibian chiefs and members of the three activist committees, namely the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Council for the Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide, the Ovaherero Genocide Committee, and the Nama Technical Committee.

Fig. 9 © Joachim Zeller

Members of the oturupa parading in front of the Charité on September 30, 2011, the day of the handover. The oturupa is an association of Herero-speaking Namibians and, among other things, seeks to maintain the memory of anti-colonial resistance by e.g. organising annually a series of commemorative events in Namibia. With its uniforms full of historical references the oturupa spelt out the complex memory-political terrain that the return of the skulls was embedded in.

Fig. 10 © Joachim Zeller

When approaching the Charité for the handover ceremony, Herero spiritual experts, who had prepared and accompanied the journey of the delegation before and since their departure from Namibia, performed various seminal rituals. In the latter ancestors – not the least those whose skulls the delegation had come to fetch – were asked for their support of the delegation’s mission. In this way, good relations between the dead and the living and a safe return to Namibia were secured.

Fig. 11 © Jephta Nguherimo

Nama-speaking members of the delegation recited a poem thanking God for the return of the skulls.

Fig. 12 © Dorothee Arndt (Charité Human Remains Project)

Fig. 13 © Larissa Förster

Fig. 14 © Joachim Zeller

Fig. 15 © Dorothee Arndt (Charité Human Remains Project)

The handover took place at a lecture hall of the Charité and comprised the signing of a document between the Charité and the National Heritage Council of Namibia (fig. 12), speeches by the Chairman of the Executive Board of the Charité Karl Max Einhäupl (fig. 13) and the Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office of Germany Cornelia Pieper (fig. 14) as well as by the Namibian Minister of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture Kazenambo Kazenambo and by the three chiefs leading the Namibian delegation, namely Kuaima Riruako (fig. 15), Alphons Maharero and David Frederick. While Karl Max Einhäupl apologised for the complicity of German science in the colonial enterprise and in colonial violence, the German Minister of State circumvented an apology for the genocidal colonial war, upon which activist members of the audience interfered with demands for “apology now” and “reparations now”. The Minister of State was ushered out after her speech and was hence absent during the following speeches by representatives of the Namibian delegation. Finally, a member of the German NGO alliance (see fig. 5) took the stage in order to hand a book of condolence over to the Namibian delegation as a sign of solidarity as well as in critique of the German government. During the whole programme, representatives of the Namibian oturupa guarded the human remains, which had been covered by Namibian flags.

Windhoek: Discourses Surrounding the “Return of the Skulls” in Postcolonial Namibia (Part 2)

Fig. 16 © Mathias Nanghanda, Nampa

When the airplane from Berlin with its highly sensitive cargo of 20 restituted Namibian skulls landed at the international airport near Windhoek and opened its doors for exit, there was no holding back any more. Hundreds of Namibian citizens who had flocked to the airport from all over Namibia and had waited for hours or even a whole night in front of the airport’s old arrival hall, broke through the barrier and stormed onto the airfield. They were excited to receive back not only their ancestors’ remains which had been purloined and abducted more than one hundred years ago, but also a delegation of nearly 70 Namibian citizens (activists, government representatives, etc.) that had gone to Berlin to fetch these human remains at the Charité, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, where they had been kept − even though not uninterruptedly − for over 100 years. Banners and flags were held up, the homecoming were embraced, members of the Herero oturupa[3] paraded at the bottom of the airplane, performed warriors’ and mourning songs, a choir and a brass band added to the solemn atmosphere. The Namibian Defence Force struggled to contain the crowd and had to usher the spectators away from the airplane before it could receive the sensitive freight from the luggage hold (fig. 16).

The “return of the skulls”, as it was frequently phrased in the Namibian media, from Berlin back to Namibia in October 2011, i.e. after more than 100 years after their pilferage, was and is a cornerstone of Namibian postcolonial history and a seminal moment in the entangled history of both Namibia and Germany. Many Namibians viewed these remains of inmates of a prisoner-of-war camp in the genocidal war of 1904–1908 as irrefutable proof of colonial repression, exploitation and violence. Their return could be interpreted as the first manifest and tangible admission of guilt by the Federal Republic of Germany. Consequently, Namibians, and in particular descendants of the victims of the genocide, hoped that the return of the skulls would eventually open up a space for German-Namibian negotiations about symbolical and material compensation for colonial injustices and atrocities.

This hope was repeatedly (and continues to be) expressed by the three NGOs, of which the Namibian delegation to Berlin was made up: the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Council for the Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide (OCD-1904), which represents a number of officially recognised traditional authorities of the Herero-speaking population of Namibia; the Ovaherero Genocide Committee, which has close links with Kuaima Riruako who is seen by many, but not all Herero-speaking Namibians as ‘Paramount Chief’ (a position that is contested by members of the OCD-1904); and the Nama Technical Committee founded by Nama-speaking Namibians, which formed an action group together with the Ovaherero Genocide Committee. All three committees are important actors in the realm of post-colonial Namibian memory politics.

However, the committees’ hope for a German-Namibian dialogue on the genocide was harshly disappointed, when the German government decided to treat the handover in Berlin as an institutional matter to be negotiated between the Charité in Berlin and the National Museum of Namibia in Windhoek (and not as a matter to be dealt with on government level), and thus abstained from assigning it higher priority on its schedule and performing the role of a host (as had been expected by Namibians). In particular the Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, who in her speech on the occasion of the final handover of the remains in Berlin carefully circumvented the much expected official apology for the colonial genocide and instead jumped to asking for reconciliation, left the Namibian delegation belied and angered.[4] There are many indications that as a consequence, members and sympathisers of the committees as well as those whom they aim to represent have eventually been radicalised.

Not only from the perspective of the committees, but also from a general Namibian point of view the restitution of the skulls was as seminal event. By financing the Namibian delegation’s trip to Germany, the Namibian government had at a very early stage agreed on and emphasised that the return was of national importance and could be seen as a further step in Namibian nation-building. Accordingly the events organised around the return by the government were held in a tone of national solidarity and recognition.

Fig. 17 © Larissa Förster

Fig. 18 © Larissa Förster

The welcome ceremonies fell in two parts. First of all, upon their arrival in Windhoek the skulls were exhibited in the Parliament Garden, symbolically ‘lying in state’ for 24 hours − as usually only the corpses of very prominent Namibian citizens that are accorded a state funeral do. Any Namibian citizen could march up to the tent where the skulls were kept and pay tribute to or take images of them (fig. 17, 18). At the same time a number of speakers and singers from different ethnic, religious and local communities contributed to a colourful programme of events at the Parliament Garden, which reflected the diversity of Namibian society, and elaborated on the historical background of the event.

Fig. 19 © Larissa Förster

Fig. 20 © Larissa Förster

The second part was an official act of state, staged at Windhoek’s Heroes’ Acre (a memorial erected in 2001 in memory of the victims of the Namibian liberation struggle) one day later with almost the entire political elite present (fig. 19). Through this ceremony the individuals behind the skulls were solemnly declared heroes and “martyrs of the liberation struggle”, as it was put on the programme of the event. They were thus accorded the almost highest status in Namibian national historiography: that of martyrs. In their speeches, the Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba (fig. 20) as well as the German ambassador Egon Kochanke demanded that further Namibian human remains should be identified in German university and museum collections and restituted to Namibia. Representatives of the above-mentioned committees reiterated their claims for compensation, criticised the German government and called on the Namibian government to support their demands.

Both events (at the Parliament Garden and at the Heroes’ Acre) were rather inclusive and testified to a certain amount of nation-building ‘from above’ as well as ‘from below’. Remarkably though, members or representatives of the German-speaking community of Namibia were − apart from journalists − almost entirely absent at both events. The importance of the return of the skulls and the opportunity that the latter would have offered for engaging in processes of national reconciliation went unrecognised and unappreciated by the German-speaking minority in Namibia.

Fig. 21 © Larissa Förster

The two official ceremonies were followed by diverse activities on local and community level: in the Herero-speaking quarter of Old Katutura (the former township of Windhoek) the return was preceded and accompanied by various mourning performances, in which the war and its casualties were bemoaned. In Okahandja, which is famous for its annual commemoration of the funeral of Samuel Maharero,[5] a cleansing ritual was conducted some days after the return of the skulls (fig. 21); the ritual was modelled on the mourning ritual usually held in Herero-speaking households when a family member has passed away. Above that the annual commemorations in Omaruru and Ozombu Zovindimba (both related to anti-colonial resistance and organised by Herero-speaking Namibians) were complemented with reports on the return of the skulls and used as platforms for further discussions on the issue. On both occasions participants and speakers pleaded for a closing of ranks between the three committees which on the one hand pursue similar goals in terms of memory politics, but on the other hand often compete and stand in each other’s way due to the fall-outs and rivalry between their political leaders. Suggestions towards more solidarity were made, e.g. the founding of a countrywide NGO or the collaboration with other communities that have suffered colonial violence, like the Damara and the San, were proposed. Finally, a thanksgiving service organised by members of the Nama Technical Committee sought to unite members of the various communities and of the three committees around the common case.

However, while the return of the skulls had temporarily pushed power and party political differences in the background, the latter have in the meantime regained momentum. The conflictual relationship of the committees has drawn criticism also from within Namibia, where some caution against a usurpation of the repatriation process for ethnic and party political aims. Hence, in future repatriation processes, which are already being negotiated,[6] the Namibian government will have to include and balance different ethnic, political and community identities and interests, but at the same time counteract exclusionism and claims to sole representation.

Nevertheless, there is a broad consensus between the three committees on where the repatriated skulls should be kept. Several options had been considered in the course of the negotiations, but ruled out step by step. First of all, burials on local and family graveyards had been suggested, but turned out as not viable, since the skulls could not be identified individually. Hence, in October 2008 the Namibian Cabinet decided that the skulls should be buried at the Heroes’ Acre, in order to be incorporated in the pantheon of national heroes. This seemed an obvious idea in view of the fact that Samuel Maharero and other leaders of anti-colonial resistance have also been given graves − even though symbolical ones − at the Heroes’ Acre.

However, the majority of Namibian activists refuted this ‘cooptation’ of the skulls. On the one hand the Heroes’ Acre, situated outside Windhoek in the hills of Khomas Highland, overladen with stereotyped nationalist imagery and almost intimidatingly oversized has not obtained wider acceptance among Namibians. On the other hand, many activists conceive of the individuals behind the skulls not only as victims of the genocide, but also as witnesses of the genocide. Their skulls have turned into proof of the genocide − and accordingly ought not to be buried and made invisible or inaccessible, it was argued. Consequently, the three committees provisionally agreed on the request that the skulls should be kept accessible − which is why the skulls were transferred to the National Museum of Namibia in Windhoek.

Fig. 22 © Larissa Förster

Some of the committees’ members even argued that the skulls should be put on display at the Independence Memorial Museum in central Windhoek, a newly erected, but not yet opened museum in memory of the Namibian pathway to independence (fig. 22). In their view, the display of the skulls could be useful to advance three causes: first, to make younger Namibians, in particular Herero- and Nama-speaking citizens, aware of the history of colonisation, of the victimhood, but also of the heroism of their ancestors; second, to draw the attention of a broader Namibian audience to the fact that anti-colonial resistance did not only take off with the outbreak of the armed struggle of SWAPO in the 1960s, but was started by Herero- and Nama-speaking Namibians in their wars of resistance against the German colonisers; last but not least, and in front of an international public, to testify to the first genocide of the 20th century committed in Namibia. The latter argument was taken a step further by the opposition party SWANU, which has many Herero-speaking Namibians among their members and voters and went as far as to suggest that the Independence Memorial Museum should be renamed into “Genocide Remembrance Centre” − a claim not devoid of exclusionism and hence unlikely to be accommodated by the Namibian government.

For now the repatriated skulls have been stored in the National Museum of Namibia, where other human remains are held as well, for example such remains that have been unearthed during construction work or at archaeological excavations and could not be identified and buried. However, it cannot be taken for granted that the National Museum and those government bodies responsible for the conceptualisation and realisation of the new museum accommodate the wishes and demands of Herero- and Nama-speaking activists. One the one hand, the treatment of human remains in museums has been hotly debated in the past decades, and in general there has been a tendency to rather withdraw human remains from displays in museums in order to protect the dignity of the deceased individuals, unless it is expected that the display of ‘original remains’ can meet educational aims better than images and texts.[7] On the other hand, memorials and memory museums as for example in Ruanda or Cambodia increasingly use human remains in their displays in order to document and invoke the memory of almost unconceivable acts of violence.[8]

Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the repatriated human remains will eventually be included in the galleries of the Independence Memorial Museum or stored elsewhere on the museum premises. At any rate the claim to their inclusion in the new museum needs to be seen against the background of for example the continued struggle of Herero-speaking Namibians for a monument in honour of the victims of the 1904–1908 war, to be erected either on Ohamakari, a well-known historic battle site of August 1904, or at Ozombu Zovindimba, where the issuing of the so-called extermination order is commemorated every year in October. Many Herero- and Nama-speaking Namibian activists claim that the Namibian government has not yet committed itself satisfactorily to supporting the activists’ demands for compensation vis-à-vis the German government.

What is striking about the repatriation process and the way it was and is discussed in Namibia is that it seems somehow disconnected from the broader repatriation movement, where issues like the modalities of provenance research, of return, storage or subsequent burial have been discussed intensely with sometimes rather distinct regulations emerging from the debates and negotiations in and between the different countries and communities concerned.[9]

In the Namibian context the repatriated human remains are not only perceived as material evidence, but they are also seen and used as a pedagogical as well as a political resource. Their return is less a museum matter or a matter of the historiography of science − Namibian museum professionals and academics could anyway not draw on any established procedures, guidelines or regulations for the return and hence claim authority over the procedure. Rather − and maybe therefore − the human remains are dealt with on much broader terms in the Namibian context than in other national contexts: they have become entry points for re-debating and re-writing Namibian history. It is against this background that claims of the affected communities could emerge so potently.

As a result, the remains have become vehicles in a political movement that aims at the bigger picture, and not only seeks to explore the history of science or the history of museums and their complicity with colonialism, but addresses colonial violence and its redemption per se, on a national as well as on a transnational level. The prime goals of the campaign created around the skulls were: first, the moral and political recognition of the genocide as a matter of fact, and second, material compensation and negotiations on measures of restorative justice between Germany and Namibia. This became obvious not only in the speeches held by representatives of the committees in Berlin and Windhoek, but also, when some members of the Namibian delegation to Berlin proposed to finally reject the skulls and leave them in Berlin in order to scandalise the ‘non-handling’ of the reparation issue by the German Foreign Ministry.

One may regret that the individual histories of suffering that the skulls are tied to, have again been pushed to the background in favour of a larger historical narrative and a larger political aim. However, the authority of making decisions on the destination and ‘utilisation’ of the skulls must finally lie with the affected communities, who need to work out a way of dealing with the devastating fact that through the anonymity produced by German colonial practices their ancestors’ identity will most probably never be retrieved. For some Namibian activists the return of the skulls has brought another intricate issue to the surface of Namibian politics: the search for those fellow Namibians who had been declared dissidents by the SWAPO liberation movement during the liberation struggle and who were consequently detained and never returned from detention. Issues like the latter make clear that the skulls have raised many more questions regarding Namibian history than any German museum or research institution could anticipate.


1. Quote by the late Chief Alphons Maharero in his speech in Berlin on the occasion of the memorial service preceding the handover of the human remains (September 29, 2011). This essay is the English translation of a slightly revised article first published in the German magazine iz3w, nr. 331, July/August 2012, p. 36–37. [↑]

2. The alliance of NGOs included AfricAvenir International, AFROTAK TV cyberNomads!, Artefakte//anti-humboldt, Berliner Entwicklungspolitischer Ratschlag (BER), Berlin Postkolonial, Deutsch-Afrikanische Gesellschaft (DAFRIG) Berlin, Global African Congress, Solidaritätsdienst International (SODI), see:[↑]

3. The oturupa is an association of Herero-speaking Namibians. Among other things, it seeks to maintain the memory of anti-colonial resistance. It is viewed by Herero-speaking Namibians as genuine Herero tradition. [↑]

4. In 2004 on the occasion of a commemoration of the war in Namibia the then German Minister for Development and Economic Cooperation Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul had delivered a cautious apology in her capacity as minister, even though not explicitly on behalf of the German Government. In the following years, Namibian activists demanded that the German Government or Parliament follow suit and deliver an official apology. [↑]

5. Samuel Maharero was the political leader of the Hereros during the (anti-)colonial war of 1904–1908. [↑]

6. In the meantime the Charité has identified another series of skulls of Namibian origin that will be de-accessioned and returned; moreover, the university of Freiburg has announced that it is also willing to return 14 skulls, purloined in the early 20th century, from its historical collection to Namibia. [↑]

7. See Sarah Fründt, Die Menschen-Sammler: Über den Umgang mit menschlichen Überresten im Übersee-Museum Bremen (Marburg, 2011). [↑]

8. See Paul Williams, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities (London, 2008). [↑]

9. See for example Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull (eds.), The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice (London, 2002). [↑]

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Larissa Förster is research associate at the Center for Advanced Studies Morphomata at the University of Cologne. Her PhD is on the memory of colonialism in Namibia; she co-curated the exhibition Namibia – Germany: a shared/divided history. Resistance, violence, memory (Cologne and Berlin, 2004/05). In her current research she links issues of postcolonial memorialisation practices in Africa to a critical study of the history of European museum collections by looking at why, when and how human remains from European museum collections are (or are not) repatriated to postcolonial nation states. Most recently she (co-)edited the volumes Transforming Knowledge Orders: Museums, Collections and Exhibitions (Paderborn, 2013) and Afropolis. City, Media, Art (Johannesburg, 2012).
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