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Peter H. Katjavivi: The significance of the repatriation of Namibian human skulls

Former Namibian Ambassador to Germany, Prof. Peter H. Katjavivi, who was instrumental in getting the repatriation process with Charité started, calls upon both Namibians and Germans to confront the past honestly as part of the process of recovering human dignity and thereby healing of the wounds of the past. This process, he writes, is in the interest of both nations.

In October 2011, the skulls of Namibian ancestors were returned to their country of origin. The Namibian delegation that participated in the repatriation of the human skulls from Germany successfully accomplished the mission. However, not all the skulls were ready for repatriation and therefore arrangements are underway to ensure that those skulls still held at the Freiburg University can be brought home.

Bishop Dr Z. Kameeta of the Lutheran Church of Namibia succinctly summed up the mood within the Namibian delegation when he said the following in St Matthew Church in Berlin on the 24 September 2011: 

‘I do not know whether we comprehend the enormity of this solemn and divine occasion and the privilege and honour accorded to our generation. In His mercy and wisdom, God has chosen this generation to come here to Germany and to take back the remains of our ancestors who were brutally killed by the German colonial forces and in an undignified manner removed from Namibia to Germany.’ 

When the information about a number of human skulls at various German institutions was disclosed to me in 2008, shortly after I returned from being Namibia’s ambassador in Berlin, I spoke out publicly about the need to have these human remains returned to Namibia. The revelation came in a German television documentary and there has been a great deal of discussion in the media since then, as well as exchanges of communications between the Namibian and German governments. This led to the confirmation by the German institutions, including the Medical History Museum at the Charité teaching hospital in Berlin and Freiburg University, that they did indeed have a number of Namibian skulls. Their admission resulted in the German government agreeing to assist in the repatriation process.  

For young Germans, who know little about the colonial war fought by the German forces in Namibia, this news was surprising. For young Namibians, this news created a point of further discourse about Namibia–German relations. This has raised demands that the events of the past be more fully addressed.

Markus Frenzel, a German television reporter of ARD, brought further information to light stating that: ‘it is believed that a total of at least 300 Herero skulls were taken to Germany in the early 20th century’. [1] However, it is likely that we are talking about skulls not only of Hereros but also of Namas, Damaras and San.

The question many people are still asking is what led to the initial displacement of these skulls. David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen had this to say about the politics of the skulls in their book, ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s forgotten genocide and the colonial roots of Nazism’: 

‘In recent years, the skulls and even the preserved heads of the prisoners from the concentration camps have been found in the medical collections of a number of German universities. Freiburg University is said to have twelve Namibian skulls from Namibia in its anthropological collection, while the medical history museum of Berlin’s Charité hospital is believed to hold forty-seven Namibian skulls. It is suspected that among the human remains at the Charité hospital are seventeen decapitated heads of Nama prisoners, prepared and dispatched from Shark Island in 1906 by the camp Physician, Dr Bofinger. These “specimens” were later studied by Christian Fetzer, a Berlin medical student who endeavored to identify anatomical similarities between the Nama and the Anthropoid ape. Fetzer’s theories were influenced greatly by the work of Eugen Fischer.’ [2]

It is no accident that the Namibian past comes back to confront its present. The past reminds us about the ugly colonial legacy of Namibia. The cruel aspect of the German colonial history in our country is undeniable. Therefore, the German authorities should not be surprised if several questions are being asked concerning the purpose of the removal, transportation and experimentation on the skulls that were undertaken in Germany. One of the most disturbing aspects of the story is the clear indication that Namibian skulls were taken not only for perverted scientific experimentation but also as trophies. [3] 

Those who were responsible for such experiments, at the time, may have been part of a larger network that operated on a larger scale, and had far-reaching implications beyond the immediate suffering of our people in Africa. It is for this reason that I believe that Olusoga and Erichsen do indeed have a valid point when they state that: 

‘No unstoppable historical force carried Germany from Waterberg to Nuremberg. But the Herero and Nama Genocides along with the Nazi vision of race war and settlement in Eastern Europe, can be seen as aspects of a larger phenomenon – the emergence from Europe of a terrible strain of racial colonialism that viewed human history through the prism of a distorted form of social Darwinism and regarded the earth as a racial battlefield on which the “weak” were destined to be vanquished.’ [4]

What is the way forward or what lessons can be learned from these events?  
First, particularly for Namibians, is that we should confront the past honestly as part of the process of recovering our dignity and thereby contributing towards the healing of the wounds of the past. To quote the words of the Southern Sudanese leader John Garang in his 1994 address to the 7th Pan African Congress in Kampala, Uganda: ‘The dead are not dead, and the living are not living.’ [5] 

Therefore, the repatriation of the skulls gives voice to the dead to tell their own story to the world about how absurd and inhumane German colonialism was towards black communities in Namibia. As the political scientist Dr Tapera Chirawu has pointed out: ‘[Garang’s] statement ... underlines the fact that the present is what it is because of past policies, and that today’s policies shape the future ... There could not be a better attestation of the link between those who have come and gone, those who are alive today, and those still to be born.’ [6]  

Second is that, with a now independent Namibia, we can finally repatriate the human remains and accord them the appropriate welcome as fallen pioneers of the long and bitter Namibian resistance to foreign occupation. With the achievement of independence in Namibia, we declared that we would make every effort to regain our rights, freedoms and our past. The recovery and repatriation of the skulls is an essential component of regaining our past, and consequentially our dignity. 

From this process we can rebuild a society that has been shaped by its history, but that is determined to avoid a repetition of the events of the past. Avoiding such repetition is predicated upon asking questions and provoking debate in both Namibia and Germany about the bloody conflict that took place during the colonial period in this country. 

We are confident that the two countries will face these challenges and be prepared to address issues associated with the repatriation of the skulls in a mature and sensitive manner. This will be in the interest of all concerned. 

The late South African leader O.R. Tambo has written: ‘Blood and death suffuses the history of Southern Africa, but our lodestar is a noble hope.’ [7] And the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda reminds us that: ‘History teaches with her light that man can change that which exists.’ [8]

Peter H. Katjavivi is author of ‘A History of Resistance in Namibia’ (James Currey, 1988) and, among other posts, has served as National Assembly Member, Vice Chancellor of the University of Namibia, Chairperson of the National Monuments Council, Namibia’s Ambassador to Germany, and Head of the National Planning Commission. He is SWAPO Chief Whip in the Namibian Parliament.


  1. Markus Frenzel, ARD TV broadcast, 21 July 2008. Cited in New Era, 24 July 2008.
  2. D. Olusoga and C. W. Erichsen, ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s forgotten genocide and the colonial roots of Nazism’, London, Faber and Faber, 2010, p. 358.
  3. A. Zimmerman, ‘Adventures in the skin trade: German anthropology and colonial corporeality’, in H.G. Penny and M. Bunzl (eds), ‘Worldly provincialism: German anthropology in the Age of Empire’, Ann Arbour, University of Michigan Press, pp. 156 and 177. Cited in Jeremy Sarkin, ‘Germany’s Genocide of the Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II, His General, His Settlers, His Soldiers’, Cape Town, UCT Press, 2011, p. 22.
  4. Olusoga and Erichsen, ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust’, p. 361.
  5. Cited in T.O. Chirawu, ‘Understanding Policy Domains, their Salient Forces and Organisational Challenges’, Windhoek, UNAM Press (forthcoming).
  6. Chirawu, ‘Understanding Policy Domains’.
  7. O.R. Tambo, ‘Olof Palme and the Liberation of Southern Africa’, in Kofi Buenor Hadjor (ed.), ‘New Perspectives in North-South Dialogue: Essays in honour of Olof Palme’, London, Third World Communications and I. B. Taurus, 1988, p. 270.
  8. Cited in Tambo, ‘Olof Palme and the Liberation of Southern Africa’, p. 271.

Picture: Some of the official delegation members during the restitution ceremony at the Berlin Charité in September 2011.

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