At a handover ceremony held in a Berlin church on Wednesday, Namibian officials received the remains of indigenous people killed in their country by German forces more than a century ago. The grisly contents included 19 skulls, a scalp and bones belonging to five skeletons, all of which had been housed for decades on dusty shelves in German universities and museums.
The remains are a visceral link to a hideous past — what many historians recognize as the first genocide of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1908, colonial forces in what was then German South West Africa carried out the widespread massacre of Herero and Nama tribespeople. Estimates suggest as many as 80 percent of the nomadic Herero tribe — believed to number around 100,000 a century ago — perished, either killed by German soldiers or left to die of thirst and starvation in the desert.
In October 1904, Lothar von Trotha, the German commander in Namibia, delivered his infamous "extermination" order, dictating that "every Herero, with or without rifles, with or without cattle, will be shot." The following year, he issued a similar warning concerning the Nama; some 10,000 are believed to have been killed.
The violence and indignity did not end there. Moved by the racist eugenics of the time, German authorities shipped thousands of skulls and other body parts of the aboriginal dead back to Europe. The specimens were subjected to studies that formed the basis for now-discredited theories of European racial superiority.
Many of the skulls belonged to tribesmen left to die in squalid concentration camps in the desert; their bodies were beheaded. In some instances, according to a 2011 article in Der Spiegel, widows were ordered to use shards of glass to scrape the flesh off their husbands' heads so as to better prepare the skulls for transport.
The vileness of these acts is part and parcel of a far broader history.
The Germans were hardly alone in slaughtering local populations or hoarding the body parts of slain natives. Myriad museums, clinics and universities in Europe still house remains of colonized peoples, who were sometimes killed explicitly for the purpose of augmenting these morbid collections.
It's only in recent years that awareness of these practices has emerged. In 2012, for example, France shipped back to New Zealand the mummified heads of 20 Maori warriors that had been languishing in a Paris museum. "We close a terrible chapter of colonial history and we open a new chapter of friendship and mutual respect," the French culture minister said then.
Given the lengths to which its government has atoned for Nazi-era horrors, Germany is in some ways ahead of the curve compared with other Western European countries. But critics say much still needs to be done to reckon with Germany's colonial history, which spanned territories from Africa to the South Pacific.
"Germany has rightly concentrated its critical energies on the Holocaust," German historian Jürgen Zimmerer said to the Financial Times. "But that has also meant that there has been much less awareness of the crimes of colonialism. It seems as if many politicians are unaware just how grave those crimes were."
Efforts are underway to do so, as my colleagues James McAuley and Rick Noack reported earlier this year. In France, Germany and elsewhere, curators and government officials are thinking critically about the provenance of some of the artifacts in their midst. French President Emmanuel Macron has already announced plans to return, in some instances permanently, objects including masks, thrones, scepters and statues that had been looted by Europeans. In Germany, too, a similar project is unfolding.
"The German Lost Art Foundation, established to support investigations of Nazi-looted art, announced in April that it would expand its mandate to include artifacts from former colonies," my colleagues wrote. "In May, the German museums association released a code of conduct to guide the research and possible restitution of colonial-era objects. For 2019, Germany has set aside $3.5 million to help museums determine the origins of possibly illegal or illegitimate artifacts."
But this sort of reckoning, say critics, can only be a beginning. In the case of the Herero, many in Namibia are awaiting a formal German apology for the genocide of their ancestors. Officials in Berlin committed in 2016 to extending an apology, but they are still in negotiations with the Namibian government over the wording of an official statement. Analysts say the German government doesn't want to commit to an apology that could make it liable for reparations.
On Wednesday, Michelle Müntefering, the minister of state at the German foreign office, said that "Germany is firmly committed to its historic responsibility" and asked the Namibian delegation for "forgiveness," but stopped short of an official apology.
This has frustrated the descendants of the genocide, who have filed a class-action lawsuit against the German government in a U.S. court. "By trying not to acknowledge the past, the German government will continue to make serious mistakes as regards present and future policies," said Herero chief Vekuii Rukoro in Berlin on Wednesday, facing officials from both countries. "We are after all the direct descendants of these remains and we should not be ignored."
But he will likely be disappointed. European governments are notoriously averse to offering formal apologies, while the right-wing populists ascendant in countries such as France, Britain and Germany — inflamed by various forms of imperial nostalgia — decry the supposed shame complexes of the left. Germany's far-right AfD has even urged its compatriots to get over their "guilt cult" about Nazi-era crimes.
So the project of reconciliation and atonement rumbles on, slowly and unevenly.
On Wednesday, Petra Bosse-Huber, a German Protestant bishop, called the handover of the remains an act that "should have been done many years ago." For the Herero, and for the countless other victims of Europe's empires, it still seems too little and plenty late.
This article was originally published in The Washington Post.