Nambia has just celebrated the return of 20 skulls belonging to people killed by German soldiers more than a century ago. It has reignited demands that Germany make amends for the genocide carried out in what was then called South West Africa.
Namibia became a German colony in 1884, at a time when the Herero and Namaqua people numbered more than 85,000. They were the most powerful and wealthy pastoralist group in the region, with herds of tens of thousands of cattle roaming the country. When they rose up against the Germans, the human slaughter began. Within three years, 85% were dead, their land and cattle stolen. Atrocities were commonplace.
The story of how the skulls were seized is horrific. After the decisive Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, the Herero fled into the desert towards Botswana, pursued by German troops. Thousands were killed as they fled. Of a reported 80,000, only around 15,000 reached the neighbouring country. The massacre is considered to be the first attempted genocide of the 20th century. In October 1904, the German commander in Namibia, General Lothar von Trotha, gave his infamous order to kill any Herero, armed or not, found within the limits of German colonial territory. The skulls in Berlin, which mostly came from Herero who had died in prison camps, were sent back to Germany for scientific studies aimed at underpinning the doctrine of racial superiority of Europeans over Africans.
A little known part of this history is that, at this time, the science of eugenics was also being pursued in South West Africa and that the Namibian genocide laid the groundwork for the later Nazi policy of euthanasia and the Holocaust. One link is to the notorious SS Officer and physician Josef Mengele. In January 1937 he became assistant to Dr Otmar von Verschuer at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt. Verschuer was a leading scientist mainly known for his research into genetics. He had a particular interest in twins.
Mengele had earlier studied under Theodor Mollison, honoured by Hitler in 1944 with the Goethe medal for art and science, and with Eugen Fischer, whom Hitler appointed as rector of the Frederick William University of Berlin, now Humboldt University. According to Allan D. Cooper, author of The Geography of Genocide (2008), both Mollison and Fischer had been involved in medical experiments on the Herero tribe in South West Africa. It was undoubtedly from his close association with these instigators of evil that Mengele developed his own fascination with eugenics.
Mengele’s deeds are well known. Not so those of Fischer and Verschuer. Fischer was the first director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWI-A). A racist, he directed various programs that implemented the Nazi agenda, including sterilization, euthanasia and was party to Hitler’s Final Solution. Verschuer became the second director of the KWI-A, working primarily in the area of twin studies, with a strong interest in “racial hygiene” carried out through sterilization. Two of Verschuer’s assistants were Karin Magnussen and Josef Mengele. Magnussen studied eyes from living twins at Auschwitz harvested for her by Mengele.
Neither Fischer (who, after the war, returned to his home town of Freiburg im Breisgau to continue working as an anthropologist) nor Verschuer was tried for crimes against humanity – in part due to the German public’s desire to dissociate itself from the war’s atrocities. Worse still, in 1951 Verschuer was awarded a prestigious professorship of human genetics at the University of Münster, where he established one of the largest centres of genetics research in West Germany.
This shadow looms large over Germany’s relationship with Namibia. For years the people of Namibia have sought reparations from Germany for its colonial sins. In 2001, they filed a $4bn lawsuit against the German government, but it was dismissed on the grounds that international rules on the protection of combatants and civilians were not in existence at the time of the conflict.
Finally, on 15 August 2004 Germany apologised. “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time,” said Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the uprising. Ruling out reparations, but promising continued economic aid for Namibia, she admitted, “The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.”
The return of 20 skulls – and there are many more still in Berlin – may seem insignificant, but it is tangible evidence of voices being able to speak from the grave.