The Bones of Shame

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Germany’s president expressed shame for the killings of tens of thousands of Tanzanians under its colonial rule more than a century ago, and pledged to try and return the remains of victims taken to Germany for research and display at museums and private collections, the BBC reported.

On a three-day visit to the country, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with the descendants of a leader of the Maji Maji revolt against German rule, Chief Songea Mbano, who was executed by the Germans in 1906, and is a national hero in the country.

More than 300,000 people were killed in the uprising, which was triggered by a German policy designed to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export.

Steinmeier told the family the German authorities would try to find his remains, which may be among the thousands of bones and skulls that were taken to Germany from East Africa as “trophies” or “racist research” – these ended up in museums and anthropological collections, largely forgotten after the end of the colonial era and two world wars.

“I bow to the victims of German colonial rule,” he said, speaking at a museum in Songea, where the uprising took place. “And as German president, I would like to apologize for what Germans did to your ancestors here. What happened here is our shared history, the history of your ancestors and the history of our ancestors in Germany.”

German East Africa – currently Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – existed from 1885 until Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I, when it lost its colonies under the Treaty of Versailles.

In response to the apology, Tanzania historian Mohamed Said told the BBC it did not go far enough. “They decided to set farms on fire so people would run out of food and be unable to fight,” he said. “This is unacceptable, in today’s world they would be taken to court.”

In 2017, Tanzania’s then-government said it was considering legal action to seek compensation from Germany for the people who allegedly were starved, tortured and killed by German forces.

In 2021, Germany agreed to recognize colonial-era massacres of tens of thousands of people in Namibia as genocide, and provide funding worth about $1.3 billion to help the communities affected – but stopped short of formal reparations, the Associated Press reported.

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