Remains of forgotten genocide victims returned by Berlin museum

genocide, Herero genocide, NamibiaIt’s the genocide most people have forgotten, a ruthless extermination of men, women, and children while an uncaring world focused on other things.

From 1904 to 1908, German colonial rulers in what is now Namibia systematically exterminated the Herero and Nama people. They had rebelled against the colonizers and the German army quickly defeated them. Not satisfied with a only a military victory, the Germans pushed both tribes into the desert, where they starved and died of thirst. Nobody knows how many perished but it may have been as many as 100,000.

A grim relic of this genocide are twenty Herero and Nama skulls kept in the Berlin Medical Historical Museum. One skull is from a three-year-old boy. Originally they had been preserved with the skin and hair intact and used for “studies” to prove the superiority of the white race.

This week the skulls were returned to tribal leaders after an apology and a ceremony. This is the latest in a series of repatriations of human remains to native peoples from museums. Many nations, the United States included, have passed laws requiring human remains to be returned. Identification and legal technicalities slow down the process, however. Berlin collections still include about 7,000 skulls. Then there’s the question of shrunken heads, which were often sold by tribal peoples to collectors, and of very ancient remains that cannot be traced to an existing tribe.

We forget genocides at our peril. Hitler felt he could get away with the Holocaust because nobody cared about the genocide of the Herero and Nama, or the genocide of the Armenians during World War One. Even many of the Holocaust’s victims are forgotten. While everyone knows six million Jews died, many are unaware of the millions of Slavs, Gypsies, political activists, homosexuals, Born-Again Christians, and disabled who were also killed.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]