When she took office two years ago, Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth declared that the task of coming to terms with German colonial history was a state task. In 2022, the German government agreed with Nigeria on the repatriation of the so-called Benin bronzes, and it has been negotiating with Namibia for years about coming to terms with colonial history and possible compensation – and has also drawn criticism.
Now Tanzania is coming into focus: As part of the so-called “German East Africa” colony, German colonial rulers committed terrible crimes here – and stole skulls from cemeteries in order to examine them scientifically. These human remains, also referred to by the English expression “human remains” by experts, are now to be returned.
Hermann Parzinger, Chairman of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, explains why this is important.
DW: Professor Parzinger, it has become known that as part of the investigation of German colonial history in Tanzania, hundreds of skulls are to be returned, which – according to State Minister Katja Keul from the Foreign Office – are stored in crates in the cellars of German museums. Alternatively, an “appropriate place” – as you were quoted – should be found for their burial. What is the current state of affairs?
Hermann Parzinger: More than ten years ago – in 2011 to be precise – we transferred the large collection of “human remains” from the Charité Medical History Museum to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s holdings. We then began to work through the provenance of these “human remains”, mostly skulls.
It wasn’t about deciding what should and shouldn’t be returned, but it was clear: These are things that were taken from cemeteries of existing village communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to work on here in Europe – and specifically in Germany – to carry out anthropological investigations. This is grave disturbance, grave crime, which would have been punishable in Germany then as now. In this respect, the clear case of return of the entire inventory is very clear to us.
Here, provenance research means that when we return things, it is our obligation to gather all the information we can find about it in advance – including in archives in East African countries, for example – in order to determine the exact provenance as precisely as possible. That happened, there is a joint publication on it with colleagues from Rwanda and Tanzania.
It should also be said that the “human remains” are not in our cellars somewhere, but we have treated them for conservation and stored them in a depot, but of course they are not accessible. They should not be available for research either. It’s about keeping them worthily and then returning them to the states they came from. We sent this information to the countries concerned when the project was completed two or three years ago – around 250 come from Tanzania, around 900 from Rwanda and around 35 from Kenya. You are informed that we have completed the research and are ready for return at any time. And here we are now.
If the states concerned would like the skulls back; so in addition to Tanzania also Rwanda and Kenya?
We have been and continue to be in contact with all three of these states. I had talks with the ambassadors, we also wrote letters. Basically, we want to give things back.
They also clearly expressed the wish to have things back, but we haven’t made any concrete statements yet. Of course it’s not our place to want to exert pressure or anything like that. These are things that need to be clarified in the countries: What do you do with these “human remains” when they return?
Here, too, it is not our place to make any regulations or suggestions, but it must be clarified there. But obviously we are not that far yet. In any case, we would like to return them at any time, and so far a sign from the countries is still missing.
Berlin September 2022, opening of the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum: Hermann Parzinger welcomes Abba Isa Tijani, the director of the Nigerian museum commission
Otherwise, would there be an alternative attempt to bury them here if necessary? They were quoted as saying it was about finding an ‘appropriate place’.
No, that would definitely not be an option. We can’t do that because it would be anticipating the decisions of the respective states or the communities where the individual skulls come from. So we wouldn’t do that. We have completed the work and we hope that we will eventually get a sign from the countries. Burying her here would not be an option for us.
What exactly was meant by the “appropriate place”?
If you return the skulls, the “human remains”, then the question arises as to what happens to them. Can they be buried in an appropriate place? Where is this place? Is it close to the places of origin, i.e. in the areas of the respective communities, or rather central? You just have to clarify that. The countries concerned must decide internally – in discussions with their communities – how to deal with it. We can act in an advisory capacity, but the decision rests entirely with the withdrawing party.
Were these skulls ever exhibited anywhere in Germany?
No. These were skulls that were in fact only available for anthropological research. These were so-called “ethnic researches” where one primarily collected skulls, because one thought one could define characteristics of populations and distinguish them from one another with the help of their measurement. The remaining skeletal material, i.e. the long bones, the entire postcranial skeleton, was largely uninteresting for such research. That is why there are mostly skulls in such collections worldwide.
I don’t know if things were exhibited in the early 20th century, but certainly not in the post-war period, i.e. after the Second World War, and in the last few decades and not here anyway. At the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Berlin State Museums, we never had “human remains”, i.e. never an anthropological collection, in our inventory. It was always about art and cultural-historical objects – up to this withdrawal of this inventory from the Charité, but with the clear aim of working up provenances and returning the “human remains”.
Skulls are now very special items, if you can call them “items” at all. Looking at the whole debate about the return of art and objects of art, how far along are we with restitution in Germany?
The return of art and cultural assets is a completely different topic. I think we’ve come a long way there and I would even say that we’re right up there in Europe. Last year, the five major German museums in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart and Leipzig returned their entire inventory of Benin bronzes and have already returned the first objects. The things that are still here already belong to Nigeria – they are on loan. I think that was a clear acknowledgment of colonial injustice in the sense that it was clearly looting. Benin City, the capital of the historic Kingdom of Benin, was sacked by British troops in 1897, and the items looted during the pillage were then traded – via London and other stations – throughout Europe and later worldwide.
There are also other examples, including the objects in the context of the Maji Maji war in Tanzania, about which we have a clear position: What clearly comes from an injustice context, has been looted, stolen, stolen using violence, are clear cases for return for us. In addition, there are of course also objects that are not clearly in an injustice context, but which are either very important for the identity of certain communities there or which document an epoch of history. In such cases, too, we are quite willing to make returns and have already made returns.
But I also say very clearly that it is not the case that all cultural objects that stand in some colonial context have been stolen per se and these are here illegally due to an imbalance of power and so on. You have to take a close look at how things were really acquired. There are big differences.
In the Humboldt Forum there is said to be a joint project with Tanzania on the Maji Maji War. Is there anything else you can say?
In the Ethnological Museum we have objects from the Maji Maji War. More or less parallel to the genocide of the Herero and Nama in former German South West Africa, there was an uprising against the German colonial power in East Africa between 1905 and 1908, to which they reacted very brutally. Similar to Namibia, there was fighting and hostilities, but then the troops were pushed back into dry areas. One calculates between 200,000 and 300,000 deaths. So there you can also speak of a genocide.
In 2022, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the National Museum of Tanzania agree on a joint exhibition on the history of Tanzania
This is of course enormously important for the people of Tanzania. And simply because few people in Germany have ever heard anything about this war and don’t even know how cruel German colonial history in Tanzania was, for example – you may have heard about events in German Southwest Africa, but the other chapter is one , which is so far little known – we want to use these objects to work through this history together with Tanzania. Curators from Tanzania play a leading role, and we also have a cooperation with the university and the national museum.
Incidentally, ownership of the objects with which we want to tell this story here has already been reassigned. The exhibition is scheduled to open next year, and once it has been here for a while, it will return to Tanzania with the objects, where it will stay forever, because there is also a very clear context of injustice and violence here.
Verena Greb conducted the interview.