Address by Minister of State Müntefering at the restitution ceremony of human remains to Namibia

29.08.2018 - Speech

- translation of advance text -


That, I have been told, literally means “all pull together”, all pull in one direction. I was reminded of this word because this is precisely what we have come here today to do: for the sake of what we have in common, with the dead and the living, and in order to find a direction to take together.

Yesterday evening, I experienced for the first time the still vibrant ancestral culture of the Herero and the Nama in a memorable vigil. They bid farewell to the deceased according to their traditions. They evinced a profound affinity with their ancestors, a great spiritual energy. I will never forget it. Thank you for allowing me to be part of it.

I was also deeply moved by the service we have just held. An atmosphere of dignity and humility pervades this church, and will accompany the human remains today and on their journey back to whence they came. Back to their country of origin, to the home of their families.

To the families whose pain still sits deep, even now, more than one hundred years later. Pain is part of their history, but nobody can turn back the clock. Today’s ceremony can hopefully help to heal the wounds left by this past.

We are gathered together also in an effort not to forget, and to remind ourselves that a new tomorrow can grow from the pain of the past. Being here together with you, at a joint act of commemoration and of remembrance, is a path of hope – a path to a future in which we are reconciled.

Only by remembering the dead can life be breathed into the future.

We are here together with the Protestant church in Germany (EKD) and the Namibian partner churches, which form a vital link between our civil societies. I would like to thank you for your commitment to reconciliation and for today’s service.

We are also here together with the ethnic groups concerned. I am very glad that diversity is so tangible at this ceremony today, and that differences have been set aside to form a joint Namibian delegation, which I have already had the privilege to get to know over the past two days. Let me take this opportunity to thank you sincerely once again for coming here today.

Your individual contributions at this memorial service testify to the wealth of opinions found in a democracy.

Respect for the dead is in any case a strong, unifying bond. It also sends a signal to the many other civil society advocates, scientists and academics, activists, artists, associations and civic groups – whom I cannot name individually today, but whose dedication to this issue has been – and remains – so important.

When listing all those who have worked together to bring us here today, we must also, ladies and gentlemen, give due mention to the Namibian Government. It is my great honour to conduct this official handover with my Namibian colleague, Minister of Education Ms Hanse-Himarwa.

Madam Minister, Katrina,

Since you arrived on Monday, the two of us have spent a fair amount of time together and with your delegation, and have also spoken in depth about pain and reconciliation. Our paths brought us together, and perhaps it is a good sign that both the delegations attending today’s handover, German and Namibian alike, are headed by us women.

There is however another way in which this handover differs from the ones that went before. And in my opinion it is high time this change was made!

I am glad that this change is becoming ever more visible. For the first time ever in German history, there is a basic democratic consensus that we must come to grips with our colonial past.

This Government’s coalition agreement is the first that explicitly provides for addressing our colonial history and all its dark chapters.

This is a clear acknowledgement of a past which ended many generations ago when Germany ceased to be a colonial power, but whose impact can still be felt today.

As a Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office and as a member of the German Bundestag, and indeed not least as a representative of a younger generation, it is my conviction that we have to address this part of our history, in all its facets, too, and be aware of what it means. For when it comes to addressing its colonial legacy, Germany still has a long way to go.

However, we Germans do acknowledge our historical-political and moral responsibility and the historical guilt borne by the Germans of the time. The atrocities committed at the time in Germany’s name constituted what would now be called genocide, even though it was not until later that this term was legally defined.

The use of this term in the politico-historical context is therefore also something we are discussing with our partners in Namibia. Germans today still know far too little about this chapter of the past. It is now up to us to close this gap in our culture of remembrance.

Awareness-raising cannot however be accomplished by a government alone. Not even by two.

To raise awareness we need to involve society as a whole – the parliaments, the federal states, academia, schools, churches and civil society. The huge interest shown in today’s event shows that we are on the right path.

Let me emphasise that, too. Today in particular, in view of rising nationalism and populism around the world, in Europe, and also here among us in Germany, it is all the more important to take a stance and accept responsibility for our own past, as well as for human rights and peace, values which derive from all we have in common.

A democracy that questions its past is not weak but strong. The same is true of a society where criticism is freely expressed and dialogue engaged in. And we are all the stronger if our societies question their past together, and examine and remember it together, with each other. We want and need this dialogue with the relevant African countries, in particular with Namibia.

For this reason, the ongoing dialogue on addressing our past constitutes a further step forward. This dialogue was launched by our current President and then Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2014 together with his Namibian counterpart.

The two countries’ envoys for this dialogue are here with us today. They know just how much progress we have made in defining all the weighty questions we would like to answer. And as regards the forward-looking ideas which are intended to take into account the needs of the descendants of particularly severely affected communities.

Without wishing to prejudice the outcome, let me say here once again that Germany recognises its historical responsibility. We want to pave the way for a better future in relations between our countries.

Today, we want to lay another cornerstone for this future by finally handing the remains of 27 human beings into the care of their own communities.

We no longer know the exact family histories of the people whose human remains are now being returned. We do not know if they left behind daughters and sons, if they themselves were sisters or brothers. We do not know what their names were. But it is certain that they had families, they belonged to a community, they belonged to their country. They were human beings.

They were deprived of their humanity, their dignity – for the circumstances under which their human remains came to Germany were on the whole appalling, lacking all respect for these people, for their traditions and customs, for their culture.

A few days ago I went into the Federal Foreign Office Archives, housed in what were once the vaults of the Reichsbank, to look at documents from the period in question. Documents from a period in which the mindset of many in Germany and Europe was moulded by a deeply racist sense of imperial supremacy.

Many human remains were used for the purpose of allegedly scientific research into racial purity and eugenics, into ways of underpinning racial superiority over colonial peoples.

This pseudo-scientific justification of colonialism went far beyond Namibia and Germany. Today we know how abhorrent, how wrong it was.

The human remains of more members of indigenous communities can still be found in German collections. Wherever modern science enables us to find out where they came from, we must do so. We owe it to human dignity and we owe it to the people themselves to do our very best.

The essential issue here is to find out which community the people came from. To this end we will also expand our provenance research. It is important that the institutes concerned look through their inventories now and clarify the provenance of any human remains they hold.

We must also continue to listen to the present day representatives of the communities concerned – as was repeatedly underscored in our talks of the last few days. Only by working together can all those involved tackle the challenges involved in finding appropriate ways of treating human remains with dignity, as they should be.

I am aware that various other institutes would have liked to participate in today’s ceremony. I consider that an encouraging sign. There is no reason that I can see why further handovers should not take place once more work has been done to establish the provenance of further remains.

Ladies and gentlemen,
We do not know their families, but the deceased are here with us today. We know their descendants, whom you keep alive in your memories, in your family stories which are infused with such pain and suffering.

We are very grateful to the Namibian Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture for our excellent cooperation. You, Madam Minister, secured the participation of the Traditional Chiefs. Countless others are waiting in Namibia for the human remains of the dead, to commune with them in contemplation. As you know, it is a matter of great importance to me personally to escort them to Windhoek.

Harambee, Madam Minister, should also apply to Germany and Namibia – let us go together in one direction. It is my sincere wish that this direction be the future.

The packed crowd, the interest in today’s event, clearly demonstrate how many people in Germany feel compelled to pay their respects to the deceased. We also pay respect to the countless other victims of violence in the colonial period. A respect they were denied while they were alive. May the return of those lying here today to their ancestral grounds also help them find peace.

I bow my head in profound sorrow. I cannot undo the terrible injustice committed by our ancestors. But I ask for your forgiveness from the bottom of my heart.


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