African skull museums bear witness to the atrocities of German colonialism (Getty)

The statements of the late President of Namibia, Haji Geingob, in which he described Germany as “incapable of drawing lessons from its cruel history,” were not only a signal that highlighted not only the genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples, but also went beyond it to open a window on the forgotten colonial history of Germany.

“To this day many people remain convinced that Germany has no colonial history, or at least not a brutal history,” says German colonial history researcher Professor Jürgen Zimmerer.

Here we open a page dating back to a century that Germany closed without review, during which it was characterized by “the loss of colonial memory,” as it is described in discussions on the salt scene.

“When colonial history is mentioned, people think of Great Britain, France and Belgium, not the history of Germany,” Zimmerer adds.

Part of the culture

According to the Federal Website for German Political Education, World War II and the Holocaust in particular dominated public memory, and sometimes even monopolized it.

In contrast, the German government's program stipulates that the memory of crimes in the colonial era should become part of the German commemorative culture, such as reconciliation with the Nazis.

The friendly relationship that linked the German Emperor Wilhelm II with Sultan Abdul Hamid, his words about Muslims, his loyalty to them, and his criticism of the Crusaders left a good impact on the hearts of Muslims towards Germany.

Moreover, Germany was not involved in a colonial invasion of the Islamic world during the colonial era, which formed a general image of it as a non-colonial country.

Germany was preoccupied with its internal conflicts until 1870, and focused on securing areas in Central Europe because of their importance to it, in addition to having a limited naval fleet compared to Great Britain.

A place under the sun

Germany began searching for its place under the sun, as Reich Chancellor Bernart von Bülow announced, and entered the colonial race late, and its destination was far from the Middle East, which was shared by Britain and France.

Interest in the colonial idea spread among the popular circles, and merchants and those with economic and political colonial interests exploited this enthusiasm. This fever was fueled by many considerations and interests, most notably economic interests, as the opportunity was provided to obtain raw materials, markets, and trade routes.

This was accompanied by a demographic crisis that Germany was going through, as it witnessed a strong influx of immigration outside it. As a solution to the crisis, the idea of ​​settler colonialism was put forward, and it was promoted by people such as the founder of the German Colonization Society, Karl Peters, and other actors in colonialism, who encouraged directing immigration to private colonies.

In addition, the establishment of colonies was seen as a means of increasing prestige, as large countries should have widely dispersed colonies in order to have global influence on international politics.

During the Herero and Nama genocide, more than 70,000 Herero people were killed by German colonialism (Getty)

German colonialism

Germany began annexing its colonies in Africa and Asia in 1884 after holding the Berlin Conference, which established guidelines for the division of Africa. The conference led to the establishment of so-called "colonial treaties" and the recognition of the territorial claims of European powers in Africa.

In 1914, Germany soon became the third largest colonial empire in terms of area. Colonization included parts of current countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon, Togo, Ghana, China, Papua New Guinea, and many islands in the western Pacific Ocean.

But after its defeat in World War I, Germany was forced to cede all of its colonies to other colonial powers in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, and because of that, the Germans survived the confrontation with the independence movements after that.

Economic penetration

Germany also had economic footholds and interests, spheres of influence that went beyond the classical concept of colonialism. In the late 1890s, during the reign of Wilhelm II, Germany's global policy aimed at informal economic penetration in distant regions.

Germany has become second in the world in terms of capital exports after Britain, through entrepreneurship and government support in South America and China.

With the Ottoman Empire, Germany's influence increased through several projects, especially arms shipments and capital exports.

Germany had a monopoly on weapons in the Ottoman market, in addition to German investments in the railway project, which gained special importance, especially since Germany specialized in this field.

Colonial atrocities

Colonial conditions did not differ much for the German colonies from other colonies, and this period left profound effects on these societies in the post-colonial period until the present day.

The German Radio website quotes a Chadian translator as saying, “There is not much confidence in pharmaceutical companies and international donors, as it is believed that they may conduct a secret trial of an unapproved vaccine.”

The roots of doubts go back to the depths of time during the colonial period, when doctors from Europe assaulted the population in Africa for many purposes. Colonial medicine was not intended to help people, but rather it was to serve economic prosperity and gain new knowledge of German science and the pharmaceutical industry.

Colonial doctors injected humans with extremely painful oil and salt solutions for no reason, or exposed them to the desert to see how well they could survive there, according to researcher Zimmerer's studies.

Robert Koch is an example

This researcher spoke about the most important example in this context, which is the German physician and Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Robert Koch, whose name is at the forefront of the National Institute of Public Health in Germany.

Zimmerer says the health risks on the African continent made long-term stays almost impossible for Europeans, and Koch was supposed to conduct research on sleeping sickness there at the request of the German colonial administration.

Koch planned a massive campaign using a compound containing arsenic in East Africa, which led to thousands of deaths from pain and blindness. The goal was to limit the spread of the epidemic, not cure.

After that, Koch proposed establishing concentration camps to isolate the infected, that is, isolating entire villages against their will. He also carried out vaccination campaigns against smallpox in Togo, where about 5% to 10% of those vaccinated died.

In the interview conducted with him by the Welt newspaper, Zimmerer asks: Is the name Robert Koch appropriate for the twenty-first century? Can he really be a role model? Does he deserve the honor of being a patron of this important institute?

Parade to commemorate the killing of thousands of Herero by German (European) forces

Skull museums

Among the atrocities witnessed by museums today are also African skulls. During the colonial period, there was great interest in anthropological and ethnographic studies, so the skulls were transported to Germany.

The skulls and remains were used in research focusing on racial theories, where it was believed that analysis of the characteristics of the skulls could be used to infer a racial hierarchy as evidence of the superiority of European races, other than for the purposes of belittling and demonstrating power to the people.

In the Berlin Museum there are 1,100 human skulls from the German colony in East Africa. In 2014, 14 skulls were handed over to a Namibian delegation after a research project carried out by the University of Freiburg identified their origins as being from Namibia.

The European colonial powers did not tolerate the slightest form of rebellion of the population, but rather sought complete subjugation, and viewed the excessive use of corporal punishment and other forms of corporal punishment as a completely normal means of maintaining the colonial system.

During the Maji Maji uprising that took place in modern Tanzania (1905-1907), the entire country was destroyed, and the lives of about 300,000 Africans were claimed, or about a third of the population in the region.

During the Herero and Nama genocide, more than 70,000 of the 80,000 Herero ethnic group and half of the 20,000 Nama were killed.

There were explicit orders from the German commander Lothar von Trotha that "every Herero must be shot with or without a rifle. I no longer accept even women and children."

Wells were buried and food sources destroyed, a large part of them died in the desert, after which concentration camps were established and a large number of people died from malnutrition, disease and exhaustion from hard forced labor.


In May 2021, the German federal government announced that it would officially recognize the suppression of the Herero and Nama uprising as genocide.

“No one should forget what happened during that period,” said German President Frank Steinmeier after his visit to the Magi Magi Museum and his conversation with relatives of the victims, promising to address the past, but no one knows how this treatment will begin and when it will begin?

It is noteworthy here that the colonial period is not taught in the German school curriculum until now, even though the effects of this era are present in contemporary German reality, according to specialists in this matter.

On the other hand, others see that this type of review is considered a threat to the foundations of Western civilization and works to heat up colonial defense theses, as appears in the titles of articles in a number of newspapers.

According to an opinion poll published by the German Statistical Center, this question was: Is the colonial period something you are proud of or ashamed of? Only 20% responded that they were ashamed of it.

German historian Gesene Kruger explains, in an article on the Contemporary History website, that “this may be related to colonial nostalgia and the final loss of post-colonial hegemony in Africa.”

Source: Al Jazeera + websites