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Over 1000 Skulls From Germany’s African Colonies Are Still Housed In Berlin

Picture of Lily Cichanowicz
Updated: 2 January 2017
Anyone who has even the vaguest historical knowledge of Europe can probably tell you that Germany has had a detrimentally problematic relationship with ethnic cleansing and racial superiority in its not-so-distant past. This is why the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s stored collection of over a thousand human skulls from Africa is courting controversy.

What’s more is that the existence of such a collection has only recently come to public attention thanks to the ARD, a German public broadcaster, who shared information about it with viewers this week. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is in charge of overseeing museum activities throughout the country, including the institutions that comprise Berlin’s famed Museum Island. Most of the skulls’ origins can be traced back to Rwanda and Tanzania, two places formerly colonized under Germany – an area then known as German East Africa – between 1885 and the conclusion of World War I.

While the skulls aren’t directly connected to the Holocaust, the reason for their preservation is. Germany’s colonialist history doesn’t typically get as much attention as, say, nearby countries of France, Spain, and Great Britain. Yet, the ideologies behind German colonialism do bear a chilling connection to the rise of eugenics.

German Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg (2nd from right) on inspection tour in East Africa, shown on a courtesy visit with British officials at Nairobi in 1907 |© BArchBot/WikiCommons
‘German Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg (2nd from right) on inspection tour in East Africa, shown on a courtesy visit with British officials at Nairobi in 1907’ | © BArchBot/WikiCommons

This collection provides further evidence that wealthy members of imperialist nations would hoard, collect, and display the remains of indigenous people who fell at the hands of colonialism. This was a widespread custom across Europe that is already well documented by researchers and historians. Such customs were carried out in an era where ‘human zoos’ and world fairs featured displays of indigenous people held in captivity for the entertainment of white onlookers.

'The Askari colonial troops in German East Africa, circa 1906' | © Ras67/WikiCommons
‘The Askari colonial troops in German East Africa, circa 1906’ | © Ras67/WikiCommons

In the case of the Herero Wars, German colonial presence in Africa even turned genocidal. These skulls specifically are believed to have belonged to the colonialist victims of soldiers who were overseeing the portions of Africa under German rule at the time, belonging particularly to those who resisted it. Even more disturbing is the fact that researchers believe many more were actually collected by bounty hunters looking to sell the skulls of indigenous peoples to German collectors back in Europe.

'Survivors of the German genocide against Herero after an escape through the arid desert of Omaheke' |© GrumpyTroll~commonswiki/WikiCommons
‘Survivors of the German genocide against Herero after an escape through the arid desert of Omaheke’ | © GrumpyTroll~commonswiki/WikiCommons

Thus, the skulls display the long legacy of imperialism and white supremacy, which involved viewing human bodies as prizes to be hunted, captured, sold, and collected. On behalf of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, researchers are now working to repatriate the remains to their rightful origins.