German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier apologized for colonial-era killings in Tanzania during Germany’s rule and vowed to raise awareness of the atrocities in his country, in a step towards “communal healing” of the bloody past.
“I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your ancestors here,” Steinmeier said during a visit to the Maji Maji Museum in the southern Tanzanian city of Songea. “I want to assure you that we Germans will search with you for answers to the unanswered questions that give you no peace.”
Tanzania suffered under German colonial rule for decades before and after the start of the 20th century, and saw one of the region’s deadliest uprisings from 1905 to 1907.
During the revolt — known as the Maji Maji Rebellion — between 200,000 and 300,000 Indigenous people were murdered, as German troops systematically wiped out villages and fields, experts say.
In 2017, Tanzania’s then-government said it was mulling legal action to seek compensation from Germany for the people who were starved, tortured, and killed by its forces.
Steinmeier said Germany was ready to begin a “communal processing” of the past, as he met with descendants of an executed leader of the colonial-era revolt.
“What happened here is our shared history — the history of your ancestors and the history of our ancestors in Germany,” Steinmeier said, pledging to “take these stories with me to Germany, so that more people in my country will know about them”.
Steinmeier said Germany would also work to find and return the skull of an executed colonial era leader — Chief Songea Mbano — and others whose remains were plundered and brought to Berlin more than a century ago.
During the visit, Steinmeier laid a flower at the grave of Chief Songea, whom he called a “brave leader”.
John Mbano, a descendant of Chief Songea who met with the German president, said he welcomed the gesture and hoped Tanzania could build a strong relationship with Germany.
Addressing colonial crimes
Germany’s long-standing commitment to historical remembrance has centred around the atrocities it committed during World War II, specifically the slaughter of six million Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust.
However, in recent decades the country has also begun coming to terms with some of its colonial-era atrocities, including in Tanzania and Namibia.
Germany’s mass killings of Nigeria’s Indigenous Herero and Nama people in the early 1900s have been referred to by many historians as the first genocide of the 20th Century.
In 2021, Germany announced an agreement with Namibia that would formally recognize its colonial-era massacres as genocide and provide redress to impacted communities, without offering formal reparations.
That agreement, which drew concerns from some groups representing the Herero and Nama people, has yet to be officially approved.
Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History has been conducting research on around 1,100 skulls that were looted from historic German East Africa and brought to Germany. In September, it said researchers had found living relatives of people whose skulls were looted in Tanzania.
German East Africa — today’s Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi — existed from 1885 until Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I, when it lost its colonies under the Treaty of Versailles.