Speech by Minister of State for International Cultural Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany Michelle Müntefering on the occasion of the 3rd repatriation of human remains from Germany to Namibia on 31 August 2018 in Windhuk
“I cannot undo the terrible injustice committed by our ancestors. But here, in the land of your ancestors, I again ask for your forgiveness from the bottom of my heart” Minister of State Michelle Müntefering said in her speech.
Honourable Itah Kandjii-Murangi, Minister of Higher Education, Training and Innovation and Reverend Francis Kooper, as masters of Ceremonies;
Your Excellency Nangolo Mbumba, Vice President of the Republic of Namibia, and Madam Mbumba;
Your Excellency Dr. Sam Nujoma, Founding President of the Republic of Namibia;
Your Excellency Hifikepunye Pohamba, Former President of the Republic of Namibia;
Right Honourable Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, Prime Minister of the Republic of Namibia;
Honourable Katrina Hanse-Himarwa Minister of Education, Arts and Culture;
Honourable Members of the National Assembly, the Government and the National Council of Namibia
Your Excellencies Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished Members of the Media,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
All protocol observed
The whole German nation’s attention was focused on Namibia these past days.
The proper and dignified ceremony to hand over the remains of 27 human beings was one of the top stories on German evening news.
Your Minister found fitting words when she spoke on behalf of the Namibian Government, as did the Bishops and the traditional leaders.
All of Germany thereby witnessed what in my opinion should have been visible in my country a long time ago: the fact that Germany’s colonial heritage – including the horrific crimes that were committed against the Herero and Nama – is a part of our history.
In Germany, we jointly attended a vigil and a church service, and we conducted an official handover between our democratic governments.
Today, we have travelled from Germany to Namibia with more than 70 people, in a delegation headed by Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa.
For me, it is my first visit to your country, and I want to tell you that I by no means take your hospitality for granted.
I also deeply appreciate that you have asked me today to speak at your official ceremony.
This all means a great deal to me – because I am painfully aware that we cannot turn back the hands of time.
We cannot undo the sufferings and mistakes of the past.
The last days that I have spent with Namibians, ladies and gentlemen, were days marked by pain.
But they were also good days because we spent them together.
We may have walked another stretch on a common path.
Dear friends – and, above all, dear Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa:
Dear sister: I have been deeply touched – by your open heart, strength and clearity – and especially by your warmth.
A politician must have good will if he or she is to shape the world.
But the only way to see what someone is like on the inside is by keeping an open heart.
You have shown not only me, but also everyone in Germany, that you have both.
That is why it was an important political and most personal priority for me, as the German Government’s representative, to accompany home – together with you – the remains of those who died. To their motherland, to their home, where they belong.
These people died; they surrendered first their life and then their dignity. A dignity that was taken when those remains were sent to various institutions in Germany under horrific circumstances; for so-called scientific research, which had nothing to do with science, but was part of racist ideology – and who will hopefully find the peace that they were denied in such a shameful way.
I stand humbly and ashamed before you because of the atrocities that were committed during our colonial past.
The imperial thirst for power with which Europe colonised Africa, and Germany Namibia; the arrogance and the horrible thought that our culture was superior to yours; and, in a word, racism:
Today we know how abhorrent and wrong that all was.
We Germans 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 today be called genocide – even though it was not until later that this term was legally defined.
Oh, Lord, what have they done!
Ladies and gentlemen,
Out of knowledge arises obligation!
First and foremost, the obligation to learn.
To have knowledge guides one’s actions.
As a politician, as a member of the German Government, and as a member and on behalf of a young generation of German politicians, I am convinced that the time has come for us to learn.
The time for change has come.
Learning and change begin with listening.
Listening to those who are willing to share their words, their pain and their stories with us.
It is our job to make sure that future generations in Germany, too, will finally hear and learn about these stories.
Today, we stand here side by side – more than 100 years later.
And I am glad that this third repatriation of human remains is taking place under very different circumstances than the previous ones.
This year, in 2018, is the first time that something entirely new was achieved in Germany.
The governing parties of the Federal Republic, for the first time in the history of my country, formally agreed that the need to address Germany’s colonial past should be included in their coalition agreement.
The need to face the colonial past head‑on has for the first time become part of our basic democratic consensus.
This is a big and important step, even though it comes late.
It is now time to close this gap in our culture of remembrance.
The German Government will therefore make further efforts to determine the origin of as many of the human remains as possible that have been kept in Germany.
We will expand our provenance research, so that we can acquire the necessary knowledge in this field and thereby return, with dignity and respect, the remains that are still in German institutions.
Nothing should stand in the way of further repatriations.
This third repatriation of human remains from Germany to Namibia takes place under different circumstances than before, as it is the first time that Germany and Namibia have taken up formal negotiations with a view to addressing the open wounds of history.
Without wishing to prejudice the outcome, let me say here once again that Germany is firmly committed to its historical responsibility.
We want to pave the way for a better future in relations between our countries.
The two head negotiators are here with us now, and they will already today hold another meeting.
I want to thank them for their efforts.
Yes, the road to reconciliation is long.
But we set out on it with a shared sense of purpose – even though there are difficulties and points of disagreement, also in Namibia, on this issue.
But after spending several days with the delegation, I am indeed hopeful.
We want to heal wounds.
We must not, and will not, forget the horrific acts that were committed in the past. Germany is also working at international level to ensure that the progress that humanity has achieved in terms of universal human rights and international cooperation will not be lost.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For Germany, Namibia is an important country in Africa.
It will remain especially significant.
All of Europe should learn from the mistakes of the past.
In my opinion, this includes finally recognising our neighbouring continent as a continent of opportunity and of potential.
Namibia has the chance of a prosperous future.
Its youth is creative, and it has rich cultural traditions.
Last but not least, Madam Minister, it has strong women.
“Harambee” is a word that you already use, and it is a word that I wish were part of our German vocabulary.
More than that, I wish it were a European word.
A global word, one that guides us as we set out to change the world.
We Germans want to stand by your side, now and in the future. Namibia! When we arrived at the airport this morning we all felt, that this is a moment in time. Thank you for making it a moment of togetherness.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I bow my head in profound sorrow.
I cannot undo the terrible injustice committed by our ancestors.
But here, in the land of your ancestors, I again ask for your forgiveness from the bottom of my heart.
May their souls rest in peace.