Milestones of German Memory

DAR ES SALAAM/BERLIN (Own report) - Germany will not pay compensation for the mass crimes it had committed in the former German East Africa Colony. Instead, it will have pompous colonial period buildings refurbished. This was one of the main results achieved by Germany's foreign minister Heiko Maas (SPD) during his first trip to Africa. Last year, demands had been raised that Germany should compensate the descendants of the victims of the Maji Maji War, wherein German colonial troops allegedly killed 180,000 to possibly 300,000 inhabitants of the colony. Tanzania's foreign minister, whose government is dependent on German development aid, has now assured Maas that no compensation demands will be forthcoming. He has also waived the restitution of the plundered cultural assets. Berlin, which deems it is not able to pay the compensation, will now finance the refurbishment of pompous German colonial period buildings in Tanzania. While in Dar es Salaam, Maas commemorated the Askari, African mercenaries, who had fought alongside the German colonial forces during their campaigns of annihilation.

Annihilation Campaigns

Demands that Germany should finally pay compensation for its mass crimes during the colonial period are being raised in reference to the Maji Maji War from 1905 - 1907. Even previous to this war, German colonial troops, in the 1890s, had carried out deadly "punitive expeditions" using a "scorched earth strategy" that took countless lives. Each time, the German colonial troops advanced "from one valley to the next," reports the historian Jan-Bart Gewald, they "would encircle each valley, destroy all food and water sources, then kill all of the surviving elderly and men, take the young women and children into captivity to serve as concubines or laborers."[1] How many were killed remains unknown. The German annihilation campaign ultimately culminated in the Maji Maji War, which, even according to the German Empire's own estimates, had cost the lives of at least 75,000. Today, western historians estimate around 180,000 victims, whereas the Tanzanian historian Gilbert Gwassa estimates the deaths to be even as high as between 250,000 to 300,000 - which would amount to approx. one-third of the inhabitants of the war zone, at that time.[2]

No Compensation

In Tanzania, the debate over possible compensation was recently incited by other countries' compensation law suits. A lawsuit in London resulted in a modicum of compensation for the victims of the British colonial troops' suppression of Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion (1952 - 1960). Even though the New York suit brought in by the descendents of the victims of the German genocide on the Ovaherero and Nama in today's Namibia (1904 - 1908), has not yet been successful, they continue to pursue their struggle for justice. Inspired by the London and New York trials, the Tanzanian parliament held a hearing February 8, 2017, in which the country's defense Minister, Hussein Mwinyi, announced that his ministry, in cooperation with the country's foreign ministry, was preparing an official compensation demand to Germany for the mass crimes committed by German colonialists.[3] In fact, Berlin has persuaded the Tanzanian government not to take this step. Tanzania, being one of Africa's largest recipients of German development aid, is sensitive to German pressure. During his visit to Dar es Salaam, at the end of last week, German foreign minister Heiko Maas (SPD) had his Tanzanian counterpart Augustine Mahiga, explicitly confirm that the issue of compensation is "off the table." "We believe there are means, other than the demand for compensation for mutual assistance."[4]

No Restitution

Foreign Minister Mahiga has also agreed to renounce on other demands. This refers particularly to the restitution of art assets, the German colonialists had plundered from their colony. November 28, 2017, in an effort to maximize support for Paris' Africa policy, France's President, Emmanuel Macron declared in a speech at the University of the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou, "I would like to see that within the next five years, conditions will be achieved that allow for the temporary or permanent restitution of Africa's cultural heritage."[5] Macron's announcement caused alarm in Berlin. Experts estimate the number of plundered art objects to be deposited in the German capital's future Humboldt Forum at around 75,000.[6] It is out of the question that the German government would voluntarily return them. Evidently, in the run-up to his trip to Africa, Foreign Minister Maas was able to persuade Tanzania's government to drop this demand. This would certainly apply to the world's largest Brachiosaurus skeleton on public display, which had been excavated from between 1919 - two years after the Maji Maji War ended - and 1913 in what today is Tanzania, and immediately, shipped to Berlin by German paleontologists. In Berlin's Museum of Natural History is has since been considered a magnetic public attraction. For years, Tanzania has been demanding its restitution, to help boost that country's tourism with the skeleton exhibit.[7] Foreign Minister Mahiga has now explicitly limited his country's restitution demands to human bones, stolen by German colonialists, for racist experiments in the empire.

Traditional Bavarian Style

Although Berlin is not prepared to pay compensation for its mass crimes nor even to, at least, return the stolen cultural assets, Foreign Minister Maas has however promised to otherwise furnish support - by restoring buildings from the colonial period. In Tanzania, buildings can still be found that had been built by the German colonialists - for example administration centers, churches or military installations, from where the German colonial troops departed on their annihilation campaigns. Since some time, the Center for Architectural Heritage (DARCH) in Dar es Salaam - founded on the initiative of the Goethe Institute and the Technical University in Berlin among others - has been promoting the restoration of colonial buildings. The "German architecture" has "its own and - even unique - architectural language," explains a DARCH employee. "There is thick stone masonry with carved light wood structures in front," but also "home-style elements," which, on the other hand, bring to mind "a bit of the Bavarian traditional style."[8] All of this is "an important and precious aspect of one's own cultural identity" - "in spite of the somber chapter of colonial history." Maas has now agreed to Berlin seeking to "preserve memorial milestones of architectural style" in Tanzania.[9]

The "Askari's Loyalty"

With a wreath-laying ceremony, Mass also commemorated African victims of the colonial period - however not the victims of German colonialists' but of the colonialists' collaborators. The German colonial troops had hired African mercenaries, known as the "Askari" (Swahili for "armed companions") already for their first annihilation campaign and then again during the Maji Maji War. These mercenaries had served the German colonialists right up to the end of World War I. They had been hated by the indigenous population, for their participation in the German's annihilation campaigns and for their robbery and looting. They were often particularly vicious. However, those, nostalgic of the German colonial period have repeatedly praised the Askari's alleged allegiance and have devoted literature glorifying the colonial period and monuments to their honor.[10] With his wreath-laying in Dar es Salaam, Maas has now given them an exclusive status in public memory.


[1] Jan-Bart Gewald: Colonial Warfare: Hehe and World War One, the wars besides Maji Maji in south-western Tanzania. African Studies Centre (Leiden). Working Paper 63/2005. See also Auf dem Weg zum Vernichtungskrieg (I).

[2] See also Auf dem Weg zum Vernichtungskrieg (II).

[3] Athuman Mtulya: Maji Maji War in the spotlight. 09.02.2018.

[4] Tansania will keine Entschädigung von Deutschland wegen Kolonialherrschaft. 04.05.2018.

[5] Le discours de Ouagadougou d'Emmanuel Macron. 29.11.2017.

[6] Bénédicte Savoy: Die Zukunft des Kulturbesitzes. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 12.01.2018.

[7] Ricardo Tarli: Naturkundemuseum soll Saurierknochen an Tansania zurückgeben. 26.07.2016.

[8] Gehören Kolonialbauten zur kulturellen Identität? 02.01.2016.

[9] Tansania will keine Entschädigung von Deutschland wegen Kolonialherrschaft. 04.05.2018.

[10] Stefanie Michels: Der Askari. In: Jürgen Zimmerer (Hg.): Kein Platz an der Sonne. Erinnerungsorte der deutschen Kolonialgeschichte. Frankfurt am Main 2013. S. 294-308.