German president asks forgiveness for colonial crimes in Tanzania


German President Frank Walter Steinmeier expressed regret and asked for forgiveness on Wednesday for heinous crimes committed by colonial Germany.

Germany asks forgiveness for colonial crimes in Tanzania
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier [Nadja Wohlleben/File Photo/Reuters]

"I bow before the victims of German colonial rule. And, as Germany’s federal president, I want to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your forefathers," Steinmeier said while mourning Chief Songea who led the Ngoni people in successful attacks against the Germans during the Maji Maji Rebellion.

Chief Songea is a national hero in Tanzania who was captured in 1906. He was hanged along with the other Ngoni leaders.

"I join you in mourning Chief Songea and all who were executed," said Steinmeier.

Historians estimate that during the colonial period in Tanzania, as many as 300,000 people were killed due to the actions of the German colonial authorities. 

Many of the deaths were recorded during the Maji Maji Rebellion, a significant uprising against the oppressive colonial regime.

"It shames me. I am ashamed of what German colonial soldiers did to your forefather and his fellow warriors. What happened here is part of our shared history – the history of your forefathers and the history of our forefathers in Germany. I want to assure you that we Germans together with you, will look for answers to the unresolved questions that haunt you," said Steinmeier.

He also recognized that many human remains, including skulls, were taken to Germany during the colonial era, and promised to work with Tanzania for their repatriation.

Steinmeier’s address to the Tanzanian people came on the last day of a three-day visit.

His trip coincides with a visit by Britain's King Charles III to Kenya, also expected to be dominated by conversations about the colonial era.

The Maji Maji rebellion was triggered by a German policy designed to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export.

Tanzania was a part of German East Africa, which consisted of modern-day Rwanda, Burundi and parts of Mozambique.

President Steinmeier said he hoped Tanzania and Germany could work towards "communal processing" of the past.

He promised to "take these stories with me to Germany, so that more people in my country will know about them."

As part of the three-day visit, the president met the descendants of one of the Maji Maji leaders, Chief Songea Mbano, who was among those executed in 1906.

President Steinmeier told the family the German authorities would try to find his remains.

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.

"We have been crying for years, now it is the time to end our crying," the 36-year-old lawyer told AFP.

Germany has, until recently, had "colonial amnesia", according to Jürgen Zimmerer, a history professor at the University of Hamburg.

"The brutality and the racism of this colonial empire was not understood in the German public," he said.

Thousands of human remains were brought from German colonies - partly as "trophies" but also for racist research.

Prof Zimmerer said there was "almost no funding" available to identify where these bones and skulls, which lie in various museums or institutions, actually came from.

Some of the descendants of those killed have managed to locate them with the help of DNA tests.

On Tuesday, after meeting President Samia Suluhu Hassan in Dar es Salaam, he promised that Germany would co-operate with Tanzania for the "repatriation of cultural property".

Tanzania historian Mohamed Said welcomed the president's apology but warned it did not go far enough.

"They decided to set farms on fire so people would run out of food and be unable to fight. This is unacceptable, in today's world they would be taken to court," he said.

In 2021, Germany officially acknowledged committing genocide during its occupation of Namibia and announced financial aid worth more than €1.1bn (£940m; $1.34bn).

The statements from Germany's president come after King Charles acknowledged the "abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans" during their independence struggle, while on a visit to Nairobi.

However, the British monarch did not deliver a formal apology which would have to be decided by government ministers.

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