Daily Briefing

Germany sends one chancellor and 19 skulls to Africa

merkel
Green greetings from Senegal's President Macky Sall. Source: DPA/Michael Kappeler

Chemnitz remains tense after days of rioting by neo-Nazis and “ordinary” people who don’t like foreigners. As I discussed yesterday, that pathology may be unique to eastern German regions like Saxony. But Chemnitz is also part of the bigger populist backlash against migration across Europe and what used to be known as “the West.” And whatever you think of Chancellor Angela Merkel, there is probably nobody who has thought longer and harder about what, in the long term, anybody can do against the root causes of migration: How do you stop millions of people from poor or war-torn places in the south from going to the richer north?

That’s why Merkel is touring Africa this week. Yesterday, she was in Senegal, where President Macky Sall greeted her not only with the anthem but also with a quaint German ditty that must have amused the chancellor. Today she is in Ghana. Tomorrow it’s on to Nigeria.

Her conversations in these places are not identical, but they rhyme: 1) How can we cooperate to shut down human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants? 2) How can we help you to give economic opportunity to your young people at home? 3) And by the way, what are the Chinese up to around here? That last one might sound off topic, but Merkel is also keenly aware that China sees Africa differently: as a geostrategic stepping stone to assert its dominance over Europe in the longer term.

Admittedly, it is easier to be skeptical than optimistic about what such trips can accomplish. Last year, we analyzed how hard it is to help Africa develop. Ultimately, what can a rich country like Germany do? Give a few more dollops of money; dispatch some engineers and doctors; buy more metals or rare earths. In the end, it is still the Africans who have to help themselves.

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But wait, many Africans say: You white people bear much of the blame, because of all the terrible things you did to us in the colonial era. That came up again quite poignantly yesterday at a macabre ceremony in Berlin, where Germany handed back 19 skulls and five skeletons to the Herero, a tribe in Namibia. The bones had been collecting dust in German universities and museums for more than a century.

Originally they were taken by the Germans for gruesome pseudo-scientific experiments, after the Germans killed, between 1904 and 1908, three out of four Herero and one in two members of another tribe, the Nama. Germany at the time was dabbling in the empire business to get its “place in the sun” alongside Britain, France, and Belgium and had snatched what it called German South West Africa. When the Herero rebelled, the Germans all but exterminated them.

By any common-sense definition, this was a genocide. If it has not got more attention, that is because of the subsequent, bigger genocide the Germans committed. Now, though, the German government is in principle ready to call the atrocities against the Herero a “genocide” and to offer an official apology. Talks have been going on since 2015.

The hold-up is that the descendants of the Herero also want a lot of money. They have even filed a class-action lawsuit against Germany in New York. So, 107 years after the genocide, the Herero are still waiting for their apology. In Berlin yesterday, Vekuii Rukoro, the chief, said it was all “a big joke.” Not as in funny, but as in tragic. Much about Europe and Africa is.

Andreas Kluth is Handelsblatt Global’s editor-in-chief.

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