In a recent visit to Tanzania, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany extends an official apology for the brutal colonial-era violence inflicted on the country. He acknowledges the Maji Maji Rebellion, a dark chapter in history, in which between 200,000 and 300,000 indigenous people lost their lives during the German rule. The president commits to fostering a shared understanding of this painful history, vowing to raise awareness about these atrocities in Germany. He further expresses the desire for a process of “communal healing” as he meets with descendants of a leader executed during the colonial revolt.
Tanzania endured decades of German colonial rule, both preceding and following the turn of the 20th century, with the Maji Maji Rebellion from 1905 to 1907 marking one of the deadliest uprisings in the region. The rebellion saw widespread atrocities as German troops systematically razed villages and fields. Tanzania’s then-government, in 2017, contemplated legal action to seek compensation for the starvation, torture, and killing of its people by German forces.
President Steinmeier’s visit aims to initiate a process of “communal healing” as he acknowledges the shared historical responsibility between the two nations. He reassures Tanzanians of Germany’s commitment to collaboratively address their painful past, promising to carry these stories back to his homeland for broader dissemination. Additionally, Germany pledges to aid in the search and repatriation of the remains, particularly the skull, of an executed colonial-era leader, Chief Songea Mbano, and others whose remains were taken to Germany more than a century ago.
The visit also included poignant moments, with President Steinmeier laying a flower at Chief Songea’s grave, hailing him as a courageous leader of the Maji Maji Rebellion. Descendants of Chief Songea, appreciating the gesture, hope that this marks a positive step towards strengthening the relationship between Tanzania and Germany, putting an end to their long-standing suffering.
This acknowledgement of colonial crimes comes as Germany grapples with its historical legacy, primarily focused on the Holocaust and World War II. In recent years, the country has begun confronting its colonial-era atrocities, not only in Tanzania but also in Namibia, where mass killings of the Herero and Nama people were recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century. A 2021 agreement with Namibia formally recognized these colonial-era massacres as genocide, pledging support for affected communities, though without formal reparations, a development that continues to generate concerns among some groups representing the Herero and Nama people.
Germany’s commitment to addressing its colonial past extends to researching the approximately 1,100 skulls taken from German East Africa, including Tanzania, which were brought to Germany and are now in museums and anthropological collections. Efforts to identify living relatives of those whose skulls were looted in Tanzania are underway.
The historical backdrop reveals that German East Africa, comprising modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, existed from 1885 until Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I, leading to the loss of its colonies under the Treaty of Versailles. The Maji Maji rebellion claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 people in the struggle against colonial oppression.
President Steinmeier’s visit is a significant step in addressing and reconciling with a painful history, reaffirming Germany’s commitment to acknowledging and rectifying its colonial-era atrocities.