AGI News

Human remains of Ovaherero and Nama: Transnational dynamics in post-genocidal restitutions

Elise Pape

Elise Pape

Maison Interuniversitaire des Sciences de l'Homme -Alsace

Dr. Elise Pape was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in July and August 2017. Dr. Pape completed her binational German-French dissertation in the field of sociology of migration at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and at the University of Strasbourg, France, in 2012. She has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Strasbourg (2012-2014) and a postdoc at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris since 2014. Her research interests concern current postcolonial debates in Germany and France, intergenerational transmission in migration processes, social policies, and the use of biographical interviews in social research.

While at AICGS, Dr. Pape conducted research on her project, “Transatlantic Dynamics in Ongoing Postcolonial Negotiations – The Recognition of the Genocide of the Herero and Nama in Germany and in the United States.” The genocide of the Herero and Nama, committed between 1904 and 1908 under German colonial rule in today’s Namibia, is considered the first genocide of the twentieth century. Over the past decades and especially since the commemoration of the genocide’s centennial in 2004, when the German government refused to recognize the crimes committed as such, efforts led by descendants of the survivors to recognize the genocide and negotiate reparations have intensified.

This research focuses on the impact of Herero and Nama activists living in the United States on the ongoing negotiations between the German and the Namibian governments. Based on biographical interviews with Herero and Nama activists living in the United States, it will aim to grasp how the migration path of the interviewees has evolved over time and has affected their strategies, how the U.S. context has impacted their actions and how their transnational experiences and activities have opened up possibilities for transnational or post-national memories.

Former DAAD/AGI Research Fellow Elise Pape’s latest article is now available. Published in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal, the article builds on Dr. Pape’s research from her fellowship.


Taking its starting point from a socio-anthropological study combining biographical interviews, semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations collected between 2016 and 2018 in Germany, France and the United States among Ovaherero and Nama activists, and also members of different institutions and associations, this article focuses on the question of human remains in the current struggle for recognition and reparation of the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama from a transnational perspective. First, the text shows the ways in which the memory of human remains can be considered as a driving force in the struggle of the affected communities. Second, it outlines the main points of mismatches of perspective between descendants of the survivors and the responsible museums during past restitutions of human remains from German anthropological collections. Third, the article more closely examines the resources of Ovaherero in the United States in the struggle for recognition and reparation, the recent discovery of Namibian human remains in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the questions that it raises.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.