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Uncovering the German genocide of the Namibian people

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Uncovering the German genocide of the Namibian people

In January 1904, Ovaherero, in a surprise attack, killed more than 100 German farmers to resist further encroachment of their land and subjugation under foreign rule. Following an order by chief Samuel Maherero, they spared missionaries, women and children. Germany responded with a massive mobilisation of troops and military equipment dispatched to the colony. In August 1904 the war escalated into a military encounter at the Waterberg in the heartland of the Ovaherero. Being unable to defeat the Germans, the Ovaherero tried to escape, seeking refuge partly in the adjacent Omaheke semi-desert. The German commander, General Lothar von Trotha, issued an extermination order. He declared that the Ovaherero were no longer subjects under German rule and not allowed to surrender.

Tens of thousands died of thirst or hunger on their way to neighbouring Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana), where Ovaherero are still living. Others were captured and put into concentration camps. Imprisoned women were sexually abused systematically. In the harbour towns of Lüderitzbucht and Swakopmund, the prisoners died of unprotected exposure to the harsh climate, malnourishment and forced labour. The mortality rate peaked at about 80% on the notorious Shark Island, adjacent to Lüderitzbucht, which the Germans had initially rented from the British Cape Colony, whose officials (and those at the British foreign office) closed their eyes.

The Nama under chief Hendrik Witbooi rose after witnessing the warfare against the Ovaherero. Unlike them, they resorted to a guerilla strategy and engaged the colonial army for years. In his mid- 70s, Witbooi died from a wound suffered in battle. Jakob Marengo, of Herero and Nama descent, kept the German soldiers busy until 1907. He was finally killed in the border area of the Cape Province by a German patrol entering the foreign territory with the consent of the British. The captured Nama suffered a similar fate as the Herero.


While concrete figures for the numbers killed remain a matter of dispute, there is clear evidence of the “intent to destroy”.


More than 100 (including women and children) were deported to Cameroon and Togo, where most of them did not survive.

An estimated two-thirds of the Ovaherero and one-third to a half of the Nama were eliminated. Those alive were denied their earlier social organisation and reproduction. While concrete figures for the numbers killed remain a matter of dispute, there is clear evidence of the “intent to destroy”.

This is the core definition of genocide. According to this understanding, the “Whitaker Report” presented to ECOSOC in 1985, qualified the German warfare as the first genocide of the 20th century.

The long denial

Political office bearers and the wider public of the Federal Republic of Germany for a long time refused to acknowledge the dark sides of Germany’s colonial past. Holocaust commemoration (and reparation) entered the public domain in the late 1960s. This was not entirely voluntary. Dealing with the Nazi era also in domestic politics and remembrance was brought about not least through a post-WWII generation linked to the student movement of the late 1960s. Since then, Germany has emerged as a leader in terms of engaging with a pitch-dark chapter in its history.

But efforts to bring back Germany’s colonial past failed. 1984, commemorating a century of the infamous Berlin Conference, did not translate into public awareness. Rather, those using colonial-apologetic reasoning responded to the critical reminders provided by emerging anti-colonial civil society groups demanding a decolonisation of the mind. Voices pointing to the violent trajectory from the mass atrocities in the German colonies to the two World Wars remained sidelined. After all, they spoiled the picture of the “good old days”. Critical West German official history focused only on the Hitler regime. If colonialism was a subject in schoolbooks at all, it mainly highlighted its “civilising mission” and the “big colonial powers”.

In contrast, East German historiography tended to disclose imperial German history in much detail. But the ideological perspective suggested that neither Nazis nor colonialism had anything to do with the German Democratic Republic. The Soviet satellite “workers’ and peasants’ state” kind of rose like a Phoenix from the ashes – void of any personal continuity or mental traces of such past history. This was simply another form of denial, a handy Cold War rhetoric to denounce the West German rival in the competition for international credibility. e consequences of glasnost and perestroika linked again the German and Namibian history, which until then was only kept alive through a considerable number of German-speaking whites in the former colony, the so-called “South Westers”.

Thee end of the Cold War led not only to German uni cation. When in November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, Namibians were voting for a government of their own, ending South African foreign rule. Unified Germany and the Republic of Namibia entered the world stage in parallel.

Members of the West German parliament were at least aware of the history. A resolution of mid- March 1989 declared a “special historical responsibility” for Namibia. But there was no reference to the genocide. Instead, the German- speaking minority was mentioned. German policy seemed more concerned with acts of the colonial settler perpetrators, than the fate of the victims or their descendants. Tellingly, the resolution’s euphemistic core phrase of a “special responsibility” remained the official reference point for another 25 years, during which the growing demands for recognition of the genocide remained largely ineffective as regards the official position.

Namibian voices in formation

Independence on 21 March 1990 allowed Namibian agencies beyond the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the liberation movement which duly became the governing party, a voice. It opened a space for the grievances of the descendants of the victims under German colonial rule to be heard. The primary anti-colonial resistance by those population groups living in the eastern, central and southern regions of Namibia, whose land was appropriated first by the German and then the South African apartheid policies, added a largely hidden dimension to the dominant patriotic history cultivated by SWAPO.

Emerging mainly among the contract workers from the northern parts of Namibia in the 1950s and formally constituted in 1960, SWAPO has its main support base in the country’s majority of Oshiwambo-speaking communities. Being settled land tillers, German colonialism never physically invaded their parts of the country but exploited the human resources by institutionalising a contract labour system. The physical presence of settlers was limited to the territory south of this area.

Ovaherero, but also Nama and Damara, have demanded since independence the restitution of ancestral lands, from which they were forcefully removed. Now it is mainly the property of commercial farmers, so they are often banned from even visiting the graves of their ancestors. A Land Conference in 1991 discussed the disturbing structural colonial legacy of grossly skewed distribution of commercial farmland. But it avoided the issue of land restitution. Since the history of migration and occupation dates back much longer than European colonialism, it shelved the complicated issue.

New dynamics a century later

2004 marked a century since the beginning of the Namibian War for the descendants of those resisting German occupation. Challenging the offcial denialism, the centenary resulted in unprecedented public awareness campaigns from German civil society actors. These had started post-colonial initiatives operating mainly locally, engaging with the neglected colonial legacy. Their work impacted for the first time at least partly on members of the political establishment.

The then social democratic Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, attended the main commemorative event in August 2004 at Hamakari. Situated at the Waterberg, the military encounters there had triggered the subsequent genocidal practices. In her speech she declared that the atrocities were in today’s understanding genocide and that Von Trotha would be prosecuted for war crimes. Seemingly moved, she asked for forgiveness, in the sense of trespasses being forgiven in the Christian prayer.

When the audience demanded an apology, she stated that her whole speech was an apology. This was mistaken as a change in official German policy. But Germany’s Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer of the Green Party dismissed this as a purely personal statement.

While Wieczorek-Zeul initiated a unilateral reconciliation initiative financed by funds from the development cooperation portfolio, such follow-up was considered not enough by the affected Namibian groups. Since the Namibian government felt not properly consulted, it only reluctantly engaged with this initiative. The SWAPO majority in the National Assembly, however, a few years later, supported a resolution submitted by the late paramount chief of the Ovaherero and leader of an opposition party. It recognised the legitimate demands for compensation by the affected communities. But after the resolution’s adoption, government continued to remain passive.

Since the turn of the century, genocide studies has emerged internationally as a new field. It transcended the former exclusive focus on Holocaust studies. While accused of questioning the singularity of the Shoa (which at times mounted to accusations of anti-Semitism), genocide scholars added important perspectives to the domain. The contextualisation of genocides (in the plural) also promoted engagements with the South West African case. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term during the mid-1940s and whose work brought about the UN’s Genocide Convention, had already referred to it.

In the late 1960s, two historians from West and East Germany presented, despite different approaches, similar conclusions in separate doctoral theses on the Herero genocide. They received proper recognition decades later, when a new generation of scholars engaged with “German South West Africa”. But German policy stubbornly refused the recognition demanded.

A turnaround finally happened in 2015, after the German Bundestag, on the occasion of another centenary, recognised the Armenian genocide. is provoked uproar, with an enraged Turkish government pointing out the hypocritical dimension of such a selective perspective, given the unacknowledged German colonial genocide. Many of the established German media also questioned the double standards. For the first time, the genocide in Namibia became a wider public issue.

Even conservative political party officials realised that only  recognition of the historical facts would restore some moral high ground. Last but not least, the social democratic foreign minister, Walter Steinmeier of the coalition government formed by the Social and the Christian Democrats, could not escape the fact that his party, while being in opposition had tabled a (dismissed) parliamentary motion on Namibia jointly with the Green Party, which had introduced the term genocide. At a press conference in July 2015, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the term genocide was now applicable also to what had happened in South West Africa.

By year’s end the German and Namibian governments appointed special envoys to negotiate how to come to terms with such recognition and its implications.

Negotiations without apology

The German side, however, has still not offered any apology. But admitting genocide as a precursor to negotiations over its implications is meaningless in the absence of such an apology.

Much to the frustration of the Namibian government, the German side was at times setting the agenda unilaterally by making its views public on pending matters discussed behind closed doors. It also tried to influence the schedule according to domestic German policy matters, arguing that an agreement would be essential to enabling President Gauck to render an apology before leaving office.

Both governments have so far not offered any meaningful direct representation to the descendants of the affected communities. While these do not speak with one voice and some smaller groups cooperate with the Namibian government, their main agencies have been excluded from the negotiations. For the Namibian government this is an affair between two states and the German counterpart gladly complies. Such an understanding, however, also ignores those who as a result of the genocide live in the diaspora.

The frustration manifested in a direct confrontation between one of the communities’ delegations and the German special envoy during an exchange in the German embassy in Windhoek in late 2016. Reportedly the German envoy triggered a collective walk-out after dismissing that the colonial genocide could be compared to the Holocaust. For the descendants this was a sign that African lives count less than those of Jews and is racist. They have demanded the dismissal of the ambassador and the special envoy.

Genocide and compensation

On 5 January 2017, the Ovaherero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro and Chief David Fredericks as Chairman of the Nama Traditional Authorities Association, acting as the main plaintiffs, together with the Association of the Ovaherero Genocide in the USA Inc., led a federal class action lawsuit in a US Federal Court in New York. they refer to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted with the votes of Germany and Namibia by the UN General Assembly in 2007. Its Article 18 stipulates that, “indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves”.

The plaintiffs claim “the legitimate right to participate in any negotiations with Germany relating to the incalculable financial, material, cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual losses suffered”. their complaint asks for the award of punitive damages and the establishment of a Constructive Trust. Into this the defendant (Germany) should pay the estimated “value of the lands, cattle and other properties confiscated and taken from the Ovaherero and Nama peoples”.

In commenting, the German special envoy created the impression that the plainti s asked for individual reparation payments. A joint press statement issued on 9 January 2017 by the German initiative “Berlin PostKolonial” and the Ovaherero Paramount Chief dismissed this as “a blatant lie” and “calculated misrepresentation to deliberately discredit our legitimate and justified campaign for restorative justice”.

International media follow the German-Namibian negotiations with great interest. After all, despite its degree of violence, the German colonial adventure was relatively limited. Putting the likely material reparations in relation to the size of the German state coffers, a compensation for damages could solve a problem and might even be an investment in Germany’s reputation. But this would create a precedent other states would want to avoid, which turns the negotiations into much more than an a air between two countries. Maybe this is a limiting factor for the German side, as it is expected to act with loyalty to fellow Western states instead of pave the way for many more claims of a similar nature?

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