How Germany Could Reshape the Way Europe Understands its Colonial History Through its Interactions with Namibia

Xavier Atkins is studying for a Joint Honours degree in International Relations and Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. At university, he is part of an improvised comedy troupe where he has been described as ‘mildly humorous’. In his spare time Xavier can be found taking photographs, writing his own plays, and modelling for a student fashion show.

** Winner of Best Essay Award **

UK | June 27, 2020 | Student Essay

The killing of George Floyd in May has garnered international indignation and shone a spotlight on the reality of systematic racial discrimination not only in the US but throughout the world. In Europe, it has sparked a conversation about the legacy of colonialism and the continued inability of European nations to properly examine the brutality their empires were responsible for. Such inaction is certainly palpable within modern attitudes. Indeed, nearly a third of Brits see the Empire as something to be proud of, as do half of those polled in the Netherlands. 

A recent article from Susan Neiman suggested these nations should look to Germany as a model for how to confront one’s racist legacies, which seems reasonable. Germany has gone to great lengths to atone for the crimes that occurred during the Second World War and even have a word for ‘coming to terms with the past’ that became prominent in German literature in the latter half of the 20th century: ‘vergangenheitsbewältigung’. However, while Germany’s response to the horrors of the Holocaust is indeed widely commendable, it is perhaps somewhat hasty to suggest their response to their colonial histories should be held in the same regard. 

During Germany’s brief imperialist exploits they took control of a portion of south-west Africa now found in modern-day Namibia where, like many others, they routinely enslaved the local natives and seized their land to gift to colonisers. When the local Herero and Nama people attempted to resist this occupation, they were forced into the Omaheke desert (where they either died of dehydration or sought refuge in neighbouring Bechuanaland) or captured and made to work in concentration camps, where most would succumb to abuse, disease, or exhaustion. Between 1904 and 1908 an estimated 80,000 people were systematically and brutally killed in what the UN would later acknowledge as the first genocide of the 20th century. 

Despite the size and sophistication of this crime, the genocide holds very little cultural significance in Germany, causing some to dub it the ‘forgotten genocide’ (admittedly, this isn’t the only event to hold this title). I do not wish to try and relativize genocides by any metric, but when Neiman holds Germany up as a model example for confronting one’s racist legacies, it is clear she is only referring to the Holocaust and not to what occurred in Namibia.

Germany has issued a formal and unequivocal apology for their complicity in the Holocaust, they have paid out over $80 billion in reparations, and there are 37 monuments to the Holocaust in Berlin alone. In contrast, they have only ever symbolically acknowledged what occurred in Namibia as genocide and have not yet released a formal apology, there exists no monument to the genocide in Berlin or anywhere else in Germany, and after years of campaigning and an attempted lawsuit by the descendants of those affected they recently offered Namibia a little over $10 million, which was swiftly rejected as ‘insulting’.

I am not for a moment trying to undermine the German response to the Holocaust, nor am I saying there is some correct monetary value that would have immediately absolved themselves of guilt. Rather, the laudable manner in which Germany has confronted its Nazi history arguably serves to highlight its shortcomings in Namibia. While it’s fair to say Britain and France have far more to answer for in their colonial histories, the precedent set by Germany’s Holocaust response stands in stark contrast to the muted attitude taken towards Namibia.

This isn’t to say that Germany has denied all culpability for their actions in Namibia – compared to their European counterparts they have done a lot more. Indeed, since 2016 an official German delegation has been trying to ascertain an agreement with the Namibian government, so a formal apology can finally be published. But the talks have continued to drag on, predominately getting stuck in the thorny issue of reparations. 

Despite all this, I don’t necessarily disagree with Neiman. Although Germany has not yet properly dealt with its colonial past, it certainly has the look of a country that has the potential to and, more importantly, one that wants to. The UN’s human rights chief recently called on all nations to make amends for the “centuries of violence and racial discrimination” through the paying of reparations and Germany seems best placed to be the first country to follow this suggestion.

Not only are they already very close to finally reaching an agreement with the Namibian government regarding an official apology, but – as mentioned – Germany is a country that has tackling sordid pasts deeply ingrained into its DNA. The man who will hopefully one day issue Germany’s formal apology, Ruprecht Polenz, has suggested the agreement could bring a “new awareness of German history”, but I believe it has the potential to do more than that. 

The size and scale of the cultural movement currently ongoing are extraordinary, and if Germany becomes the first to officially atone for its colonial legacy, it could be responsible for setting a precedent that provides the crucial momentum required for similar agreements to occur in other colonised nations. Formally apologising for these colonial legacies is far more than just a handshake and the paying of X amount of reparations, they represent a turning point in the way European countries choose to understand their histories. Rather than seeing their empires as some glorious expedition that brought with it both good and bad, they will see them for the centuries of violence, theft, and murder that they were, and perhaps be the first step in properly realising the continued oppression those former states live under.

In issuing a formal apology for the events that happened all those years ago, Germany’s role in Namibia has the potential to mark a new chapter for how European countries interact with their own colonial legacies, compelling them to consciously engage with the crimes they committed in the past and help those individuals who are still feeling the ramifications today.

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One thought on “How Germany Could Reshape the Way Europe Understands its Colonial History Through its Interactions with Namibia

  1. Shafiea Khan says:

    A very insightful article into genocides other than the holocaust which have been swept under the carpet for a long time. I love how you did not belittle the holocaust but still gave the others the recognition they deserve.
    A wonderful read my friend!


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