An Overdue Apology: German-Namibian Relations

Sam Selsky is the North America Correspondent of The German Diplomat. He is a Program Officer at Freedom House and an incoming PhD Student in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Government.  He holds a Master’s in ‘Religion and Politics’ from Harvard University.

Washington D.C. | August 22, 2020 | Opinion Article

On June 11th, Berlin witnessed the largest Black Lives Matter protests outside of the United States when some 15,000 demonstrators converged on Alexanderplatz. In addition to expressing solidarity with African Americans facing police violence in the United States, many protesters spoke out against racism at home and called on Germany to reckon with its own legacy of colonialism and white supremacy.

The German government should listen to the demands of its citizens. One of the most concrete ways of responding would be to issue a long-overdue apology and pay reparations for a genocide that has been largely forgotten: the mass killing of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people in German South West Africa, modern-day Namibia, from 1904-1908. A process of reconciliation and reparation that listens to and engages with the descendants of the genocide’s victims will be necessary if Germany wishes to atone for the sins of its colonial past that have directly shaped and contributed to the racial injustices of today.

Mass Murder in German South West Africa

In part because of the longer lasting influence of the French and British, Germany’s colonial rule in Africa receives relatively little attention. However, from the 1884 Berlin Conference until World War I, Germany was a significant power around the continent and was responsible for some of the worst atrocities against African peoples.

Among these acts of mass violence, the German Empire’s genocide against the Herero and Nama people in German South West Africa stands out. The massacre began in 1904, when fighters from the Herero and Nama ethnic groups launched a rebellion against the injustices of German rule. Germany, under the rule of General Lothar von Trotha, responded to the rebellion with brutal repression, killing tens of thousands of Herero and Nama men, women, and children, through massacres, poisonings of village wells, and by forcing people into the desert, where they died of starvation and thirst.

Trotha’s warning to the Herero people make it clear that the occupying army’s goal was the total elimination of the ethnic groups:

“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”

Today, historians recognize the mass murder in modern-day Namibia as the first genocide of the 20th century.

A Belated Recognition

On an international level, the genocide of the Herero and Nama was first recognized as such in 1984, when the UN Whitaker Report listed the killings as a “case of genocide in the twentieth century.” However, only in 2004, on the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the genocide, did a German minister finally “accept our historic and moral responsibility” for the atrocities during a speech in Namibia. Even then, the minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, expressly ruled out the possibility of reparation payments to descendants of victims.

It took another decade for the German Foreign Ministry to officially acknowledge that the term “genocide” applies to the events of 1904-1908, with the caveat that the term cannot be legally applied to events that occurred before the term genocide was coded in international law in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Despite this obvious effort to avoid using language that could create legal obligations for Germany, Windhoek and Berlin have since been conducting bilateral negotiations over the issues of an official apology and potential reparation payments.

Several years into the negotiations, reports indicated that they were at an impasse, in part due to continued German resistance to using the “G-word,” given its implications for reparation payments. More recently, on June 4th of this year, Namibian President Hage Geingob stated that the Germans were about to issue an official apology for the genocide, though Berlin has refused to comment. Then, on August 11th, President Geingob stated that his government had rejected an offer of €10 million in reparations, calling the offer “not acceptable.”

If Not Now, When?

With the momentum of the global anti-racism movement spurred by the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, now is the time for Germany to make clear its commitment to confronting its racist colonial history. One of the crucial themes underlying the current wave of protests is the notion that racial injustices of the past – from slavery to redlining practices in American cities – are profoundly implicated in today’s inequities. Efforts to recognize and make amends for colonial-era atrocities rooted in white supremacy are not solely important as a matter of historical inquiry: They are necessary for addressing the anti-Black racism that continues to pervade German society.

When Germany finally apologizes and pays reparations for its atrocities in South West Africa, it must additionally ensure that it listens to the demands of the descendants of the genocide’s victims. Herero and Nama leaders have long expressed frustration that they have been excluded from negotiations between the Namibian and German governments. Only through an inclusive process of reconciliation can Germany hope to begin making amends for its past. And given the myriad ways in which violence reverberates across generations, such a reckoning will serve as an integral step in addressing modern-day racial inequalities in Germany and Namibia alike.

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