At the beginning of the 20th century, German colonial forces in Namibia, then called South-West Africa, committed what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1907, the Germans tried to exterminate two local nations, the Herero (Ovaherero) and the Nama. As the New York Times reported in December last year, about 80 percent of all Herero, who numbered as many as 100,000, are believed to have eventually died. “They were shot, hanged from trees or died in the desert, where the Germans sealed off watering holes and also prevented survivors from returning.”
This genocide – while fairly well known in Namibia, in Southern Africa and generally among historians – has been hidden from the wider public.
It was not in the interest of successive German governments to acknowledge this heinous crime. The German government and German elites have instead been in a state of denial. This is due in part to the embarrassment of seeing a modern-day European society being associated with such atrocities. Germans have accepted guilt for two World Wars, but seem inept at dealing with their colonial baggage – Germany had colonies in Africa (Germany had colonies in Namibia, Cameroon and Tanzania) – considering that most historians have acknowledged that the genocide in Namibia laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.
Acknowledging the genocide has implications beyond Germany. For other former colonial powers (UK, France, Portugal, the United States, for example), German admission of responsibility for colonial genocide could mean that all colonial governments could be accused of similar atrocities and be compelled to pay reparations. This is partly why bilateral negotiations between Germany and Namibia have been slow. German authorities would prefer to circumnavigate the genocide classification and call the compensation something other than reparations.
The declarations by then-German military governor in Namibia, General Von Trotha, clearly state that he intended to exterminate both the Ovaherero and Nama communities. The order came from the highest levels of German government. However, there is still great reluctance by some German-speaking Namibians to acknowledge this genocide. It is a reminder of the limitations the Namibian government’s policy of reconciliation. However, a policy centered on forgiveness and absolution must be built on the acceptance of guilt and responsibility. In his book, Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past, political scientist Reinhard Kössler, notes: “Even though present-day Germans are not personally guilty of crimes such as the genocide in Namibia that were committed in the lifetime of their grandparents, great grandparents (…) temporal distance and personal innocence cannot absolve people from responsibility as citizens.” It could be for some of these reasons that this dark chapter in German colonial history is never taught in schools in Germany.
Although the similarities between the Ovaerero and Nama genocide and the Holocaust are noted, the way that Germany has dealt with taking responsibility for them differs remarkably. The most prominent case in this regard is the Special Reconciliation Initiative (NGSIP), through which the German government provided €20 million development aid targeting geographic areas in Namibia where the communities affected by the genocide now live. This has been criticized consistently by Namibian civil society, precisely for its unilateral and non-participatory approach. In contrast, after World War II,West Germany negotiated with the Jewish Claims Conference. The needs and wishes of the victims were given precedence, even in parliamentary law-making. It’s hard not to see this as anything other than discrimination founded on a colonialist attitude.
The struggle for freedom and the subsequent independence of Namibia in 1990 presented all parties with the opportunity to deal with the genocide. It was an opportunity missed. The Namibian government was more concerned about the unity of a newly independent country that had just ended South African Apartheid rule (after the end of World War I, South Africa invaded and then proceeded to occupy Namibia until independence). Cognizant of the terrible consequences of the divisive Apartheid homeland policy, the case was made that any specific ethnic groups benefitting from any form of reparations could destabilize the country. Instead, the official stance has been one of a largely homogenous national history centered on a SWAPO-led liberation war (which emphasized the contributions and sufferings of the larger Owambo) with little room for deviation.
Nonetheless, the notion that the present-day Namibian government is oblivious to the question of genocide is misplaced. When the late Ovaherero Paramount Chief Chief Kuaima Riruako introduced a motion in parliament in 2006 calling for reparations for victims of the German genocide in Namibia, he sought the support of the SWAPO government. This led to the unanimous adoption of the motion. Today, the current negotiations between Namibia and Germany are a direct result of that motion. They are aimed at forcing the government in Berlin to acknowledge publicly the genocide, give an appropriate apology, and follow this up with a comprehensive development program, which will address the socio-economic needs of the affected communities within the areas where these atrocities were committed. Such a program would also include people from other communities who were affected by the genocide, and allow individuals from other communities who migrated from elsewhere into these areas, to be beneficiaries of the program. If the German government is going to pay actual monies in reparations, they should take into account the multi-generational impact of genocide. The reparations should cover each generation over the 100 or so years since the genocide.
It is important to note that this is not the first time that the Ovaherero have sued the German government. The Chief Hosea Kutako Foundation, headed by Riruako, filed a lawsuit in the US courts in September 2001 demanding $2 billion from the German government for atrocities committed under colonial rule. The lawsuit named several companies, including Deutsche Bank, mining company Terex Corporation (formerly Orenstein-Koppel Co) and the shipping company Deutsche Africa Linie (formerly Woermann Linie), all of whom profited from the use of Ovaherero slave labor between 1904 and 1907. This case was dropped because of legal technicalities. Since then a new case has been filed by Ovaherero Chief Vicki Rukoro and Nama Chief Fredericks. The case has been lodged with the US district court in Manhattan under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law often invoked in human rights cases. Some sections of the Ovahereo and Nama communities are seeking direct talks with the German government. However, the government of Namibia is engaging these sections to join forces with the government team.
Even if the case filed by Chief Rukoro and Chief Fredericks doesn’t eventually lead to any money changing hands, it is clear that both cases, as well as the ongoing government to government negotiations, have attracted a great deal of publicity to the Ovaherero and Nama cause. The involvement of the Namibian government has now made this a national cause (including renewed struggles over the return of ancestral land), and with the current negotiations underway, the German government will have to make a substantial move towards accommodating the demands of the Namibian people.