152. Germany’s Forgotten Genocide in Namibia

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 15 September 2021
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Raymond June via search.creativecommons.org/

As some world leaders gather in New York for their annual United Nations (UN) General Assembly rituals, the 22 September debate on “Reparations, Racial Justice, and Equality for People of African Descent” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Durban Racism Conference,  will be particularly significant. While at the Durban conference itself, the issue of reparations was not allowed to be debated by former Western slaver and imperial powers, this issue is now firmly on the agenda. One of the most important recent developments in this regard, is the agreement by the German government, in May, to pay Є1.1 billion in compensation for the genocide in its then colony of Southwest Africa (Namibia) between 1904 and 1908.

The History of A Genocide

Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck declared a protectorate over Southwest Africa in 1884, and a decade later, the ruthless military commander, Curt von François, launched an unprovoked massacre of indigenous people. In January 1904, reacting against the theft of their land and cattle by German citizens, the Herero, led by guerrillas like Samuel Maharero, killed 100 white settlers during an uprising. Nine months later, psychopathic German commanding general, Lothar von Trotha – known as “the human shark” – issued a Vernichtungsbefehl for the extermination of the Herero for having had the temerity to rebel against the dispossession of their land and cattle. Von Trotha was chilling in his savagery: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children.”

The Herero waged a courageous resistance, but were simply overpowered by German machine guns, cannons, and bayonets. They were defeated at Waterberg in August 1904, resulting in floggings, mass executions, and hangings. Forced into the Kalahari Desert, many died of starvation and thirst. The survivors were carted off in cattle trucks to concentration camps in Swakopmund, Lüderitz, and Windhoek, where many were beaten and raped, and thousands died from slave labour. Some were deliberately infected with tuberculosis, typhus, and smallpox. Eugenics policies were initiated, with inmates forced to scrape the flesh of kinsfolk and boil human skulls, about 3,000 of which were sent to Germany for pseudo-scientific experiments.

The Nama uprising – skilfully led by Hendrik Witbooi – was equally ruthlessly quashed, with the rebels locked up in cold death camps on Shark Island. By 1908, an estimated 90,000 people – 80% of the total Herero and 50% of the Nama population – had been massacred in the 20th century’s first genocide. Many unmarked mass graves of Herero remain in Swakopmund and in railway yards in the capital of Windhoek. Many German and other historians regard the Namibian genocide as having been a grisly dress rehearsal for the Jewish Holocaust two decades later.

Remembrance and Reconciliation

Despite many monuments to German soldiers in Namibia, there are barely any memorials to the victims of the Herero and Nama genocide. On the centenary of the start of the massacres – pushed by left-wing German scholars and politicians – Berlin offered an apology to the Herero for these crimes. Only as recently as 2011, did museums in Germany start to send the skulls of victims back to Namibia for decent burials.  After 108 years of denial and equivocation, German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, finally conceded, in July 2015, that the events in Namibia constituted “a war crime and a genocide.” Museums in Berlin started holding exhibitions on Germany’s colonial history in Africa.

The Reparations Balance Sheet

From 2015, the governments of Germany and Namibia took six years to negotiate a joint agreement to atone for Berlin’s century-old genocide. In May, Germany agreed to pay Є1.1 billion over 30 years in “reconstruction and development” aid – in the key areas of land reform, rural infrastructure, healthcare, energy, education, water, and vocational training – as a “gesture to recognise the immense suffering inflicted on the victims.” These crimes were, however, described as genocide “from today’s perspective”, suggesting that international law – effectively made by, and for, European states – did not apply to African victims. Much of this money is to benefit primarily descendants of the Herero and Nama. German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, quickly added that the accord should not open the door to any “legal request for compensation,” fearing similar claims from Poland, Greece, and Italy for Nazi crimes.

Berlin refused to include the word “reparations” in the joint declaration. Though Namibian officials described the payment as a “first step in the right direction,” Windhoek was widely seen to have been outmanoeuvred in this negotiation of unequals between the government and its largest aid donor. The main challenge in implementing this historic accord will be how to convince Herero and Nama leaders to accept it. Several have complained that most of their leaders were not represented in the negotiations. They have thus voiced vociferous hostility to the deal, which some have dismissed as a “public relations coup” rather than a genuine act of reparation. Vekuii Rukoro, leader of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, and Gaob Isaack, head of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, condemned the bilateral agreement as “a construct of a racist mind-set,” portraying it as a “total sell-out.” The distrust of indigenous groups also derives from what many see as their continuing marginalisation within Namibian society, as well as their criticisms of what they regard to be a corrupt elite in Windhoek that can not be relied on to spend aid money honestly and equitably.

The Future of Colonial Reparations

Germany’s recent history has often been overshadowed by the brutalities of the Third Reich’s crimes which resulted in the death of six million European Jews. Berlin instituted one of the most impressive processes of restorative justice thereafter, involving paying compensation of $98 billion to Israel and Jewish groups. Post-war Germany has sought to become a model global citizen, impressively taking in one million Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees during 2015 and 2016, with 17% of its population now consisting of immigrants. The country’s colonial genocide in Namibia has, however, only recently become more widely known, and only two memorials in Berlin and Bremen commemorate these African massacres.

Former European colonial powers like France, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain have yet to come to terms with atrocities that they committed in Africa: one million Algerians died in the savage Gallic war of 1954-1962; 90,000 Malagasies were killed during the Malagasy uprising of 1947-1949; Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company slaughtered and raped thousands of Ndebele and Shona during rebellions in the 1890s; while  British troops killed about 25,000 Kenyans and detained 100,000 without trial in torture-filled concentration camps during the Mau Mau liberation struggle of the 1950s. Belgium stands accused of the death of half of the Congolese population of 20 million people during King Léopold’s brutal reign of murder and mayhem. Will these European powers follow Berlin’s lead in offering a full-throated apology for their colonial crimes, and make amends to repair this enduring damage?

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.