Germany Officially Recognises Its Past Atrocities In Namibia As Genocide

It has been referred to as a foreshadowing of Nazi ideology and the Holocaust, the first genocide of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1908, tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people were killed by German colonizers in what is now known as Namibia.

On 28 May, it was announced that Germany recognizes the massacre as genocide. The former colonial power has also agreed to issue an apology, and fund reconstruction and development projects in Namibia worth €1.1bn (£940m; $1.34bn) to be paid out over 30 years. The accord follows more than five years of negotiations between descendants of both victims and colonizers over events in the Namibian territory occupied by Berlin from 1884-1915.

“We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today’s perspective: genocide,” said Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas. “In light of the historical and moral responsibility of Germany, we will ask forgiveness from Namibia and the victims’ descendants [for the] atrocities” committed, he said in his statement. Though the German government has claimed “moral responsibility” for its colonial history in Namibia, it had long avoided making an official apology for the massacres to avoid compensation claims.

According to Namibian presidential spokesperson, Alfredo Hengari, a joint declaration detailing the agreement was made by special envoys of both countries on 15 May, following nine rounds of negotiations. Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro has criticized the deal, calling it an insult and a “sellout” because it does not include payment of reparations. “That’s a black cat in the bag instead of reparations for a crime against humanity,” he told Reuters, referring to Germany’s commitment to fund reconstruction and development projects in Namibia.

Chief Rukoro, who has previously been unsuccessful in an attempt to sue Germany for compensation, said that the Herero and Nama people had suffered irreversible harm as a result of German colonial violence. As such, according to him, the agreement is not enough for the two communities.

While Namibia has long pushed for reparations, Germany continues to reject the use of the actual word “reparations”. To accept the term would be to acknowledge guilt under the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide. The argument made by the German government was that the convention cannot be applied retroactively to previous genocides. Additionally, reparations could make Germany and other former European colonial powers liable to claims from other former colonies. The German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier is due to travel to Namibia later this year to issue an official apology before the country’s parliament.

German settlers faced the fiercest resistance from two ethnic groups: the Herero and the Nama. This led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of men, women, and children by German soldiers. Innocent people were shot, tortured, sexually assaulted, or driven into the Kalahari Desert to starve. Those who survived were taken to concentration camps, where they were used as slave labour, dying of cold, malnutrition, exhaustion, and violence. Historians and the United Nations have called this the first genocide of the 20th century.

An estimated 80,000 Namibian native people were killed in the genocide. This represents approximately 80 percent of the Herero people, and 50 percent of the Nama people. The push to acknowledge the atrocities as genocide began after Namibia gained independence in 1990, and intensified with the 100th anniversary of the massacre in 2004.

But how do you make up for destroying entire communities? Colonialism has profoundly shaped modern-day Namibia. During the occupation, thousands of German settlers stole land and cattle from indigenous people. More than 100 years later, many German tourists visit Namibia. One of the more popular spots is Swakopmund, a city on Namibia’s coast, where tourists can find German food and beer in restaurants, and where colonial-era buildings line streets named after former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Monuments and cemeteries honouring fallen German soldiers still stand, outnumbering those that commemorate the Herero and the Nama victims of the genocide.

For some, this announcement is a step in the right direction. However, many others believe that the €1.1bn pledged by Germany is not enough to atone for the crimes against humanity that were committed during colonial rule. In Namibia today, the Herero and the Nama are still marginalized communities, often living in remote, unproductive areas on reservations that were initially set up during the colonial era. A significant portion of the most arable land is still owned by grandchildren and great-grandchildren of German settlers.

Anita Mureithi