Germany Recognizes Colonial-Era Crimes As Genocide

More than a century after the crimes were committed, Germany formally recognized on Friday, 28 March, that it committed genocide against the Herero and Nama people during its colonial rule in present day Namibia. It is the first time the German government has officially acknowledged these atrocities, with the declaration coming after nearly six years of negotiations.

In a statement announcing Germany’s official recognition of the genocide, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas promised a “gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering” the country has caused. He continued, saying it would set up “a substantial program of 1.1 billion euros (1.3 billion USD) for reconstruction and development.” According to confirmed reports originally published in Namibian media, the sum will be paid over a period of 30 years and primarily support descendants of the victims through funding projects in areas where Herero and Nama ethnic groups have settled. Specifically, these projects will be centered around land reform, supporting agriculture, improving rural infrastructure, and providing vocational training in genocide-affected communities. However, Maas emphasized that the government’s recognition of the genocide and establishment of an aid fund do not stem from any “legal request for compensation,” but rather a political and moral obligation.

The Namibian government welcomed Germany’s declaration, with President Hage Geingob’s spokesman Alfredo Hengari telling AFP that the official recognition of the genocide was “the first step in the right direction.” Additionally, Hengari told Reuters that “[T]he apology on the part of Germany and acceptance there was a genocide is in itself historic and speaks to the moral responsibility Germany has towards Namibia and the communities affected by the first genocide of the 20th century.”

Despite Geingob’s apparent approval of Germany’s proposed deal, many activists and leaders within the Herero and Nama communities have already criticized it for the lack of direct reparations. For instance, Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro said that Germany’s financial package is “an insult” to the descendants of genocide victims and avoids “reparations for crimes against humanity.” Many activists have also protested against the agreement, arguing that the Herero and Nama people had not been consulted enough during negotiations, as the talks had been with the Namibian government rather than the affected communities directly. “We will not accept any outcome between these two governments,” Mutjinde Katjiua, Secretary-General of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, told AFP.

The often forgotten colonial period in Namibia started with the government providing military protection to local German traders. By 1884, Imperial Germany officially recognized Namibia – then called German Southwest Africa – as an overseas possession and the newest addition to a growing empire. Namibia’s German rulers were extremely harsh and by 1904, abuses against the Herero and Nama peoples led some members of these ethnic groups to participate in an insurrection. In response to this, German General Lothar von Trotha was sent to quell the rebellion, and he did with extreme brutality. In one example of the many atrocities that occurred during this time, German forces expelled the Herero people from the country, forcing 80,000 people to trek across the largest desert in Southern Africa with little food and water. Only about 15,000 Herero ultimately survived this death march.

Overall, it is estimated that up to 65,000 Herero and at least 10,000 Nama were killed by the Germans between 1904 and 1908. Accordingly, 80 percent of the indigenous populations died during the genocide, as reported by BBC. The profound loss of life that occurred under German colonial rule had lasting effects on Namibian society, and the legacy of the atrocities has long overshadowed relations between the two countries.

In early June, the declaration is expected to be signed by Maas in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, and then ratified by both countries’ parliaments. While any step towards conflict resolution and transitional justice should be celebrated, Germany should reconsider their stance on reparations, and compensate those directly affected by the genocide. Until this occurs, the Herero and Nama communities will not be able to wholly achieve meaningful closure on such a dark chapter of their history.