Editorial: Germany’s genocide in Namibia – Unbearable silence, or How not to deal with your colonial past

On 22 March 2012, the German parliament will debate a |+| motion to acknowledge its brutal 1904-08 genocide of the Nama and Herero peoples. Germany’s refusal thus far, and its less than even ‘diplomatic’ treatment in 2011 of the Namibian delegation at the first-ever return of the mortal remains of genocide victims, demands a reassessment of suppressed colonial histories and racism.

This special issue is a cooperation between Pambazuka News and AfricAvenir International. It has been edited by Eric Van Grasdorff, Nicolai Röschert and Firoze Manji. 

The silence on Germany’s colonial past has become unbearable – both in Germany and in the affected countries. The current government of the Federal Republic of Germany seems not to be ashamed to emphasise that Germany supposedly carries a ‘relatively light colonial baggage’ because it lost its colonies after World War I. However short the country’s colonialist period might have been, it played a central role in the colonisation of the African continent. It was in Berlin that – on the invitation of the Kaiser and his Chancellor Bismarck – Africa was distributed among European countries in 1884–85. Well-functioning communities were brutally crushed in the clear aim to better control, dispossess and exploit the African peoples and their raw materials for the economic development of the imperial powers. 

Germany, which has done commendable remembrance work about the Holocaust, seems to have forgotten or deliberately buried its violent colonial past. A past that hides the first genocide of the 20th century, planned and executed by the Second Reich or Kaiserreich. A past that laid not only the foundation for racist theories and pseudoscientific medical experiments on humans – in this case Africans supposed inferiority was to be proven – but also produced, with its concentration camps in Africa, the blueprint for the later Nazi death camps. The way in which Germany tries to silence this past seems to prove Dr Theo-Ben Gurirab right when he assumes that the reason for this genocide not being discussed and treated like the Holocaust is mainly due to the fact that it was aimed against black people: ‘Germany apologised for crimes against Israel, Russia or Poland, because they are dealing with whites. We are black and if there is therefore a problem in apologising, that is racist.’

So we have good reasons from both perspectives – the African and the European – to get to know much more about this traumatic past, its continuity from slavery through colonialism to the Holocaust and Apartheid, and the way Germany and the other former colonial powers are dealing with it today.

Between 1904 and 1908 imperial Germany waged an atrocious and inhumane war of extermination against the Herero, Nama, Damara and San peoples in its former colony ‘German South West Africa’, now the Republic of Namibia. According to the criteria of the UN genocide convention of 1948, the atrocities and massacres committed by German troops must be qualified as genocide.

Only with Namibia’s independence in 1990 did it become possible for the descendants of the genocide victims and a free Namibian government to articulate with openness and self-determination their view on this history and to begin a process of dealing with this past. This includes the demand for ‘restorative justice’, which is fundamental for the further development of Namibia. It is morally important for the national process of reconciliation between the different peoples within Namibia and the descendants of German and other white settlers. On a more material side, this subject is closely linked with the still unresolved question of land reform in Namibia and a situation that condemns the descendants of the victims of the German genocide to a life in bitter poverty. This is largely due to the fact that their land and cattle were stolen and given to white settlers mainly during the German colonial era. Apart from these economic disadvantages the uprooted people have to deal with a colonial mindset that is still preventing many from taking matters into their own hands in order to invent their future and that of their country.

Until today, the German Federal Government – which is the legal successor of imperial Germany – refuses to recognise and apologise for this genocide. There is some confusion on whether or not the words of apology expressed in 2004 by former Federal Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul in Okakarara can be regarded as an official apology. At the centennial commemoration of the beginning of the 1904 genocide she stated: ‘The atrocities committed at that time would today be termed genocide – and nowadays a General von Trotha would be prosecuted and convicted. We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time. And so, in the words of the Lord's Prayer that we share, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses. Without a conscious process of remembering, without sorrow, there can be no reconciliation – remembrance is the key to reconciliation.’ Today it is more than clear and confirmed: the German Federal Government regards these words as a personal statement by the minister and does not adhere to them. An official apology is still lacking.

During 2011, it became known that the Berlin Charité Hospital was willing to restitute to the Republic of Namibia and its people 20 of the many thousands of mortal remains of victims of this genocide that are still locked in German archives and collections. For more than 100 years now, these human remains have been silently stored in the collections and archives of pathological institutes, universities and other German institutions, hidden like unwelcome witnesses of a denied past.

The great majority of these remains were looted and smuggled from the many German concentration camps in ‘German South West Africa’ for use in ‘scientific’ experiments aiming to ‘prove’ the racial inferiority of black people. ‘By using shards of glass,’ says the original subtitle of a contemporary photograph and prominent postcard motif, the skulls had to be ‘freed of flesh and made ready’ by the wives of those murdered before being sent off. 

Being the first remains to be repatriated after more than 100 years, the delegation that came from Namibia to receive them was high-ranking. It included important representatives of the committees of the descendants of the victims, the Nama Technical Committee (NTC), the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu Council for the Dialogue on 1904 Genocide OCD-1904 and Ovaherero Genocide Committee (OGC), and it was headed by the Namibian Minister of Youth, National Services, Sports and Culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo. 

Against all diplomatic rules and completely insensitive to the historic and emotional momentum of the event, the German government not only omitted to officially welcome the delegation, but also rejected participation in a podium discussion on 28 September 2011 and caused a scandal when Minister of State Cornelia Pieper – refusing like her predecessors to acknowledge the genocide and apologise for it in the name of the German nation and state – left the venue without even the decency to listen to the speeches of the Namibian delegation. 

The months that followed this event were characterised by a steady decline in Namibian-German relations. The German ambassador to Namibia began to pour oil on the fire by making several derogatory public comments on the delegation’s supposedly ‘hidden agenda’ in Berlin. Two of the victims’ committees reacted sharply to this allegation and the issue was brought to |+| discussion in the German parliament (Bundestag). Shortly after this a tête-à-tête between the German ambassador and the President of the Republic of Namibia, Hifikepunye Pohamba, ended on a ‘sour note’, the ambassador being shown the door for his insensitive and arrogant behaviour. Relations between the two countries had reached a temporary low point.

In the meantime Namibia went through some months of vivid public debate on how to deal with all the questions raised by the return of the skulls: the history, the reparation claims, the genocide, the need for unity among the Herero and Nama committees, the question of land distribution and land reform, and recently a debate on ‘tribal’ vs. national identity. This included reactionary comments in readers’ letters and articles published in the German-language Namibian newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung. The ‘culture of denial’ deliberately nurtured in these forums is discussed in an article by Melber and Kössler in this special issue.

Recently a |+| motion was introduced in the German Bundestag, entitled: ‘Acknowledging the German colonial crimes in former German South West Africa as genocide and working towards restorative justice’. It comprises core issues and would mark a major step forward, if adopted. But the power relations in German politics will most probably prevent it from getting a majority when discussed and voted on 22 March 2012 – one day after Namibian Independence Day. Nonetheless, it has now become an important part of the debate and it would already be a strong symbolic move forward if all three current opposition parties – the Social Democrats, the Green and the Left Parties – would decide to vote in favour of it.

The aim of this special issue is to make a contribution to this debate by asking some renowned experts, activists, intellectuals, historians and journalists from both Africa and Europe to comment on the recent Berlin happenings as well as to share with a wider audience some important historical and political background information on the subject. Not all those we asked have had the time to contribute an article at this stage and we would also like to open this debate to an international audience especially on the African continent and in the African diaspora. Hence, we see this special issue as the start of a debate, not only about what happened in Namibia, but about German and European colonialism in general. Further articles and contributions on the mentioned topics are welcome.

Eric Van Grasdorff, Nicolai Röschert, Firoze Manji

Picture: Hanging of "War Prisoners".

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