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Reinhart Kössler/Henning Melber: German–Namibian denialism: How (not) to come to terms with the past

Largely unnoticed by most Namibians, the local German-language daily Allgemeine Zeitung provides a forum for colonial apologetics. Reinhart Kössler and Henning Melber examine recent comments and readers’ letters in this newspaper, exposing the reactionary attitudes and privileging strategies that maintain the minority language as a barrier to national reconciliation.

The last few months have once again highlighted the fact that, in Namibia at least, the crimes and sufferings sustained under colonialism are by no means a thing of the past, even though the genocide by the Schutztruppe was perpetrated more than a century ago. This genocide and an appropriate apology and restitution are high on the public agenda, though controversial and reflecting many complexities. 

However, one strand of such controversies goes largely unnoticed by probably the overwhelming majority of Namibians. This concerns the opinions expressed on the pages of the local daily Allgemeine Zeitung (AZ), and in particular, in the copious Letters to the Editor. Each event that excites public interest and awareness about the German colonial past triggers of a virtual avalanche of contributions. At times bordering on hate speech, these are apparently printed indiscriminately, apart from occasional editorial cuts. Only after the AZ documented the intervention by Bishop Kameeta early in March, did they act in a slightly more restrictive way. 

These letters are complemented by op-eds, and the combination is evidence of a clear tendency to deny the genocide. What happened during the German colonial period is downplayed as just a ‘normal’ colonial war. The infamous extermination order by General von Trotha is declared a kind of ‘tokenism’ with no relevant impact. The Herero are often accused of being the culprits, for attacking German settlers and committing atrocities, thereby triggering retaliation, which in turn led to the German ‘defence’ of its ‘civilising mission’. Sometimes this is even styled as a genocide by retaliation, as it were. Neither German colonialism as conquest of another country and its peoples nor the practices applied are fundamentally questioned. Rather, in this view, the German settlers and the colonial administration brought progress and development to the country. 

Based on this dominant understanding, every dissenting voice is ridiculed and leads to another avalanche of self-righteous letters. Many don’t shy away from insult and discriminating language. They declare everyone who dares a different opinion as ignorant and ideologically manipulated. In this perspective, any hint that the German government might change its attitude and offer a genuine apology – don’t dare mention reparations or other forms of compensation! – is considered as bordering on blasphemy and a sign of weakness in those brainwashed or opportunists, who capitulate under pressure from the ‘Zeitgeist’ or from the long-defunct East German propaganda.

All this happens in a local Namibian space that is screened off from public awareness by a language barrier as well as by social distance. In this, the sedimented experience of more than a century of colonial rule coalesces with the present-day social structure in post-colonial Namibia. In one of the most unequal societies of the world, the tiny German-speaking section remains on average and proportionally by far the wealthiest Namibian population group, as the figures in the official Household Income and Expenditure Reviews undertaken since independence document. From this derive both privilege and considerable power as well as voice; it takes something for such a minority to maintain its own daily newspaper, many informal as well as institutionalised clubs and associations cultivating the German language and the ‘South Wester’German cultural identity, to run the oldest (now private) school in the country, to maintain a variety of exchanges with German counterparts in sports and culture, to regularly hold German Karneval in several towns and to contribute through donations by a support group to the continued running of a German-language radio service at the NBC, as well as to keep alive a Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft both in Windhoek and in Swakopmund, including publishing activities of a largely colonial-apologetic nature. Given the language barrier, these activities and media serve mainly internal communication and self-assurance as a group with its own firm identity. 

To judge from the letters to the editor in the AZ and other evidence, however, this includes a worldwide network of German-speaking people, often with connections through family ties or regular tourist visits to the country. These connections help to cultivate a re-assuring self-understanding as the last outpost of pioneering German pride in the historical achievements. Many of the letter writers are based in Germany and other parts of the world. More importantly, these debates resonate with right-wing blogs in Germany, even though they go unnoticed by large parts of the general public in both countries. Still, this forms part of the interchange that goes on between those countries and includes the presence of German nationalist outfits such as the association of former Schutztruppe in Namibia on occasions such as the rededication of the Rider Statue in 2011 and its recent centennial. 

The focus of the self-centered denialism resulting from such a perspective – abstracting from the historical processes and their effects leading to the settler-dominated society of which segments remain alive even 22 years into independence – becomes particularly clear when we look at some of the contents that were debated in the AZ during the last few months. They were sparked off by the restitution of human skulls by Germany to Namibia in late September 2011, and on the centenary of the Rider Memorial in Windhoek in January 2012, as well as by the criticism raised during the visit of Präses Schneider, chairman of the Protestant church in Germany and finally, by an intervention by Bishop Kameeta of the ELCRN who in a letter to the AZ expressed his concerns about the strict denial of any historical injustice and the dismissive language used.

Space does not permit more than a cursory impressionistic picture. However, there are recurrent tropes that are familiar from German right-wing efforts to stave off any serious dealing with the Holocaust in post-war West Germany. Thus, those who address the genocide are named ‘soilers of our own nest’ (Nestbeschmutzer), as if the problem does not consist in the ‘nest’ being ‘soiled’ in the first place.[1] Präses Schneider was taken to task for his sermon where he appealed to German speakers to face up to historical reality and take a truly reconciliatory stance. To cope with the provocation, letter writers claimed he was ill prepared and therefore could not see their plight. Bishop Kameeta’s appeal provoked similar dismissive and patronising responses, accusing him of blindness towards the true facts and of being the real obstacle to reconciliation.

Even though they verbally keep a distance from the right wingers, the AZ journalists actively participating in this discourse use much the same language to be found in the letters. A casual and top-down way of talking suggests a kind of inappropriate arrogance corresponding with the overall tenor of the letters. Thus, editor Stefan Fischer bemoans the ‘downfall on his knees’ by German envoy Lindner (who visited Namibia early this year to ease the diplomatic tensions emerging after the first repatriation of skulls) as ‘superfluous’, and demands ‘clear words to the Herero’, in a tone not so different from colonial times, but of course, now in the interests of living ‘together’ in independent Namibia! Deputy editor Eberhard Hofmann bemoans ‘clichés’ in Präses Schneider’s sermon and lectures him that in 1904 the rising had come before the genocide. The reasons for the rising are studiously left out, and the whole is presented as an adequate explanation about cause and effect – as if the Herero were only bearing the final consequences of their misbehaviour.

It is remarkable that at least some letter writers take on the mantle both of experts on Namibia who have to teach ignorant outsiders and, at the same time, of champions of the German national interest as they see it. Claims such as ‘right or wrong, my country’ – as voiced in one letter – are a far cry from a German political reality that has long made remembrance of Auschwitz a matter of core national concern (which is dismissed as a misplaced culture of guilt by several letter writers). Such views resonate well with a German right that has shown its murderous potential only recently in particularly gruesome fashion with serial murders of ‘Turkish’ shopowners. Interestingly enough, Claus Nordbruch, the author of a book refuting the genocide as an anti-German ideological construct, and in several of these letters quoted as the ultimate and authoritative scholarly source, has been linked to the neo-Nazi scene in which the murder plots against immigrants were born. Significantly, the AZ verbally distances itself from Nordbruch, but apparently Hofmann didn’t see a problem when he praised the same Nordbruch for his jokes in a carnival session. This marks the decisive difference: they still feel ‘Germans’ belong to one fold, regardless of their adherence to Nazism. However, Nazism is not an opinion. It is a crime, and those who condone it make themselves accomplices.

If we see a necessity to take a serious stand against this penchant to mingle with even the far German right that is apparent in at least some contributions in AZ, we also see a need not to be distracted from solidarity with those who up to this day find themselves in a grossly underprivileged position and struggling with trauma as a result of genocide and colonialism. We are aware that not all German speakers in Namibia identify with this denialist discourse. It is high time for them to raise their voices.

Reinhart Kössler is a social scientist, working at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg and teaching political science at the University of Freiburg. Besides his academic pursuits, he is involved in a wide range of civil society initiatives in Germany, mainly centering on Third World issues and with a long-standing focus on southern Africa.

Henning Melber came to Namibia in 1967 and joined Swapo in 1974. He was director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) in Windhoek (1992–2000), and research director at the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden (2000–06) where he is the executive director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation since 2006. He is a Research Associate with the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.

Picture Credit: Henning Melber
Board in a German-speaking shop in Swakopmund featuring a spectrum of stickers including "nostalgic" references to the German colonialist period.

A slightly shorter version of this text is published by the Namibian journal Insight Namibia.

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