Human skulls from the Herero and Nama people are displayed during a ceremony in Berlin, Germany in 2018, to hand back human remains from Germany to Namibia following the 1904-1908 genocide against the Herero and Nama. File picture: Christian Mang/Reuters
Human skulls from the Herero and Nama people are displayed during a ceremony in Berlin, Germany in 2018, to hand back human remains from Germany to Namibia following the 1904-1908 genocide against the Herero and Nama. File picture: Christian Mang/Reuters

Why Germany’s genocide deal irks the Herero and Nama people of Namibia

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 6, 2021

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I have walked the halls of the museum at Auschwitz where mountains of human hair and tiny children’s clothes and shoes reduce grown men to tears. Nothing compares to that horror of the Holocaust of the European Jewry. I have visited the genocide memorials in Rwanda, where hundreds of human skulls line the church pews in parishes where the bloodied clothes of children still litter the floor from that genocide in 1994. My own great-grandfather was a prisoner of war in a concentration camp at Cape Point in 1900, and his letters passed down to me from that desperate time still haunt me today.

But I have never seen anything that recognises or memorialises the genocide of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia who were subjected to the first genocide of the 20th century by German officials between 1904 and 1908.

I visited Namibia and tried to find out more about 18 years ago, but it was a subject few really wanted to get into, except of course for the descendants of the victims themselves. I left the country with a wind-up Herero doll clad in a beautiful red dress and regal head scarf, determined that I would one day tell my children about this forgotten genocide.

Germans still own huge swathes of farmland in Namibia and have a major influence on the economy of the country, but their dark colonial legacy has never been fully reckoned with. But perhaps last week was a start, when on May 28 Germany formally acknowledged that the killings of the Herero and the Nama was a genocide, and agreed to issue an apology as well as committed to providing US$1.35 billion toward reconstruction and development projects.

The German foreign minister plans to travel to Namibia in the coming weeks to sign an agreement between the two governments, hoping to establish the language for a common narrative of what happened. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier intends to travel to Namibia later this year to issue a formal apology before the country’s Parliament.

The Namibian government hailed the agreement, and some Namibians welcomed it. But the Herero and Nama leaders dismissed the deal as a “public relations coup” because it did not include funds deemed “reparations”. It has also been hugely disappointing to the Herero and Nama that the funds will be distributed over the course of three decades.

Namibia had pressed for describing the money as “reparations”, but Germany rejected the term as they said it would have amounted to acknowledging guilt under the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. The Germans argued that the convention cannot be applied retroactively to past genocides. Perhaps what irks former colonials is that the term “reparations” could make Germany and other former European colonial powers liable to claims from other former colonies.

For those who may not know exactly what happened in the early years of the 20th century, it was the time when Germany was the colonial power in control of what is now called Namibia. There had been a rebellion by the Herero and Nama ethnic groups, who had bravely resisted the onslaught of thousands of German settlers who had grabbed their land and cattle. Germany met this resistance with ferocity, dispatching Lothar von Trotha, a German military commander who had earned a fierce reputation in Asia and East Africa, and led a protection force known as the “Schutztruppe”.

Trotha wasted no time in 1904 warning the Herero that everyone of them would be shot, including women and children. In 1905 he issued a similar warning to the Nama, who was also targeted for extermination. What transpired was something Germans have been eager to keep out of the history books, as they shot, hung or starved to death in concentration camps tens of thousands of people – in total 80% of the Herero ethnic group. Half of the Nama ethnic group were also killed in the most barbaric manner. German colonials carried on as if nothing of significance had happened, and they proceeded to name the streets of Swakopmund after German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the German empire.

The intent to commit genocide was clear as German colonial officers serving in South West Africa had studied eugenics and propagated ideas about racial purity and the mixing of races. Hundreds of skulls of victims were sent to Germany to be studied, and there is no question that the genocide of the Herero and Nama foreshadowed Nazi ideology and the Holocaust.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I it lost its colony in South West Africa, as well as its other colonies, and the area became a colony of white-ruled South Africa, which buried any reference to the German genocide in the early part of the century. But even after Namibian independence the genocide of the Nama and Herero was not adequately addressed, and both ethnic groups have suffered economic marginalisation. It is a travesty of history that monuments still remain in Namibia of German soldiers and génocidaires with inadequate recognition of the victims of the genocide. It is now time to turn the tide on this matter once and for all.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.

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