When the German Parliament officially recognized the Armenian "genocide" last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with fury. But although leading politicians in Berlin were quick to dismiss his criticism, historians said that at least one of his arguments seemed surprisingly convincing.

Erdogan urged Germany to first deal with its own history before condemning other countries — and he hit a nerve when he specifically referred to a massacre that German forces committed between 1903 and 1908 against the African Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia.

Although the German Foreign Ministry has classified the cruelties in the former German colony as genocide and war crimes, the German Parliament has not recognized it as such — despite appeals by human rights groups.

Some high-ranking German politicians, such as parliamentary president Norbert Lammert, have publicly voiced agreement with the human rights groups. "Measured by today's standards of international law, the quashing of the Herero revolt was genocide," Lammert argued last year, deeming the German use of force at the time a "racial war."

At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany considered the Herero and Nama tribes dangerous opponents and "terrorists." Driven by hunger and poverty, the two tribes had rebelled against the German colonialists, who used brutal force to suppress the revolt.

Documents prove that German soldiers had orders to kill all members of the two groups, no matter whether they were involved in any fighting. Out of the 100,000 members of the two tribes, only about 20,000 survived the violence. Children, women and men were either killed in battles or sent to concentration camps.

Leading historians argue that the massacre in Namibia was the first genocide of the 20th century, preceding the Armenian massacres and the Holocaust. Speaking to Germany's Der Spiegel news magazine, historian Juergen Zimmerer said it was "unusual that the German Parliament had not had the bravery to clearly recognize the German guilt."

Other experts agree that the matter is less controversial than Parliament's unwillingness to pass a resolution suggests. Speaking to the German news site T-online, historian Ulrich Delius offered some reasons that might explain the lack of such a resolution: "The genocide happened far away and it occurred more than 100 years ago," Delius said. He also argued that Parliament might hesitate to officially recognize the genocide because of fears of compensation payments. "If we recognize the genocide, we have to pay," he said.

The lack of political consensus is unusual for a country like Germany, which has rigorously dealt with other aspects of some of the darkest hours of its history, including Nazi crimes.

Members of Parliament opposed to recognizing the massacre in Namibia as genocide argue that the term became international law only after the end of World War II — long after the crimes occurred.

This argument has also been forwarded elsewhere as a rationale against the recognition of particular "genocides": The most famous case is that of Turkey and the massacres and deportations of 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

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