In late May, more than 100 years after German colonial forces killed tens of thousands of the Herero and Nama peoples in what is today Namibia, the German government formally acknowledged the atrocities as genocide.
Why the major step toward reconciliation? My research details the decades-long silence in Germany about the atrocities and the slow and incomplete process of reconciliation since the early 2000s. But the recent news reports miss some important points: The German gesture makes existing government practice official — yet falls short of demands by descendants of the Herero and Nama.
How did Germany colonize Namibia?
Namibia was a colony known as “German South West Africa” from 1884 to 1915. Between 1904 and 1908, German colonial forces brutally suppressed anti-colonial uprisings by the Herero and Nama people, leaving thousands to starve in the desert. German colonial officers issued extermination orders targeting the Herero and Nama, who had rebelled against the colonizers. German colonizers also set up concentration camps, expropriated land and exported human remains for “medical experiments” in Germany.
In 1915, South African forces defeated the Germans. The German Reich, as Germany was known then, had to cede its colonies after its defeat in World War I. In 1919, Namibia became a mandate territory under the League of Nations, administered and later effectively occupied by South Africa.
The genocide in Namibia garnered attention in the United States after Herero and Nama representatives in 2017 sued the German government for the genocide and theft perpetrated during the colonial era, in a class-action lawsuit in a U.S. district court. In 2020, an appeals court dismissed the lawsuit because the judges could find no reasonable commercial link to German property in the United States.
Germany’s ‘apology’ has been slow, and incomplete
Research has documented the long silences that often follow atrocities like the genocide of the Nama and Herero in Namibia — and the silence of former colonizers. Still, the century-long saga illuminates a slow and incomplete response by Germany.
Several decades passed without any formal acknowledgment of the violence. Rather, German officials referred to the genocide as the “bloody suppression of uprisings.” Subsequent resolutions in 1989 and 2004 in the German parliament merely expressed Germany’s “special responsibility” for Namibia but failed to openly address the genocide.
Remembrance has also been incomplete in that Germany acknowledged the violence but refused to pay reparations and issue a formal apology from the highest governmental office. In contrast, following the Holocaust during World War II, Germany created an extensive reparations program with Israel and the Claims Conference, providing regular individual payments to Holocaust survivors. Germany has refused reparations to Namibia, preferring instead to pay official development aid to the Namibian government.
And Germany’s response wasn’t a proactive move, but was a reaction to the U.S. court cases launched by Namibian activists and descendants of the Herero and Nama. When the German development minister delivered a speech in Namibia in 2004 issuing an apology and using the word “genocide,” the German government backtracked and deemed it her opinion.
Not much is new (so far)
Given this history of lackluster engagement from Germany, the recent news hasn’t revealed much new information.
For one, the Foreign Ministry has been using the word genocide since 2015, in reference to German atrocities in colonial German South West Africa. This makes the May announcement more of an official restating of what was already emerging practice.
Some activists had hoped for much more, including an official apology from either the German chancellor or president. Germany also has avoided demands for reparations to Nama and Herero descendants.
Maas clarified that “[l]egal claims for compensation cannot be derived from” the newly announced financial package. Since the U.N. Genocide Convention from 1948 does not apply retroactively, the German side has been steadfast in its refusal to pay “reparations,” instead opting to contribute development aid to the Namibian government.
Thus far, Germany has paid its highest per capita development aid in the region to Namibia. This means that the new sum Maas announced, amounting to roughly 44.5 million euros annually, isn’t a dramatic new change. In contrast, Germany’s 2019-2020 budget earmarked $187 million for development assistance in Namibia.
Namibians may see this as a partial effort
Namibia’s president called the agreement a first step — but expressed hope that further steps would include “an apology, to be followed by reparations.” In a joint statement, the Ovaherero Traditional Authorities and Nama Traditional Leaders Association — two victim organizations excluded from the government-level talks between the two countries on this issue — lambasted the agreement as a “public relations coup by Germany and an act of betrayal by the Namibian government.”
Why the rift? Many Herero and Nama descendants do not trust the Namibian government to handle the money, as the government is dominated by representatives from the Ovambo majority ethnic group. And they criticize the fact that the agreement, based on what we know so far, does not specify what will happen to the estimated hundreds of human skulls that remain in Germany.
Germany seems unlikely to offer direct reparations to descendants, though a presidential apology may be around the corner as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier may travel to Namibia, at which point an official apology might actually happen.
For Namibians, a formal apology could advance reconciliation even if other concerns of descendants, including the return of human remains, remain unaddressed. For Germany, this would conclude a long process of coming to terms with the country’s genocidal past in Namibia — and start a new discussion in Germany about teaching and educating the public about this almost forgotten history.