“Vergangenheitsbewältigung” is the term German government officials use to describe Polenz’s mission. It means “to overcome the past,” and it’s a task embedded in the country’s DNA since World War II.
But even as Germany is regularly commended as a nation that has faced and taken responsibility for dark periods of its history, it is still struggling to reckon with its colonial role. And, in some ways, the precedent of how it has atoned for the Holocaust makes colonial reconciliation more difficult — raising expectations and setting up uncomfortable comparisons.
To activists from the Nama and Herero ethnic groups in Namibia, the lagging negotiations — taking place more than a century after the genocide, and going on for more than four years — stand in glaring contrast to the attention and money Germany has dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust.
Activists point to German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees in dramatic apology at the Warsaw ghetto, to the more than $80 billion in reparations Germany has paid to Holocaust survivors and to Israel, to the more than 36 memorials and museums in Berlin alone dedicated to remembering World War II atrocities, and to the central place that period has in German history books and schools.
Descendants of Nama and Herero victims say they need their own official apology, their own reparations, their own recognition in German history.
Although the terms of a formal apology remain under negotiation, German government officials have been offering symbolic acknowledgment of responsibility since 2004.
“We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility for the guilt incurred by Germans at that time,” then-Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said at a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Herero revolt. “In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses.”
The current development minister, Gerd Müller, echoed the point during a trip to Namibia in September. “In 1904 and 1908, Germany committed terrible crimes, especially against the Herero and Nama, and we naturally bear the responsibility for this — even today,” he said.
But while Germany has been willing to offer development aid — and has been among Namibia’s largest bilateral donors — it has rejected the notion of “reparations.”
And while it has acknowledged the killings in Namibia as “genocide,” it has argued that the legal implications established under the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide do not apply to earlier mass killings.
“We speak about the brutality, and we name it as it should be named, as genocide,” Polenz said. But that’s a strictly “political and moral” use of the word, rather than legal, he said.
A 2016 meeting between Polenz and Namibian representatives in the capital, Windhoek, broke down over the question of whether Holocaust comparisons were appropriate.
“I tried to explain to them that, for Germans, it is part of our identity to say it was a unique crime against humanity,” Polenz recalled in an interview with The Washington Post. “We don’t want to relativize it. It stands on its own.”
Nama activist Paul Thomas took away a different message: “For him, it’s about black people’s lives are less important.”
That’s the impression some others get, too, from how Germany’s colonial period is treated in schools.
At the height of its empire in Africa, Germany was the third-largest colonial power on the continent, behind Britain and France. Yet school curriculums only briefly touch on Germany’s colonial history, according to Maureen-Maisha Auma, a diversity studies professor at the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences in Germany. School textbooks barely mention the Nama and Herero genocide, if at all.
One common explanation for the brevity is that Germany’s rule over its African territories was relatively short. In 1884, Europe’s major colonial powers met in Berlin to carve up the African continent. By 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles and the end of World War I, Germany had to give up its colonies to the Allies.
But the short time period doesn’t exonerate Germany, said historian Paulette Reed-Anderson. “ ‘Didn’t last long’ is not a criteria for what went on,” she said.
After indigenous people revolted against the seizure of their land and livestock by colonists, a German military official in southwest Africa issued an extermination order. German troops shot, raped and tortured Herero and Nama tribespeople. Some of those who escaped execution were driven into the desert, where they died of starvation and dehydration. Others were rounded up into concentration camps and worked to death.
“It marks in many ways the beginning of a very violent 20th century,” said Andreas Eckert, a historian at Humboldt University in Berlin. “It made it look possible, for the first time, that you could annihilate a whole population.”
Historians estimate that as many as 80 percent of the Herero and half of the Nama people died. Hundreds of thousands more died in the Maji Maji revolt in German East Africa, in what is now Tanzania.
Some of the victims’ skulls were shipped back to Germany, to researchers studying “racial purity” and attempting to prove racial hierarchies — the same pseudoscience the Third Reich would use to justify mass murder during World War II.
As part of Germany’s effort to make amends, 71 skulls have been returned to Namibia in the past decade. Still, hundreds more from southwestern and eastern Africa remain in storage at Berlin museums and hospitals.
Critics say other German gestures have similarly fallen short.
Various cultural projects in Germany have sought to draw attention to the country’s colonial brutality. The national German Historical Museum mounted a 2016 exhibition that was praised for its frankness. And colonial artifacts will have a central place in the Humboldt Forum, a new museum scheduled to open in Berlin in the fall. But the question of how the museum will address the context in which those artifacts were obtained — and whether the objects belong in Europe at all — has generated apprehension and controversy.
By far the most contentious issue, though, is monetary compensation.
Descendants of Herero and Nama victims have sued the German government over the matter — and have hoped U.S. courts might help resolve it.
In 2017, they filed a complaint under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-U.S. citizens to make claims pertaining to international law violations.
In March 2019, a New York judge ruled that the principle of sovereign immunity made the case inadmissible. The tribal plaintiffs are appealing.
The German government rejects the word “reparations” in negotiations because it doesn’t want to create a legal precedent, said Reinhart Kössler, a political scientist at the University of Freiburg.
Greece and Poland have both sought reparations from Germany for damage incurred during World War II. But beyond the case of Israel, the German government has repeatedly rejected such demands by those who were not themselves victims.
“You cannot rewind history,” Polenz said about attempts to seek historical justice in Africa.
“You are now dealing with issues where all people who were present at these times are dead,” he said. “But you can draw the conclusion that the dark spots should not happen again.”
For many Herero and Nama, the effects of colonialism persist.
After Germany lost World War I, South Africa’s white-minority government inherited the colonial territories — and left intact policies that privileged white settlers, giving them land expropriated from black Africans, including the Nama and Herero.
Since Namibia became independent in 1990, critics say the government has done little to address social and economic disparities. The country exhibits some of the highest income inequality in the world, according to the World Bank. And while descendants of German settlers still own property seized in the colonial period, the groups forced off their land have yet to recover their wealth.
“We cannot have a reconciliation when we are still landless in our own country,” said the Nama activist Thomas. “Justice first, and then reconciliation.”