More than a century since the German Empire carried out racial extermination in Namibia and in the wake of its recognition of the Armenian genocide, Germany is being urged to do the same for Namibia. But Berlin’s unwillingness to grant reparations has been criticized.
More than a month ago, the German government voted by a large majority to acknowledge that the massacre of Armenians by Turks during the First World War was genocide. It was a move widely praised by the international community, but did draw the ire of the Turkish government, who branded it as “hypocrisy”.
Two weeks later, the Bundestag’s President, Norbert Lammert (CDU), shone the spotlight on Germany’s colonial past and called for a “similarly unequivocal statement” to be made about the massacre carried out by German soldiers against the Herero and Nama peoples, in what is now Namibia.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “We seek a common policy statement on the following elements: a common language on the historical events and a German apology and its acceptance by Namibia.”
The call comes more than 100 years after the atrocities were carried out in German South-West Africa by colonial forces, who ruled the area between 1884 and 1919. In 1904, the Herero people rebelled against their colonial masters, which prompted a brutal retaliation from the Germans under the leadership of General Lothar von Trotha (central figure of lead photo), who later wrote that “the nation as such should be annihilated”.
By 1908, even though the uprising was put down almost immediately, 80% of the Herero people had been killed; more than 100,000 individuals lost their lives in just four years.
The German government has avoided taking a clear position on the matter for a long time. Back in 2004, then Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul actually described the events as genocide during a trip to the country. But this was not adopted as official the government line.
The German Foreign Ministry started using “genocide” last year, but it was only confirmed by an answer to a parliamentary question that this is now Berlin’s official stance.
The German government’s special representative, Ruprecht Polenz (CDU), went to Namibia where, together with the German ambassador, Christian Schlaga, he made a statement that precluded any notion of providing compensation or reparations to Namibia. Instead, Germany intends to provide the African country with more development aid.
Niema Movassat (Die Linke) told EurActiv.de that it was wrong that Berlin “rules out reparations in the negotiations in favour of development aid”. He also added that representatives of the Herero and Nama peoples should be present during the ongoing discussions.
Cem Özdemir (Greens), who was instrumental in bringing the Armenian issue to a vote, said that he would now try to do the same with the Herero case.
- 1904 – 1908: Herero and Nama people in the former German Southwest Africa colony (identifiable with the modern Namibia) were mercilessly “killed during their uprising against German colonial rule”. The German repression, orchestrated by General Lothar von Trotha, lead to the killing of 80% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama people. Their remains were brought to Germany for research purposes and stored in different scientific institutions in Berlin.
- Until the 1990s: Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin (hereafter “Charité”), a public university hospital, obtained several skulls including those at issue in the present case: eleven skulls from members of the Nama tribe and nine skulls from the Herero people. Extensive research funded by the German Research Foundation was conducted on the human remains to identify their origins.
- 1990: Namibia achieved independence.
- 14 August 2004: At the commemoration ceremony for the genocide’s 100th anniversary, the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, presented her apologies on behalf of all Germans to the Herero and Nama people, acknowledged Germany’s guilt, as well as moral, political, and historical responsibility. However, the Minister did not mention legal responsibility, despite expressly stating that General von Trotha would have been accountable for crimes against humanity pursuant to current international criminal law.
- October 2006: The governing party in Namibia, “South West Africa People’s Organization” (SWAPO), invited Germany to enter into negotiations regarding reconciliation and compensation for the genocide.
- 2008: The matter became a political issue in Namibia following the broadcast of a documentary in Germany on the existence of Namibian skulls in the collections of German scientific institutions. In October, representatives of the Nama and Herero tribes approached the Namibian government, petitioning the Government to reclaim the remains from Germany. As a result, Namibia and Germany commenced discussions regarding the restitution of the remains. To aid its effort, Namibia formed a delegation comprised of Government representatives from the National Heritage Council of Namibia and Herero and Nama community members.
- Since 2010: A research team of anthropologists at the Charité has been engaged in the study of the about 7,000 skulls the hospital possessed, including the remains of the Herero and Nama tribes.
- 30 September 2011: The 20 skulls were officially returned by the Charité to the Namibian delegation. An official ceremony was held in Namibia on 5 October 2011 to mark the repatriation of the skulls.