Windhoek, Namibia – Colonialist and Genocidal Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said, which ignored Greece’s scandalous moves in Aegean and Mediterranean, the EU would wait a week before making a decision on its stance towards Turkey. Turkey warns Greece against ‘provocation’ in Eastern Mediterranean.
Germany slowly faces up to its colonial past. A century after losing its empire, Germany is preparing to formally apologize for the massacre of the Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia. The crime is considered by historians to be the first genocide of the 20th century. In the past few years, a handful of activists and museum directors have helped bring this dark chapter of history to the German public’s attention.
Germany returns human remains from colonial-era Namibian genocide
Germany will return human remains on Wednesday seized from Namibia a century ago following the slaughter of indigenous peoples under German colonial rule. But descendants are still waiting for an apology.
A Namibian government delegation will receive the remains, including 19 skulls, a scalp and bones, during a solemn church service in Berlin.
“We want to help heal the wounds from the atrocities committed by Germans at the time,” said Michelle Muentefering, a minister of state for international cultural policies at the German foreign ministry.
But representatives for descendants of the tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people – massacred between 1904 and 1908 after rebelling against their colonial overlords – have criticised the ceremony as insufficient.
Germany ruled what was then called South West Africa as a colony from 1884 to 1915.
Esther Utjiua Muinjangue, chairwoman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, said the handover of remains would have been “the perfect opportunity” for Germany to officially apologise for what is often called the first genocide of the 20th century.
“Is that asking too much? I don’t think so,” she told a Berlin press conference this week, describing the attitude of the German government as “shocking”.
Muentefering told reporters on Monday that Germany still has “a lot of catching up to do in coming to terms with our colonial heritage”.
As part of ongoing talks with the Namibian government on addressing its brutal legacy in the country, the German government said in 2016 that it planned to issue a formal apology.
But negotiations aimed at coming up with a joint declaration on the massacres are ongoing.
Although Berlin has acknowledged the horrors that occurred at the hands of German imperial troops, it has refused to pay direct reparations.
It has argued instead that German development aid worth hundreds of millions of euros since Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990 was “for the benefit of all Namibians”.
Angered by Berlin’s stance, representatives of the Herero and Nama people have filed a class-action lawsuit in a US court demanding reparations.
They also want to be included in the discussions between Germany and Namibia.
Germany wants the lawsuit thrown out on the grounds of state immunity from prosecution.
The New York judge in the case has yet to rule on whether to hear the lawsuit.
Namibian Culture Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, speaking alongside Muentefering in Berlin, said the two countries “still have many problems to solve”.
“We must ensure that, after we’ve reached agreements on damages, recognition and an apology, there’s a future in which the German and Namibian nations join hands and move forward.”
Incensed by German settlers stealing their land, women and cattle, the Hereros revolted in 1904 and killed more than 100 German civilians over several days. The Nama people joined the uprising in 1905.
Determined to crush the rebellion, General Lothar von Trotha, under the direct command of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, signed a notorious “extermination order” against the Herero.
“Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without livestock, will be shot dead,” he said.
Survivors were sent to concentration camps, decades before those in which millions of Jews and others were exterminated during World War II.
An estimated 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people were killed from 1904 to 1908.
Dozens were beheaded after their deaths, their skulls sent to researchers in Germany for discredited “scientific” experiments that purported to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans.
In some instances, captured Herero women were made to boil the decapitated heads and scrape them clean with shards of glass.
Research carried out by German professor Eugen Fischer on the skulls and bones resulted in theories later used by the Nazis to justify the murder of Jews.
Wednesday’s handover proceedings mark the third time that Germany has repatriated human remains to Namibia; the previous occasions were in 2011 and 2014.
The remains, many of which were stored on dusty shelves in universities and clinics, were “often stolen … brought to Germany without respect for human dignity”, according to the German foreign ministry.
Herero activist Muinjangue said the homecoming of the bones was always “very emotional”.
“I’m looking at the skull of a Herero or Nama peasant. A peasant who could have been my great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother or -father.”
Germany’s colonial past catches up with it
The German colonial empire committed indescribable crimes in countries like Namibia, Tanzania and Burundi. A century on, former colonies are now demanding reparations, placing mounting pressure on the government.
Germany to apologize to Namibia for colonial genocide
Germany is expected to make a long-sought official apology to Namibia over a colonial-era genocide that left tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people dead. But many feel German society has yet to recognize what is a neglected part of its history.
Germany’s colonial past catches up with it
The German colonial empire committed indescribable crimes in countries like Namibia, Tanzania and Burundi. A century on, former colonies are now demanding reparations, placing mounting pressure on the government.
More than a century since Germany’s colonial empire committed numerous atrocities on the African continent, the government is being forced to contend with Germany’s past head on.
Beginning in 2015, negotiations have been ongoing between Namibia and Germany concerning reparations for the genocide of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups in the early 1900s. But although both sides have met on several occasions, very little has been achieved. Meanwhile, Tanzania has accused German troops of committing war crimes while suppressing the Maji Maji uprising between 1905 and 1907 and is also asking for reparations. Now Burundi is urging both Germany and Belgium to pay €36 billion ($42.6 billion) in reparations for “aggressions” committed during the time of colonial rule.
Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor of African history at the University of Hamburg, says the push for reparations was a long time coming. “Berlin was surprised by the demands, although it has been foreseeable for a long time that this important chapter cannot be swept under the carpet,” he said.
On the one hand, Germany has imposed high moral standards when it comes to coming to terms with its own past. On the other hand, it is reluctant to act when faced with its colonial-era crimes committed in Africa.
Genocide, war crimes, and raids
Between 1885 and 1919, Germany was the third-largest European colonial power in Africa after the United Kingdom and France. The German Empire stretched from South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) to German East Africa (which comprised the territory of today’s Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania, excluding the island of Zanzibar), as well as areas in modern-day Togo, Ghana and Cameroon. The empire only lasted a little more than three decades. After it lost World War I, the German Reich had to cede its colonies.
“Although it was a short period, the German colonial system was very radical,” says Zimmerer. “The colonies had to be conquered de facto everywhere, because there was resistance everywhere, which was brutally suppressed by the German side.”
The bloodiest clashes took place over the course of the 1905-1907 Maji Maji uprising in East Africa.Historians estimate up to 300,000 people were killed when it was suppressed. During the 1905-1908 uprising of the Herero and Nama in South West Africa, up to 80,000 people were killed. It was also the first genocide of the 20th century.
Namibia: Reparations or apology?
For the past five years, Germany has been negotiating with Namibian authorities over a formal apology for the crimes committed during the colonial era, alongside reparation payments.
Representatives of the Herero and Nama are clear that they want an official apology from Berlin, but there have been disagreements over which form — and which label — the reparations should take.
“Germany wants to face its political and moral responsibility for the crimes committed between 1904 and 1908,” Ruprecht Polenz, the government’s Special Commissioner for the Dialogue with Namibia, told DW. But from the government’s perspective, he says it is not a legal issue.
“This has also been stated several times by courts to which parts of the Herero and Nama have referred. It is a political-moral question and it follows from this that we choose terms in the text and declarations that express this and not terms that are legal in a narrower sense.” Polenz adds that Germany would prefer to apologize for the crimes sooner rather than later.
Burundi: Accusations of aggression and economic oppression
Following in Namibia’s footsteps, Burundi has also asked for €36 billion ($42.86 billion) as compensation for crimes committed during the colonial era. A group of experts appointed by the Burundian Senate is preparing a report.
Aloys Batungwanayo, a Burundian historian and a professor at the University of Lausanne, considers the compensations to be justified in light of “German aggression” in Burundi.
“We accuse Germany of brutal aggression against the Burundian population,” he told DW. During the colonial era, Germany subdued the Burundi militarily. Now, 100 years later, the main concern is “that Germany accepts that it is necessary to thoroughly research the consequences of its colonial policy and find a solution on how both sides should deal with it in the future.”
Tanzania: Memory of the victims of the Maji Maji uprising
Tanzania is also putting increasing pressure on the German government to take responsibility for war crimes during the colonial era in East Africa. In early 2020, the Tanzanian ambassador to Germany, Abdallah Possi, called on the federal government to “negotiate reparations” for crimes committed by Germany in East Africa — including massacres of a number of ethnic groups who were unable to overwhelm the German occupiers during the Maji Maji uprising.
Achilles Bufure, the director of the Tanzanian National Museum in Dar es Salaam, told DW that it was imperative to research the consequences of Germany’s colonial policy and war crimes. As museum director, however, he is also concerned with another important topic: The return of countless stolen art objects and cultural assets.
“It would be a very good first sign if, for example, the large dinosaur skeleton that is on display in the German Museum of Natural History in Berlin is returned to its original location in Tanzania,” he said.
The Tanzanian government plans to reclaim countless objects and human remains that are currently kept in German museums. Numerous skulls and bones were brought to Germany from the former colony. Many of the bones and cultural objects belonged to people who had rebelled against Germany in the Maji Maji War.
Germany’s Colonial Past and Genocide in Africa
‘Black Lives Matter’ is Also a German Concern
The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and around the globe, including in France, Germany, and the UK, have led people to confront the issue of racial discrimination in their own countries and elsewhere. Both in Germany and the US, there is now an increased awareness of the fact that the police, businesses, and society in general do not always treat people of color the same way they treat white people. In particular, the recent brutal death of George Floyd on video in Minneapolis, and other recent vivid death scenes of black people at the hands of the police have made many white people see the issue of race through a somewhat sharper lens – at least those paying attention have.
Namib Desert – Namibia
Sand dunes in the Namib Desert of Namibia, formerly German South West Africa, a Germany colony from 1884 to 1915. The colony was the location of a genocidal campaign led by Lothar von Trotha, a German general.
Germany and the world have long been aware of Germany’s dark Nazi past, the movement’s leader Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, but few people would recognize the names of the Germans associated with what has been called “the first genocide of the 20th century.” In many ways that genocide and its concentration camps seem to be a precursor of what happened under the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s. Although Germany has largely done an exemplary job of dealing with its fascist past, the same cannot be said about its colonial past.
Yes, Germany has a colonial past. In fact, the German Empire (led by Prussia) at one time was the third largest colonial power after Britain and France. When you consider what are usually regarded as the European “colonial powers,” the only major differences are how long each nation had colonies, and when they were lost. Germany lost all of its colonial empire, such as it was, during the First World War. Britain and France (and others) still had their colonies until after the Second World War. By the 1920s, Germany no longer had any colonies, while Britain, France, Belgium, and others remained colonial powers with outposts in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and elsewhere.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to counter Great Britain and its growing empire, but Prussia’s imperial efforts never came close to matching Britain’s far-flung colonial empire upon which “the sun never sets.” Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor until 1890, and Emperor Wilhelm II after that, never had much luck with their imperial ambitions. Though the Prussian empire was far-flung, it never amounted to much. It stretched from eastern Asia (Quingdao/Tsingtao on the Yellow Sea), to the Pacific Ocean (New Guinea), and down to Africa (Cameroon, German East Africa, and German South West Africa – today’s Namibia), yet Germany’s imperial push never provided the wealth, power, and influence its leaders desired.
Skulls and Skeletons
But Germany’s colonial adventure in Africa did write an ugly chapter in world history, a chapter that Germany has not yet truly come to terms with, over a century later. It is a chapter written in blood, with gruesome events that are even today reflected in human skulls and bones that have, over a century later, yet to find a peaceful rest.
Surviving Herero ca. 1907
Surviving Herero victims of the 1904-1908 genocide in German South West Africa were later held in concentration camps that foreshadowed those introduced by the Nazis in the 1930s.
Believe it or not, some of those human remains from German colonial Namibia can be found even today in New York City. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) recently refused access to the remains of victims of the 1904-1908 German genocide because of a pending lawsuit (as of January 2019) brought by Herero and Nama tribal descendants who feel the bones should be returned to Namibia for proper burial. In 1906, Austrian-born Felix von Luschan (1854-1924), then an anthropologist at the Royal Museum for Ethnology (Völkerkunde) in Berlin, and known for his VLS human skin color scale, wrote to colonial officers to gather and ship bones to him, for research. Luschan later sold his collection to AMNH, including the remains of thousands of other people from across the world. Luschan firmly rejected the term “Aryan” and its racial implications, and based on his experience in Africa, he condemned the way black Africans were treated by colonial Europeans. The Nazis later clearly misappropriated his studies for their own purposes, but Luschan does have a mixed legacy.
Streets, squares, statues, schools, and barracks named for colonial people
“Was tun mit der ‘Lüderitzstraße’?”
This question (What should be done with [Berlin’s] “Lüderitz Street”?) is being asked again as the debate over Germany’s brutal colonization of Namibia and proposed reparations has reclaimed the public spotlight. Just as the issue of Confederate statues and military bases named for Confederate soldiers has become a hot topic in the United States, a similar debate is going on in Germany. The names of Germans involved in subjugating and terrorizing the natives in what is now Namibia – Carl Peters, Adolf Lüderitz, Gustav Nachtigal, and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck among them – are still found in Berlin and many other cities all across Germany today. Some names, such as Lettow-Vorbeck, the commander of troops in German South West Africa, have already disappeared from schools and barracks in Germany. Other names, such as Lüderitz, are still seen on street signs in Bremen, Cologne, Munich, and other German cities – and even in Namibia.
How It All Began: Germany’s First and Most Successful Colony
In 1883, following failed business ventures in the United States, Mexico, and Lagos (British West Africa), the Bremen-born merchant/trader Adolf Lüderitz (1834-1886) decided to try his luck once again in Africa. The so-called “mile swindle” (Meilenschwindel) contract that Lüderitz negotiated through his emissary Heinrich Vogelsang to acquire land in South West Africa earned him the nickname “Lügenfritz” (lying guy, conman). Vogelsang first acquired land around a bay first discovered by Portuguese explorers. With a dodgy second contract, Lüderitz and Vogelsang misled a tribal chief named Josef Frederiks II by using the term “geographical mile” (equal to 4.6 English miles, a “German mile”). Too late, Frederiks realized he had sold far more land than he thought. Lüderitzland was 87 miles wide, extending over 150 miles north from the Orange River to the bay called Angra Pequena (Portuguese for “small cove”), now known as Lüderitzbucht, in what is now the southern tip of Namibia.
At first German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was wary of the expense and military involvement that protection of Lüderitz’s venture entailed, but as soon as he saw that the British were interested in expanding into the African region, Bismarck declared his own German Schutzgebiet (“protectorate,” a friendlier term than “colony”). On 7 August 1884, German South West Africa was officially declared by hoisting the German flag in Lüderitzbucht (Lüderitz Bay). Germany was now a colonial power, however reluctantly.
Lüderitz had gained some fame as a hero of German colonization when German newspapers reported his arrival in South West Africa abroad a three-masted ship in September 1883. He wanted to see for himself the land that he had purchased with Vogelsang’s help.
Lüderitz, ever the financial genius, expanded into the vast hinterlands, having his agents buy up even more land from the natives before he sent out expeditions to find potential mining sites. Overextended and unable to find any promising gold or diamond deposits, Lüderitz was compelled to sell his venture in 1885 to the Deutscher Kolonialverein, the precursor to German Colonial Society (Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft) for 500,000 gold marks.
Stubborn to the last, and desperate finally to gain something from his exploits, with financial support from the Colonial Society, in 1886 Lüderitz, who had actually spent little time exploring his African land, planned a new expedition on the Oranje/Orange River that formed the southern border of Lüderitzland. Participating himself this time, he ventured forth in July with three other men. They transported two small boats to a location near the confluence of the Fish and Orange Rivers, and journeyed downstream towards the Atlantic Ocean. We don’t know exactly when or where it became a fatal expedition because neither Lüderitz nor his boat was ever seen again.
Ceremony for return of mortal remains Herero
On the occasion of the return of mortal remains taken from Namibia to Germany during the colonial period, a commemorative service was held in Berlin at the Französische Friedrichstadtkirche on 29 August 2018 by the Evangelical [Lutheran] Church in Germany (EKD) and the Council of Churches in Namibia. Critics claimed the ceremony should have taken place in a German government building rather than a church. A few days later, a state ceremony was later held in Windhoek, Namibia to receive the remains.
German South West Africa and the Uprisings
The colony or protectorate (Schutzgebiet) of German South West Africa (Deutsch-Südwestafrika, 1884-1915) was one and a half times larger than the German Empire’s homeland. It was the only one of all the German colonies to attract German settlers, and it was these settlers who eventually came into conflict with the African natives.
The first European to arrive in the region was the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in January 1486. Centuries passed with only occasional contact by traders and sailors. The first Europeans to settle in the area were British missionaries who arrived in 1805. In 1840 the missionary activities were taken over by the German Rhenish Missionary Society which established Protestant churches in the territory. (Today about 87 percent of Namibians are Christians, unusual for Africa.) At the same time European farmers and merchants established outposts.
The Port of Walvis Bay
The British Crown claimed the territory around Walvis Bay – Walfischbucht, “whale bay” – in 1878, and it became a British exclave after the Germans set up their protectorate in 1884. Long after the Germans were gone, South West Africa gained independence in 1990 as Namibia, but Walvis Bay remained under South African sovereignty. Walvis Bay did not officially become part of Namibia until 1994, following the end of apartheid!
Following the death of Adolf Lüderitz in 1886, his remaining land holdings and mining rights were bought up by the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwest-Afrika (DKGSWA), a private company owned by German bankers and industrialists. DKGSWA was granted monopoly mineral rights in the colony. In addition to gold, copper, platinum, and other minerals, diamonds were discovered in 1908, and quickly became a major source of revenue. Soon even more Germans were arriving in the colony.
By 1890, German South West Africa extended over 1,200 km (745 miles) from north to south, with a width that varied from 450 km (280 mi) in the south to almost 1,000 km (620 mi) in the north. In 1893 the first uprising by the Nama (aka “Hottentots”) occurred. Whereas Lüderitz had been merely a land-grabbing swindler, later harsh German rule by the German authorities led to increasing resentment by the native people. By 1902 the colony had about 200,000 inhabitants, only 2,595 of whom were German, with fewer than 2,000 British and Afrikaners (Dutch descendants) compared to an estimated 80,000 Herero, 60,000 Ovambo, and 10,000 Nama natives.
German colonial racism, ethnocentrism, greed, and massive insensitivity soon gave the native Africans good reason to resent their German masters. Other uprisings after 1893 came about as the Germans tried to exercise more and more control over what they regarded as an inferior culture. In many ways the German occupation of southwestern Africa resembles the westward expansion of United States into Native American territory, with similar unfortunate results.
Lothar von Trotha: Genocide and Concentration Camps
Maltreatment, land grabbing, and oppression provoked the natives to attack German farms and settlements, killing some 100 whites, the number of German troops seemed inadequate to deal with the increasing Herero attacks. The German response was to bring in 14,000 additional troops under the command of General Lothar von Trotha (1848-1920). General von Trotha arrived in German South West Africa on 11 June 1904 to replace the former military commander Colonel Theodor Leutwein, who however remained the colonial governor. Before his 1904 assignment, von Trotha had served as a commander in German East Africa, putting down a native rebellion there in 1896. After that he was in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900/1901, and it was precisely his brutal conduct against the Africans and Chinese (following orders from the Kaiser) that now led the Kaiser in Berlin to dispatch him to German South West Africa.
The unpopular general (actually Generalleutnant or lieutenant general) would become one of the worst villains in the war against the Herero that had been going on for five months before his arrival. His mission was to stop the Herero rebellion. But his reputation had preceded him, and the local officers he was to command seriously considered sending a written appeal directly to Berlin to revoke his appointment. In fact von Trotha soon proved that would have been wise. He was not well-liked by either the officers under his command or the native support troops. A rebellion by the Nama and their leader Hendrik Witbooi in October 1904 was a direct result of the change of command. While Colonel Leutwein wanted a less violent, more political solution so the natives could help expand colonization, von Trotha simply wanted to exterminate them.
General von Trotha quickly took steps to bring the Herero rebellion to a halt. Those steps would cost at least 80,000 lives and later be labeled the first genocide of the 20th century. But von Trotha’s horrific measures were approved by the general staff and Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin. The general left little doubt about what he had in mind. He issued an extermination order (Vernichtungsbefehl) to his troops. Before the Battle of Waterberg he stated:
“I believe that the [Herero] nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country … This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of this nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.”
The Battle of Waterberg , 11-12 August 1904
The Battle of Waterberg (Battle of Ohamakari) took place around a tall plateau known as the Waterberg. The German troops defeated 3,000–5,000 Herero warriors under the command of Samuel Maharero, but were unable to encircle and annihilate the retreating survivors, as originally planned. The Herero fighters were quickly defeated by German colonial forces using heavy artillery and machine guns.
Nevertheless, von Trotha failed to get the decisive victory he had planned. His forces had to settle for a far less glorious alternative: pursuing the fleeing Herero – men, women, and children – while preventing groups from breaking away from the main body and pushing them farther into the desert. As the Herero fell exhausted, unable to go on, German soldiers killed men, women, and children. According to a written account by Jan Cloete, who was acting as a guide for the Germans, and witnessed the atrocities they committed:
“I was present when the Herero were defeated in a battle in the vicinity of Waterberg. After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle.”
Samuel Maharero in 1907
The Herero chieftain Samuel Maharero in 1907
While most of the Herero escaped the actual battle, many more died of thirst and exhaustion during their trek through the desert. German patrols later found skeletons around deep holes dug in a vain attempt to find water. Existing waterholes were supposedly poisoned by the Germans. Tens of thousands of the Herero died of thirst, starvation, or disease. Those who attempted to surrender were summarily shot. After von Trotha’s extermination order was countermanded by Berlin, captured survivors were sent to a concentration camp at Shark Island on the Atlantic coast near Lüderitz. Many of the tribespeople held at Shark Island and other camps did not survive the harsh conditions there.
Despite extensive German efforts and a large reward offered for his capture, Samuel Maharero and about 1,000 of his Herero warriors managed to cross the Kalahari Desert into the Bechuanaland Protectorate (today’s Botswana). The British offered the Hereros asylum under the condition that they would not continue their revolt on British soil. Samuel Maharero died there in March 1923, and he was temporarily buried in Bechuanaland. In August his body was returned to his hometown of Okahandja, where he was ceremoniously reinterred alongside his ancestors, an occasion that the Herero people still celebrate on Herero Day. Today Samuel Maharero (1856-1923) is considered a national hero in Namibia, one of nine people so officially honored.
Despite what today would be considered war crimes, the Kaiser did not court martial his commander in Africa. Quite the contrary. General von Trotha was later decorated in Berlin for his service in German South West Africa. But he had actually fallen out of favor (along with Governor Leutwein) for what was seen as his failure to neatly wrap up the “Hottentot War.” The Kaiser pointedly refused to formally receive the general in Berlin upon his return from duty in November 1905. Also shunned in military circles, von Trotha retired from the military with a comfortable pension in May 1906. He went to his grave without expressing any regrets. He died of typhoid fever on 31 March 1920 in Bonn, where his grave lies in the Poppelsdorf Cemetery – without any mention of his crimes against humanity.
German Apologies but no Reparations
The German government long managed to ignore the country’s dark colonial history. Unlike the Nazi era, the horrific events that occurred in what is today Namibia remained out of sight and out of mind. It was not until 14 August 2004, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Waterberg that a German representative offered an apology as a representative of the German government. However, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the Minister for Development Aid at the time, made it clear that her apology for the colonial atrocities perpetrated in German South West Africa was offered as a private person. It took another eleven years before the German government, under Angela Merkel, officially recognized the atrocities in Africa as Völkermord (genocide) in 2015. But there was no formal apology and reparations were still off the table.
From the Namibian point of view, Germany has yet to offer a full, official government apology. All the apologies to date have been personal, not on behalf of the German government and the German people. And only one of those was presented in Namibia itself.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Namibia in 1995, the first German chancellor to do so since 1904. But he avoided meeting with Herero representatives, and he offered no apology, much less recognition of the genocide. The next time a high-ranking German politician visited Namibia was the then Federal President Roman Herzog in 1998. Since then there have been a few other official state visits, the latest being Gerd Müller, the German development minister, at the end of August 2019. But because of its low profile (a single photo and little information) his visit was labeled “Müller’s secret mission in Africa” by Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was in Africa around the same time as the development minister, but instead of Namibia, for some reason he preferred to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. To Namibians such slights are a growing irritation. Why, they ask, can’t the German government just do the right thing? Why does it have to take so long?
Closed-door talks between the Namibians and Germans began in 2015. In his state of the union address on 4 June 2020, Namibian President Hage Geingob suggested that Germany was about to apologize for the colonial-era mass-killings. The response from the German government: No comment. The Namibians are also unhappy about Germany’s excuse for not offering reparations, namely that they have provided hundreds of millions of euros in foreign aid over the years. President Geingob admitted in his address that the financial issues had not been resolved, but he considers Germany’s initial compensation offer of 10 million euros an insult to Namibia. But the Germans are unlikely to offer any official apology until the financial question has been answered.
Another touchy subject: The skulls and bones issue. Out of hundreds of Namibian skulls and other remains sent to Germany after the Herero and Nama genocide, only a fraction have been returned from Germany to Namibia. The August 2018 ceremony mentioned above only involved 25 sets of remains. It was the third time that native bone remains have been returned (2011, 2014, 2018), but true reconciliation between the two sides has been elusive. Tribal descendants of the victims are angry that the return of their ancestors’ remains is still incomplete after over 100 years. Also there has been no real apology and no agreement on reparations. They are also unhappy that they are not part of the negotiations begun in 2015. The Herero and Nama people are not happy with their own government, much less the Germans.
The Situation in Namibia Today
Today the site of the 1904 Waterberg massacre is known as Waterberg Plateau Park, a national park and ecological reserve established in 1972. A military graveyard there is the resting place of German soldiers who perished in the Battle of Waterberg (Battle of Ohamakari). A plaque installed in the park in 1984 states (in German): “In memory of the Herero warriors who fell in the Battle of Waterberg.”
Shark Island in the Atlantic Ocean, just offshore from the town of Lüderitz, is the site of five former German colonial concentration camps. Today it’s a public campground. A sign directs visitors to the campground, but there are no memorials or any indication on Shark Island attesting to the concentration camp or the genocide.
That is rather amazing, considering that thousands of Herero and Nama men, women, and children died in the camp between its opening in 1905 and its closing in April 1907. The prisoners were used in forced labor to help build a railroad, among other things. There were other concentration camps near the capital of Windhoek, but their inmates were later transferred by rail in cattle cars to Shark Island. If all this sounds similar to later Nazi death camps, it is.