Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien. No. 33/2017, Vol. 17, 1-24.
Genocide Matters -
Negotiating a Namibian-German Past
in the Present
German colonial warfare in then South West Africa between 1904 and
1908 meets the definition of genocide. In this article, the nature and
consequences of the war for the mainly affected communities of the
Ovaherero and Nama are summarized, followed by the history and
meaning of the notion of genocide. But the genocide in the German
colony became only since the mid-1960s a matter of scholarly interest.
The research results initially remained largely ignored and without
major repercussions until the turn of the century. The discourse on
genocide and its introduction into a wider German public is presented,
leading to developments finally resulting in the official admission of
the genocide by the German government in 2015. The subsequent
bilateral Namibian-German negotiations over how to come to terms
with this shared history are critically assessed. The conclusion seeks to
position the efforts of a scholarly engagement with Germany’s colonial
past in its relevance for today.
The past is never dead.
It’s not even past.
German colonial rule in then South West Africa (1884-1915) was a relatively
short period established during the final stages of the so-called scramble for
Africa. But in even a shorter period of time (1904-1908) it marked a military
encounter, which in today’s perspective of the locally involved and affected
communities is termed the Namibian War. The consequences for the
colonized communities of the Ovaherero and Nama were considered to be
the first genocide of the 20th century.
It took almost 110 years until the German government was willing to accept
the classification as genocidal warfare. As a result of this admission, this
unclosed chapter of German-Namibian relations became finally by the end
of 2015 a matter of bilateral negotiations between special diplomatic envoys
of both states, tasked to find an adequate recognition of such history. While
these negotiations continue at the time of writing, an amicable solution
seems not near. This also regards the hitherto inadequate involvement of
the representatives of the descendants from the mainly affected groups of
the Ovaherero and Nama, which remains among the contentious issues.
This article summarizes numerous past analyses, which for decades
diagnosed the genocide, demanded the recognition of the violent history
and advocated efforts to find an appropriate way to compensate for the
injustices and crimes committed. It engages with the official German policy,
which finally acknowledged the genocide, and assesses the current
negotiations. It ends with some reflections how to position scholarly
advocacy in the specific case.
The historical record
Much has been researched and published on the German colonial rule in
what became as from 21st March 1990 the sovereign Republic of Namibia.
This article cannot do justice to a comprehensive overall analysis of the 30-
year-period. It limits the focus on a summary of the consequences of the
warfare during the German settler-colonial occupation. The preludes and
1 Requiem for a Nun (1951).
Genocide Matters 3
aftermath of the military encounters as from 1904 are adequately
summarized in several of the studies referred to during the course of this
article.2 Here, only a short characterization of the genocidal warfare and its
consequences presents the point of departure for the following parts of the
In January 1904, Ovaherero in a surprise attack killed more than a hundred
German farmers to resist further encroachment on and appropriation of
their land and subjugation under foreign rule. Following an order of
paramount chief Samuel Maherero, they spared the lives of missionaries,
women and children as well as Boers and British. Germany responded with
a massive mobilization of troops and military equipment dispatched to the
colony. In August 1904 the war escalated into a series of military encounters
around the Waterberg in the heartland of the Ovaherero. Being unable to
defeat the Germans, the Ovaherero were trying to avoid further clashes. On
their escape, they were seeking refuge partly in the adjacent Omaheke semi-
desert. German soldiers cordoned the area off to prevent those fleeing from
clandestinely returning and seeking shelter elsewhere in the country. The
German commander, general Lothar von Trotha, issued on 2nd October 1904
an extermination order. He declared that Ovaherero were not any longer
subjects under German rule and not allowed to surrender. Tens of
thousands died of thirst or hunger on their way to neighboring
Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana), where descendants of the surviving
Ovaherero are still living. Others were captured and put into concentration
camps for forced labour. Imprisoned women were systematically sexually
abused. The treatment of those captured even provoked harsh criticism of
the then chief inspector of the Rhenish Mission Society, Johannes Spiecker,
who was like most of the missionaries and the institution in full support of
German foreign rule, but called von Trotha a “butcher” (cf. Siefkes 2013 and
2014; Melber 2014a).
Several of the Nama communities (in German insulted as “Hottentotten”)
under chief Hendrik Witbooi and other leaders rose after witnessing the
warfare against the Ovaherero in late 1904. They resorted to a guerilla
strategy and engaged the colonial army for years. On 22 April 1905 von
Trotha issued another – less widely known - order addressing them. He
2 A competent, concise and informed summary overview with full references to the
existing literature offers Wallace (2011: 131-203), including a chapter on “The Namibian
War, 1904-8” (Wallace 2011: 155-182).
declared that all those who do not find mercy should leave the “German
territory” or otherwise they would be shot until all are exterminated. In his
mid-seventies, Witbooi died in October 1905 from a wound suffered in
battle. Jakob Marengo, of Herero and Nama descent, kept the German
soldiers busy until 1907. He was finally killed in the border area of the Cape
Province by a German patrol entering the foreign territory with the consent
of the British. The captured Nama suffered a similar fate as the Ovaherero.3
In the harbor towns of Lüderitzbucht and Swakopmund along the Atlantic
coast the prisoners died of unprotected exposure to the harsh climate,
malnourishment and forced labor. The mortality rate peaked at about 80%
on the notorious Shark Island. A rock offshore Lüderitzbucht, it “was
perhaps the world’s first extermination camp” (Stapleton 2017: 18). While
not being in denial of the high mortality rates, Kreienbaum (2015) refutes
this allegation. He dismisses the extreme casualties as having been
intentional but rather considers them as a result of neglect and carelessness.4
– Which, on balance, did not in any way change the horrific result in terms
of the number of those who paid for such treatment with their lives.
More importantly, such focus reduces the overall assessment to a matter of
the concentration camps alone. This promotes the misleading association,
that this was the main factor for qualifying the German warfare and its
consequences as genocidal. As is shown below, however, while the camps
were part of a genocidal practice, they were not the decisive element. Even
in the absence of such camps the ultimate conclusion of what has happened
in then “German South West Africa” would have been qualifying it as a
genocide: the structures established by the colonial administration and
imposed on the local survivors were tantamount to denying them a
continuation of their way of life. In Namibia, the creation of Apartheid was
a German invention and introduced prior to a similar system in South
As a result of the war, an estimated two-thirds of the Ovaherero and one
third to half of the Nama were eliminated. The Damara (in German
3 More than a hundred (including women and children) were even deported to Cameroon
and Togo, where most of them did not survive (Hillebrecht/Melber 1988).
4 As Severin (2017) critically observes, this leads to some dubious downplaying by calling
the mortality rates the ”unintentional by-product” of the conditions in the camps, while
the title of Kreienbaum’s study (”a sad fiasco”), quoting Sir Alfred Milner, in tendency
also promotes the assumption that there was no intention to kill.
Genocide Matters 5
derogatorily called “Klippkaffern”), living among and in between the
various Nama and Ovaherero communities, became victims too. They were
in today’s euphemistic jargon a kind of “collateral damage”, since the
German soldiers could not (or did not want to) make a difference. The
survivors among these local communities were denied their earlier social
organization and reproduction. While concrete figures of the numbers killed
remain a matter of dispute, there is clear evidence of the “intent to destroy”
as regards their established way of life. This is the core definition of
genocide. According to this understanding, the “Whitaker Report”
presented to ECOSOC in 1985, lists the German warfare against the Herero
in 1904 as the first genocide of the 20th century. 5 Since then, German
historians as well as scholars in international genocide studies have in their
overwhelming majority reached the same conclusion.6
No German “Sonderweg”
The Ovaherero, Nama and Damara, as well as the victims of the scorched
earth warfare in response to the so-called Maji-Maji uprising (1904 - 07) in
East Africa, were however by no means a singular phenomenon of a
particular trajectory in European colonialism, although discussions over a
German “Sonderweg” might be a worthwhile, albeit inconclusive debate - if
only to suggest, that such “Sonderweg” could have happened elsewhere too,
and therefore was no “Sonderweg”. Numerous colonial atrocities and
crimes against humanity testify to the fact that colonialism as a system was
by definition including forms of organized violence, oppression and
elimination of other people forced under foreign rule and amounting to war
crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing bordering to
As regards the case of “German South West Africa”, Grimshaw (2014)
presents new evidence from the colonial archives in London that the British
Foreign Office and the Cape colonial administration were not only aware of
5 United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights, Sub-
Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Thirty-eighth
session, Item 4 of the provisional agenda, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6 -SPECIAL DELIVERY 2
July 1985. Revised and Updated Report on the Question of the Prevention and
Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Prepared by Benjamin Whitaker, p. 8 <
http://www.preventgenocide.org/prevent/UNdocs/whitaker/> (24 May 2017)
6 For detailed summaries of the evidence and references to the literature available see
Kössler/Melber (2004 and 2017: 12-39).
the German warfare in the neighbouring territory in all its brutal forms, but
also a willing supplier of material and thereby active supporter of the
logistics that allowed to execute the intent to destroy. The concentration
camp for Nama prisoners (including women and children) erected on the
Shark Island at Lüderitzbucht, had been used until 1906 only on lease from
the Cape government to the German administration in South West Africa.7
The actual destruction of the majority of Nama kept there under extreme
conditions, causing death by negligence of huge numbers, happened
according to the then existing property title and rights on British territory,
while the officials in the Cape Colony (and those at the Foreign Office in
London) closed their eyes.
The Cape administration knowingly made business with the genocide in the
adjacent German colony through the supply chain fuelling the military
machinery implementing the infamous extermination order issued by the
general-in-command and governor Lothar von Trotha. As the Cape
governor stated in a letter of 16 February 1906 to the Colonial Secretary Earl
of Elgin in London: “the large expenditure by the German government is of
great benefit to the Cape of Good Hope, and my ministers are evidently
anxious to do nothing to interfere with it”. That this was an attitude not to
be excused by ignorance over what took place is underlined by the further
explanation that they “will shut their eyes to the real destination of the
supplies and will not take steps to interfere with the existing arrangements”
(Grimshaw 2014: 69).
The British “Report On The Natives Of South West Africa And Their
Treatment By Germany” (dubbed as the “Blue Book”) released in 1918 (and
withdrawn from public access in 1926) disclosed such atrocities with the aim
to discredit the Germans as unfit for colonization.8 But eyewitness reports
from members of the Cape colonial police as well as British army officers
accompanying the German troops already during the war as from 1904
onwards offered in minute detail shocking revelations, which were only
made public in this document. Presenting convincing evidence tantamount
to complicity of the British in the German genocide, Grimshaw (2014: 85)
ends with a revealing episode translating the matter into current policy:
7 As Grimshaw (2014: 56) observes, the British ownership of the terrain was even
overlooked in the comprehensive study by Erichsen (2005).
8 See Silvester/Gewald (2003). For extensive reviews of this somewhat controversial
historical source see Kössler (2004) and Adhikari (2008).
Genocide Matters 7
Confronting the official in charge of the South Africa desk in the Foreign and
Commonwealth Office in London with his findings, he received a letter
dated 8 May 2014 insisting that these events were not genocide but rather
In contrast to such official view, Wallace (2011: 181) puts the German
warfare in its colony into the appropriate perspective:
“The atrocities in Namibia can be understood as standing at the
extreme end of a continuum of violence and repression in which all the
colonial powers participated. Nevertheless, it is important to name
what happened in 1904-8 as genocide, not least because those who deny
this continue to foster a debate that is really ‘a constant exercise in
denial of historical evidence’ (quoting from an article by Werner
Hillebrecht, then head of the Namibian National Archives; H.M.).
Because of the tenacity with which they make their arguments, it needs
to be restated that the way in which they minimise African suffering is
contrary to the weight of historical evidence and the conclusion of most
The notion of genocide
On 9 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the
Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
This was after lengthy negotiations a response to the hitherto unprecedented
scale of targeted mass extinction of defined groups of people by the German
Nazi regime, which Winston Churchill had termed in a broadcasted speech
of 1941 “a crime without a name”. Only in 1944 the lawyer Raphael Lemkin,
a Jewish Polish refugee, coined the term genocide (Lemkin 1944).9 He had
worked relentlessly to find an international, legally defined and anchored
response to the Holocaust. But significantly enough, his concept reached far
beyond the singularity of the Shoah and explicitly referred to earlier colonial
wars of extermination. Due to his perseverance, the concept and
ostracisation of genocide entered the normative framework of the United
Nations system (Segesser/Gessler 2005; Elder 2005).
9 For popularized summary versions explaining and advocating the use of this term as
presented in chapter 9 of this book see also Lemkin (1945 and 1946).
On 11 December 1946 the United Nations General Assembly had
unanimously adopted Resolution 96(1) on “The Crime of Genocide”.10 It
states categorically that,
“genocide is a crime under international law which the civilised world
condemns, and for the commission of which principals and
accomplices - whether private individuals, public officials or
statesmen, and whether the crime is committed on religious, racial,
political or any other grounds - are punishable”.11
It took more lobbying and several compromises - in fact watering down the
original definition, reducing it to a much narrower concept - before
essentials of this Resolution were finally adopted as the Convention.12 It
went into force three years later. It defined genocide as “acts committed with
intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious
group”, and made genocide a punishable crime under international law.
For Raphael Lemkin genocides have their roots in colonial minds (cf.
Schaller 2008; Moses 2008 and 2010; Schaller/Zimmerer 2009). Frontiers were
battlegrounds when “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Coetzee 1982) at the
periphery of empires, while in the centres of empire organised industrial
mass production translated into the willingness to resort to corresponding
organised mass killing. By “uncovering the colonial roots of the genocide
concept itself”, these “operationalize Raphael Lemkin’s original but ignored
insight that genocides are intrinsically colonial and that they long precede
the twentieth century. The history of genocide is the history of human
society since antiquity.” (Moses 2008: ix) But the school of thought
representing such an understanding as most prominently represented in a
hitherto mainly inner-German debate with regard to the possible (but in no
way predetermined) links between Windhoek and Auschwitz 13 remains
10 See for a detailed report on the interactions leading to this pioneering resolution Lemkin
11 Full text accessible at <https://documents-dds-
12 Accessible at < https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/unts/volume%2078/volume-78-i-
1021-english.pdf>. (23 April 2017)
13 Suggested among others already in Melber (1992) and later much further detailed and
more prominently elaborated by Jürgen Zimmerer (for a summary see Zimmerer 2015).
Genocide Matters 9
contested if not a matter of outright dismissal, often based on misleading
distortions and simplifications of the proponents’ arguments (see for a
clarification Kössler 2005).
The long denial
Political office bearers and the wider public in the Federal Republic of
Germany refused for a long time after World War II to acknowledge the
dark sides of Germany’s colonial past. But claiming to be the legal successor
to the German empire, Holocaust commemoration entered the wider public
domain since the late 1960s. This was not entirely voluntarily. Dealing with
the Nazi-era also in domestic politics and remembrance was brought about
not least through a generation linked to the student movement of the 1960s.
Since then, Germany emerged as a celebrated champion in engaging with
one of her darkest chapters in history. But demands to go further back in
time to put the Nazi-regime into a wider historical context, relating also to
the earlier colonial period, fell on deaf ears. In contrast, East German
historiography tended to disclose the imperial German history in much
detail.14 But the ideological perspective suggested that neither Nazis nor
colonialism had anything to do with the German Democratic Republic.
In the second half of the 1960s, historians from the German Democratic
Republic (Drechsler 1966) and the Federal Republic of Germany (Bley 1968)
presented similar ground breaking conclusions in their doctoral theses as
regards the German colonial era in then South West Africa. Despite
different approaches they both tackled the taboo of the “good old days” and
provided complementary evidence for and analysis of the totalitarian
mindset, methods, practices and consequences of mass destruction. The
more theoretical thesis of Peter Schmitt-Egner (1975) added a largely
ignored but important dimension to the early seminal works.
However, it was fiction, which for the first time managed to draw attention
to and promote a new perspective on colonial history within a wider West
German public. Jacob Morenga (also referred to as Marengo) was the title
figure in the semi-documentary anti-colonial novel by Uwe Timm (1978).15
It was a creative blend of facts and phantasy, qualified by Göttsche (2013: 7)
as “a pioneering work in the critical memoralization of German colonialism”
14 For the first detailed comparative study of its kind see Bürgers (2017).
15 Though its main character was the German veterinary Gottschalk, who served in the
and “a benchmark for the poetics and politics of postcolonial memory”. As
“the literary rediscovery of colonialism” (Göttsche 2013: 70) it contributed to
a growing awareness in then West Germany as regards this history.16
Notwithstanding such remarkable exception, efforts by parts of West
German civil society and politically engaged scholarship to initiate a wider
(self-)critical engagement with the colonial past showed initially little effect.
During 1984, a century after the infamous Berlin Conference, several
initiatives also in form of publications (for example Hinz/Patemann/Meier
1984; Melber 1984, but also already Mamozai 1982) failed to translate into
wider public awareness. Rather, colonial-apologetic reasoning remained
more effective than the critical reminders provided by emerging anti-
colonial civic actors demanding a decolonization of the mindset. Voices
pointing to the violent trajectory from the mass atrocities in the German
colonies to subsequent two World Wars remained sidelined. For Bürgers
(2017: 276) this was evidence that during the 1980s colonial-revisionist
networks were still publicly more effective and able to drive and influence a
The German-Namibian historical axis was until the late 1980s mainly alive
through a considerable number of German-speaking whites in the former
colony, the so-called “South Westers” (cf. Rüdiger 1993; Wentenschuh 1995;
Schmidt-Lauber 1998; Melber 2015: 13-22). Then the geostrategic
consequences of glasnost and perestroika created a new constellation
leading not only to German unification. While in November 1989 the Berlin
Wall fell, Namibians were voting for a government of their own, ending
South African foreign rule. Unified Germany and the Republic of Namibia
entered in parallel the world stage. This also impacted on their new
Members of the West German Bundestag were aware of the need to respond
to the common history. Following a parliamentary debate in mid-March
1989, a resolution recognized a “special historical responsibility” for
Namibia.17 But the euphemism made no reference to the genocide or any
16 The novel served as a script for a film televised 1985 in three parts in the public owned
German television channel. It was received with mixed responses. A later, much less
convincing effort to translate the historical events into a novel blending fact and fiction
was undertaken by Seyfried (2003).
17 Deutscher Bundestag, Plenarprotokoll 11/134, Stenographischer Bericht. 134. Sitzung, 16.
März 1989, pp. 9935-9941.
Genocide Matters 11
other negative connotation. Instead, special mention was made of the
interests of the German-speaking minority in the country. German policy
seemed more concerned about those reminding of (though not being) the
colonial perpetrators, than the descendants of the victims. Tellingly, the
resolution’s core phrase of a “special responsibility” remained the official
reference point for the next 25 years, during which the growing demands
for recognition of the genocide remained largely ineffective as regards the
official position (cf. Kössler/Melber 2017: 40-68).
Genocide is genocide
Meanwhile, since the turn of the century, genocide studies had
internationally emerged as a new field, adding to and transcending the
former exclusive focus on Holocaust studies. Despite ill-motivated
accusations of questioning the singularity of the Shoa (at times mounting to
blames of being anti-Semitic), genocide scholars thereby added important
perspectives to the domain. The contextualization of genocides (in the
plural) also included and promoted engagements with the South West
African case. Within a short period of time since the end of the 20th century
aspiring young (mainly German) scholars produced a variety of new
insights on matters related to the genocidal warfare in South West Africa.
These included most importantly studies by Gewald (1999), Krüger (1999),
Zeller (2000), Zimmerer (2001), Bühler (2003), Kundrus (2003a), Schneider
(2003), Böhlke-Itzen (2004), Eichsen (2005) and Brehl (2007). Their findings
were complemented by the rigorous analysis of Hull (2005) and the non-
fictional books by Olusoga/Erichsen (2009) and Sarkin (2011).18
2004 marked a century since the beginning of the Namibian War.
Challenging the official denialism, the centenary resulted in unprecedented
public awareness campaigns from German civil society actors. Mainly
18 The latter two publications imply not only in their titles (The Kaiser’s Holocaust:
Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism and Germany’s Genocide of the
Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II, His General, His Settler, His Soldiers respectively) that the German
Emperor was directly involved in the extermination strategy executed. Such a claim is
however not convincingly supported by factual evidence and supports a perspective that
the genocidal warfare was based on individual choices and not a systemic phenomenon.
This is also in so far problematic, as colonial-apologetic advocates are eager to look for the
tiniest windows of opportunity to discredit what they do not like – though it really does
not matter, if the Emperor was personally implicated. More importantly, he was not on
record to object to such a strategy.
locally operating post-colonial initiatives raised the critical aspects of a
largely neglected colonial legacy. So did a growing number of scholars
through a series of edited volumes (see i.a. Van der Heyden/Zeller 2002;
Kundrus 2003b; Zimmerer/Zeller 2003; Förster/Henrichsen/Bollig 2004;
Melber 2005). The critical engagement produced further results since then
(see i.a. Hobuss/Löhlke 2006; Van der Heyden/Zeller 2007;
Perraudin/Zimmerer 2011 and Zimmerer 2013).
In parallel, a marked (albeit unplanned) shift occurred in official policy
pronouncements. The then social democratic Minister for Economic
Cooperation and Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul attended the
main commemorative event by the Ovaherero communities in August 2004
at Hamakari. Situated at the Waterberg, the military encounters there had
triggered the subsequent genocidal practices. In her speech she declared
that the atrocities were in today’s understanding genocide and that von
Trotha would be prosecuted for war crimes. Seemingly moved, she asked
for forgiveness in the sense of the Christian prayer. When the audience
demanded an apology, she stated that her whole speech was an apology.
This was mistaken as a change in official German policy. But Germany’s
Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer of the Green Party dismissed this as a
purely personal statement. German media ridiculed her as a woman
emotionally carried away.19
While Wieczorek-Zeul initiated a unilateral reconciliation initiative financed
by funds from the development cooperation portfolio, such follow up was
considered not enough by the affected Namibian groups. Since the
Namibian government felt not properly consulted, it only reluctantly
engaged with this initiative. On 19 September 2006, Kuaima Riruako (1935-
2014), Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero and a member of parliament for
an opposition party, introduced a motion in the Namibian National
Assembly demanding adequate commemoration of and reparations for the
genocide.20 In a later session the same year, this motion was adopted with
the SWAPO majority, though the government did not follow up on this
politically within the bilateral relationship with Germany. The resolution,
however, recognized the legitimate demands for compensation by the
19 See for her statement and the experiences afterwards Wieczorek-Zeul (2007: 47-49).
20 For details on the numerous initiatives of the Ovaherero from Independence to 2014 see
Genocide Matters 13
affected communities and their direct involvement in matters related to the
A turn around finally happened in 2015 (cf. Kössler/Melber 2017: 69-74 and
80-84), after the German Bundestag on occasion of another centenary
recognized the Armenian genocide. This had not only provoked havoc by
an enraged Turkish president Erdogan, who pointed to the hypocritical
dimension of such selective perspective given the unacknowledged German
colonial genocide. Also many of the established German media questioned
the double standards. For the first time, the genocide in Namibia became a
wider public issue. Even conservative political party officials realized that
only recognition of the historical facts would restore some moral high
ground. Last but not least, the social democratic Foreign Minister Walter
Steinmeier of the coalition government by the Social and the Christian
Democrats could not escape the fact that his party while being in opposition
had tabled a (dismissed) parliamentary motion on Namibia jointly with the
Green party, which had introduced the term genocide. At a press conference
in July 2015, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the
term genocide is now applicable also to what had happened in South West
Africa. As a consequence, by the end of 2015 the German and Namibian
governments had appointed special envoys to negotiate how to come to
terms with such recognition and its implications.
The German side entered the negotiations without offering any apology.
Rather, it declared that finding an adequate form of such an apology would
be one of the agenda items. But admitting genocide as a precursor to
negotiations over the implications of such an admission should require an
immediate apology as a first sign of remorse. In the absence of such a
symbolically relevant gesture, the point of departure for negotiations based
on mutual respect seems at best dubious. In total five meetings took place
between the two government envoys until mid-2017. Not surprisingly, they
have not produced any concrete results but rather created some
embarrassing moments due to the lack of German diplomacy.21 Much to the
frustration of the Namibian government, the German side was at times
setting the agenda unilaterally and making its views public on pending
21 For some of the details see Kössler/Melber (2017: 84-93).
matters discussed behind closed doors. It also tried to influence the
schedule according to domestic German policy matters, arguing that an
agreement would be essential for allowing President Gauck to render an
official apology before leaving office. This has failed.
Both governments have so far also not offered any meaningful direct
representation to the descendants of the affected communities. While these
do not speak with one voice and some smaller groups cooperate with the
Namibian government, their main agencies have remained marginalized.
For the Namibian government this is an affair between two states and the
German counterpart gladly complies. Such understanding, however, also
ignores those who as a result of the genocide live in the diaspora and are
therefore by implication denied any representation.
Already towards the end of 2001, the late Herero Paramount Chief Kuaima
Riruako had initiated private claims for reparations from the German
government and a few German companies in a United States Court (Sarkin
2009). While the claim was dismissed for formal reasons, it provided
international media coverage and drew attention to the case. On 5 January
2017 Riruako’s successor, Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro, together with
Chief David Fredericks as Chairman of the Nama Traditional Authorities
Association as the main plaintiffs, together with the Association of the
Ovaherero Genocide in the USA Inc., filed a federal class action lawsuit in a
US federal court in New York. The plaintiffs claim “the legitimate right to
participate in any negotiations with Germany relating to the incalculable
financial, material, cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual losses
suffered”. Their complaint submitted under the Alien Tort Statute asks for
the award of punitive damages and the establishment of a Constructive
Trust. Into this the defendant (Germany) should pay the estimated “value of
the lands, cattle and other properties confiscated and taken from the
Ovaherero and Nama peoples”.22 They refer among others as a substantial
new dimension to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,
adopted on 13 September 2007 with the votes of Germany and Namibia by
the United Nations General Assembly.23 Its Article 18 stipulates that,
“indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in
22 For the full text of the claim and the media responses see http://genocide-
nama-file-lawsuit-in-new-york. (7 January 2017)
23 http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf (7 January 2017)
Genocide Matters 15
matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by
Commenting in German media, the German special envoy Ruprecht Polenz
created the impression that the plaintiffs asked for individual reparation
payments. A joint press statement issued on 9 January 2017 by the German
initiative “Berlin postcolonial” and the Ovaherero Paramount Chief
dismissed this as “a blatant lie” and “calculated misrepresentation to
deliberately discredit our legitimate and justified campaign for restorative
justice”.24 A first hearing was scheduled for 16 March 2017. But the German
government did not appear in court. It had successfully avoided receiving
(and thereby acknowledging) the summons and complaint. 25 The judge
therefore ordered that the first hearing (which still has to decide if the
complaint is accepted) was postponed to 21 July. But since then all efforts to
transmit the summons to the German government were in vain and the
hearing was again postponed to 13 October. The Senator for Justice in the
Federal State of Berlin, to whom the summons were finally handed over,
refused to forward it to the Foreign Ministry with the argument, that states
are not subject to legal claims in foreign courts for sovereign acts such as the
deeds of their soldiers. Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry declares it is unable
to send a representative to New York since if officially has not been
informed about the case. At the core of the reasoning is the interpretation of
state immunity, which in the German (albeit not generally accepted)
understanding protects governments from such claims. This position had
been already a matter of controversy in cases related to claims by
descendants of Greek and Italian victims of war crimes.26 This underlines,
that the issue of reparations is anything but confined to the case of the
German genocide in South West Africa, but has much wider implications
not only but also for the German state.
International media follow the German-Namibian negotiations with great
interest. So certainly do the governments of other former colonial powers.
public.pdf (2 April 2017)
26 See ”Nicht zustellbar”, German-Foreign-Policy, 20 July 2017. Accesible at <
After all, despite its degree of violence, the German colonial adventure was
relatively limited. Putting the likely material reparations in relation to the
size of the German state coffers, a compensation for damages could solve a
problem and might even be an investment into Germany’s reputation. But it
would not only open a can of worms for other claims against the German
state, relating to its other colonial territories and – more importantly – to
crimes during World War II. Over and above such still limited perspective
this would create a precedence other states with a colonial-imperialist past
would certainly not want to see happen. These implications turn the
negotiations into much more than an affair between two countries. One
does not need to entertain any conspiracy theories to assume that the
German-Namibian negotiations have in all likelihood already been a matter
also discussed on the level of foreign ministers in Brussels.
In July 2016 the Namibian special envoy officially submitted to his
counterpart a position paper on behalf of his government. During
subsequent meetings the same year in September (Berlin) and November
(Windhoek), the German special envoy explained “in detail and great
clarity”, as self-confidently claimed by the German embassy in Namibia,
“the German assessment of the Namibian paper”.27 On 27 June 2017 the
German ambassador to Namibia, Christian-Matthias Schlaga, finally
presented the “detailed German assessment of the Namibian paper” in
writing. It requires indeed a rather selective view on the matters to declare,
as the press release does, that this “development shows that the
negotiations between Namibia and Germany are on track”.
Already ahead of the official communication, ambassador Schlaga disclosed
on 15 June 2017 in his speech to the annual meeting of the association in
charge of the German higher private school in Windhoek some of the
essentials presented in the document. This in itself was a rather disturbing
act of indiscretion, given that the document was declared not public due to
the confidentiality agreed between the two governments.28 According to
Schlaga, there are three core issues guiding the German approach: a) To find
a common language for the events of 1904 to 1907, with the way of using the
27 Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Windhoek. Press Release, no. 43/2017,
Germany presents ’position paper’. 29 June 2017.
28 Walter J Lindner, permanent secretary (Staatssekretär) of the Foreign Ministry, in his
official reply dated 10 July 2017 to Niema Movassat, member of parliament, in reference
to the question no. 6-245 for the month of June 2017.
Genocide Matters 17
term “genocide” as the central matter; b) Germany is willing to apologize
for the crimes committed in the German name, assuming such apology is
accepted by Namibia as a clean break of the political-moral discussion; c) to
establish a common memory culture and to support financially initiatives
for the development especially of those regions in which at present the then
most affected communities are living. Schlaga emphasized further, that
Germany is guided by the conviction that the events dating back more than
a century can only be tackled by a historic-moral approach. Every attempt
towards a judicial clarification would not be adequate. This means also, that
the German government would see no legal basis for demands for financial
compensation. The way of claims in court with a focus on judicial terms
such as the one of “reparations” would lead astray.29
In an interview with the German radio station Deutsche Welle, special
envoy Ruprecht Polenz towards the end of July 2017 stressed again, that
Germany does not negotiate over reparations and that this position was
declared right at the beginning when entering the bi-lateral talks. For
Germany, the genocide is not an issue to be discussed under international
law. While the term reparation is a legal category, the matter is a political-
moral but not a judicial question. This, according to Polenz, is not
something less but something different. He did however not elaborate why
this would exclude adequate forms of compensation as a political-moral
consequence (tantamount to, though not necessarily declared as
reparations). Polenz had earlier on stated that the efforts to come to terms
with this past are about healing wounds. Interviewed too, the Namibian
special envoy Zed Ngavirue is quoted with reference to this. He pointed out
that such approach seems to suggest, that the medical prescription is issued
by a doctor in Berlin. But from a Namibian point of view, he added, a
medical practitioner in Berlin cannot alone decide on an adequate treatment.
He insisted that the matter of reparations will remain on the table during
the next round of negotiations (Pelz 2017).
29 Translation from the script ”Ansprache des deutschen Botschafters in Namibia
Christian-Matthias Schlaga: Jahreshauptversammlung Deutscher Schulverein; 15.06.2017”.
This brings back the issue of perspectives. This is also a matter of concern as
regards the general engagement. As observed by Bürger (2017: 278),
postcolonial theory has since the late 1990s strongly advocated a
fundamental change in the perspectives and methods of narratives to
critically deconstruct colonial formations of knowledge and history. As a
consequence it is doubted whether colonial discourses are adequately
transcended or abandoned even in Western anti-colonial counter narratives
and their norms of presentation. Academic writing remains largely (and
often uncritically) confined to the standardized modes anchored in the
Western traditions, often without being aware of and self-critically
reflecting on these limitations. Bürger therefore asks, if not rather much
more radical than so far tested, other forms of narratives need to be
This is a noble and necessary reflection. Notwithstanding this insight,
however, her study remains like this text within the confinements of our
socialization and the mindsets molded by and based on our own
experiences and perspectives. Transcending these and looking at the world
through the eyes of others is not only a huge challenge. It borders to a
mission impossible. Eagerness to comply with such a shift of perspectives
might even risk becoming patronizing or paternalistic again by claiming to
speak on behalf of those who continue to remain either silent or unheard.
This article and the debate it summarizes reproduce such limitations in the
absence of easily accessible and recorded counter narratives. Partial
exceptions are Förster (1999) and Kössler (2015), who intentionally include
oral history and local perspectives on the subject. 30 But this does not
transcend their work as one created within certain parameters. Scholarship
like the one of this article might have to humbly accept its limitations in
representing the ‘other’ views. Wallace (2011: 181) already expressed
concerns that “the genocide debate can also be a hindrance to inquiry, and,
above all, to situating the Namibian War as an event in Namibian, rather
than German history” (emphasis in the original). While this is a necessary
caveat, it should certainly not prevent those confronted with the
consequences of such history in Germany, from addressing them in an effort
to come to terms with such past. After all, it has been an event that would
30 For a local project compiling such perspectives see Biwa (2010).
Genocide Matters 19
have not taken place without German colonial intervention in the South
Western part of the African continent, with long-term implications for
Germans not only there but back in Europe too. This merits critical
engagement by German or Western scholars as an effort to create awareness
of and deal with the consequences. Decolonisation (especially when
including the mindset) requires engagement by the descendants of those
involved on all sides.
This does not prevent creating space for the voice of those, who represent
such experiences our Western molded perspectives and forms of
communication cannot articulate. Post-colonial initiatives in the former
colonial states can provide such platforms. But scholars and activists there
alike will have to accept that their engagement is limited to their own voices
and perspectives, which confront other narratives seeking to downplay the
trauma of colonialism and its devastating effects on colonized societies and
generations of colonized people. After all, we are addressing matters
through our views, which relate to a shared history with others. But we
cannot replace our upbringing by an upbringing of someone else. We can
only engage in our own way. This also means to fight not mainly for the
adequate recognition of humanity for others but for one’s own humanity
and human values, shared in the general conviction that humanity has
essentially a common ground and bonds reaching beyond the existence of
In the case of the Namibian-German history and its treatment in the present,
it seems therefore justified to end with a quote from one of the so far few
local engagements with the subject communicated to a wider audience:
“We cannot free ourselves from the past until both the victims and
villains are atoned with Germany’s imperial past in Namibia. The past
is like the shade of a thorn tree that covers a pile of thorns for those
stepping on it … It is like a weeping grave of an angry ancestor.”
(Tjingaete n.d.: ii)
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Die deutsche Kriegsführung in der Kolonie Südwestafrika
zwischen 1904 und 1908 entspricht der Definition von
Völkermord. Die Eigenschaften und Folgen des Krieges für die
hauptsächlich betroffenen Ovaherero und Nama werden
zusammenfassend dargestellt. Dem folgt die Entstehungs-
geschichte und Interpretation der Völkermordkonvention. Doch
der Völkermord in der deutschen Kolonie wurde erst ab Mitte der
1960er Jahre Gegenstand wissenschaftlichen Interesses. Die
Forschungsergebnisse wurden anfangs weitgehend ignoriert und
hatten bis zur Jahrtausendwende keine gravierenden
Auswirkungen. Der Artikel resümiert den seitherigen
Völkermord-Diskurs und dessen Einzug in eine breitere deutsche
Öffentlichkeit. Er bietet einen Überblick über die Entwicklungen,
die 2015 schließlich in ein offizielles Eingeständnis des
Völkermords durch die deutsche Regierung mündete. Die
daraufhin aufgenommenen bilateralen deutsch-namibischen
Verhandlungen zum Umgang mit dieser Vergangenheit werden
kritisch untersucht. Eine Schlussfolgerung ordnet das Bemühen
wissenschaftlichen Engagements mit Deutschlands kolonialer
Vergangenheit in dessen Bedeutung für die Gegenwart ein.