1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The struggle to call it 'genocide'

Daniel Pelz
June 15, 2016

Since Germany's parliament branded mass killings in Armenia in 1915 as genocide, politicians are now debating recognizing colonial-era killings in today's Namibia in the same way. Daniel Pelz reports from Berlin.

Image: picture alliance/akg-images

It was none other than the speaker of Germany's lower house of parliament who sparked off the latest debate over how to recognize colonial-era crimes committed by German troops in today's Namibia.

It was "regrettable and, in the context of recent debates, also a bit embarassing" that the German legislature had yet to make a statement on the mass killings, Norbert Lammert told public broadcaster ZDF last Sunday.

Opposition members of parliament were quick to agree.

Passing a resolution quickly would be a sign that Germany and its parliament were not shying away from their historic responsibilities, lawmaker Uwe Kerkeritz told the daily newspaper 'Berliner Zeitung'.

For decades, Germany's parliament and governments tried their level best to avoid this dark chapter of German colonial history.

Until last year, officials were reluctant to call the killings of more than 65,000 Hereros and 10,000 Nama a "genocide". Attempts to pass a motion in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, failed.

"The thinking was that if we start to recognize crimes from our colonial past, we would become liable for compensations and reparations and where would that end?" Green lawmaker Hans-Christian Stroebele told ZDF.

Namibia's government would welcome a motion by the Bundestag recognizing the atrocities. Both countries are currently negotiating about an official recognition of the genocide at government level.

Herero and Nama graves in a shady cemetery
Herero and Nama graves in a cemetery in Namibia, formerly German South-West AfricaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Kaufhold

Talks have been postponed

"It would be a good thing for Germany to do, so we all can start a new chapter in the relationship between our two countries," special envoy for the negotiations with Germany, Zed Ngavirue, told DW from the Namibian capital, Windhoek.

Germany hopes to conclude the negotiations before the end of the current parliamentary term in September next year.

But that's not certain.

A round of talks slated to take place in Windhoek this week has been postponed. The exact reason is unclear. Namibia's government insists that it is just a change of date.

But there could be other reasons. The Namibian government has repeatedly come under fire. The Ovaherero Traditional Authority - one out of several bodies claiming to represent the Herero ethnic group - is demanding direct negotiations with the German government. Representatives of the authority insist that the government is not representing their interests in the talks. The government denies the claims.

Demonstrators hold up placards
Protesters took to the streets in Germany earlier this year, calling for the killings to be formally recognizedImage: Imago/IPON

"Government has to sort itself out"

But the Ovaherro Traditional Authority is just one out of seven groups representing the Hereros. "They do not want the negotiations to take place between the two envoys as agreed by the two governments," Ngavirue told DW. Six other Herero authorities are participating in the talks.

The discussions between community representatives and the Namibian government could have an impact on the progress of the negotiations.

"The Namibian government had to sort out the question of an involvement of the affected communities in the talks, even though these are government negotiations," Germany's special envoy for the negotiations, Ruprecht Polenz, told German national broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "We hope that this process will be sped up a little bit," he added.

Namibia Genozid deutscher Truppen Hereros erinnern an Kolonialverbrechen
Hereros regularly commemorate the events of the colonial era, for example with performances reminding others how they were treatedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

Reparations remain a potential stumbling block

The issue of reparations could also prolong the talks.

Germany has ruled out paying direct compensation to the victims' descendants. Still, money is an issue. "There will be certainly discussions about what kind of projects could be suitable to ease existing disadvantages that date back to the colonial period," Polenz told Deutschlandfunk.

Germany's government has suggested setting up a foundation together with the Namibian government. The new institution could fund projects to increase awareness of the genocide in both countries. Namibia has not yet put its demands forward officially.

"They have put forward their position, we are going to submit our position in writing," Special Envoy Zed Ngavirue told DW. "The document, that will state in clear terms the position of our government and our people, will be sent to the German government through their special envoy and will then be negotiated," he said.

Skip next section Explore more