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Namibia's Herero people have filed a lawsuit in the US against Germany over a genocide in the early 20th century. The case, which got underway on Tuesday, shows how Germany is still struggling with its colonial past.
"We Germans acknowledge our historical, political, moral and ethical responsibility and the guilt that Germans brought upon themselves," said Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul during a visit to Namibia back in 2004. Speaking at the Waterberg, where Emperor Wilhelm II's troops had mercilessly put down a rebellion against German colonial rule a hundred years earlier, the then minister for development aid was close to tears.
Tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people were killed by the so-called "protective troops" or died in concentration camps in the years after the 1904 battle. It was the first genocide of the 20th century, historians say.
Namibia had waited a long time for such words, but the German government of the time backed off, saying Wieczorek-Zeul had spoken as a private person. The backpedaling fitted a decades-old pattern: No matter what government happened to be in power, the country won international respect for coming to terms with the Holocaust, while at the same time its colonial past was ignored.
Government pledges to deal with colonial past
Finally, however, a cautious change of heart seems to be on the horizon.
A look at the current government's coalition agreement shows "a willingness that has not previously been publicly declared in this form" by the government to devote itself to the colonial issues, says colonialism expert Henning Melber, a senior adviser at the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation.
For the first time, the German government has pledged a willingness to deal with this aspect of its past. "We want to build a bridge from the past via the present to the future," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas promised in May on a visit to Tanzania.
The remark is a reflexive response given that the public discussion about colonial heritage has gained in importance, says Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of African history at the University of Hamburg. "On the other hand, it has become clear that we need to deal with our colonial history just like we did with East German history and National Socialism."
The debate about the German colonial era and its consequences has become louder in recent years. Heated discussions have led an increasing number of museums and archives to check whether objects from the former colonies have entered their collections legally or illegally. The most prominent example: a gigantic brachiosaurus skeleton in Berlin's Museum of Natural History that was brought to Berlin in colonial times from what is now Tanzania. Tanzanian activists demand its return; Tanzania's government does not.
There is also an ongoing emotional debate about thousands of human bones stored in museums and archives, brought to Germany from its past colonies for questionable research. Some of the institutions are planning to return the items. And activists are critical of the planned Humboldt Forum ethnological collection, a prestigious federal government project scheduled to open in Berlin next year.
Germany 'feels like the sorcerer's apprentice'
Additional pressure has come from abroad. Namibia's Herero and Nama have long demanded an official apology from the German government for the colonial-era genocide. Individual groups and politicians from Tanzania, once German East Africa, are also demanding compensation — 100,000 to 250,000 people are said to have died there in the 1905-1907 Maji Maji Rebellion against German colonial rule.
The German government has also come under indirect pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron, who in November 2017 pledged to return all stolen cultural treasures to France's ex-colonies within five years. Many Germans say Germany should follow his example.
But Germany's colonial heritage comprises far more than stolen cultural assets, Zimmerer told DW. "It's also about the other colonial-era crimes: the armed conflicts, the land expropriations and the genocide in Namibia," he argues.
Yet the coalition agreement doesn't mention the genocide in Namibia, even though an official German apology for that genocide was once regarded as politically important for the government. Since 2014, Berlin has been negotiating with the Namibian government, and an apology was to have been made before last year's general elections.
But the two sides could not agree. And while the German government continues to claim that it wants an agreement, frustration is on the rise in Namibia.
As a consequence, various Herero and Nama representatives filed a suit in a district court in New York in 2017. They want to negotiate compensation directly with the German government. The court has not yet decided whether it has jurisdiction in this case. For a long time, the German government refused to appear in court at all. Now, Berlin has filed a motion to dismiss the action. The court hears the case on Tuesday.
But the mere existence of the lawsuit has clearly increased the pressure on Berlin. "The government probably feels like the proverbial sorcerer's apprentice, unable to banish the spirits it called," says Melber. "It has started something and now doesn't know how to end it in a way that is acceptable for the Namibian side as well."
Amends but no reparations
Germany is remaining firm regarding compensation. "The German government considers that the use of the term 'genocide' does not entail any legal obligation to reparations, but rather political and moral obligations to heal the wounds. We're sticking to that position," Ruprecht Polenz, the German negotiator in the Namibia talks, told DW two years ago — and it is unlikely that stance has changed.
There are other means of support than reparations, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently said in response to calls for compensation coming from Tanzania.
The German government is concerned about creating a precedent if it officially agrees to pay compensation. "Germany was only one colonial power among several and not the only one that wasn't squeamish when it came to suppressing the people in the colonies," says Melber. "Other former colonial powers are watching negotiations between Germany and Namibia with great concern; they fear Germany will agree to something that would open the door wide to demands on the other colonial powers."
Indirectly, the German government has actually been making reparations for years: Namibia has received major development aid payments since independence and Germany has promised additional projects for the Herero and Nama regions. But the plaintiffs, at least, are still not satisfied.
What is more, in the years to come, other ex-colonies could become more vocal in their calls for compensation. Dealing with the colonial past has really only just begun in Berlin — and is likely to take a very long time.