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Germany's Colonial Past

DW staff (th)
June 15, 2007

The German parliament is debating whether to grant reparations to the Herero tribe in Namibia. German soldiers killed nearly 80 percent of the South West Africa tribe during colonial rule more than 100 years ago.

German troops crushed the Herero uprisingImage: dpa

In 1904 in the German territory of South West Africa, today's Namibia, German troops led by General Lothar von Trotha mercilessly put down a rebellion of the indigenous Herero people. General von Trotha once remarked he wanted to exterminate "the revolting tribes in rivers of blood." By the time the conflict ended four years later, between 45,000 to 65,000 Herero were killed, many of whom suffered in work camps some consider the forerunners to WWII-era concentration camps.

Germany's Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul publically apologized for the genocide three years ago. So far, successive German governments have refused to enter into any discussions on possible reparations.

Decrying "business as ususal"

Hererofrau mit traditionellem Kopfputz
A Herero woman wearing the traditional hatImage: dpa

But Germany's Left Party wants to begin talks between Germany and Namibia that could lead to monetary compensation. Hüseyin Aydin, spokesperson for the Left Party, said the acknowledgement of a genocide meant no one could continue with business as usual.

Members of the ruling coalition made up of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) voiced opposition to the idea of reparations.

Anke Eimer of the CDU said "isolated views" in favor of reparations did not reflect the general opinion in Namibia. Gert Weisskirchen of the SPD expressed his disgust at the killings but rejected what he called intentions of the Left Party "to instrumentalize the sufferings" of the Herero and Nama people. He also reminded parliament of Germany's generous development aid to Namibia.

A request for dialogue

Henrik Witboi
Henrik Witboi was a Herero chiefImage: www.traditionsverband.de

Chief Kuaima Riruako, the traditional leader of the Herero people, attended the Wednesday parliamentary debate with his wife, who was dressed in traditional Herero style with the unique broad hat.

Earlier Wednesday, Riruako had thanked the Left Party for its initiative. He also expressed satisfaction that Munich had changed General von Trotha Street to Herero Street.

"More than 100 years after the fateful war against my people I am not here to seek revenge against anybody," Riruako told Deutsche Welle. "I have only been appealing to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany for a dialogue so that we can talk about our colonial experience."

The Herero never completely recovered from the conflict and of the around 100,000 that today live in Namibia many live in poverty or work on the farms of white landowners. In 2001, tribal leaders tried to sue Germany for compensation in US courts, but the claim for $4 billion (3.12 billion euros) never went very far. They also want reparations from Deutsche Bank, which allegedly profited from the forced labor in the camps.

The German parliament's motion on reparations was referred to some committees of the parliament. A final vote is not expected until the fall. Observers doubt the ruling coalition will vote in favor of reparations.