"We Germans recognize our historical, political, moral and ethical responsibility and guilt," the development minister said Saturday, choking back tears. Wieczorek-Zeul was in Namibia to participate in a service commemorating the anniversary of the battle of Warterberg 100 years ago.
During the fight, ín what was then the colonial German Southwest Africa, German soldiers are said to have forced the surviving Herero into the Omaheke desert and blocked access to all water sources. Thousands died a painful death from starvation and thirst. Between 45,000 and 65,000 Herero are believed to have been killed as well as 10,000 from the Nama tribe. German Gen. Lothar von Trotha said at the time he would "wipe them out with rivers of blood." Historians have described this policy as one of "blatant terrorism" and "shocking brutality."
"I respectfully commemorate your ancestors who died in the fight against their German oppressors," Wieczorek-Zeul told several thousand Herero people who gathered at the site of the battle. "Blinded by colonial delusion," she said, Germans brought "violence, discrimination, racism and destruction" to the country.
Minister: today it would have been genocide
Today, she said, the crimes that took place a hundred years ago would have been defined as genocide, and von Trotha would have been brought before a criminal tribunal.
"In the name of our common Lord, I ask for your forgiveness," she said, in a statement that was the most far-reaching admission of guilt Germany has yet given. Her comments were greeted with light applause from the audience. But many Herero have called on Germany to issue an explicit apology for the massacre. But Wieczorek-Zeul said that everything she said in her speech should be seen as an apology for the crimes committed under German leadership.
Namibia's minister of lands, Hifikepunye Pohamba, who is also expected to become the country's next president, said he accepted the apology "in the name of the Namibian people."
No official apology
An official apology from Berlin as well as the classification of the colonial war as genocide was one of the main demands the Herero people had made of the German government. One Herero group is currently suing Berlin in United States courts for damages in the billions of dollars. Referring to the lawsuits during a visit to Namibia in October, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer refused to offer an apology that could be used to bolster the case for reparations.
On Saturday, Wieczorek-Zeul pledged further development aid for Namibia as well as support for land reforms. Calculated on a per-capita basis, Namibia currently receives more development aid from Germany than any other African country. Since the country's independence from South Africa in 1990, it has received more than €500 million ($619 million) in German aid.
Calls for reconciliation
Both Wieczorek-Zeul and representatives of the Heroro have called for reconciliation between the descendents of the victims and culprits of the uprising.
"We recall with tears the victims of our ancestors. Today we should make right what was made wrong a hundred years ago," Herero Bishop Kameeta said. He called on all Namibians to reconcile with themselves and with the descendants of those responsible for the acts of cruelty.
More than 3,000 Herero, Nama and Namibians of German origin gathered in Okarara at the foot of the Warterberg for Saturday's memorial service. The day's events also included reenactments of the fateful battle.
In 1904, the Herero launched a major uprising against their German colonial masters, killing more than 100 Germans. The uprising led Germany's von Trotha to order to decimation of the entire Herero population. Fortunately, he did not succeed, and today there are again 120,000 Herero and 60,000 Nama minorities in the country.