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Germany refers to Herero massacre as genocide

Kate BradyJuly 13, 2016

Berlin has officially referred to colonial-era crimes committed by German troops in today's Namibia as genocide. The government has been criticized, however, for holding talks with Namibia without survivors' descendants.

Herero prisoners
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2003-0005/Unknown/CC-BY-SA 3.0

For decades, Germany's parliament and governments tried their level best to avoid this dark chapter of German colonial history. Daily newspaper "Frankfurter Rundschau," reported on Tuesday, however, that for the first time in an official document, the German government referred to the massacre committed at the turn of the twentieth century as genocide.

Between 1904 and 1908, German soldiers drove thousands of Herero and Nama into the desert, leading to the deaths of a disputed number thought to be around 100,000 people. This followed the uprising of the Herero in 1904, after which General Lothar von Trotha ordered the destruction of the tribe. Today, the former colony which was occupied by Germany between 1884 and 1915 is Namibia.

An official response to an inquiry by a member of the German parliament's Left Party faction said the document, quoted by the "Frankfurter Rundschau," "reflected the position of the government."

This means the German government has funamentally changed its assessment of the atrocities committed by German soldiers in what is now Namibia.

No legal consequences

Berlin had always previously stressed that "historical events" could only be classified as genocide if committed after the implementation of the UN Genocide Convention in 1951.

Earlier this year, however, the Bundestag - Germany's lower house of parliament - reclassified the massacre of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

In the document quoted by the "Frankfurter Rundschau" on Tuesday, the German government stressed that in a "historical-political" led debate a genocide can also be defined in a "non-legal" sense, meaning that, despite the change in terminology, there are currently no legal consequences facing Germany.

Bundestag President Norbert Lammert had also referred to the colonial era crimes as "genocide" in July 2015.

Praise for amendment

The request from Berlin's left faction was filed by politician Niema Movassat in light of the ongoing non-public discussions between Germany and Namibia.

The document released by the government stressed, however, that the negotiations are not focused on reparations or compensation - such as those accorded to Holocaust victims.

Movassat praised the change in terminology on Tuesday, saying that it was "good that the government had aligned itself with the opinion of academic experts and had spoken of the genocide, better late than never."

The left-wing lawmaker added, however, that the "ongoing secret talks without the descendants of the survivors" was "totally unacceptable."