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Herero genocide

March 23, 2012

The German parliament has thrown out an opposition motion calling on the government to acknowledge that a massacre committed by German troops in what is now Namibia more than 100 years ago was genocide.

Hereros taken prisoner in 1904
Image: ullstein bild

"Every Herero on German territory, with or without rifles, with or without cattle, will be shot. I'm not taking in any more women and children, drive them back to their people or have them shot."

That order, issued by General Lothar von Trotha on October 2, 1904, opened one of the darkest chapters in Imperial Germany's colonial history. In the years that followed, more 70,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama, most of the tribal populations, were killed as an anti-colonial uprising was crushed.

Namibian victims' groups and German NGOs have been saying for some time that these German colonial massacres should be recognized as genocide. Christian Kopp from Berlin Postkolonial says the term genocide is appropriate "because there was a clear intent to wipe out the Herero and the Hama."

Niema Movassat is a deputy for the opposition Left Party in the German parliament. He says hundreds of thousands were shot or hanged, or deprived of water and left to die of thirst in the desert. Or put into camps for forced labour. "One has to take responsibility for this," he told DW. At the end of February, the Left Party brought a motion before parliament calling for the murderous campaign in what was then German South West Africa to be declared as genocide. "There has never been an official apology," said Movassat.

A plaque in 'memory of German genocide in Namibia from 1904 to 1908
A plaque in 'memory of German genocide in Namibia from 1904 to 1908'Image: dpa

Two other parties in the German parliament, the Social Democrats and Greens, put forward their own joint motion. Greens deputy Hans-Christian Ströbele told DW he didn't wish to hide the fact many German governments have been averse to classifying this crime as genocide. "We do, however, criticize the Left Party for acting as if this subject had never been broached at all. The truth is that the German parliament has been debating it every 10 years, and deliberating every time over whether or not it was genocide. Declarations were made every now and again, but parliamentarians fought shy of clear pronouncements," Ströbele said.

Between 1884 and 1915, Germany was the colonial master in what is today Namibia. The Herero people were massacred between 1904 and 1905. "All colonial powers were ruthless," says Henning Melber, an expert on Namibia from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Stockholm. "The point about Germany in South West Africa is that it waged a war quite openly that these days would classify as genocide. It is not as if genocide was practiced in secret. In imperial Germany, events in German South West Africa were considered important and the political elite boasted quite openly that they had wiped out the Herero and Nama."

'The state could be forced to pay reparations'

It was only after Namibia became independent in 1990 that the full scope of the crime became public knowledge in the country itself. That was when the Herero and Hama put it on the political agenda. But it wasn't until 2006 that the Ovambo people, who formed the majority in the Namibian parliament, gave backing to Herero and Hama claims for restitution.

Little has happened on the German side, says Christian Kopp from Berlin Postkolonial, because the political elite is afraid of the legal and moral consequences that a clear definition of this crime might bring in its wake. "The state could be forced to pay reparations," Kopp explains.

In 2004, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the then Social Democrat minister for development, travelled to Namibia to mark the centenary of the Herero genocide. She delivered a moving speech which contained a clear reference to German guilt. "But it was later dismissed a purely personal remark, not representing government policy," said the Left Party's Niema Movassat.

Henning Melber also believes Germany does not wish to anger its European partners. "I can well imagine that France, Great Britain and Portugal are following very closely how Germany is tackling this issue. If Germany were to agree to hand over millions of euros, that could set a precedent which could trigger negotiations elsewhere. Germany's European partners might well advise it behind closed doors to let matters rest.

'More urgent African topics'

At the end of last year, a gesture of reconciliation between Germany and Namibia ended in a diplomatic incident. A Namibian delegation had travelled to Germany to collect a number of Namibian skulls which had been found in Berlin's Charite hospital. They dated back to the time of the Herero massacre. But the occasion was ruined by a faux-pas in which German government representatives left the room while the African delegates were still speaking.

This latest debate in the German parliament shows how divided it is over Namibia. During the first reading of the Left Party's motion, Christian Democrat deputy Hartwig Fischer wondered if there were not "more urgent African topics for parliament to discuss." He cited South Sudan and Somalia as examples.

Both motions - those of the Left Party and of the Greens and Social Democrats - were voted down on Thursday. Thomas Melber, who himself has lived in Nambia, believes the issue is far from closed. "Namibia has a deep collective memory for past injustices and an oral tradition, the tradition of telling stories." The suffering will not be forgotten, he believes.

Author: Johanna Schmeller/mc
Edítor: Daniel Pelz / rm