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'Long overdue' apology for Namibia

Wolfgang Dick
April 25, 2017

The Evangelical Church in Germany has asked descendants of the victims of the Herero genocide in Namibia for forgiveness. Petra Bosse-Huber told DW about the church's role in the genocide.

Namibia Frauen des Herero Volkes
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/

DW: Why has the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) made its statement about the genocide , which took place at the turn of the last century, now?

Petra Bosse-Huber: It is long overdue, so it's good that it's coming now. There is also a concrete reason. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is holding its congress in Windhoek (the capital of Namibia) at the beginning of May. Colonial history plays a large role. In 1984, LWF suspended one of its members for its connection to apartheid and racism. We continue to cope with the past and the EKD wanted to keep up with additional reconciliation efforts.

The EKD's role in colonial history has been studied over the years. What have been the most important or surprising findings?

I was most surprised by the different roles church representatives assumed. The Rhine Mission was heavily involved in Namibia. There were priests and deacons who stood clearly on the side of the Namibian people and denounced the injustice of dispossession, persecution and racism. There was another element of the Rhine Mission that kept much closer to the Kaiser. As heirs to the then-Evangelical Prussian High Consistory, we know that although no priest there called directly for annihilation, the relationship to colonial settlers and troops was so close there was no way they could have stood up to atrocities. That's why we can only ask for forgiveness.

Admission of guilt and asking for forgiveness are very clear gestures. What internal debate was there at the EKD?

Petra Bosse-Huber Vizepräses der Evangelischen Kirche im Rheinland
Petra Bosse-HuberImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Our statement is the result of a long process. The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Waterberg in 2004 spurred the initial research, which we began in 2007 and concluded in 2015. It took some convincing and there was resistance to it, but that was broken down over the years by dealing with the subject. Ultimately, all evangelical churches and missions were actively involved and shared the historical findings.

In concrete terms, what is the EKD taking on in asking for forgiveness for past wrongs?

In January, we met with our Namibian partners to ensure our apology would not be received as an insult of any kind as well as to lay out specific measures: A Namibian-German Institute for Reconciliation and Development as well as identifying and creating memorial locations for the genocide in both Namibia and Germany. These places of mass murder largely lack any indication of what transpired and offer no opportunity to reflect. This is difficult to bear.

Then there is the matter of returning victims' remains, such as skulls of those from the local population, still in Germany. These were allegedly brought to Germany for medical purposes. Returning these remains must happen in an appropriate and dignified manner. If you know a little about Africa and know the significance of ancestors there, you know how sensitive the issue is.

We must also discuss how to go about developing a culture of memory. Germany's colonial history is unfortunately one that few Germans know much about. The churches in Germany and Namibia will meet a second time at the end of the summer. There is a huge amount to do for it.

Colonial Germany massacred tens of thousands of people from Namibian tribes such as the Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908Image: picture alliance/akg-images

The German government has recognized the massacre as a genocide. What role does the EKD play in ongoing discussions between the Namibian and German governments?

We have close contacts, but we have no political role. I hope those on both sides charged with these discussions take them very seriously. We will do everything we can from our side to support them. As the Evangelical Church, we have a strong interest in the victims being heard and their concerns leading to political action.

What about reparations from the EKD?

Fortunately that is not an issue for us because there is no historical evidence of culpability that would raise such a question. If we were to consider reparations, it would make the honest reappraisal [of history] even more difficult.

Does the Catholic Church also need to apologize?

We as Protestants had an impact in Namibia to an extent the Catholic Church did not in southern Africa, South Africa and Namibia. In this regard, it is a completely different history.

Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber has been the vice president of the Evangelical Church in Germany since 2014, and heads the Department for Ecumenical Relations and Ministries Abroad.

The interview was conducted by Wolfgang Dick.

World Stories - The Genocide of the Herero in Namibia