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Demonstration in Berlin against the genocide by German troops in Namibi
Image: Imago/IPON

Is Germany responding to Namibia's genocide claims?

Daniel Pelz
November 14, 2017

For two years, German and Namibian officials have been negotiating how to reappraise the colonial-era genocide. A Namibian politician has now claimed Berlin is changing its position on key issues.


Whenever German and Namibian delegates sit down to discuss a recognition deal for the colonial-era genocide that took place in the former German colony, information is often hard to come by. Both sides only informed the press about the last round of negotiations in Berlin back in September after they had already taken place. "The talks progressed in a very good and constructive atmosphere," was all Germany's foreign ministry was willing to reveal in a brief statement.

Many observers think the talks are progressing too slowly. Namibia's government submitted its demands to their German counterparts in July 2016. It took the German government almost a year to respond. Intervals between the negotiation rounds are said to be very long, with virtually no communication between the two sides.

Read more: After Namibia, could other former German colonies demand reparations?

However, a lawsuit brought forward by activists of the Herero and Nama ethnicities in New York in January is said to be putting the German government under considerable pressure.

World Stories - The Genocide of the Herero in Namibia

Namibian politician Kazenambo Kazenambo, a member of the ruling party's Politburo, told the Namibia Sun newspaper that he had seen a confidential German position paper on its talks with Namibia. If his comments about the document are true, it would signal a significant German shift on some of the key discussion points.

'Atrocities" instead of "genocide?'

According to Kazenambo, the German government wants the genocide to only be referred to as "atrocities." Various German governments in the past have refused to acknowledge that genocide ever took place in the former colony, although tens of thousands of ethnic Hereros and Nama are believed to have died when German troops brutally crushed an uprising against their colonial rule between 1904 and 1908.

However, in 2015, the German government made a U-turn, when foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer told journalists that "the war of extermination in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a war crime and genocide." The declaration won the German government worldwide acclaim and respect.

Read more: Over 1,000 skulls from Germany's colonies still sitting in Berlin

But is the German government about to make another U-turn? An embassy press release from June of this year spoke of "events during the years 1904-1908 of the German colonial era" while the Namibia Sun reported that Germany's ambassador to Namibia, Christian Schlaga, used the term "atrocities" in a speech just last month.

The German foreign ministry did not respond to questions submitted by DW on the matter, nor on the claims made by Kazenambo. Special envoy for the Namibia talks Ruprecht Polenz also did not want to give an interview to DW, saying that the German position paper was a confidential document.

This makes it effectively impossible to verify Kazenambo's claims, which anyway should be approached with caution. The former youth minister is a firebrand politician who has in the past criticized his government for not exercising enough pressure on Germany in the negotiations.

Members of the Herero tribe living in the USA stand before the court in New Yor
Herero and Nama representatives want to negotiate directly with Germany.Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt-Tegge

Looming legal repercussions

German colonial historian Juergen Zimmerer told DW that there are a number reasons for the German government to be careful when using the term "genocide."

"There is a fear that this could create a precedent, encourage legal claims and imply that Germany could be liable to make reparation payments," he said.

The German government has repeatedly stated that it believes there is no legal basis for reparations. It has however hinted in the past that it would be willing to support projects in the areas of vocational training, land reform, energy supply and an affordable housing program. Namibia is also a major recipient of German development assistance.

But Zimmerer says that replacing the term "genocide" with "atrocities" would go down very badly with many Namibians. "People in Namibia have been saying for years that they want historical guilt to be recognized," Zimmerer told DW. "I think there would be an outcry if claims that Germany wants to drop the term 'genocide' were to be confirmed."

Archive photo Before the march into battle against the Herero people in German Southwest Africa, the 2nd Navy Field Company is officially consecrated. ( ((c) picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rohrmann)
Tens of thousands of Herero and Nama are said to have been killed by the German troops between 1904 and 1908.Image: (c) picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rohrmann

According to Kazenambo's statements, Germany now also wants representatives of the affected communities to be included in the ongoing negotiations. So far, only some Herero and Nama representatives have been involved, but community leaders have been pushing for their own direct negotiations with the German government. The hope to achieve this by forcing the German government to answer to a lawsuit filed in a New York court at the beginning of the year. A hearing is scheduled for January.

Read more: Opinion: Germany must apologize for Namibia genocide

According to Zimmerer, the lawsuit could be the key reason why Germany might have changed its position. "I assume that people in Berlin sense that the court will rule against them, forcing them to instead say that they now want the Hereros and Namas to be included in the talks," he told DW. "It's part of a strategy to sap the foundations from the lawsuit."

The lawsuit also puts increasing pressure on the federal government. At first, it appeared relaxed about the accusations, in no small part because previous litigation attempts by Herero and Nama representatives had failed.

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