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'An official apology means compensation'

Mark Caldwell
March 5, 2014

Afro-German rights groups have once again called for an official apology for Germany's colonial atrocities in Namibia. The demands were made during the handing over of remains of Herero victims to a Namibian delegation.

Image: Gerhard Süß-Jung

On Wednesday (05.03.2014) Berlin's Charite hospital handed over three complete skeletons and 18 skulls to a delegation from Namibia. The remains are more than a hundred years old and date back to the time of repressive German colonial rule. The Herero and Nama ethnic group had rebelled against their German colonial masters and the uprising was brutally put down and tens of thousands were killed. Historians call it genocide, but successive German governments have steadfastly declined to use that term, let alone contemplate reparations.

DW: How significant is this return of remains of the Herero people for both Germany and Namibia?

Henning Melber: Actually it should be significant for both sides, but I am afraid it is much more significant for the Namibian side, for the Herero and the Nama side, than it is for the German side. The German side is very reluctant to recognize what happened 110 years ago as genocide. This is despite the fact that a UN report years ago that looked at the genocide of the twentieth century described the actions against the Herero and Nama in what was then called German south west Africa as the first genocide of the twentieth century. For the Namibians, it's important and literally speaking its the skeletons coming out of the closet. This is now the second transfer of skulls back to Namibia. The first (transfer) happened one and half years ago and it ended in a huge embarrassment because the German side was desperate to downplay the symbolic relevance of the act and avoided an official apology for the genocide. It is very interesting to see that the second transfer happened on a much lower scale .

Why does the German government shy away from the term genocide in this particular context?

First of all the admission of the genocide might lead to demands for compensation. So there is a reluctant to admit to genocide because there is no expiry date on genocide and the victims could come up with demands for compensation. I think it is a much more wider issue. Because if Germany would do that, it would be a precedence where other colonial powers who committed genocides all over the world in the colonial era, would be under pressure to come up with similar recognition. It's a speculative thing but I assume that the Germans are actually advised from other European countries not to recognize the act of genocide.

What might be the outcome if the German government were to apologize for what had happened in what was then German South West Africa?

Legally speaking that would open the doors for subsequent demands. An official apology offered would be considered in legal terms as an admission of guilt. That is also why in 2004, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the then Social Democrat minister for development attended the 100 years ceremony of the battle in Namibia, but did not explicitly offer an apology but asked for forgiveness. When asked she said it was an apology, but legally speaking, as others pointed out it was not in legal terms an apology. T his is what the German government has always avoided.

Can you see any future German government adopting a different stance on this issue?

It's interesting that a year ago, there were two drafts discussed in the German Bundestag, one by the Left Party and the other by the Social Democratic and Green parties. Both went much further than anything that any government before had adopted as an official line. The only difference was that the Left Party asked also for compensation and the other submission by the Social Democratic and the Green Party stopped short of that but also asked for an official apology. So now one of those two parties is in the great coalition government. And Actually it is very interesting question to the Social Democratic coalition partner in that government how much they are loyal to the submission they had put to the Bundestag a year ago.

Henning Melber is a German political scientist specializing in Namibia.

Interview: Mark Caldwell.

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