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No reconciliation without an apology

Daniel Pelz
August 29, 2018

Germany's decision to return colonial-era human remains to Namibia is an important step toward reconciliation. But the gesture is worthless without an apology for the country's genocide in Africa, says DW's Daniel Pelz.

German forces in Namibia in 1904
Image: picture alliance/dpa/F. Rohrmann

Finally, a small gesture. The return of human remains is a signal to Namibia that Germany regrets the crimes committed during its colonial past. It was bare racism that compelled people to loot graves and remove human bones for questionable research in the German empire. It culminated in the genocide of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people.

Mistakes on all sides

It's a gesture that comes at the right time, after years of unsuccessful negotiations, arguments about compensation and verbal attacks. Two years ago, the German government promised to apologize for the genocide, more than a century after it ended. Namibia is still waiting, and so are the Herero and Nama. Namibians have the impression that the German government doesn't want to confess to its past guilt.

Read more: Genocide in Namibia: Germany remains at odds with its colonial legacy

Germany’s dark history in Namibia

Sure, Germany does not bear sole responsibility for the years of delay. Both sides have long taken positions and made demands that made agreement impossible.

The German government will only apologize once the issue of reparations has been settled to its satisfaction. Namibian authorities have done nothing to include in the negotiations representatives of the Herero and Nama critical of the government, while on the other hand, they publicly flirted with a lawsuit against Germany. With due respect for justified frustration at the missing apology, a few representatives of the Herero and Nama have attracted attention by making unrealistic demands and directing verbal attacks at Germany.

The return to Namibia of the remains comes at this very tense time.

Pelz, Daniel
DW's Daniel Pelz

It is an opportunity to pause for a moment and think about Germany's colonial past and the crimes it committed. In particular about the worst German colonial crime, as far as we know: the murder of tens of thousands — some even say hundreds of thousands — of Herero and Nama men, women and children who German colonial soldiers imprisoned in concentration camps or chased into the desert to perish of thirst. There are countless victims whose names and fates have long been forgotten. These people were denied eternal rest. Their bones were kept in cardboard boxes in German hospital storerooms for decades. As a result, present-day Herero and Nama were never able to bury their ancestors in a dignified way.

Chance for a new approach

This is an opportunity for all sides to approach one other, a chance at an agreement for both governments, whose negotiators are scheduled to hold talks again on Friday. It is also an opportunity for the two sides to reach out to those Herero and Nama who took Germany to court in New York.

Read more: Germany's new Africa policy builds on old solutions

It is an opportunity to finally get them involved in earnest in the negotiations. And it is an opportunity for some representatives to drop their demands and accept that ultimately, an agreement over this issue will be concluded between governments. The fact that one of the representatives is allowed to speak at the ceremony is an encouraging first step. The fact that critical representatives of German civil society must remain outside, however, is not.

For all the importance of this day, real reconciliation requires an apology.

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