100 years after Germany gave up its colonial rule in Southwest Africa, there have been fresh calls for the German government to admit that genocide was committed against the Hereros and Nama in what is now Namibia.
Representatives of six German NGOs and a Namibian politician personally handed in a petition to the residence of Germany's president, Joachim Gauck, calling for the German government to admit culpability for genocide in an early 20th century war in Germany's former colony of Southwest Africa, today's Namibia. While the German president did not receive the group, the president of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, expressed agreement with them that the acts amounted to genocide.
"Just as the Turkish government carries responsibility for the way in which it deals with the genocide against the Armenians, we are also responsible for addressing this history [with Namibia]," Lammert wrote in an opinion piece published on Wednesday in the German newspaper "Die Zeit."
NGOs responded cautiously to the news and reiterated their demands in the face of what appears to be a change in government policy.
"We are asking that the government recognize the colonial war against the Nama and Herero as genocide," Christian Kopp of NGO Berlin Postkolonial told DW. "We are also demanding an apology from the highest levels of government - the president, the chancellor's office, ideally the Bundestag, as well as the return of all human remains."
The human remains issue has become highly emotive. During the war, which took place from 1904-1908, German eugenics researchers requested that colonial troops collect and send to Berlin skulls and other human remains of several thousand of the 80,000 vanquished Nama and Herero peoples. Some of the remains were used in research while others were sold as collectors' items throughout Europe.
Ida Hoffmann, a Namibian member of parliament who flew to Berlin to take part in the handing over of the petition, said the act represents a significant turning point for what has become an international movement bringing together German NGOs and Namibian tribal activists like herself, a Nama descendant.
The petition was handed over shortly before the 100th anniversary of the end of German colonial rule in Southwest Africa on July 9, 1915.
Hoffmann was unhappy that Gauck did not meet the group at his residence, Bellevue Palace in Berlin, despite the fact that he was there when they called and they had announced weeks earlier their intention to visit
"That was an affront - not only against Namibians but also against the many Germans who signed this petition," Hoffmann told DW.
The Namibian genocide – and indeed, the fact that Germany had colonies in Africa – has been largely forgotten here. Namibians, however, began commemorating the genocide with an annual ceremony back in 1932. The German government, for its part, remained silent on the issue until 2004, when then Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul traveled to Namibia to apologize.
"I want to acknowledge the violence inflicted on your ancestors by the German colonial powers, particularly the Herero and the Nama," Wieczorek-Zeul said at the time. "The atrocities, the murders, the crimes committed at that time are today termed genocide and General Lothar von Trotta would be prosecuted and convicted and rightly so. In the words of the Lord's Prayer, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses and our guilt."
Commemorate victims, not perpetrators
Ida Hoffmann is a member of the Nama Genocide Committee
The NGOs are incensed over what they say is an official taboo on talking about the Nama and Herero genocide – and Kaiser Wilhelm's complicity – in national museums and school textbooks. They also criticize the existence of monuments glorifying Germany's colonial history. Kopp cites a monument to seven fallen German colonial soldiers on Berlin's Columbiadamm street.
"For years we had complained about this monument," Kopp said. "And finally the city put up a plaque to honor the Namibian victims. But actually, it doesn't really honor them at all: it's a tiny stone for 80,000 murdered Namibians that literally sits below a much larger rock for 7 soldiers who are essentially being honored for committing genocide against the Namibians."
Ida Hoffmann and the NGOs are particularly upset that Gauck recently acknowledged the Armenian genocide of 1915, but not the Germans' own genocide in Namibia.
They cite reparations paid to Jewish and Eastern European groups who suffered under the Nazi regime as a model they want Germany to follow.
"Reparations have to be paid," Hoffmann emphasized. "It's not something strange. It just has to be done."