Herero Massacre

Germany’s Colonial History Catches Up

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A general's jacket depicting badges that commemorate the genocide. Source: dpa

A lawsuit against the German government for perpetrating genocide in Namibia while it was colonized in the early 20th century is moving forward. The decision by the judge has the potential to derail ongoing negotiations between Germany and the sitting Namibian government, but those may already have crash and burned. It may now be time for Berlin to pay.

It’s one of the darkest chapters of the German Empire during the colonization period. From 1904 to 1908, German generals in what they called German South West Africa undertook a campaign of racial extermination, driving Herero and Nama people into the desert and letting them die of dehydration and starvation. It’s estimated anywhere from 24,000 to 110,000 people died during what the UN deemed the first holocaust of the 20th century.

In the class action lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Herero and Nama people, the plaintiffs are asking for reparation payments and a voice throughout the negotiations. For Germany’s foreign policy, thought to be on a track for reconciliation, the lawsuit is considered a severe setback.

“The German delegation have driven the negotiations into a wall.”

Jürgen Zimmerer, Colonial history professor

First attempts at reconciliation were made in 2004 when Germany’s former Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), tried to apologize for Germany’s colonial atrocities. She called the war tactics of General Lothar von Trotha a genocide and offered €20 million, or $24.8 million in 2004 terms, to the country’s government in the form of a special initiative. The money, representatives of the Herero and Nama people claim, never found its way to them.

Hence the lawsuit.

Namibia is the top benefactor of Germany’s aide coffers, most recently receiving €72 million from 2015 to 2016. It’s all part of Germany’s ongoing attempt to establish a special relationship with the southwest African nation, which began in 1990. However, this money went to the federal government and Namibia’s ruling party, The South West Africa People’s Organization Party of Namibia (SWAPO), and relations between SWAPO and the Herero and Nama nations is less than friendly. The animosity stems from the outstanding land claims made by both groups, whose ancestors used to own the land that now makes up the southwest African country.

In 2015, the government appointed Ruprecht Polenz as a special ambassador to negotiate how to best handle the situation with Namibia on behalf of the Germany. The negotiations, however, took a turn for the worse at the end of last year. A new round of negotiations, which were scheduled for February or March, have yet to take place. Asked if there’s a new date for the negotiations, Polenz said, “No, not yet.”

Meanwhile, Germany’s foreign ministry said, “The talks between the government and the democratically-elected government of Namibia to process the combined colonial history are taking place with mutual trust and in a constructive manner.”

But Hamburg-based colonial history professor Jürgen Zimmerer has a different opinion. “The German delegation have driven the negotiations into a wall,” Mr. Zimmerer said. The destruction happened when Polenz told representatives of both the Herero and Nama people that the genocide against their ancestors is not comparable to the genocide against Jews during the Second World War. Some representatives took this to mean that “black lives have no value,” according to Bernardus Swartbooi, who is Nama and the former vice land reformation minister. The ongoing divide between the SWAPO and the two nations hasn’t made deal making any easier.

“The colonizers are dictating the condition of peace as they did in war.”

Perivi John Katjavivi, Filmmaker

Neither Herero nor Nama peoples feel represented in the negotiations. In documenting the 2011 repatriation of 20 skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims from Berlin’s Charité hospital, filmmaker Perivi John Katjavivi addressed the negotiations. “The colonizers are dictating the condition of peace as they did in war,” he wrote. His analysis culminates with the statement, “We are not only descendants of genocide victims, we are direct victims because it forced us into generations of poverty.”

The assessment is included in lawyer Ken McCallion’s filing on behalf of Herero chief Vekuii Rukoro and David Frederick, who represents the Nama people in the suit. The New York-based lawyer has experience arguing against German government lawyers: he represented Holocaust victims in their compensation claims. “The forced expropriation itself was an act of genocide,” Mr. McCallion wrote. Now that a judge has allowed the suit to proceed, a hearing has been scheduled in July. No one representing the German government official attended the first hearing. For the plaintiffs, this is already a little victory.

Namibia’s SWAPO government, however, reacted immediately to the decision in New York. The country’s general attorney appointed half a dozen lawyers in the U.K. and Namibia to prepare a lawsuit. Namibia’s government is now demanding about $20 million in reparations. Whether the government will go through with is not yet known, but the lawyers alone will cost an estimated $36 million.

The decision has made ripples across Africa too. In Tanzania, on the other side of the continent, Defense Minister Hussein Muriny has been watching the proceedings closely. He recently said he plans to ask for an apology and compensation from Germany for its role in the Maji-Maji rebellion, during which an estimated 300,000 people lost their lives.

Mr. Zimmerer said that other compensation claims from countries like Cameroon or Togo can’t be ruled out either. “Should the Herero and Nama be successful with their lawsuit in New York, what do you think will happen?”


This story first appeared in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel daily, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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