Germany’s past in the present

Germany has admitted responsibility for genocide among Nama and Ovaherero in its colony South West Africa during 1904-1908. But why is there unwillingness to apologize and to pay reparations? An open seminar on Tuesday discusses the unresolved colonial legacy.

In January 1904, Ovaherero soldiers killed more than 100 German farmers in a surprise attack in German South West Africa, today’s Namibia. It was a reaction to resist further encroachment of their land and subjugation under foreign rule. Germany responded with massive military mobilisation. Tens of thousands of Ovaherero died from deliberate starvation following on order from a German military commander. Others were put in concentration camps.

The Nama who engaged in guerilla warfare against the Germans suffered a similar fate.

An estimated two-thirds of the Ovaherero and one-third to a half of the Nama were eliminated.

While concrete figures for the numbers killed remain a matter of dispute, there is clear evidence of the “intent to destroy”, the core definition of genocide. The German colonial rule in then South West Africa marked the first genocide of the 20th century.

Henning Melber. Photo: Mattias Sköld

After decades of denial, the German foreign ministry in 2015 for the first time recognised German responsibility for the genocide. Bilateral talks between the German and Namibian governments followed since then.

However, the German government has so far not apologised and been unwilling to acknowledge any claims for compensation.

”This would open up a Pandora’s box in the eyes of other European leaders”, says NAI senior research associate Henning Melber.

While Germany could afford to pay reparations for its short-lived history as colonial power, the same costs for other European governments would be incalculable, Melber notes.

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