Germany treading carefully regarding colonial crimes

Negotiations between Germany and Namibia about atrocities in South West Africa during 1904-1908 is followed closely by European governments. The case could open up a Pandora’s box for other former colonial powers, according to NAI senior research associate Henning Melber.

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.

No apology

After decades of denial, the German foreign ministry in 2015 for the first time recognised German responsibility for the genocide. Since then the German and Namibian governments entered into negotiations on how to come to terms with the crimes of the past.

However, the German government has so far not apologised or acknowledged any claims for compensation.

”This would open up a Pandora’s box in the eyes of other European leaders”, says Henning Melber, co-author of the new book "Völkermord – und was dann?" about the genocide in Namibia. The book appeals to a wider German public to face the need for true decolonization in the dominant German culture and mind set.

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.

“If Germany would acknowledge claims for direct compensation it would create precedence and open up for claims for all sorts of atrocities during colonial times. The leaders in Paris, Lisbon, London, The Hague and Brussels would not be amused.”


Henning Melber. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Walk a thin line

In the past there have only been two related court cases, where former colonial powers have recognised criminal responsibility while limiting compensation to a few individuals. In 2013 Great Britain agreed to compensate Kenyans who had been tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950’s.  

Under similar circumstances The Netherlands paid reparations to Indonesian widows whose men were executed by Dutch soldiers in 1947 during colonial rule.

Henning Melber says that the former colonial powers all walk a thin line, apologising for atrocities while refusing to acknowledge the right to direct reparations.

The official German policy so far, Melber notes, has been to underline that any economic compensation would be paid voluntarily by the Germans in order to avoid setting a precedence for automatic reparations. They have opened up for development aid or for the establishment of a future foundation to promote German-Namibian friendship, as long as the contributions are not understood as reparations.

Another challenge relates to what Germans refer to as “Völkerverständigung”, the idea that coming to terms with the genocide is a matter between peoples and cannot be limited to the governments of Namibia and Germany. This requires much more than bilateral negotiations and has to involve civil society to work towards a true decolonization of the German daily life.

Charges in US court

A complicating matter is that both Germany and Namibia have ratified the convention for indigenous minority rights, which says that is negotiations between governments that affect indigenous groups can only take place with direct involvement of representatives of those groups. But these feel not adequately represented.

For example there are individuals of Nama and Herero descent who ended up in Botswana and the USA as a result of the genocide. They are not represented by the Namibian government despite being in direct line of the victims. In parallel to the ongoing German-Namibian negotiations, descendants of genocide victims have therefore filed charges against Germany in a US court under the Alien Tort Act.

The German government has so far refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction, seeing the genocide as a German-Namibian matter, and did not send a representative to respond to the claim when hearings began in  March 2017. The Court reconvenes in July and has issued an order for Germany to appear to the hearing, which decides if the claim is accepted.

Difficult land issues

One of the most sensitive and complicated remains of Germany’s colonial legacy relates to redistribution of land that was appropriated by the Germans. Until today the majority of Namibia’s privately owned commercial farms remain in the possession of German-speaking farmers, a direct result of expropriations in the beginning of 20th century.

Nama and Ovaherero demand that the land of their ancestors is returned. “As long as the land is not returned the colonial injustice continues, this is how it is perceived”, says Henning Melber.

The Namibian government stirred up tensions when land bought from commercial farmers was distributed to other population groups than Nama and Ovaherero. But, as Melber warns: “Land restitution is a complicated matter. Land has been changing hands ever since it was occupied by bushmen, so who should be considered the rightful owner?”

A government-led land conference scheduled for September will bring together indigenous groups, farmers and other stakeholders with the aim of creating a national plan for land redistribution.

The land issue is of huge symbolic, emotional and practical importance, Melber says.

“A failure to address the land rights of the country’s various population groups would put the Namibian government in serious trouble.”


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