Germany officially calls colonial-era killings in Namibia ‘genocide’

Germany to fund €1.1 billion of development projects for genocide-affected communities

A solider probably belonging to the German troops supervising Namibian war prisoners in a photograph taken  during the 1904-1908 war of Germany against Herero and Nama. Photograph: National Archives of Namibia/AFP via Getty Images

A solider probably belonging to the German troops supervising Namibian war prisoners in a photograph taken during the 1904-1908 war of Germany against Herero and Nama. Photograph: National Archives of Namibia/AFP via Getty Images

 

Germany has officially recognised as genocide its colonial-era slaughter of tens of thousands of Namibians more than a century ago and committed €1.1 billion to the southern African nation in recompense, a move that could set a precedent for other countries.

The announcement comes after six years of talks with Namibia, which came close to foundering last month over whether the funds should be labelled reparations, a term Germany feared could open it up to other legal claims.

German soldiers killed more than 60,000 indigenous Herero and Nama tribes people between 1904 and 1908 amid an uprising against German colonial rule. It has long been considered by historians and the UN to be the first genocide of the 20th century.

On Friday Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said Germany officially acknowledged that the events “from today’s perspective” were “a genocide”.

“In light of Germany’s historical and moral responsibility, we will ask Namibia and the descendants of the victims for forgiveness.”

But Friday’s deal between Berlin and the Namibian government was rejected by the traditional leaders of the Herero and Nama who said it was too little to compensate for the suffering of their ancestors, including the taking of the majority of their land.

They said they had largely been excluded from the talks, although Germany argues some members of the community were consulted.

‘Total insult’

Germany’s offer is a “total insult to our intelligence” and Namibian lawmakers should reject it, Vekuii Rukoro, the head of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, said this week. “That is not enough for the blood of our ancestors. We will fight to hell and back.”

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier is expected to visit Namibia to atone, but Mr Rukoro said parliament should walk out and reject the “so-called apology”.

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said the events of the German colonial period should be named “without sparing or glossing over them”. Photograph: Jose Sena Goulao/EPA
Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said the events of the German colonial period should be named “without sparing or glossing over them”. Photograph: Jose Sena Goulao/EPA

Germany had earlier acknowledged “moral responsibility” but had long avoided an official apology to evade compensation claims. On Friday, Mr Maas stressed “legal claims to compensation cannot be derived from this”.

Berlin says the Genocide Convention of 1948 cannot be applied retroactively, and is wary of opening itself up to other reparations claims. Greece still argues, for example, that Berlin should repay some €289 billion caused by Nazi Germany in damages.

For this reason, the €1.1 billion fund is being offered to Namibia for reconstruction and development projects over 30 years, and is not defined as reparation.

“It is reconstruction and reconciliation we are seeking,” Zed Ngavirue, a veteran Namibian diplomat who led the country’s negotiators, has said of the talks.

Henning Melber, a Namibian scholar and extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria, said reconciliation between people “required more than a bilaterally negotiated deal between governments, who both do not include a meaningful degree of civil society.”

“Whatever the next steps will be, there remains a long way to true reconciliation,” he added.

Colonial power

Unlike its recognition of Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust, Germany had long ignored its colonial legacy, although it was the third largest colonial power in 19th century Africa. It lost control of its colonial territories after the first world war.

Descendants of German settlers still own large tracts of land in Namibia, a divisive issue in one of the world’s most unequal nations, which after German colonial rule became a South African possession until 1990.

Namibia’s government has pledged to accelerate reforms to place more land in the hands of the majority but has avoided following South Africa’s moves toward allowing expropriation of land without compensation.

The Namibia deal comes a day after French president Emmanuel Macron’s recognition for France’s role in the genocide of Rwanda, as European countries begin to more openly examine their colonial legacy. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021