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Germany's 'other genocide' in Namibia

The Local · 28 Apr 2015, 15:05

Published: 28 Apr 2015 15:05 GMT+02:00

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After a debate in the Bundestag (German parliament) last week on whether to officially describe the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 on as genocide, an old debate on Germany's recognition of the Herero genocide has resurfaced.

The attempted "extermination of the Herero nation" in Namibia in 1904-7 under German colonial rule is largely ignored by Germans, to the extent where David Olusoga, who co-wrote a book about the events, described what took place in Namibia as “Germany’s forgotten genocide”.

The organization "No Amnesty on Genocide" is campaigning for the German government to recognize it as genocide, as well as symbolic and material reparations.

Despite previous attempts to deal with the horrific crimes, 111 years on the German government position on the matter remains murky.

Israel Kaunatjike is an activist, born in Namibia, who has been living in Berlin since 1970.

Together with other campaigners, he submitted a petition to the Foreign Ministry at the end of March asking for an official apology, reparations for stolen land and expulsions, and to recognize the atrocities as genocide.  

He told The Local that, despite having received no response yet, he is "hopeful and confident" that after senior figures like President Joachim Gauck described the Armenian atrocities as genocide, Germany will finally stop hiding from those committed in Namibia.

"The relations between the two countries are very healthy without any conflicts, but only politicians are making things difficult," he said.

"What is most important is how we can move forward now. Our main wish is to receive an apology, so people can move on. Things like reparations are only secondary in the matter," he continued.

 20th century's first genocide

Namibia, then known as South-West Africa, became a German colony in 1884 under the rule of Otto von Bismarck and was lost to the British during the First World War.

In 1904 the Herero and Nama people launched a rebellion against German colonial rule, over the specific issue of land rights.

After around 150 Germans were killed in the uprising, Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha was appointed Supreme Commander of South-West Africa and landed with 14,000 reinforcement troops.

The fighting had subsided and the Herero and Nama people were ready to start negotiations.

But to von Trotha, the idea of negotiating went against German and Prussian honour and military tradition. He was determined to crush the rebellion fully.

After the Germans had defeated the Herero combatants at the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, any survivors were either brutally slaughtered or driven into the Kalahari Desert.

Von Trotha then built a 200 mile fence to seal off the desert and leave the Herero and Nama to die of thirst and starvation.

German attitudes at the time foreshadow those used by the Nazis to justify their ambitions for territorial expansion and the Holocaust, such as the crusade for so-called 'Lebensraum' - or living space.

Young soldier Franz von Epp wrote in a letter home: "This world is being redistributed. With time we will inevitably need more space and only by the sword will we be able to get it".

Later on in his career, Epp became a senior Nazi and was appointed Reichskomissar for Bavaria.

The colonizers behind the horrors in 1904. Von Trotha is the furthest left standing. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

European colonial rule during the period was replete with bloodshed and brutality, but what von Trotha did was unprecedented. He articulated and put to paper his intention to annihilate the Herero people.

In a proclamation to his troops, Trotha clearly outlined the definition of genocide:

"Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them."

"I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, should be expelled from the country."

When news of the atrocities reached Germany there was national outcry, but Kaiser Willhelm I refused to withdraw the Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order).

Only after two more months of hunting down and slaughtering them did von Trotha receive orders to accept the surrender of the Herero people.

Any survivors, most of them women and children, were herded into concentration camps for slave labour and medical experiments.

The genocide cost the lives of an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 people, or 80 percent of the Herero population.

Recognizing atrocities

The Whittaker Report of 1985 officially classified the crimes as the first genocide of the 20th century, but Germany has avoided being so clear on the matter.

In 2004 came a turning point when then-Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul visited Namibia to mark the 100-year anniversary.

"Today, I want to acknowledge the violence inflicted by the German colonial powers on your ancestors, particularly the Herero and the Nama," she said.

"The atrocities committed at that time would today be termed as genocide," she continued. But since then, there has been no further movement from the German government.

Only in 2011 were skulls of Herero people that had been taken back to Germany after the genocide for medical research returned to Namibia.

Israel Kauntajike at a memorial grave in Berlin. Photo: DPA

The Foreign Ministry gave a statement to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday, mentioning "Germany's particular historical responsibility", and stressing the importance of finding a "worthy culture of commemoration and remembrance of the horrors", but the issue of acknowledging it as genocide was not addressed.

"The undesirable title of the country to commit the first genocide of the 20th century belongs to Germany," said Green party leader Cem Özdemir on Friday in the Bundestag, referring to the crimes against the Herero and Nama people.

Whether the Namibian question will receive the same level of scrutiny as the Armenian one, when Germany bears such an undeniable responsibility in the crimes committed over 100 years ago, remains to be seen.

By Matty Edwards

This article has been updated to correct the name and gender of former Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. 

 

 

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