A Forgotten Genocide: What Germany Did in Namibia, and What It’s Saying Now

It has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, the “forgotten genocide’’ and the genocide that was the precursor of the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Africans were killed between 1904 and 1908 by German soldiers in what is now Namibia, a vast, arid country northwest of South Africa.

German soldiers targeted people of two ethnic groups — the Herero and the Nama — because they had resisted land grabs by German settlers. Africans were shot, hanged, abandoned in the desert and died in concentration camps. Descendants of the Herero and Nama, marginalized groups within Namibia itself, kept alive the stories of their genocide through oral tradition and cultural events.

A push to recognize the genocide began after Namibia’s independence in 1990, and grew stronger with the 100th anniversary of the atrocities in 2004. In recent years — with researchers and left-leaning politicians pushing Germany to come to terms with its rarely examined colonial history — the process gained momentum.

While Germany indicated early on that it was ready to recognize the atrocities as a genocide, there was a stumbling block: money, not only the amount to be given, but what any payment would be called.

On Friday, Germany formally described the killings as a genocide, agreed to issue an apology and committed to providing $1.35 billion toward reconstruction and development projects. The Namibian government hailed the agreement, and some Namibians welcomed it.

But Herero and Nama leaders dismissed the deal as a “public relations coup” because it did not include funds deemed “reparations.”

Germany was a minor colonial power in Africa, especially compared to Britain and France. But among its few possessions, Namibia — then called South-West Africa — was its most prized African colony. Thousands of German settlers grabbed land and cattle from local residents. Even today, many German tourists visit Namibia, especially Swakopmund, a city on Namibia’s Atlantic coast, where the restaurant menus serve German food and beer, and where well-preserved colonial-era buildings line streets named after German chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

German settlers encountered the fiercest resistance from two ethnic groups: the Herero, traditional cattle herders, and the Nama. To quell the opposition, Germany dispatched Lothar von Trotha, a military commander who had earned a fierce reputation in Germany’s possessions in Asia and East Africa. In Namibia, he led what was known as the “Schutztruppe,” or protection force.

He issued a warning in 1904 that “Every Herero, with or without rifles, with or without cattle, will be shot.” He also warned that he would no longer take in women or children, but “drive them back to their people or have them shot.” The following year, he issued a similar warning to the Nama, the second ethnic group targeted for extermination.

Of a population totaling 100,000, about 80 percent of all Herero are believed to have died, according to historians. German soldiers shot Herero, hanged them, drove them into the desert and sealed off watering holes to stop survivors from returning. Prisoners were held, and died, in concentration camps.

About 10,000 people from the Nama ethnic group — about half the total population at the time — are also believed to have died.

German experts believe that the genocide of the Herero and Nama foreshadowed Nazi ideology and the Holocaust. In their African colony, German colonial officers studying eugenics, a discredited belief in improving the human race through selective breeding, are believed to have developed ideas about racial purity and the mixing of races. Hundreds of skulls of victims were sent to Germany for examination. In recent years, some have been returned to Namibia in one of the most emotional and contentious aspects of the history of the genocide.

Germany’s efforts to atone for the Holocaust are well known. But it took Germany more than a century to acknowledge Namibia’s genocide, which occurred decades before the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. Many Germans remain unaware of what happened in their former African colony, although it has more recently entered the history curriculum in schools.

Many see overt racism in how Germany has dealt with the two genocides.

But there are other complex reasons this genocide fell into obscurity.

Germany’s defeat in World War I led to its losing Namibia and its other African colonies. Namibia effectively became another colony, this time of neighboring, white-ruled South Africa. Talk of the genocide became taboo in Namibia until 1990, when the end of the Cold War and the impending end of apartheid in South Africa brought independence to Namibia.

But even after independence, the Herero and Nama were frustrated that their country’s new rulers were just as uninterested in examining the past. Namibia’s liberation party — South West Africa People’s Organization, or Swapo — took over and governs to this day.

Swapo is dominated by the country’s main ethnic group, the Ovambo. The Herero and Nama remain marginalized, often living in remote, unproductive areas on reservations that were originally set up by the German colonizers.

In a country with a small economy long dominated by a white Afrikaner and German minority, the Swapo-led government depended greatly on foreign aid — especially from its biggest donor, Germany — and had little incentive to bring up the genocide.

In Namibia today, monuments and cemeteries commemorating dead German soldiers, including the Schutztruppe, still outnumber those honoring the Herero and Nama victims of genocide.

Distrustful of their own government, the Herero and Nama had pushed to negotiate directly with the German government, convinced that any compensation would never reach them.

Not yet. On May 28, Germany formally announced that it recognized that the brutal killings constituted a genocide. The German foreign minister plans to travel to Namibia in coming weeks to sign an agreement between the two governments that their leaders hope will establish the language for a common narrative of their shared history.

Ruprecht Polenz, a retired lawmaker who negotiated the deal for Berlin, said that this initial agreement was necessary before Germany could make a formal apology. “We wanted to apologize, but for what? We first needed to reach a common understanding of what happened in 1904 to 1908,” he said in an interview.

The German government also agreed to establish a fund worth 1.1 billion euros, to be distributed over three decades, as part of the accord. Germany said the funds are part of a gesture of reconciliation and reconstruction.

Namibia had pressed for describing the money as “reparations.” But Germany rejected the term, which would have amounted to acknowledging guilt under the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide. The Germans argued that the convention cannot be applied retroactively to past genocides. Reparations could have also made Germany — and other former European colonial powers — liable to claims from other former colonies.

Money from the fund will be targeted to projects focused on energy, water, education and vocational training in the regions where large populations of Herero and Nama live, Germany’s foreign ministry said.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany intends to travel to Namibia later this year to issue a formal apology before the country’s Parliament.

While some of the groups representing the Herero and Nama agreed to the terms of the deal, others are not willing to accept it and think the German president should not come.

“He might as well stay in Germany. We are not going to accept his apology as long as he doesn’t see us as human beings, as long as he doesn’t come down to our leaders and apologize,” said Sima Luipert, a descendant of Nama victims of the genocide, who lives on a reservation in southern Namibia.

In a joint statement, two groups that represent descendants of the victims argued that the genocide was committed against their people, who they argued should have been the main negotiators with Germany, instead of the Namibian government.

“Germany’s bilateral agreement with Namibia is nothing but a construct of a racist mind-set on the part of Germany and neocolonial subservience on the part of Namibia,” Vekuii Rukoro, the leader of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, and Gaob J. Isaack, head of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association said in the joint statement.

Each government selected its delegation. Mr. Polenz said that representatives from each of the ethnic groups had been represented in the negotiations from the start, but that some “very loud” members who were not included in the process had been against the efforts from the outset — including filing lawsuits that slowed the process.

Mr. Polenz insisted that any agreement had to take place at the state level, comparing it to post-World War II pacts between Germany and its neighbors France and Poland.

But many among the Herero and Nama see a contrast between how Germany approached this genocide and how it handled reparations with the Jews after World War II. Germany has negotiated with the Jewish Claims Conference, founded by representatives of 23 Jewish groups, to provide indemnification worth $80 billion since 1952 to Jews from around the globe.

“Germany spoke to many different Jewish groups after the Holocaust. They didn’t say they will only speak to Israel,” said Ms. Luipert, the descendant of Nama victims. “Why is Germany now saying, when it comes to the Nama and Herero we are not willing to talk to a dozen different groups? Is it because we are Black?”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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