Art exposes Germany’s Namibian genocide 

Art exposes Germany’s Namibian genocide 

As Germany finds itself under increasing pressure to return stolen artefacts to its former colony of Namibia and address the genocide carried out by its troops, an exhibition in Hamburg addresses the sins of 1904-08. 

Franz Ritter von Epp arrived in southwest Africa as a young infantry officer in 1904 and took part in the colonial campaign of racial extermination that left an estimated 100,000 Nama and Herero tribespeople dead. Tens of thousands were driven into the desert to die and others died in some of the world’s first concentration camps.

Ahead of the Second World War von Epp was the Nazi governor of Bavaria, establishing Dachau, the first concentration camp in Germany, and organising the deportation of thousands of Jews. 

Von Epp features in the art exhibition in Hamburg about the racial theory, scientific experiments and mass slaughter in Namibia. 

Germany has failed to address the slaughter of the Herero and Nama in the way it has examined its sins during the Second World War. 

Angela Merkel’s government finally recognised the 1904-08 campaign as genocide in 2016 but it has not formally apologised and refuses to pay reparations.

The Hamburg municipal-government backed Unser Afrika (Our Africa) exhibition aims to challenge Merkel’s government over the issue.

Marc Erwin Babej, 48, a Jewish-American art photographer of German descent, took models to Namibian genocide sites to examine the actions of his ancestors.

One photograph shows a black woman measuring a white woman’s skull.

They are accompanied by quotations from the era. “The native requires firm and especially consistent handling,” said an official 1908 guide for German arrivals. “He can bear severity well indeed. In no event shall a white come on familiar terms with a native, regardless of whether or not he is in his service.”

The exhibition says how the colonists wanted to build a German utopia in Africa, without considering the residents.

“As the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, I’m a descendant of the victims. But when it comes to the Herero and Nama genocide, as a German, I’m a descendant of the perpetrators.

“Nazi policies of eastward expansion and Lebensraum bear a striking similarity to settler colonialism. In my understanding, Nazi expansionism was a second German attempt to create a colonial empire, this time in the east,” said Professor Jürgen Zimmerer of Hamburg University, a specialist on the Namibian genocide.

“It was only in 2016 that the German government gave up its resistance to using the term ‘genocide’,” said Zimmerer.

This year Berlin city councillors agreed to rename streets in the capital’s “African quarter” that are named after German colonial leaders. 

Germany is facing a class action lawsuit in New York brought by descendants of the victims to demand reparations. Success could set a legal precedent for cases to be brought in the US against other colonial powers, with far more extensive histories of abuse, like Britain and France. 


Herero women. Picture credit: Flickr  


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