Germany wrestles with Namibian ‘genocide’

Germany wrestles with Namibian ‘genocide’

The Askari colonial troops in German East Africa in around 1906. Source: Wikimedia


In what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, tens of thousands of African civilians were shot, starved and tortured to death by German colonial forces as they crushed rebellious tribes in what is now Namibia. 

Today 1 per cent of Namibians are of German extraction and are still a wealthy and influential minority.

Now a policy U-turn by Berlin is raising the profile of the massacre of the Herero people. Negotiations between the Windhoek and Berlin governments over possible reparation payments are expected to result in an official apology before June.

In Berlin a high-profile exhibition about the Germany’s colonial history has recently opened, featuring letters from missionaries expressing their anger about the concentration camps and killings in the colony and the US-based activists have hired lawyers to pressure the UN.

Jürgen Zimmerer, a historian at Hamburg University, warns against a warped perspective on German crimes later in the 20th century.

“If you focus only on the 30 years of imperial Germany’s excursions into Africa, then of course the story pales in comparison to the colonial histories of other European nations, such as Britain or Belgium,” Zimmerer said, who worked as a consultant at the Berlin exhibition.

“But it’s important to see Germany’s history in Africa as continuous with its better-known dark chapters in the ’30s and ’40s. In Africa, Germany experimented with the criminal methods it later applied during the Third Reich, for example through … the colonisation of eastern and central Europe … There is a trend among the public to view the Nazi period as an aberration of an otherwise enlightened history. But engaging with our colonial history confronts us with a more uncomfortable thesis.”

In 2013 Britain offered “sincere regret” and £2,600 each to about 5,000 Kenyans imprisoned and tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.

“Reparations payments to Namibia could set a precedent for Belgium and the Congo, France and Algeria or Great Britain and the history of the slave trade. Descendants of the Herero know that too,” Zimmerer said.

In 1884, amid the scramble for Africa, Germany moved to annex the southwest African territory and land was confiscated, livestock plundered and natives raped and murdered. In January 1904, the Herero people rebelled and more than 100 German civilians were killed. The smaller Nama tribe joined the uprising in 1905.

In response tens of thousands of Herero were forced into the Kalahari Desert, their wells poisoned and food supplies blocked. General Lothar von Trotha, who commanded the operation, ordered his forces to kill “any Herero, with or without a rifle, with or without cattle”.

“I do not accept women or children either: drive them back to their people or shoot them,” he said. The order was later withdrawn.

Survivors were forced into concentration camps, where many were beaten or worked to death. Half of the Nama were killed, many in the infamous, disease-infected camp on Shark Island in Lüderitz. By 1908, only an estimated 16,000 Nama remained alive.

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