Germany in Namibia? Yes, they have a past in common. To commit an act intending to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is an act of genocide.
Genocide, as a term, is quite young – Created by a Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin sometime around 1944. Lemkin desired a proper term for describing the horrors of the holocaust, and historical events that were akin to it.
For Germany, the Holocaust will forever remain as a significant stain on their history and the most well-accounted and publicly known example of genocide in contemporary history. Alongside that, however, there is a sort of numbing effect on what took place before it. It is a similar phenomenon to the universal idea within social groups, where one large-scale event can lead people to forget about others, even if the others are just as bad, yet not at the same scale.
Such a phenomenon has brought the keywords “Germany” and “genocide” back into the news cycle, except this time not for the holocaust or anything related. Instead, a lesser-known and almost forgotten chapter of Germany history has resurfaced, going back to their colonization of present-day Namibia: The Herero and Namaqua Genocide.
Prelude to Germany in Namibia: The Partition of Africa
There is a prelude to Germany in Namibia, and the Herero and Namaqua Genocide. The latter stems from the time of the European colonization of Africa. The Partition of Africa dating back to 1884 was a brutal expression of Europe’s then insatiable desire for power and territory, and the impetus for many of the land disputes and conflicts that continue to inflict Africa to this very day.
Lebensraum is an idea commonly associated with German expansion during the Third Reich, but it goes farther back to the time of the partition, where territorial expansion was a goal for the sake of gaining more living space (lebensraum) for ethnic German people. Expansion came no matter the cost, including the forfeiture of life and limb from the inhabitants of Germany’s desired lands.
During the time of the partition, modern-day Namibia became “German South-West Africa”. State goals were using it for the sake of spreading out the overpopulated population in the homeland. The Germans took the native Africans within this region, particularly the tribes of Herero and Nama, as slave labourers, and forced them to turn over land and possessions to their occupiers.
Both the Herero and the Nama were rightfully furious and tired of their land being colonized and the mistreatment of the German people, which was the impetus for rebellion, which was met with fierce resistance. Between 1904 and 1908, German Schutztruppe forces stepped off to project their self-perceived racial superiority and unjustified “right to land” over the rebels, resulting in the Herero and Namaqua Genocide.
Germany in Namibia Training for the Holocaust
It isn’t an official view, but one could say the Herero and Namaqua Genocide was Germany’s live dry run of the Holocaust.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “This genocide, the first of the twentieth century, was a prelude to the Holocaust in both the ideology of racial hierarchy that justified the genocide and, in the methods, employed.” They defined this link as a “continuity thesis.”
The methods in question shared the brutality of the Nazi’s, such as the establishment of concentration camps where Herero and Nama tribespeople would endure forced labour and systematic killing.
Schutztruppe victories over rebels in battle resulted in large-scale refugee movements to flee into the desert, particularly women and children, hoping to avoid capture and imprisonment. The Germans, in this case, ordered wells to be destroyed, cutting the water supply off from the refugees, and resulting in many deaths from dehydration and exhaustion.
The arguably most noticeable parallel between the Holocaust and Herero and Namaqua Genocide was the beheading of hundreds of Herero and Nama tribes-people, but it didn’t stop there. The Germans, convinced of the delusional “white superiority”, mailed the skulls of the beheaded back to Germany, to “research” differences between the Europeans and African natives. We can say not much that isn’t already apparent of how this sort of “research” played out during the Third Reich…
This brief description of German atrocities does no justice to the true extent of their showed evil and moral depravity. By the end of the genocide, about 50% of the Nama and 80% of the Herero tribes-people perished or became refugees.
As aforementioned, Germany in Namibia and the genocides have sparked a recent surge of talks in the diplomatic sphere.
Since genocide became an academic concept in 1944, Germany has paid their share of reparations and shame for the Holocaust. Unlike that event, which is common knowledge, the Herero and Namaqua genocide has remained in relative obscurity (in terms of reparations).
Over the years, the German state has mentioned the genocide but abstained from a formal declaration till May 2021. On the 28th day of that month, the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, released a statement that both gave state-driven ownership of the genocide, and a plead for forgiveness from the Namibian people. In addition, Germany has agreed to pay compensations to the Namibian people. Compensations amount upwards of 1.1 billion euros, paid out over 30 years.
According to Politico, “Germany has sought to avoid terms such as ‘reparations’ as the word was also not used during negotiations with Israel after the Holocaust and over concerns that such language would open the door to claims from other countries.”
It has taken too long for the formal acknowledgement to be made. The German government has at least taken a step in the right direction. What they accomplished, thus far, could set a helpful precedent for African and its relationship with former European colonizers. The Herero and Namaqua Genocide were a brutal era of African colonization. Other occupying nations have their own historical stains of mistreatment and immoral actions against the native residents of their stolen lands.
With optimism, it is worth paying attention to see how other nations respond to Germany’s leadership. Even though time and contemporary issues have overshadowed the past, it is impossible to separate Africa’s issues from its colonization. Not every nation may be in Germany’s shoes,. Nonetheless, even a formal state apology for past actions can be a step in the right diplomatic direction.