In the early 20th century, German colonial troops murdered tens of thousands of members of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups in what was then known as German South West Africa, now Namibia. Historians still refer to these atrocities today as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
This Friday, more than 100 years after those crimes and after five years of negotiations, Germany acknowledged the extermination and informed that it will allocate 1.1 billion euros for the economic development of the African country. “I am happy and grateful that it has been possible to reach an understanding with Namibia on the darkest chapter of our common history,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who described the agreement as a “great success”.
The German Empire was a colonial power in what is now Namibia from 1884 to 1915 and brutally suppressed rebellions. Historians estimate that between 1904 and 1908 troops of German Emperor Wilhelm II massacred approximately 65,000 of the 80,000 Hereros and at least 10,000 of the 20,000 Namas were killed, after they rose up against German colonial rule. The plan for the systematic extermination of men, women and children – by arms, through abandonment in the desert or internment in concentration camps – foreshadowed other ethnic cleansings of the 20th century.
After almost six years of negotiations, the delegations of the two countries reached an agreement and now Germany also wants to officially apologize for the crimes. In the statement the minister added that the aim of the negotiations, the minister explained, was to find a “common path” towards a “true reconciliation in the memory of the victims” as bilateral relations between the two countries had been burdened “for a long time” by this issue. “In light of Germany’s historical and moral responsibility, we will apologize to Namibia and the descendants of the victims,” the head of German diplomacy added. According to reports, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will present an official request for forgiveness at a ceremony in the Namibian parliament.
Maas pointed out that the “acknowledgement of guilt” and the “request for forgiveness” is an “important step”, although he said he was aware that true reconciliation “cannot be decreed”, nor can the matter be closed as a result of this agreement. Reviewing the crimes committed in this way will nevertheless contribute to building the future together, the Foreign Minister affirmed. As a “gesture of recognition” for the “incalculable pain” caused by the Imperial German Army, the Foreign Minister argued, Germany has launched a “substantial program” of 1.1 billion euros “for reconstruction and to support economic development” in the Herero and Nama settlement areas over a period of 30 years. It should be aimed at strengthening land reform, agriculture, rural infrastructure and water supply, as well as vocational training.
The representatives of the Herero and Nama, who were in close contact with the Namibian negotiator (but did not participate directly in the talks), demanded individual compensation, which Berlin refused from the outset. This made an agreement impossible for a while. In return, the German government advocated an investment program in the lands traditionally inhabited by these two ethnic groups, which were never fully recovered after German colonial rule. Berlin did not want the term reparations for war crimes to be used, as this could open the door to a chain of individual claims. It sought to close the economic derivative of this issue with the intergovernmental agreement. In November 2019, the German Parliament used the word “genocide” to refer to this massacre for the first time.
The Namibian government welcomed the recognition of German crimes. “Germany’s recognition that genocide has been committed is the first step in the right direction,” they asserted. Meanwhile, criticism of the agreement with Germany rained down from the ranks of the Namibian opposition. A representative of the largest opposition party in the South African country, the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), spoke of an “insult” to Namibia. Germany’s representatives “did not negotiate in good faith”, says MP Inna Hengari in statements to “The Namibian” newspaper.