The first genocide of the 20th century was not the Armenian, as is often believed, but that of two peoples, the Hereros and the Nama, who lived in what is now Namibia. And it was perpetrated by the army of the Second German Empire – or II Reich (1871-1918) – between 1904 and 1908. After five years of negotiations, this dark episode in German colonial history is officially recognized. For the first time the German Government has expressed this Friday that the murder of tens of thousands of people of these two ethnic groups was a “genocide”.
“In light of Germany’s historical and moral responsibility, we will apologize to Namibia and the descendants of the victims,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement. Germany will fund a development program in Namibia with 1.1 billion euros as a “gesture of appreciation” for “the incalculable pain” caused by the massacres committed almost 120 years ago. Maas acknowledged that a true reconciliation cannot “be decreed”, but highlighted the “important step” that involves “the acknowledgment of guilt” and the request for forgiveness.
Although it is the first time that genocide has been officially recognized, and that word is used, the German Parliament already referred to the massacre of Hereros and Namas in November 2019 in this way. The representatives of these two peoples demanded individual compensation , but Germany has not accepted the request. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will travel to Namibia and participate in a commemorative act in Parliament, where he will formally apologize.
“I am happy and grateful that it has been possible to reach an understanding with Namibia on the darkest chapter in our common history,” Maas said in the statement. Both countries appointed negotiators who have worked for more than five years on the agreement. “Representatives of the Herero and Nama communities were closely involved in the negotiations on Namibia’s side,” the minister added. “We will now officially refer to these events as what they were from today’s perspective: genocide.”
The German Empire of William II was a colonial power in what is now Namibia from 1884 – when the Berlin Conference was held that enshrined the division of Africa among several European countries – until 1915 and brutally repressed the uprisings of ethnic groups. Historians estimate that around 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero and at least 10,000 of the 20,000 Nama were killed by the Germans during the rule. The colonial past of the European power is not well known, partly due to its early end after the First World War. While France and England had colonies for longer and fought colonial wars, in Germany “a kind of clean image was created on the subject of colonialism,” explains historian Sebastian Conrad in a recent interview in Der sppiegel.
Conrad is surprised in the interview by the fact that Germany has taken so long to officially describe what happened in Namibia as genocide, then German Southwest Africa: “What else could it have been? What does this word mean if not the partial annihilation of certain peoples? All the documents and all the accounts that we have are clear evidence that the Germans wanted to destroy the Herero and Nama. It was pure luck that some survived.
The debate on the German colonial past has only recently started, but it has grown in importance in recent months. Museums have produced guides on how to deal with the looted objects and the Ministry of Culture has decided to return the so-called Benin bronzes, one of the most famous objects of African art, whose property Nigeria claimed. The 530 sculptures that are in Berlin were to be exhibited in a room in the Humboldt Forum, but the exhibition was canceled. They will be returned to Nigeria in early 2022.