With the “joint declaration” of the governments of Namibia and Germany on the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples between 1904 and 1908, for the first time a former colonial power officially apologized for the mass crimes it had ordered. The agreement reached by the governments of Berlin and Windhoek foresees that over the next thirty years Germany will allocate 1.1 billion euros to development projects in Namibia.
In the eyes of some, this agreement could be the model for reconciliation between other former colonial powers and the countries they had occupied. In fact, it is the first time that a former colonizer recognizes a historical injustice in the context of a dialogue between states. However, this compromise has limits and is overly cautious, as it seeks to protect Germany and avoids creating precedents. Furthermore, the communities of the descendants of the genocide were not sufficiently involved in the negotiations, compromising the prospects for real reconciliation.
How the agreement was reached
The agreement announced on May 28 is the result of a long negotiation. The starting point was the speech given in 2004 by the German Minister of Economic Cooperation Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Waterberg, which opposed the German colonial troops to the local Herero rebels and is considered the beginning of the genocide. In the years following the battle, the Germans killed thousands of Herero and Nama ethnic groups, and locked the survivors in concentration camps, forcing them into forced labor and other atrocities. Wieczorek-Zeul admitted that a “war of extermination, what we would now call ‘genocide'” was waged in Namibia. And he added: “Forgive our violations and our sins”.
In 2011, Berlin took a first step forward by returning the remains of victims of the genocide to Namibia. The skulls and other parts of the bodies of the killed Herero and Nama had been brought to Germany to undergo anthropological and anatomical studies, studies that contributed to the Nazis’ elaboration of a “science of race”.
In 2015, the German foreign ministry recognized that genocide was committed in Namibia between 1904 and 1908. Bilateral negotiations began at the end of that year, which over time have encountered various obstacles. Germany, worried about the possible legal consequences, wanted to define exactly the form of its apology. He was also reluctant to use the term “genocide” and never agreed to pay reparations. Even today, doubts related to the possible legal implications and the fact that this agreement could set a precedent for both Germany and the other former colonial powers loom over the ongoing process, opening the door to new requests for reparations, such as those presented by Greece. , Italy and Poland for the atrocities committed by German soldiers during the Second World War.
With the compromise found in Namibia, Germany would like to avoid falling into the “trap” of reparations. But the € 1.1 billion promised for development projects in Namibia is too low a price to get rid of remorse. The figure is symbolic when compared to the human cost and material damage inflicted on the African country. According to Vekuii Rukoro, leader of the Herero community, this promise is a mockery.
German funding amounts to € 37 million per year for the next thirty years. At the current exchange rate it is 618 million Namibian dollars. The Namibian government spending forecast for the period 2021/2022 is 67.9 billion Namibian dollars. For Windhoek, that money is tempting: the national economy is in deep recession. Covid-19 has hit a country already marked by a serious financial crisis. The injection of money is even more welcome, considering that the government is losing support. The funds will have to be used for land reform and for the development of rural, energy and water infrastructures, and for schools.
The risk of protests
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is expected in Namibia, where he will present his apologies to the national assembly. However, this official gesture cannot replace a direct exchange with the descendants of the affected communities, who have threatened to welcome Steinmeier with a protest.
After the conclusion of the negotiations, the German foreign ministry specified in a statement that the recognition of the genocide does not imply any “legal request for compensation”. Furthermore, “the substantial program for reconstruction and development” is to be considered “a gesture” with which Germany “acknowledged its wrongs”. One wonders if the “gesture” is sufficient. Considering the scale of the crimes committed at the turn of the last century, greater empathy would not have hurt. Furthermore, such formal language can be humiliating and offensive.
Material compensation is not enough for reconciliation. The devastating demographic and socio-economic consequences of the genocide can never be offset. Improving the living conditions of the victims’ descendants is a decisive element, but money is not enough to guarantee it.
Equally important would be an adequate display of remorse. The “joint declaration” reads that: “The government and the people of Namibia accept the apology of Germany and believe that they can pave the way for lasting mutual understanding and the consolidation of a special relationship between the two countries”. But if the Herero and Nama communities have not been properly consulted, it is as if the two governments imposed the conditions that the Namibian people are obliged to accept.
With a long and difficult process, Germany has made important progress in addressing the atrocities of the Shoah. The memory of that tragedy is now part of the German DNA, as demonstrated by the memorial built in the center of Berlin. Germany has reconciled with France and, in part, also with Poland for the crimes committed during the Second World War.
The atrocities committed by Germany in its colonial exploits should also become part of the German national memory. A public commemoration of these crimes has long been awaited, starting with those in Namibia.
Bilateral agreements between governments cannot replace reconciliation between peoples. The descendants of the victims of the genocide in Namibia are easily traced, but what about the executioners? As Namibian writer and activist Jephta U. Nguherimo said, “President Steinmeier should apologize to the Bundestag so that the German people fully discover and understand this unspoken genocide.” Nothing like this has been proposed so far.
The agreement between Germany and Namibia is the result of imperfect negotiations between governments. It is a step forward because it breaks the prolonged colonial amnesia. However, decolonization and reconciliation must be a shared process. Governments can facilitate it, but they must never monopolize it.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)