In the shadow of genocide:

German-Namibian reconciliation a century later

By Henning Melber (Sept. 2006)


1. The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Germany

2. New government, old policy

3. New initiatives: Beyond rhetorical change?

4. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

This is the revised shorter version of a paper presented to the Session “Genocide in Namibia: Memory, Amnesia, and Reconciliation a Century Later” at the 30 th German Studies Association Annual Conference, Pittsburgh, PA, 28 September – 1 October 2006.

siehe auch/see also:

Reinhart Kössler:

Awakened from colonial amnesia? Germany after 2004 (July 2006) Mehr

Henning Melber:

Reparationsforderungen bleiben aktuell - Berliner Seminar leistet Mittlerdienste, (Oct. 2006) [Zur Debatte um Entschädigung und Entschuldigung wegen deutscher Kolonialverbrechen in Namibia] Mehr



In 2004 the beginning of the war by German colonial troops against Herero and Nama turned a century old. The warfare and its subsequent effects of an annihilation strategy resulted in the first genocide of the 20 th century. Its consequences had a lasting impact on the Namibian society since then. A sovereign state since 1990, the Namibian-German relations were and continue to be affected by the legacy left behind by the relatively short but lasting period of German colonial rule in then South West Africa (1884 to 1915).

This article summarises the German-Namibian bilateral relations since Independence, which battle to come to terms with the shared colonial history and its effects.

1. The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Germany

It is certainly not easy to discuss a special role for Germany when making attempts to normalise relationships, if such normalisation actually can or should be achieved, given the burden of history. In practice, German-Namibian relationships since independence have not managed to get beyond the constantly emphasized special responsibility of Germany. It did not make things any easier when, almost simultaneously with Namibia’s transition to sovereignty under international law, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which had been accepted by Swapo as an ally, collapsed. Henceforth it was only the Federal Republic (FRG), which was still viewed with distrust that determined official diplomatic relations as the one and only remaining (‘re-united’) Germany. Harald Ganns, the first (West) German ambassador to Namibia, summarised in retrospective that it would have been a miscalculation to expect a relationship that was particularly friendly or noted for its warmth. Hans-Georg Schleicher, who on 21 st March 1990 opened the last GDR embassy in the world, shared his fellow-German colleague’s view. According to him, Namibia’s then Foreign Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab described the close relationships between Swapo and the GDR as a basis for the special relationship between his country and a united Germany. If ex-colonial Namibians had reasons to be sensitive about the representatives of the former colonial power and their successors in their country, it is not just that they are excessively thin-skinned. There has never been any lack of occasions for them to meet up. On 15 th March 1989, at the beginning of the process of moving towards independence, the German Foreign Office laid a recommendation before the German parliament, which in an act of euphemistic denial recognised a ‘special responsibility’ for the former colony. Since then, highest-ranking German state representatives proved on several occasions that they are not afraid of dropping a clanger. During his state visit on 14 th and 15 th September 1995, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl not only managed, in spite of the reservations of his Namibian hosts, to hold a reception for the German minority. In addition, and standing shoulder to shoulder with the Namibian Head of State, he greeted the invited guests with the words, ‘my dear fellow-countrymen’. His audience applauded spontaneously. Kohl’s speech added insult to injury by pointing to the special services rendered by the German speaking population in developing the country. The state visit by the Federal President Roman Herzog from 4th to 8 th March 1998 did not succeed in repairing the damage. Quite the contrary: he presumed to criticize possible negative effects of Namibian language policies on the German-speaking minority of the country, since German speakers were concerned for their privileged linguistic status, given the proposal for equal treatment for all local languages in the context of a common policy for language instruction in schools. This resulted in a decisive rejection by Namibia’s president of any attempt to get involved in internal affairs of his country. It also led to the premature departure of the official interpreter who (unjustly) had to take the blame for a supposedly inaccurate translation.

2. New government, old policy

Even when the Berlin government changed from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led to a Social Democratic (SPD) led coalition there was no fundamental change in the relationship. At the world conference on racism in Durban in September 2001 the Federal Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer went further than anyone else when he stated: past injustices cannot be undone, but recognising guilt, taking responsibility and facing up to one’s historical obligations can at least give back to the victims and their successors the dignity stolen from them. However he refrained from following up this recognition of guilt with an apology and even went on record to instruct his ministry that no apology legally relevant for reparation demands will be offfered. On the other hand, Theo-Ben Gurirab, who at that time was Fischer’s Namibian opposite number, declared in Durban that Germany apologised for crimes against Israel, Russia or Poland, because they were dealing with whites. If there is a problem in apologising because Namibians are black, he concluded, this would be racist.

The Federal Government refused to accept the private plea entered by the Herero at a court in the USA around the same time, by which they wished to pursue a demand for compensation. Herta Däubler-Gmelin, then Minister of Justice, stated in an interview to the Windhoek ‘Allgemeine Zeitung’ during a visit in February 2002 her astonishment that part of the Namibian people initiate proceedings against the German government in the USA, because a third party was thus involved in spite of good relationships between the two states. A position paper by the Foreign Office released in 2002 even enters claims that Germany’s colonial past bears a comparatively light burden.

Uschi Eid, a MP of the Green party, Parliamentary Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation until November 2005 and appointed G8 advisor for Africa to chancellor Schröder visited Namibia in May 2003. She once more emphasized that Germany had no intention of paying reparations to the Herero or for granting direct financial aid for buying up farm land. Instead, the means would be made available for joint development work on land reform and for supportive investment in the infrastructure. She claimed that the German government is concerned that all population groups in Namibia should profit from development aid distributed within the country. Special treatment for the Herero would be incompatible with this aim as such a course of action would fail to take account of the fact that representatives of other groups were also victims of German colonial rule and so could also raise equally justifiable claims for indemnity. – The weird logic of such argument is that justice ought to be denied instead of being offered to all.

The relative indifference, which must add insult to injury among those who conceive themselves as the successors to the victim generations, corresponded with the low level of interest in a visit to Namibia shown by the most important German politicians of the Red/Green coalition during their period in government until the end of 2005. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had little time for the former colony (and stopped only on his way to South Africa for a few hours at the Windhoek airport during 2004). Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who toured several African states during the end of January 2004, did not step on Namibian soil at all at a time, when local initiatives commemorated the beginning of the genocide a century earlier. Other members of the cabinet were also more rarely to be seen there then was the case during the conservative German coalition government. That may be an expression of the relative unimportance of Namibia on the other side of the historical fence. But it also leaves doubts at the same time about the seriousness of the special relationship claimed in developing the country, which has to suffer the structural deformation brought about by German colonial rule, under which, after all, the notorious Apartheid regime emerged. In response to the criticism, representatives of the German government pointed at the special forms of development cooperation. Calculated per head of the population, the Namibian government receives most German development aid in Africa. This may be judged to be an indirect admission of guilt and a sort of indemnification for the horrors of colonialism. But it remains more than questionable whether this is a sufficient act of reconciliation, at least as seen among parts of the Herero, Nama and Damara, who were most affected by the German colonial atrocities.

Notably, the attitude of the Federal Republic expressed in this matter corresponded exactly with the point of view on the side of the Namibian government. In the context of bilateral co-operation there had until very recently never actually been serious discussions about reparation payments, as was also confirmed by President Nujoma in the interview quoted at length above. This may be somewhat maliciously described as a silent pact between political elites who choose to ignore or marginalise the sensitivities, needs and interests of those who have not yet ‘come of age’, in this case especially the Herero, Nama, Damara and San who are to all intents and purposes minority groups in the Namibian population as opposed to the central state authorities, dominated by SWAPO with its ethnic and regional roots in Ovamboland.

3. New initiatives: Beyond rhetorical change?

Leaving material issues to one side it is also true that German politicians have so far mostly avoided any recognition of guilt even when there was no financial cost involved.

As late as mid-2005 another resolution adopted by the German Bundestag avoided to openly admit and recognise the historical facts a century after the beginning of the (anti-)colonial war resulting in acts of genocide. The surprisingly intensive public campaigns by individuals and NGO initiatives in Germany herself, which took place during 2004 to remind of the colonial history hitherto unacknowledged in its full consequences, however, provided an unexpected result. The German Minister for Economic Cooperation, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, not only attended the commemoration ceremony near the Waterberg at Ohamakari in August 2004, where a hundred years earlier a decisive battle of the German colonial army with the Herero marked the turning point and transition into a subsequently emerging genocidal strategy. She also officially acknowledged the genocide and offered a biblically phrased apology, which however, according to experts cannot be considered an admission of guilt in a strictly legal view. But it created expectations, which were disappointed. For months nothing further happened in terms of concrete consequences and the compensation claims as well as the general issue of compensation remained unattended at least in terms of public visibility.

Only end of May 2005 the same Minister announced without prior internal communication (both in German ministries and with regard to the Namibian counterparts) her intention to put aside 20 million Euro for the next ten years to finance a reconciliation initiative to benefit those Namibians most directly and brutally affected by German colonialism. At the same time she committed herself to further increase the official German development aid to Namibia. But the subsequent efforts to gain acceptance from the Namibian government – in the meantime headed by Sam Nujoma’s successor Hifikepunye Pohamba – for implementation of the reconciliation initiative failed to materialise. Nor did factions of the Herero respond with any enthusiasm to what they considered as insufficient piecemeal and instead criticised the unilateral move as an offending gesture. When President Pohamba underlined the relevance of the partnership by an official state visit during his first year in office at the end of November 2005, his delegation refused to sign the prepared agreement on the reconciliation initiative. Instead, Namibian government representatives indicated a need for further consultations back home on the matter. This came much to the surprise of the German Minister, who had as the only one survived in her office the change to a new big coalition government of CDU and SPD following the election results of September 2005. The planned new round of bilateral negotiations on the continued development cooperation originally scheduled to take place before the end of 2005 were also postponed. While this is not necessarily any more dramatic than a mild hiccup, it underlines the sensitivity of the issues at stake, especially so since Germany continues to remain by far the biggest single donor country for Namibia, which actually faces a massive decline in direct bilateral support from other external donors.

4. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

The situation more than a century after the colonial genocide erupted reflected the unsolved matters in several ways: neither is the colonial legacy an issue with a clear public awareness in Germany, nor are the different long-term effects of the German colonial rule for the various population groups in Namibia sorted out among those, and least has it been dealt with in the bilateral relations beyond the generally favourable material treatment of the erstwhile colony by the former colonial power within the development assistance portfolio. This alone, however, can hardly make up for all the harm and injuries heaped on the formerly colonised Namibians over more than a century. In that time the quality and extent of the violent, hierarchical and paternalistic relationships have repeatedly shifted, but not been abolished once and for all. Reconciliation seems under such circumstances still far away.

Interestingly enough, the seemingly one-dimensional relations have shown further new dynamics since mid-2006. The Information Centre for Southern Africa (ISSA), based in Bonn since the early 1970s as the last surviving support agency from the days of the support to the anti-colonial struggle, issued in June 2006 a public statement which harshly criticised Minister Wieczorek-Zeul for her reluctance to offer compensation in a true meaning. It questioned the seriousness of the apology rendered in August 2004 in the absence of any meaningful follow-up measures and stated categorically that genocide has no expiry date in terms of compensation claims.

Almost at the same time Hüseyin Aydin, newly elected member of the new alliance of the PDS (successor to the former SED in the GDR) and a left-wing break-off faction from the SPD, jointly operating as ‘Linkspartei’ and at the margins of mainstream politics, appeared as a new kid on the block. Committed to matters of internationalism and solidarity, he pursued the issue further and visited Namibia end of August. On several occasions he articulated demands geared towards the German government to honour its obligations when it comes to a profound act of remorse, including material compensation for the atrocities under German colonialism and their lasting structural effects towards the marginalisation of the most affected groups. He repeated the ISSA position almost verbatim and hence gave it a large degree of prominence also in the Namibian context (while largely ignored in the media in Germany). He is preparing a motion for the German Bundestag to be submitted by his party, which aims to bring back the issue of genocide and reparations to the political discourse. While this seems to have little prospects for success in the sense of being adopted by the majority of lawmakers, it might – fully in line with the ISSA statement – bring back the issue at least temporarily and on the sidelines to the public discourse as an unsolved matter.

More importantly, and for reasons one can only speculate about (but maybe also because of his own background coming form a Turkish minority of Germans and representing reminiscences of the old GDR policy), Aydin’s appearance in the context of Namibia seemed to have left an impact beyond the Herero communities he visited. In September 2006, Herero Chief Riruako tabled a motion in the Namibian Parliament, seeking support for the compensation claim by the majority of the (Swapo) lawmakers. In a first response end of September at the opening of the parliamentary debate, the Swapo party’s Secretary General and minister without portfolio Tjiriange went further in his support than any other high ranking party representative ever before. He conceded that Riruako’s motion symbolises ‘a battle for the recognition of the wrongs of the German imperial colonial army’ and qualified the genocide as ‘an episode of the entire Namibian nation’. While he supported the demand for reparations, he however fell short of declaring this as an official view of his party or government.

Nonetheless, the parliamentary debate has unexpectedly entered discursive space, which was non-existent in such a forum since Independence. After all, Tjiriange in response to Riruako’s initiative made the following remarkable statement: ‘By debating this motion we are appealing to the moral conscience and support not only from the members of the house, but also the conscience of mankind at large to recognise the suffering of our people and above all the legitimacy of their charge of genocide.’ It might well be that this signals a new chapter of Namibia’s position in the bilateral relations with the erstwhile colonial power.

Dr. Henning Melber is Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala/Sweden, where he had been the Research Director at the Nordic Africa Institute until 2006. Between 1992 and 2000 he was Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU). He serves as a board member of ISSA since 1983 and was the chairperson of the Namibian-German Foundation for Cultural Cooperation (NaDS) between 1994 and 2000.

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