The genocide in Namibia (1904-08) and its consequences

Published on Pambazuka News, by Reinhart Kössler and Henning Melber, March 20, 2012.

The repatriation of human remains more than a century after they were taken to Germany from Namibia has evoked painful memories of colonial wars in which primary African resistance was crushed, and genocide perpetrated (1904–08) in what was then the colony of German South West Africa. This contribution situates the current issues and practices of memory politics between Namibia and Germany within their historical context … //


Why is it so important to commemorate genocidal atrocities such as those committed in Namibia early in the 20th century today? There are a number of reasons, which may be understood if grouped with two interrelated trajectories. The first of these trajectories is that, despite the ongoing tendency towards denialism, the Namibian genocide is an integral part of the development of political society and culture in Germany. The second trajectory concerns the overall dynamic and logic of genocide as it unfolded during the entire course of the 20th century. The distinction between these two trajectories also relates to the hotly debated issue of the exceptionality of the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany against European Jewry as well as against groups such as the Sinti and the Roma. This also leads to the further issue, whether the wars and mass crimes emanating from the German state during the first half of the 20th century are rooted in some specifically German path of historic development, fundamentally different from the West.

In brief, it may be said that the Namibian genocide contributed towards establishing a specific routine among the German military and also amongst civilians and the way they looked at war and specific acts of war. This meant, in particular, seeing the enemy not as another human being but as a member of an alien, inferior race, that is best annihilated, like ‘vermin’, in the language of the Nazis. Or, in more recent terminology, like ‘cockroaches’ or ‘rats’. Dehumanising whole groups or categories of humans in this way is widely considered an important precondition for actors to perpetrate mass killings, be it in direct personal confrontation with the victims or in the seemingly abstract settings of saturation bombing and even more in today’s cyber wars where soldiers no longer have to face or see those they are killing. In very different ways, all those situations are structured to shield the perpetrators from fully confronting the implications of their murderous acts.

In a colonial situation as it prevailed in Namibia in the early 20th century, the negation of the full human worth of the persons of the colonised is predicated in the structurally racist set-up of colonialism. This is even more the case when the aim of colonial rule is not simply control and exploitation of the country, its resources and inhabitants, but rather, settlement by members of the colonising society. The inherent racism of settler colonialism has worked to lower the threshold of mass killings in appalling ways in many cases and is to be found particularly in the Americas, Australia and southern Africa. In the Namibian case, this links up with the more specifically German trajectory, when we observe continuities of this in accounts and novels read by a mass readership, of military practice as well as in the activities of specific persons, and in military doctrines and routines that link strategic ideas of decisive battles to the concept of final solution and extinction of the enemy.

Such concepts of brute force had an incubation period in the German colonies. While use is made here of the example of German South West Africa, the extermination strategy used in German East Africa in response to the Maji Maji rebellion, triggered in 1905, where the policy of scorched earth was applied, should not be forgotten. Famine was used as a deliberately created weapon, as a result of which an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people were starved to death. In 1905 one of the leaders of German troops in the colony, Captain Wangenheim, wrote: ‘Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean.’ Such a mindset was fertiliser, if not the seed, for the reactionary ideology of selection based on the claim of the superiority of the Aryan race emerging during the Weimar Republic among those who constituted the Nazi regime, and which culminated in the Holocaust perpetrated in the 1940s.

It has to suffice here merely to mention these problems. Another dimension concerns active remembrance. Here again, it is appropriate to refer to the German case where a specific form of public repentance and remembrance may be said, at least in retrospect, even to have been incorporated into the founding myth of the second German republic. Even though anti-Semitism unfortunately even today is not a thing of the past, also in Germany, and despite the initial post-war tendency of denialism, the insistence by a younger generation since the 1960s has born fruit: the Holocaust is the object of regular remembrance on the part of officialdom as well as civil society, bordering on a cult of mea culpa, denying any critical engagement with radical Zionism and the Israeli policy of occupation and Apartheid, which is all too easily accused of and stigmatised as anti-Semitism.

It should be noted, however, that such late but eager remembrance and repentance, along with the – always and necessarily completely inadequate – material redress associated with it, has been halting and highly selective. Former forced labourers from Eastern Europe have been indemnified, on a rather paltry scale, more than 50 years after the end of World War II, and this could only be achieved by a combination of persistent civil society action in Germany and the German corporations fear of incurring law suits in the United States. Other victim groups managed to secure some kind of compensation even later.

In the case of the Namibian genocide, consecutive German governments, regardless of their political hue, have consistently evaded a formal, official apology. This has been declined on the grounds that this might constitute an argument for the descendants of the survivors to sue for damages. In ignominious ways, state visits to independent Namibia have contrasted a cordial relationship with German-speaking Namibians (among them many who continue to consider themselves as ‘South Westers’) but dealing short shrift when called upon to respond to the consequences of colonial genocide. It must be said that the former minister of economic cooperation and development, social democrat Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, stands out strongly by actually offering an apology in her speech at the central commemoration of the centennial of the battle at Ohamakari on 14 August 2004. However, subsequent experience has shown that this was a somewhat personal rather than an official act – even though today German officials sometimes claim that Wieczorek-Zeul has apologised and that thereby the chapter could be conveniently considered as closed. The contrary is borne out generally, by the so far unsuccessful quest of Namibian victim groups to reach a dialogue with German officials, and of course more specifically by the way the German government (mis)treated the Namibian delegation who had come to Berlin for the repatriation of the skulls in September 2011.

There are powerful symbolic ways for the admission of (historical) guilt, devoid of any glamour and pompous ceremonial rituals. They can be public and dignified at the same time, and have a lasting wider impact. The bent knees and bowed head of the then German Chancellor Willy Brandt in front of the Warsaw War Memorial certainly was such an act. There are other ways of making less public gestures of reconciliation, followed by practical policies.

One central demand, which the German government’s behaviour in the genocide question has demonstrated by default, is first and foremost to listen to the victim groups, instead of decreeing what must be done. The exact modalities of remembrance and redress may be subject to debate but there is a responsibility and obligation to stand up, also through scholarly endeavour, against the clamorous calls for doing away with the past by a final stroke, thus repressing and, in the words of Theodor Adorno, ‘defraud[ing] those murdered even of that only gift with which we, powerless, are able to provide them: remembrance’.
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Link: many more articles about Germany’s genocide in Namibia on Pambazuka News.

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