Namibia: Germany recognized the genocide of Herero and Nama tribes

Germany officially assumed responsibility for the genocide in Namibia during the colonial era. Now Herero and Nama demand the restitution of the stolen lands and the return to the ancient wealth

Members of a delegation attend a ceremony in Berlin, Germany, August 29, 2018, to hand back human remains from Germany to Namibia following the 1904-1908 genocide against the Herero and Nama . REUTERS/Christian Mang

On May 28th, Germany assumed responsibility for committing genocide in Namibia in the early 20th century. For quite some time now, historians have agreed to use the term "genocide" to describe the crimes suffered by the Herero population. The German institutions, for their part, have admitted the matter in the last years. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the first to break the taboo: she brought the issue back in the spotlight in 2014, and was followed shortly after by the federal Parliament. This time, however, the recognition is official: the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries will sign a declaration in early June in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. Moreover, Germany will deposit 1.1 billion euros to the African country as compensation. The money will support the infrastructural development of the country, advanced healthcare programs, and personnel training in those fields of expertise.

The Herero genocide is the first one that occurred during the 20th century, between 1904 and 1908. This bitter event has been the object of much debate: the controversies have brought the German government to the admission of responsibility. Indeed, for a long time, Berlin denied the mass massacre and minimized the brutality of the colonial wars. Germany used to affirm that the term "genocide" did not fit in that case since it preceded the 1948 UN Convention, which regulates this type of crime at an international level. The breakthrough occurred in 2016, when the Bundestag voted for the recognition of the Armenian genocide, stating that it was "the first genocide of the 20th century.". Both historians and the Turkish Republic - directly involved - protested, prompting a rediscussion of the German colonial campaigns and the necessity for the country to assume responsibility. Only then would it be credible in judging events linked to other countries.

The massacre perpetrated against both Herero and Nama tribes dates back to the German colonial experience. In the last two decades of the 19th century, Germany gradually took control over the territory corresponding to present-day Namibia. The action was first carried out by private citizens, while then the State succeeded with a more direct rule. Herero and Nama populations lived in that region, they had a relatively high living standard, predominantly thanks to cow breeding. Tensions between locals and Germans grew rapidly: the Europeans started to buy more and more land while prompting the possibility to limit the indigenous presence to reserves. Simultaneously, the tribes began to lose economic strength because of a bovine epidemic.

In 1903 Herero could not bear those conditions any longer. They rose against the German occupants, supported by Nama right away. Germany, on its part, decided to solve the situation vigorously, fighting back the riot. As the locals did not show signs of surrender, things got worse. The Germans labeled the two ethnic groups as dangerous and unreliable: a stumbling block in their path to colonial domination. Thus, they proceeded with systematic extermination, and detained many locals in prison camps. Eugen Fischer, a racist geneticist that became famous later in the Hitlerian regime, carried out medical experiments on some prisoners. In the end, approximately 80 thousand Herero perished out of a total population of 100 thousand. The situation turned out slightly better for Nama, whose members were halved.

The impact of the genocide

The brutal living conditions of the two groups are not limited to that period since colonial policies had a significant negative impact in the following century and even today. Right from the start, Germans took from them the most fertile lands. Those territories remained under German or European control for decades, even after the end of the Berlin colonial experience in 1918, due to the defeat in World War I. The situation did not improve under the following domination: South Africa imposed an apartheid regime. Nonetheless, neither the gain of independence changed their luck: today, the Herero are a small minority and live in poor and overcrowded areas. "They don't have flushing toilets, they don't have drinkable water, there's no electricity", affirms Laidlaw Peringanda, a social activist and Herero descendant.

The two populations are still marginalized and perceived as troublesome by the government, which chose to receive German funds without a second thought. Most Herero and Nama do not share this attitude since they are determined to get justice for their ancestors. They demand the restitution of the stolen lands and the return to the ancient wealth, which ended due to the German colonization. It is too much of a request for Germany, which wants to close the book once and for all. Berlin is avoiding deeper involvement. It is too much to ask also to the Namibian government, which cannot make promises appreciated just by the 1% of the population. The recognition of the genocide took place, but without the participation of the actual victims, the Herero and Nama.

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