An historical photo of Waterberg, known traditionally as Omuverumue. Many of the crimes committed by the German colonialists centered on this plateau.
Foto: Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft / Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main
“Every Herero, with or without a gun, will be shot.” That was the order given in October 1904, setting off Germany’s genocide in Namibia. New research shows how the crime continues to have an effect today, and how Berlin seems uninterested in real reconciliation.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Maximilian Popp und Bernhard Riedmann
The pain comes on suddenly, says Kambanda Nokokure Veii. It comes when she is driving through the steppe of central Namibia, past the trees where German soldiers hanged Veii’s ancestors. It comes when she is in the capital city of Windhoek and sees compatriots with lighter skin, many of whom are descendants of rape victims. Or when she, as on this afternoon, visits a memorial site on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in the Omaheke region, one of the few places that recalls the genocide committed by the German Empire against the Herero and Nama from 1904 to 1908.
Veii, a 60-year-old retired English teacher and a member of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation from Windhoek, is standing before a grave that is covered in thornbushes. Some of her fellow campaigners have joined her, and together, they sink to a knee. A man recites verses in the Otjiherero language, and the others repeat after him. Veii’s voice falters. She wipes tears from her face. “Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized,” she says.
More than a century has passed since the Herero and Nama rose up against the German colonial regime in Namibia, then called German South West Africa. German rule was incredibly cruel.
On a hill not far from the memorial, the senior commander of the German “Schutztruppe,” or “Protection Force,” Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, issued the order for genocide on October 2, 1904: “Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children.” According to estimates, between 50,000 and 70,000 people were slaughtered by von Trotha and his troops.
Despite the brutality of the crimes committed by the German Empire against the Herero and Nama, they are hardly discussed today. When present-day Germans look back on the atrocities committed in their name, the focus tends to be on the Nazis and the Holocaust. The violent German colonial regimes in Africa and Asia, which culminated in the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, are hardly mentioned.
The fact that the first genocide of the 20th century is even a topic at all internationally is largely thanks to people like Kambanda Nokokure Veii.
Veii herself only learned of the crimes committed against her people later in life, and then only piecemeal. She grew up with her great-grandmother, who had lived through German colonial rule, but was too ashamed to talk about the genocide. Her father was a politician who rose up against the South African regime which took over from the Germans and ruled Namibia until 1990. He was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island, where he became friends with Nelson Mandela, according to his daughter. Her mother fled into exile in Britain.
Like so many Namibians, Veii’s first introduction to politics was the fight for independence. Only once that struggle was won did she develop an interest in the history of her own people, the Herero. The more she read about the genocide and the more she listened to the stories told by descendants of survivors, the clearer it became to her, she says, the degree to which this crime continues to shape the country today.
Together with others who share her view, Veii founded a committee that prepared the commemoration ceremony on the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2004. German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul traveled to Namibia for the occasion, becoming the first member of a German government to apologize for the German atrocities. A short time later, Veii and her committee introduced a motion in parliament in Windhoek demanding the acknowledgement and investigation of the genocide.
Another 10 years passed before the dialogue between Germany and Namibia about their shared history really got underway. In 2015, the two countries began discussions, which ultimately led in summer 2021 to a joint Reconciliation Agreement.
In the agreement, Germany officially recognizes responsibility for the genocide committed against the Nama and Herero for the first time, though only historically and not legally. Berlin has also committed to paying a total of 1.1 billion euros to Namibia in development aid over the next 30 years.
German politicians have described the deal as an historical step, but in Namibia, it is widely viewed with disgust. The Herero and Nama, in particular, feel as though they have been ignored. In the Namibian parliament, dissatisfaction with the agreement is so great that the lawmakers still haven’t ratified it. The Namibian government wants to renegotiate the agreement now – making it look as though Germany’s attempts to face up to the crimes it committed in the colonial era have reopened old wounds instead of closing them.
The Waterberg Plateau – known historically as Omuverumue – juts out of the steppe in central Namibia like a memorial, its rimrock glowing red in the morning light. Gerson Kaapehi is waiting in a lodge at the foot of the mountain.
Kaapehi, a 65-year-old historian, has spent much of his life collecting stories of the Herero. He can name every single battle in the war between the German Empire and the Herero and Nama and knows exactly where the soldiers faced off.
One of those battles took place at the plateau in August 1904, a decisive campaign that concluded with the German forces driving the Herero into the Kalahari Desert. Commander von Trotha had approaches to the desert blocked in many places and cut off access to water. Thousands of people died of thirst or starved.
The lodge at Waterberg served as the site of a prison for the German colonial masters, and during the war, von Trotha set up his headquarters at the site. But even though the building now belongs to the Namibian state, there is no indication of its history. There are no signs informing tourists of the crimes that were committed here and no memorial to the victims. Instead, a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II still hangs on the wall in the dining hall. “It’s as if we Herero never even existed,” says Kaapehi.
The Herero and the Nama made up the majority of the population in Namibia before the genocide. Today, they represent less than a tenth of the country’s population of 2.5 million, and they are hardly represented at all in the government. For President Hage Geingob, commemoration of the genocide doesn’t play a significant role, according to the affected communities. For him and his political party, Namibia’s history essentially begins with the battle for independence against the South African occupiers.
As such, it is all the more surprising that the German government negotiated the Reconciliation Agreement with the government in Windhoek without including the most important representatives of the Herero and Nama.
When it came to reparations following World War II, Germany spoke with the government in Israel along with Jewish communities around the world, says Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the Berlin-based human rights organization the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which has been instrumental in pushing forward the process in Germany of confronting the genocide perpetrated against the Herero and Nama. “But in Namibia, decisions were made without the involvement of the groups affected, in violation of international law. Important issues like the sexualized violence deployed by the Germans and the confiscation of fertile land were excluded.” Even the UN rebuked Germany for its approach.
When reached for comment, the German government stated that it could only negotiate with the “democratically legitimate” government of Namibia, adding that representatives of the victims groups are “participants in the dialogue.”
Observers in Namibia believe that Berlin intentionally left the Herero and Nama out of the negotiations because they weren’t really interested in addressing uncomfortable questions such as land distribution. “The Germans don’t want to take any responsibility for their colonial crimes,” says Kaapehi, the historian. “They just want to be done with it.”
“The agreement offered the opportunity to establish historical justice. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been wasted.”
Mutjinde Katjiua, Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA)
But Namibia’s colonial heritage continues to have an effect on the country today. Augustinus Muesee encounters the economic inequality whenever he searches for grazing land for his herd of cattle. The steppe at the edge of the Kalahari Desert is largely unsuitable, with droughts having led to a lack of pastureland for the animals. “I don’t know for how much longer we will be able to survive on agriculture,” Muesee says.
Muesee’s ancestors once owned fertile estates near Windhoek. But they were driven away during the genocide, and he says that the Germans took ownership of their property. Today, Muesee is left with a few hectares of land that the government has made available to him and other Herero in central Namibia as a kind of reservation.
Like many Herero, Muesee is demanding that land in Namibia be more fairly distributed. He’s not in favor of expropriating white farmers, as happened in Zimbabwe. But he wants the state, using money from Germany, to buy up land to return it to the ancestors of genocide victims. “There has to be compensation for the disaster we suffered,” he says.
The coalition agreement of the government in Berlin states that reconciliation with Namibia remains “an essential task that grows out of our historical and moral responsibility.” In Berlin, though, nobody seems prepared to revisit the controversial Reconciliation Agreement – despite the fact that one of the coalition parties, the Greens, voiced criticism of the deal prior to the last election. “The joint declaration is, from the perspective of the German government, complete,” the German Foreign Ministry said in a statement in response to a query from the Left Party.
The senior-most Herero representative not in parliament, Mutjinde Katjiua, can hardly contain his anger when asked about the deal with the Germans. France, Belgium, Portugal – all other former European colonial powers, he says, are keeping a close eye on the negotiations between Berlin and Windhoek. “The agreement offered the opportunity to establish historical justice. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been wasted.”
Katjiua, 55, a lecturer on land use by profession, is the newly installed “paramount chief” of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA), the officially recognized representation of the Herero. He is an unpretentious man with a leather hat, corduroy jacket and rimless glasses. In contrast to his predecessor, he doesn’t receive his guests in his own home, but is waiting in a café on Independence Avenue in Windhoek. But like other OTA representatives, he also feels betrayed by the Germans. “Berlin didn’t find it necessary to speak with us even a single time,” he says.
If the Germans are serious about their desire for reconciliation, says Katjiua, then a renegotiation of the agreement is unavoidable. The 1.1 billion euros that the German government has offered Windhoek as compensation over the next 30 years is too little, he says, less even that the sum Germany has paid Namibia since 1990 as normal development aid.
For Katjiua, though, symbolic recognition of the wrongs committed is more important than the money. “Why doesn’t Berlin invest in a documentation center in Namibia, similar to Yad Vashem?” he asks. “Why doesn’t Germany grant more visas to Namibian students and professionals to foster exchange?” Katjiua sums up his demands of the Germans in a single sentence: “Listen to us!”