In the News: Atonement for German Genocide in Namibia?

We all know about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but many have barely heard of the 1904–1908 genocide in what is now Namibia, committed by the German government in their colonization of what was called South-West Africa. There, German colonial officers studied eugenics, developed ideologies of racial purity, and set up concentration camps, a clear precursor to the Holocaust in Germany.

Reiterdenkmal in Windhoek before its relocation in 2009.

Norimitu Onishi writes in two recent New York Times pieces, “Germany Grapples With Its African Genocide” and “A Colonial-Era Wound Opens in Namibia,” that the German government today is working to acknowledge and apologize for the genocide and possibly even compensate Namibia for it. By contrast, Namibians and the German-speaking minority in the country are struggling to find a place for including the story of the genocide against two ethnic groups (the Nama and the Herero) as part of Namibia’s history, which would complicate current narratives of rule under the apartheid South African government, a liberation movement dominated by the largest Namibian ethnic group (the Ovambo), and monuments to German soldiers who fought there.

As in Rwanda, the genocide in Namibia has both internal political roots as well as colonial or former colonial causes, and it also recalls other mass deaths stemming from the actions of Europeans in the Scramble for Africa. However, like both the genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust, the Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia is a result of a systematization of violence, an active campaign by those in power to exterminate another group, as Vlasta Jalusic writes.

The Rwandan genocide is within living memory, and between 500,000 and 1 million people died, which most certainly contributes to its status as the most genocide in Africa. But it is also well known because it appears to confirm the trope of Africans fighting each other, in need of more “civilized” external constraints. In Namibia, though, genocide was allowed to be swept under the rug for a century because that’s what was most convenient for the “civilized” actors of Germany and later the South African apartheid government.