Bones of Contention: Germany Still Refuse to Apologise for Namibian Genocide

The remains of German victims being returned to Namibia

In October, the skulls of a few of the Namibian victims of the 1904-1908 German colonial genocide were finally returned home to Namibia. To some it represents the symbolic closure of a tragic and white chapter in the country’s history but for many the repatriation of the 20 skulls – from 11 Nama and 9 Herero victims aged between 4 and 35 – is just the first step towards atonement for the appalling crimes perpetrated during the brief but brutal German colonial era.

Indeed, for the affected communities, this is the first real victory in their ongoing campaign for a formal apology from the current German government for what was the first genocide of the 20th century – a genocide that resulted in the near-extermination of the Herero, Nama and Damara groups.

Germany occupied the former Deutsch Südwest Afrika  from 1884 to 1915. Following a war of resistance, German military commander Lothar von Trotha issued a formal policy of extermination and instructed his troops to “take no prisoners, to give no quarter, and to show no mercy to man, woman and child”. In the process, an estimated 80 per cent of the Herero, 50 per cent of the Nama, and 30 per cent of the Damara perished.

German concentartion camp in Namibia

Eighteen of the repatriated skulls belonged to people who died in the concentration camps at Shark Island near the southern coastal town of Lüderitz. The other two were taken from unspecified locations in Namibia. The skulls were sent to the Charité Hospital in Berlin and other German institutions for ‘scientific measuring’ and prodding under the paradigm of race theory.

When it was discovered in 2008 that the skulls were still being stored by those institutions more than 100 years after the genocide, the Namibian Cabinet took a decision to ensure that all the human remains so far identified and located were returned.

The request laid bare ongoing – and still bitter – divisions both within Namibia and Germany about how best to deal with Germany’s murderous colonial past.

A formal apology from the German government has still not been forthcoming. However, the former Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, did make a ‘plea for forgiveness’ in 2004 in the presence of President Pohamba, who at the time was the Minister of Land Reform and Resettlement. And in October 2007, distant descendants of von Trotha arrived in Namibia on the invitation of the Maharero Royal House and apologised for the genocide on behalf of their family.

The Charité Institute also apologised for the scientific practice of race theory when it handed over the skulls to the Namibian delegation. “Charité’s apology was an acknowledgement that at a certain point German Scientists became guilty of using human beings as scientific material,” said Dr Larissa Förster of the Centre of Advanced Studies Morpomata at the University of Cologne, adding that this apology was a “very necessary step”.

Both the Namibian and German governments insist that the existing bilateral relationship suffices for reparation – and at the official handing over ceremony of the skulls at Heroes’ Acre, President Pohamba called for the strengthening of government-to-government cooperation. The German ambassador to Namibia, Egon Kochanke, underscored this position by stressing the German government’s repeated acknowledgement of its ‘special, historic, and moral responsibility’ towards the Namibian republic. He had earlier emphasised that the German government does not deal with individual traditional authorities or other groups.

But the chairperson of the Nama Traditional Genocide Committee, Ida Hoffmann, has stated that this matter is not closed. “My people will relentlessly pursue this matter for restoration of their dignity, their land and their wealth,” said Hoffmann. “The once proud Nama have today been reduced to the status of the poorest of the poor and it is therefore only natural that after restoration follows the demands for restitution.”

Chief of the Otjikatjamuaha Royal House and chairman of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu Council for the Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide (OCD-1904), Chief Alfons Kaihepovazandu Maharero, said that the great majority of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu want an “unconditional admission of responsibility, official apology and restorative justice”.

The OCD-1904 has from the start advocated for direct dialogue between the German government and the affected communities that ‘directly bore the brunt’ of the German-Namibian war. While the OCD-1904 recognises and appreciates the existing bilateral development cooperation between the Namibian and German governments, Maharero said that the latter has ‘opted to hide behind the excuse of blanket development’.

“[Development] assistance to Namibia as a matter of bilateral agreements between the two governments, must not have an umbilical link to the restorative justice we are demanding. Meaning, that the German government must direct the restorative justice directly to the affected communities through their government and not in a form of development assistance to the Namibian government,” said Maharero.

In response, Professor Reinhardt Kössler of the Arnold Bergstraesser University proposed a new way forward – opening a dialogue with the descendants of the Namibian victims and survivors, and expressed the hope that committed parts of German civil society would live up to this challenge.

The return of the skulls indicates that there is a chance for further progress. It has taken 100 years for this first step. Let’s hope the next steps are taken much more quickly.