Jürgen Zimmerer is Professor for African History at Hamburg and director of the newly established research centre on “Hamburg’s (post-)colonial legacy”. Since 2005 he is also president of the International Network of Genocide Scholars (www.inogs.com). From 2002 to 2004 he has been a postdoctoral fellow of the FCT at the CEIS XX (Centro de Estudos Interdisciplinares do Século XX) da Universidade de Coimbra. He is author and co-author of three important books to understand the Herero genocide in the former German Colony South West Africa: Genocide in German South-West Africa: The Colonial War (1904-1908) in Namibia and its Aftermath, German Colonialism and National Identity and De Windhoek a Auschwitz? This interview (now updated) was included in a longer feature posted on the news website REDE ANGOLA. (Read more…)
On 24th of April, Armenians are commemorating the 100ª anniversary of what they call “the first genocide of the XX century” but, in 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report also recognised the German plan to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples in Southwest Africa as “the earliest attempts of genocide in the 2oth century”. Why is the Namibian genocide still “forgotten” and why does the Armenian genocide remain a taboo?
Namibia is a relatively small country (in terms of inhabitants – 2,1 million) and the Herero are (also because of the genocide) a comparatively small group. They never managed to organize global public opinion in a way to create strong international pressure to recognize the genocide.
No big nation of the Global North for example so far put its weight behind the recognition of the Herero genocide; none is pressuring the German government to accept the fact and to act upon it.
One reason for that might be that governments of the Global North are often governments of nations, which were themselves involved in colonialism and slavery and are afraid that the German case could set a (positive) precedent for recognising colonial crimes and even for reparations and that this would put pressure on themselves.
Will you please summarise and explain what happened between 1904 and 1907? At what extent did these policies influence the future Nazi Germany?
Please note that more recent research now extends the genocide from 1904 to 1908 in order to include also the victims of the concentration camps.
In this time German military deliberately exterminated up to 70 per cent of the Herero people and 50 per cent of the Nama people, because they had taken up arms against Germany and successfully challenged German colonial rule.
Germany sent a huge expeditionary force to crush this “rebellion” by any means necessary. The commanding officer took this cart blanche to initiate his genocidal plans, because he believed in a race war, between “Black” and “White” races, which would end only after the destruction of one side. As a consequence, thousands were pushed into the Omaheke desert, where German soldiers then prevented them from leaving.
Thousands perished. After weeks the closing off of the desert was ended and surviving Herero were put in so called concentration camps together with Nama communities, who had in the meantime also taken up arms. A combination of Prisoner of War camps (also for women and children) and forced labor camps, in some of those camps annihilation through deliberate neglect took place.
When the war ended and the camps were abandoned, Southwest Africa had been transformed into a racial state, in which “mixed marriages” were banned, Africans freedom of movement was restricted, they had to wear numbered badges and were forced to work for German masters.
Both the genocide and the racial state are foreshadows of the crimes of the Nazis, which happened only forty years later.
Germany recognized their “misconduct” – but only in 2004 – and keeps on refusing to ask forgiveness and financially compensate the Herero/Nama descendants, as it has been doing since many years with Israel and the Holocaust survivors/ relatives. Why?
Germany does not want to accept responsibility for the genocide and accept the obligation for reparation, since the government seems afraid that new reparation demands from other victim groups of colonialism and of World War I and might follow.
In the public many Germans do not want to engage with another “dark chapter” of their history, because they are tired and annoyed of having to confront their Nazi past and the Holocaust. Therefore any discussion on genocides and mass crimes prior to 1933 or any links between colonial crimes and the Holocaust, as I have done in my book on From Windhoek [capital of Namibia] to Auschwitz? touches on a taboo and meets fierce resistance.
[In July 2016, Chancellor Angela Markel said that her country would formally recognize and apologize for the systematic murder of Namibia’s Herero people. Germany was adamant, however, that there would be no compensation paid; instead, it would “contribute to development aid for Namibia”.]
There are reports that German families remain owners of the larger and more productive farmlands while the heirs of the genocide’s victims are living in poverty. How ho you evaluate the potential for a wider upheaval?
The land issue is still one of the most pressing issues in Namibian society and politics. During the genocide all Herero and Nama land was nationalized and subsequently handed out to German settlers. After World War I, when Southwest Africa was handed over to South Africa as a trust, White South Africans also acquired land.
It is true that there are still Germans on the farm in Hereroland, and the Hereros are impoverished. They also don’t seem to benefit from the few attempts at land reform, where ownership of farms passes on to Black owners, most often those beneficiaries are not Herero.