The German racial state in Namibia is a foreshadow of the crimes of the Nazis

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 AftermathGerman 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…)

October 2011:Traditional Herero drill marching to the German Embassy on Friday in protest against the German government’s alleged refusal to officially sign over the 20 Nama and Herero skulls from Germany © namibiansun.com

October 2011: “Traditional Herero drill marching to the German Embassy in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, in protest against the German government’s alleged refusal to officially sign over the transfer of 20 Nama and Herero skulls taken by the colonial authorities to conduct scientific experiences ‘to prove the superiority of the Europeans'”
© namibiansun.com

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.

Herero women incarcerated in concentration camps in what was then German South-West Africa were given a terrible task: they were ordered to remove the flesh from the skulls of their dead menfolk. The skulls were stripped of soft tissue using boiling water and glass shards. They were then shipped to Germany for scientists to test the racial theories that were popular at the time. German troops had captured primarily members of the Herero ethnic group, but also some of the Nama. This human skulls was displayed at Berlin's Charite hospital. © Tobias Schwarz | Reuters

“Herero women incarcerated in concentration camps in what was then German South-West Africa were given a terrible task: they were ordered to remove the flesh from the skulls of their dead menfolk. The skulls were stripped of soft tissue using boiling water and glass shards. They were then shipped to Germany for scientists to test the racial theories that were popular at the time. German troops had captured primarily members of the Herero ethnic group, but also some of the Nama. In this pictures, a human Herero skull displayed at Berlin’s Charite hospital”
© Tobias Schwarz | Reuters

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.

Herero woman sewing a traditional dress. The women, of whom many worked as servants and housemaids to German families, adopted their own version of their madams’ dresses. They wear up to seven slips under a finely pleated dress and apron. Because the Herero did still tend cattle and count them as a measure of wealth, the women fashioned their hats to represent their pride and dependence on cows and shaped them into horns. ©anywherebound.com/

“Sewing a traditional dress. The Herero women, of whom many worked as servants and housemaids to German families, adopted their own version of their madams’ dresses. They wear up to seven slips under a finely pleated dress and apron. Because this people did still tend cattle and count them as a measure of wealth, the women fashioned their hats to represent their pride and dependence on cows and shaped them into horns”
©anywherebound.com

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.

Two Herero boys on the steps. At some point, some of the Herero fled to Angola where, without their livestock, they turned to begging various Angolan tribes for provisions to survive. In Angola, one tribe’s word for beggar was himba, and the name stuck. When large numbers of the new Himba returned to Namibia they found that the Herero who didn’t flee had abandoned many of their customs. ©

“Two Herero boys on the steps. At some point, some of the Herero fled to Angola where, without their livestock, they turned to begging various Angolan tribes for provisions to survive. In Angola, one tribe’s word for beggar was himba, and the name stuck. When large numbers of the new Himba returned to Namibia they found that the Herero who didn’t flee had abandoned many of their customs”
© anywherebound.com

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