The Herero and Nama Genocide and Germany’s Non-Reckoning

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government announced plans to formerly apologize for the 1904-07 Herero-Nama genocide in the Deutsch-Südwestafrika (DSWA) settler colony in Namibia. Germany’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sawsan Chelbi said “We are working towards a joint government declaration with the following elements: common discussions on the historical events and a German apology for the action in Namibia.” Chelbi continued, “On the question of whether there could be reparations or legal consequences, there are none. The apology does not come with any consequences on how we deal with the history and portray it.” Instead Germany is considering “development” projects in Namibia.

This is not Germany’s first formal apology for the Herero-Nama genocide. In 2004 Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, offered “an apology from the German government.” Wieczorek-Zeul said, “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time,” and noted that, “The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.” An unofficial but still significant apology came from Lothar von Trotha’s descendants in 2007.

Von Trotha was the colonial governor who ordered and oversaw the Herero-Nama genocide. He issued in 1904 a Vernichtungsbefehl – “annihilation order” – that read, “The Herero are no longer German subjects,” (“Die Hereros sind nicht mehr deutsche Untertanen.”). Von Trotha then offered rewards for turning in Herero leaders with the highest reward for Samuel Maharero (“Ich sage dem Volk: Jeder der einen der Kapitäne an eine meiner Stationen als Gefangenen abliefert, erhält 1000 Mark, wer Samuel Maharero bringt, erhält 5000 Mark.”). Von Trotha then asserted that any Hereros remaining in DSWA would be massacred. “The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them. These are my words to the Herero people,” (“Innerhalb der Deutschen Grenze wird jeder Herero mit oder ohne Gewehr, mit oder ohne Vieh erschossen, ich nehme keine Weiber und Kinder mehr auf, treibe sie zu ihrem Volke zurück oder lasse auf sie schießen. Dies sind meine Worte an das Volk der Hereros.”). The Nazis named a small Munich street after von Trotha in 1933, thirteen years after his death.


Lothar von Trotha’s annihilation order

Following von Trotha’s order German troops through both direct killing and forcing fatal conditions upon killed around 80% of the Herero population, some 65,000 people, and drove thousands more into neighboring lands. Germans forcibly dehydrated many to death by driving people into the Omaheke desert and preventing them from leaving. In short order the Germans carried out this same process against the Nama people killing some 10,000 more (about 50% of the Nama population).

Survivors were placed in concentration camps. Both women and men endured forced labor in the camps and (mostly though not exclusively) women were raped and kept as sex slaves. These are the events for which Merkel’s government will apologize. While the Herero-Nama genocide is the most well known, it is not Germany’s only colonial genocide in Africa nor even the only one in DSWA.

I am guided by Festus Tjikuua’s question, “Our people’s demand for a structured constructive dialogue aimed at bringing about a restorative justice to the victims of the German colonial wars remains unanswered. Why and for how long should we wait?’” and the late Alfons Maharero’s demands for reparations. In this context, Germany’s position as delineated by Chelbi is multitudinously problematic. Specifically Germany is pursuing recognition of a genocidal event without any accountability for it nor a historical reckoning.


Contextualizing Genocides

The Herero-Nama genocide must be contextualized in both earlier and later German history for Germany’s apology to be meaningful. German oppression of Herero people didn’t begin in 1904 with the genocide. This genocide, like all genocides, did not take place in a vacuum. It is part of German settler colonialism in Namibia that began in 1884.

The late Patrick Wolfe noted settler colonialism has a “logic of elimination.” In short the “logic of elimination” refers to inherent native dispossession under settler colonialism. Every five acres of Virginia is five less acres of Tsenacommacah. Every five dunam of Israel is five less dunam of Palestine. Dispossessing natives for settler land bases was a fundamental part of realizing DSWA. Deprose Muchena notes, “Many Germans who came to settle in Namibia such as ex-soldiers, artisans and technicians, called for the appropriation of African grazing land to obtain sufficient land for their own farms.” The Herero and Nama anti-colonial rebellions that were suppressed with the genocide were launched primarily in opposition to dispossession. Muchena continues, “In 1930, the German imperial commissioner declared that 75% of the land owned by Africans had to be sold to Europeans, and that the remaining 25% had to be proclaimed native reserves.” Dispossession followed by inevitable resistance followed by genocide is as clear a descriptor of settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination” as is to be found.

Native land dispossession was policy before and after the genocide. Killing uncooperative natives was policy before and after the genocide. Gendered violence was practice before and after the genocide. Before and after the genocide DSWA created a labor regime that forced native populations into the settlers’ capitalist economy creating a cycle of poverty, further institutionalized during decades of South African occupation, that persists today. Muchena writes, “Between 54 and 60% of [households where Khoisan-languages and Rukwangali are spoken] are affected by poverty. On the other hand, German and English-speaking households are hardly affected by poverty at all. In terms of consumption, the poorest 15% of Namibians account for only 1% of national expenditure while the richest 5.6% account for 53% of expenditure.” Restricting the window to just events in the DSWA settler colony, the Herero-Nama genocide has causes and legacies. It is not a stand-alone aberration during settler rule in Namibia. It is built into settler colonialism.

Germany’s apology does not account for any of this apart from naming the killings. Instead it starts and ends the historical harm with the mass killings and leaves the structure that mass produced Herero and Nama death uninterrogated. Here Germany denying reparations is especially acute. The present tense of past German settler rule demonstrates the historical harm of German policies, including but not limited to the genocide(s). There is perhaps no clearer example of the Herero-Nama genocide’s structural presence than the present day fight for descendants of those driven out during the genocide to return to their ancestral lands in Namibia from Botswana and South Africa. To repeat Tjikuua, “Why and for how long should we wait?”


From Namibia to Treblinka

Walter Benjamin killed himself near the France-Spain border in September, 1940, choosing his manner of death rather than be turned over to the Nazis. Not long before he died he composed his Theses on the Philosophy of History which has important lessons for contextualizing oppressive systems. Benjamin writes,

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. […] The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge-unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

Benjamin didn’t refer to the Herero-Nama genocide but his offering can go places he does not. In this read German fascism’s practices, including the holocaust, can only be surprising, can only be an aberrant moment, if one’s view of German history does not include German colonialism in Africa. Benjamin was not the first nor last to argue that subaltern perspectives, the “tradition of the oppressed,” should be the fundamental units of social and historical analysis. Here he is in the same ballpark as Gayatri Spivak’s famous question “Can the subaltern speak?” Or Edward Said’s demand for “permission to narrate.” Or bell hooks’ call for feminism “from margin to center.”

Anti-colonial activists and scholars contemporary with Benjamin noted this gap in understandings of Nazism as it was unfolding and in its immediate aftermath. Aimé Césaire noted in his 1955 Discours sur le colonialisme that what the European Christian “cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.”

W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The World and Africa in 1947 that “there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women, or ghastly blasphemy of children – which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folks in all parts of the world.” Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon would more famously make this connection, as would Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in their formulations of the ‘boomerang effect’. Despite these interventions both popular and scholarly understandings of Nazism including the holocaust rarely link Nazism and European colonialism.

For this reason scholars and pundits represent the holocaust as something mystical, aberrant or incomprehensible. As one example, Volker Berghahn, author of Imperial Germany, 1871-1914 (1994), writes that, “There may have been times when students of the Holocaust thought they were getting a handle on the incomprehensible; yet the more detailed the evidence that continues to emerge, the more difficult it seems to be to comprehend it.” Julia Klein noted in The Forward last year that, “In two generations, we have witnessed a massive shift in our attitude toward the Holocaust: from regarding it as incomprehensible, defying human understanding, to trying to construct rigorous, often competing historical explanations for its causes and contours.” The examples she gives do not touch upon European colonialism and some, like Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, obfuscate from structural understanding entirely seeking explanations in mass German pathology instead. Many of these are distinctly neoliberal (mis)understandings that treat anti-semitism through metaphors of viruses, something that spreads through individuals rather than being produced by a system and discourse. The supposed incomprehensibility has increased, rather than decreased. The further analysis of European fascism and the holocaust gets from anticolonialism, the further it gets from the “tradition of the oppressed,” the more incomprehensible the holocaust becomes.

German imperialism and settler colonialism in DSWA did not create anti-semitism, not even its racialized version. Variants of Judeophobia predate European colonialism by centuries. Nor is DSWA unique in using genocide (or mass killings less than genocide) to suppress anti-colonial revolts. But the connection between DSWA and Nazism is not limited to generalized genocidal practices. Mahmood Mamdani writes that the link between the Herero-Nama genocide and the holocaust is “race branding, whereby it became possible not only to set a group apart as an enemy, but also to exterminate it with an easy conscience.” Benjamin Madley writes more specifically.

In 1908, while Herero and Nama were dying in concentration camps, [Eugen] Fischer arrived in German South West Africa and began a pseudo-scientific study of 310 children. He aimed to gather two kinds of data from each child: physical characteristics, like eye and hair color, and measurements of intelligence. Fischer then compared these two data sets and fabricated correlations between physical traits and intellectual acumen. The children Fischer studied were Basters, members of an Afrikaans-speaking Namibian minority descended from intermarriage among Boers, Britons, Germans, and Khoikoin. His findings, published as [Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen (The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation Among Humans)] in 1913, had a tremendous impact in Germany. According to Henry Friedlander, ‘This study not only established [Fischer’s reputation] but also influenced all subsequent German racial legislation, including the Nuremberg Laws’.”

Fischer stole Herero body parts for his eugenics research and still today Hereros are fighting, successfully, to have the remains repatriated. He also co-wrote what Friedlander calls “the classic text of the science of race, the Grundriß der menschlichen Erblehre and Rassenhygiene (Outline of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene).” Friedlander continues, “The Grundiß deeply influenced the development and application of the science of race. [Julius Friedrich] Lehmann, the publisher, gave a copy of the 1923 second edition to the imprisoned Adolf Hitler, who read it and used its ideas in Mein Kampf, and later the authors of the official commentaries on the Nazi racial laws quoted the work as their scientific basis.”

Madley draws out further connections. For example Hermann Göring, founder of the Gestapo, head of the Luftwaffe and leading Nazi official said at his trial at Nuremberg after World War II that “’the position of my father as the first Governor of Southwest Africa’ as one of the four more important ‘points which are significant with relation to my later development’.” Other prominent Nazis too had first and second-hand connections to DSWA like Nazi Reichstag member Franz Ritter von Epp who was in “one of the first waves of volunteer soldiers sent to suppress the Herero Uprising.” (emphasis mine)

It is impossible to say whether the holocaust would have happened without the Herero-Nama genocide. What is indisputable is that the racial formations developed during German colonialism in Africa informed those deployed against Jews, Roma and other Others during the Holocaust. Anti-semitism preceded German colonialism but the prohibitions on interracial relationships in DSWA were developed during a period of partially successful, albeit tenuous, Jewish assimilation and emancipation struggles in Germany. The way the “boomerang” returned fed colonial racial formations back into Germany’s already existing anti-semitism which the Nazis then embraced as their core ideology. An honest reckoning with the Herero-Nama genocide would necessarily transform Germany’s holocaust education and change how we contextualize it. Listening to the Herero and Nama revolts against DWSA and the genocide that suppressed them answers Arno Mayer’s theological query, “Why did the Heavens not Darken?” The heavens did not darken come the holocaust because they could not, they were already dark. Nothing in the described apology for the Herero-Nama genocide points in this direction.


Willful Ignorance

Munich’s Von-Trotha-Straße was, “after a fierce and emotional discussion,” renamed Hereroßtrase in 2006 as part of Germany distancing itself from Lother von Trotha. The Munich city council has since heard debate on renaming more streets that “recall leading persons or villainous events from the German colonial era.” Many citizens support the renaming but only the Left Party voted for it in Munich council. One opponent to the renaming said, “If one were to go by today’s standards everywhere, one would have to rename every fifth street in Munich.” This symbolizes exactly the kind of reckoning Germany seeks to avoid.

What exactly a German apology should encompass and which Herero and Nama narratives should be part of German education is not for me to say. These have been made amply clear by Herero reparations activists and leaders. The German government’s insistence though, that the “apology does not come with any consequences on how we deal with the history and portray it,” gives lie to any claimed earnestness. If the apology does not address, through reparations, the harm still being caused today as well as a return of the plundered wealth, then it is empty symbolism. And if the apology does not introduce changes to how Germany contextualizes the holocaust with colonial history then why should anyone believe Germany means it? All those lost to the camps, in Namibia and Eastern Europe, deserve better.