Addressing Germany and Namibia’s past and looking to the future 

09.04.2018 - Article

Germany and Nambia connects a long common history of which some parts are painful. Knowing the past, the German Namibia-policies focus on the future.

Between 1904 and 1908, German colonial troops brutally suppressed uprisings by the Herero and Nama peoples in what was then German South West Africa. Germany and Namibia are holding talks to address this terrible chapter in history politically.

Since Namibia became independent in 1990, particularly intensive bilateral relations with the Federal Republic of Germany have developed. These relations arise from the two countries’ shared colonial past (1884-1915), Germany’s special responsibility on account of this past, close cultural ties with the German-speaking community in Namibia, and over two decades of sustainable and extensive bilateral development cooperation totalling almost a billion euros. The German Bundestag’s resolution in 1989 laying down Germany’s historical and political responsibility for Namibia has set the course for Germany’s policy on the country.

Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul in Namibia in 2004
Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul in Namibia in 2004© EPA

In 2004, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who was Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development at the time, gave a major speech in Namibia and launched a special initiative to improve living conditions among the ethnic groups most affected by the past. Many organisations from civil society and the business sector, as well as the churches, have been making intensive efforts for a long time to address the past. 

In holding bilateral talks, the German and Namibian Governments aim to play a part in overcoming the effects of the colonial period in Namibia that can still be felt to this day. The idea is to develop future bilateral relations on the basis of a joint understanding on the past. In the following section, we will answer the most important questions on this Topic.

Who is conducting the talks

Ruprecht Polenz (file photo)
Ruprecht Polenz (file photo)© dpa

The intergovernmental consultations began in 2015, with Ruprecht Polenz, a long-standing Chairman of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, representing Germany and Dr Zedekia Ngavirue, Namibia’s former Ambassador to the EU, representing Namibia.  

Are representatives of the Herero and Nama involved

Yes. The Namibian Government has set up advisory committees in order to include the Herero and Nama ethnic groups, which are particularly affected by the past, in the talks. The Namibian Government has repeatedly underlined that everyone is welcome to take part. Some ethnic groups are taking part in the talks, but others refuse to join in.

Was this a case of genocide

The atrocities committed in Germany’s name at the time constituted what would now be called genocide, although it only proved possible to define and legally codify the crime of “genocide” after the Holocaust. For this reason, the talks are also looking at putting the term “genocide” in the historical and political context.

Is Germany willing to apologise

Yes. The German Government aims to ask for forgiveness for the events on the basis of an agreed text. 

What is the lawsuit in New York about

Some individuals have taken a class-action suit against Germany in New York seeking compensation and direct participation in the German-Namibian intergovernmental consultations. In the German Government’s opinion, this type of lawsuit is inadmissible because it is in breach of the principle of state immunity, which prohibits taking legal action against a country in another country’s courts. Above all, the German Government firmly believes that over 100 years after the events, the past can only be addressed politically and not by legal means.

Will Germany pay reparations

There is no legal basis for material claims against Germany by the state of Namibia or by individual Herero or Nama or representatives of these ethnic groups because of events from the colonial past. The talks therefore cannot address compensation payments or reparations.

Herero women in traditional dress in north-west Namibia in 2010
Herero women in traditional dress in north-west Namibia in 2010© Tom Schulze/dpa

How can the living standards of the ethnic groups most affected by the past be improved

Following in-depth discussions in the regions, the Namibian side has made suggestions, such as on infrastructure, energy, water supply and professional training, to which the German Government has responded. 

What about the human remains in Germany

A number of human remains from Namibia are stored in German museums and research institutes. They were often stolen during the colonial period, brought to Germany without respect for human dignity and cultural and religious practices, and used for supposed scientific purposes. In 2011 and 2014, the German Government helped the Namibian Government to locate, identify and repatriate human remains. It sees this as an important part of addressing the past and is in contact with the Namibian Government about further repatriations so that proper funerals can be held. 

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