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Genocide and the history of violent expansionism

The 20th century had been termed the "century of genocides". In 2004
the first of a series of these turned a hundred years. It reminded us
of a history of mass violence directed against specifically defined
population groups, which had to a certain extent its origins and roots
in the violent expansion of European colonialism.
18 March 2005 - Dr. Henning Melber
Source: Pambazuka News, A Weekly Electronic Forum For Social Justice In Africa

The German empire
played a particularly prominent (though by no means exclusive) role
during this era of violently imposed foreign domination. 2005 reminds
of another such event, when the mass killing in then "German East
Africa" (the oppression of the so-called "Maji-Maji rebellion") turns a
century. It can be assumed that this dark chapter in the history of
what is euphemistically called "North-South relations" is even less
noticed in public debate than the first of its kind a year earlier.

One might assume that it would be part of an established common
understanding that what started in early 1904 in the German colonial
territory called South West Africa was by standards applicable today a
genocide. This, at least, is the conclusion presented by the "Whitaker
Report", adopted as an official document by a United Nations body. It
lists the German colonial war of 1904 to 1907 as the first genocide of
the 20th century. The most striking phenomenon in dealing with the
events a hundred years later is therefore, that in public perception as
well as scholarly and political discourse the views still differ

For large parts of collective memory in Germany this chapter is either
closed or even forgotten. In contrast to this widespread amnesia or
indifference the trauma lives on among parts of the Namibian
population. It keeps the generations of descendants to the victims in
demand for recognition of and compensation for the crimes committed. As
the selectivity of the (non) commemorations during 2004 showed, the
legacy and its treatment remain a battlefield. It provided a forum for
often uncompromising exchanges on how to come to terms with the past in
the present.

In August 2002, the Herero Paramount Chief commented upon the private
claims for reparations from the German government and a few German
companies, which upon his instructionswere initiated at a US-American
Court during late 2001. While doing so, he declared the land question
in Namibia to be solely a Herero issue. A spokesperson for the
Coordinating Committee for the First Official Commemoration of the
Ovaherero Genocide stated two years later that genocide was in Namibia
only committed towards the Herero.

Such monopolising claims are tantamount to blatant denial of the
sacrifices made by other communities like the Nama. It also makes a
mockery of the suffering of the Damara and San. To all these - today
even more marginalized - groups this exclusion adds insult to injury
and is certainly not conducive to concerted efforts of those to whom
justice had been denied for generations. At the same time, it
implicitly and ironically also undermines the legitimacy of the Herero
case, which otherwise ought to be undisputed and beyond any doubt
relevant for coming to terms with the past.

Members of the group tend to brush aside the concern expressed over
such monopolisation of the victim status. Instead, accusations of
racism and Eurocentrism come in handy to dismiss any discourse on how
best an advocacy might be pursued in the interest of more than just one
among those groups. The claims to genuine identity and corresponding
victim status create an aura of exclusivity and consequently a we-they
divide with the rest of the world. This competitive way of pursuing the
case prevents any meaningful dialogue. The motives of those, who in
such reductionist way seek the recognition so far denied to them, might
be perfectly understandable. They want to pursue and achieve in their
own view only historical justice. But this prevents wider coalitions
and seems to happen at the expense of others, who remain outside of any
public interest and are therefore denied recognition as victims.

The Namibian government did address the matter in a different but even
less constructive perspective. It kept a demonstratively low profile on
the general issue. No government-sponsored initiative took upon itself
to prepare any coordinated event to commemorate the dark chapter (and
by doing so flag the recognition of the primary resistance during these
days as an early part of nation building).

The only official act honoured the centenary with the issuing of a
special stamp on Independence Day on 21st March 2004. In the declared
spirit of national reconciliation it did not single out any particular
group. Instead, the motive chosen was a white dove. This symbolic
vagueness denied victims any degree of visibility and confined them to
absolute anonymity. At the same time, such evasive symbolism saved the
descendants of the perpetrators from any confrontational challenge to
deal with the legacy. Namibia's government also explicitly distanced
itself from the initiative by a group of Herero to seek reparations
from Germany.

The President and other senior government officials did not follow an
invitation to attend the ceremonies in Okahandja, which marked the
hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Herero war against German
colonial occupation in January 2004. Hifikepunye Pohamba, successor to
Sam Nujoma as Head of State, however, did attend the ceremony
commemorating the battles in the Waterberg plateau area in mid-August
2004. It remains speculation to what extent this might have been
necessitated by the fact that the German Minister for Economic
Cooperation, representing the biggest single donor country was one of
the main speakers. When the Herero gathered for their annual meeting
end of August at the graves of their ancestors, government officials
attended the commemoration of the beginning of the armed struggle by
Swapo elsewhere. The parallel activities illustrated the contrasting
traditions of resistance in a case, where - differently from
neighbouring Zimbabwe - the first chimurenga related mainly to other
local groups than the second one.

The Namibian government seemed to be almost in silent agreement with
those among the German-speaking minority in Namibia and those
representing the official position of the German government by treating
the centenary almost as a non-issue. The German ambassador to Namibia
on occasion of the commemoration ceremony in January 2004 (which in
contrast to Namibian government officials he actually did attend)
reiterated his government's position by explaining: "It would not be
justified to compensate one specific ethnic group for their suffering
during the colonial times, as this could reinforce ethnic tensions and
thus undermine the policy of national reconciliation which we fully
support." This sounds sensible but serves as a convenient excuse for no
compensation of the descendants who suffered most from direct
oppression, defeat and subsequent exploitation and subjugation through
the German colonial authorities.

There would be an obvious justification for affirmative action related
preferential treatment with regard to a redistribution of the land
taken under German colonialism. It should benefit as a priority these
communities, who were robbed of their land as a prelude and aftermath
to the genocide. But the land issue is treated as if the historical
connotations would not offer a direct frame of reference as to who
should be entitled to claims and compensated accordingly. This benefits
the government's main clientele living in or coming from the densely
populated former Owamboland (north of the zone of direct German
occupation), but neither Herero nor Nama, Damara and least of all the

In what might be termed a pact among elites, the German government has
chosen to opt for the more convenient avenue of playing along with such
biased official Namibian policy. Germany's Foreign Minister had stated
as late as 2003 that no apology will be offered, which might be
considered of relevance for compensation. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
during his first official visits to African countries in January 2004 -
at a time when the genocide turned a century - skipped the former
colony and thereby simply ignored the historical part of
German-Namibian relations at the centre of the debate in 2004.

The German position took a surprising turn from the previous official
denial during a year in which as a positive experience an unexpected
number of local, regional and national NGO initiatives raised the issue
in Germany by means of lectures, seminars, exhibitions and related
public events and hence created some unofficial but visible discourse
over the unfinished business.

The Minister for Economic Cooperation attended the ceremonies in
August 2004 remembering the biggest military clashes between Herero and
Germans taking place a hundred years earlier. In an emotional speech
she admitted on behalf of her government guilt and remorse. She stated
that the German colonial war a hundred years earlier would qualify from
today's perspective as genocide. Asked for an apology (the word did not
appear in the text she read out), she expressed the understanding that
her whole speech was an apology. This provoked harsh criticism back in
Germany mainly by members of the opposition parties, who accused the
Minister for risking an expensive bill for being carried away. There
remains, however, so far a lack of visible subsequent consequences,
which would indicate that this has resulted indeed in a direct change
of policy towards the issues of compensation with any budgetary

Interesting is the fact that the treatment of the historical issue
(intentionally or not) remains confined to the colonial chapter. It
avoids any references to the subsequent developments in Germany. After
all, to reflect upon genocidal atrocities is more than dealing with
guilt and remorse (though this in itself would be a perfectly
legitimate and sufficient motive to do so). In the Namibian case, this
links up with the more specifically German trajectory. The question is,
if and to what extent the colonial genocide paved the way for the
particular concept of final solution and extinction of the enemy,
culminating in the war crimes and the holocaust in the 1940s.

In a colonial situation as it prevailed in Namibia in the early 20th
century, the denial of human value to the "uncivilised natives" is
predicated in the structurally racist set-up of colonialism. This is
even more the case when the aim of colonial rule is not simply control
and exploitation of the country, its resources and inhabitants, but
rather, settlement by members of the colonising society. The inherent
racism of settler colonialism has worked to lower the threshold of mass
killings in appalling ways in many cases. The parole "exterminate the
brutes" is a simple illustration of this. In Namibia, the ideology and
strategy of the genocidal practices applied require us to explore the
degree of a specifically German case within the wide range of colonial
atrocities and mass violence elsewhere. As evidence shows, there
existed continuities in accounts and novels read by a mass readership,
in military practice as well as in the activities of specific persons,
and in doctrines and routines of warfare that link strategic ideas of
decisive battles to the concept of final solution and extinction of the
enemy, which came into full effect under the Nazi regime.

Such an approach within a wider context implies the journey into the
belly of the beast - "the horror", as visualised by Mister Kurtz with
his last words on his deathbed in Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of
Darkness". It was inspired at the end of the 19th century by the
excessive atrocities of colonial oppression in the Congo. Such
interrogation requires accepting in principle the possibility of a
connecting line that might exist in the history of violent
expansionism. It demands an exploration, if and to what extent there
are more than simply accidental coincidences between the colonial
genocide in then "German South West Africa" and the holocaust unfolding
"back home" in Germany over thirty years later. Depending on the
outcome of such explorations, we need to readjust not only our minds,
but also our historical understanding. Maybe the potentially scary
implications of such insights are a contributing factor to the fierce
resistance among large parts of the German public, to (re) open the
chapter and have another look.

More than this: If the Germans would have the courage and honesty to
embark upon such an exploratory mission - what should then prevent
other former colonial powers to deal with their past in a similar
self-critical way? Maybe this dimension is another forceful factor
which explains even more so than the possible monetary implications (in
terms of reparations) at stake for the German public purse to accept
such responsibilities.

There might well exist complicity among the powerful, supported by a
fraternity of a core group of European states with a similarly dubious
imperialist historical track record. Such complicity, unfortunately, is
not met by determined solidarity among the wretched of the earth. As
victims they ought to challenge the continued injustices by their
concerted and unified efforts to counteract the ignorance and arrogance
of those in power on such issues collectively, instead of falling prey
(once again) to the old system of divide and rule.

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