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

01.07.2019 - Article

From 1904 to 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 the Republic of Namibia became independent in 1990, particularly intensive bilateral relations with the Federal Republic of Germany have developed. These relations stem from the two countries’ shared colonial past (1884-1915), Germany’s special responsibility on account of this history, 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 establishing Germany’s historical and political responsibility for Namibia has set the course for Germany’s policy on the country.

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. In 2014, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the current Federal President and then Foreign Minister, and his Namibian counterpart initiated an intergovernmental dialogue on coming to terms with the past.

Former Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul in Namibia in 2004, shaking hands with Sam Nujoma
Former Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul in Namibia in 2004, together with Sam Nujoma, first Namibian president© EPA

In August 2019, Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State for International Cultural Policy at the Federal Foreign Office, handed over 27 human remains, which had been brought to Germany during the colonial period, to a delegation of the Namibian Government, which also consisted of representatives of the Nama and Herero ethnic groups, during a moving ceremony at the Französische Friedrichstadtkirche in Berlin.

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.

By holding bilateral talks, the German and Namibian Governments aim to play a part in overcoming the impacts of the colonial period in Namibia that can 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, long-standing Chairman of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, representing Germany. Namibia is represented by Dr Zedekia Ngavirue, the country’s former Ambassador to the EU.

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. A number of ethnic groups are taking part in the talks, while 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 a 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 common language.

What is the lawsuit in New York about?

A number of representatives of the Nama and Herero ethnic groups have taken a class-action suit against Germany in New York seeking compensation and direct participation in the German-Namibian intergovernmental consultations. In March 2019, the lawsuit was dismissed as unlawful by the competent US court as US courts have no jurisdiction over the lawsuit due to the principle of sovereign immunity. This decision confirms the position of the German Government, namely that, over 100 years after the events, the past can only be addressed politically and not by legal means.

The plaintiffs have appealed against the court’s decision.

Will Germany pay 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

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.

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 proposals, 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, 2014 and 2018, the German Government helped the Namibian Government to locate, identify and repatriate human remains. It considers this to be an important part of efforts to address the past.

What about the repatriation of cultural property?

By returning art and cultural objects from a colonial context, Germany is making an important contribution to addressing the colonial past. The Bible and whip belonging to the Namibian national hero Hendrik Witbooi, which had been seized by German troops during the colonial period and which had been kept at Stuttgart’s Linden Museum since 1902, was returned in February 2019.

Furthermore, on 16 May 2019, the board of trustees of the Deutsches Historisches Museum reached a unanimous decision to return the Stone Cross of Cape Cross to Namibia. In 2017, Namibia had submitted an official request to the Federal Foreign Office for the object to be returned. The Stone Cross of Cape Cross is a former Portuguese territorial marker that was erected by the country in 1486 on what is today the coast of Namibia. It was brought to Germany from the former German colony South West Africa in 1893. A copy of the Stone Cross that had been erected by Germany in 1895 was declared a national monument by Namibia in 1968.


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