On May 28, 2021, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, held a press conference in Berlin to announce what was meant to be a momentous breakthrough in the country’s attempts to address its colonial past. Maas said that he was “happy and thankful” that after five years of talks, German and Namibian negotiators had approved a “reconciliation agreement” over atrocities committed by Germans during the colonial period. “In light of Germany’s historic and moral responsibility,” he said, “we will ask Namibia and the descendants of the victims for forgiveness.”
From the 1880s to 1919, Germany controlled what are now Togo, Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, and Rwanda, among other African territories, as well as part of what is now Papua New Guinea and several islands in the western Pacific. Even by the standards of European colonialism, Germany’s actions in Namibia—then known as German Southwest Africa—stand out for their brutality. Between 1904 and 1908 German officials and soldiers killed tens of thousands of Herero (now often known as the Ovaherero) and thousands of Nama people in a campaign of extermination widely acknowledged as the first genocide of the twentieth century.
Germany has long skirted accountability for its actions in Namibia. When Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the country in 1995, he refused to meet with Herero representatives, and when President Roman Herzog visited in 1998, he denied that there were judicial grounds for reparations. The Bundestag has never formally recognized the killings as a genocide. But Maas’s announcement was meant to signal that Germany was finally living up to its historical responsibilities and included a promise that it would, “in a gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering exacted on the victims,” pay €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) in aid allocated for reconstruction and development over the next thirty years.
In the weeks that followed, however, any goodwill resulting from the announcement crumbled. The main groups representing the descendants of the victims argued that they had been unfairly left out of the negotiations, partly because of Germany’s refusal to include anyone outside the government. Many also denounced the payment as inadequate compensation for such a horrific injustice, given that the amount was merely equivalent to the foreign aid Germany has given Namibia since 1989, and expressed outrage that the agreement omitted the word “reparations.” Plans by German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier to travel to Windhoek, the Namibian capital, and officially ask for forgiveness were called off after Herero and Nama groups threatened to stage a protest.
Henny Seibeb, the deputy leader of Namibia’s Landless People’s Movement, an opposition party representing groups that lost land under colonialism, told me by phone last year that he saw the proposed size of the payment as a “mere joke” that did not reflect the depth of the injustice. Paul Thomas, one of the leaders of the Nama Genocide Technical Committee, told me that
to this day, we are still landless and in poverty because of what happened 115 years ago. My great-grandfather was beheaded, some of his people were put in concentration camps and worked to death. There is nothing for us in this deal. It is empty.
Others have pointed to a contrast that has loomed over the negotiations: although Germany has refused to hold direct talks with representatives of the Herero and Nama, since 1952 it has paid more than $90 billion in compensation to the victims of the Holocaust, partly through an agreement negotiated with the Claims Conference, an NGO representing Jews around the world. In June 2021 the Ovaherero paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro claimed in a TV interview that Germany was willing to negotiate with the Claims Conference but not the Herero and Nama “because they were white Europeans, and we are Black Africans.”
Germans first arrived in what became German Southwest Africa in 1883 with the intention of establishing a trading post. A year later the traders helped convince Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to turn the territory into a German protectorate. Bismarck had long resisted calls by the public and political rivals to establish an overseas empire. The reasons for his change of mind are still debated, but he was partly swayed by reports of potential diamond deposits in the region and the ultimately false hope that private merchants would carry much of the financial burden.
At the time the territory was home to between 200,000 and 250,000 people, including approximately 80,000 members of the Herero ethnic group, who lived with large herds of cattle. Other groups included the Nama, Ovambo, Damara, San, and Baster. The territory’s fertile area was bordered on the west by the Namib Desert and the Atlantic Ocean, and on the northeast by the Omaheke, a nearly waterless expanse of desert that stretches into Botswana.
When German settlers and administrators arrived in the region, they deceived Africans into selling them large parcels of land, mistreated them, and humiliated their leaders. In some cases they also encouraged animosity among local groups. When the Africans fought back, Berlin sent more troops. In January 1904 a conflict between Herero and Germans escalated, leading the Herero to launch an offensive to retake their territory. More than a hundred Germans were killed; in response, Berlin dispatched General Lothar von Trotha, a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion obsessed with the idea of “race war,” to take over leadership of the colony.
The conflict, known as the Herero and Nama War, became a pretext for widespread atrocities. In August 1904 Trotha attacked approximately 50,000 Herero men, women, and children at a mesa called the Waterberg in the north of the territory. When the survivors tried to escape into the Omaheke desert, the Germans set up a perimeter to enclose them, occupied water wells, and ordered all those fleeing from the desert to be killed. In October Trotha issued a now notorious proclamation calling for the Hereros’ extermination:
The Hereros have ceased to be German subjects….
The Herero people must quit this country. If they do not, I will compel them to do so with the Great Cannon.
Within the borders of German territory, any Herero, with or without a firearm, with or without livestock, will be shot; nor will I give refuge to women or children anymore. I will drive them back to their people or have them fired upon.
A German officer, Ludwig von Estorff, described in his diaries “terrible scenes” as the Hereros fled from one watering hole “to the next, losing almost all their cattle and very many people.” Some Hereros slit the throats of their animals and drank their blood to keep from dying of thirst.
During the war the Germans established concentration camps meant to provide labor for German businesses, but conditions there were so horrific that few prisoners were able to work. Numerous Nama, who had launched a guerrilla war against the Germans, were also confined to the camps.
At a camp on Shark Island, a rocky, exposed outcropping on the Atlantic coast, prisoners were given barely any clothing, food, or shelter. Berthold von Deimling, the commander of the Southern Region of the protectorate, said that as long as he was in charge, “no Hottentot”—a pejorative term for the Nama—“would be allowed to leave Shark Island alive.” Between September 1906 and March 1907, 1,032 of the camp’s 1,795 prisoners died. The exact number of victims of the genocide remains uncertain, but by the time the prisoners were allowed out of the camps in 1908 up to 100,000 Herero and approximately 10,000 Nama had perished.
Following the genocide, the German authorities expropriated nearly all the Africans’ territory and forced them to join a “semifree” labor market in which they had little choice but to work for German landowners. Those who refused were forcibly allocated to an employer, and every African over the age of seven was required to carry “a metal disc to be worn visibly” at all times and produce it on demand to the police or “any white person.” Marriages between Africans and Germans were prohibited. Africans were also banned from walking on sidewalks and riding horses, and all Africans were required to greet passing Germans. In 1921 the Treaty of Versailles transferred the colony to South Africa, which later imposed the apartheid system on the territory.
Although the publication of Morenga (1978), a best-selling anticolonial novel by Uwe Timm that was later adapted into a popular three-part miniseries, briefly pushed Southwest Africa into West German awareness, it remained overshadowed by the crimes of the Nazis and the postwar trauma of national division. Even after German reunification and Namibian independence from South Africa in 1990, many Germans remained only vaguely aware of the atrocities carried out in Southwest Africa, or they imagined that the German colonial project was more enlightened than those of Great Britain, France, and Belgium.
That began to change in the early Aughts, largely thanks to pressure from Herero and Nama groups. Both peoples have little representation in Namibia’s postindependence government. The South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) has dominated every election since 1990, largely thanks to support from the Ovambo. (In the most recent election, in 2019, the party won sixty-three of the ninety-six seats in Parliament.) And despite Namibia’s redistribution programs, a disproportionate amount of the land still belongs to a small white minority. In 2003 the Herero People’s Reparations Corporation filed a suit in the District Court for the District of Columbia demanding reparations from Germany—a proceeding made possible by the US’s Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to seek compensation for international human rights violations. The German government has claimed it is immune from such claims because the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention could not be applied retroactively. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, it helped open the door to negotiations.
Meanwhile several academics—including Joachim Zeller, Henning Melber, Isabel Hull, and most prominently Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor of history at the University of Hamburg—began drawing attention to Germany’s colonial crimes. In 2001 Zimmerer published Deutsche Herrschaft über Afrikaner (German Rule, African Subjects), seemingly the first in-depth book about the policies of German Southwest Africa.1 It focuses on the attempts by German authorities to create a utopian “racial state” in the colony. Although the book is perhaps too detailed for a general readership, it was decisive in dispelling what Zimmerer describes as the “mist” of amnesia around German colonialism.
That mist has lifted further in the past decade. In 2016 the German Historical Museum in Berlin, the largest and most important museum of German history, hosted the country’s first major exhibition about its colonial period. The repeatedly delayed completion of the Humboldt Forum—a museum housing ethnological artifacts in a reconstruction of the Hohenzollerns’ Berlin palace—has also focused attention on German colonial history. While protests against racial inequality grew abroad and in Germany, activists and scholars argued that the forum’s leaders had not done enough to investigate the provenance of many of its artifacts. As a result there have been genuine shifts in cultural policy. Last summer Germany signed a groundbreaking agreement with Nigeria to repatriate all its Benin Bronzes, sculptures looted by British troops in 1897 that were later sold or donated to a number of European and American museums. The state minister for culture, Claudia Roth, announced in early 2022 that she was exploring more widespread restitutions, adding that the crimes of the colonial era were “a blank spot in the memory culture.”
Efforts to find understanding with the Herero and Nama remain more fraught. In late 2021 the new German government led by Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats presented a coalition agreement with the Greens and the probusiness Free Democrats, in which it made vague promises to commission independent studies about German colonialism and to begin developing a “learning and remembrance site for colonialism.” It also promised to “drive forward the investigation of colonial history” and to push for “reconciliation” with Namibia.
That will not be easy. Namibia’s government has now backtracked on its plans to ratify the reconciliation agreement and has called for it to be renegotiated, and the German government has thus far rejected calls to reopen discussions. Such talks would be a test for Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, who has promised to pursue a foreign policy in keeping with her party’s progressive, environmentalist, and feminist principles.
New talks would presumably need to directly involve the Herero and Nama and their diasporas, who are likely to demand that any payment be officially recognized as reparations. Such a concession, however, would probably be rejected by German negotiators, since it could open Germany to similar claims from Greece and Italy, which are requesting compensation for crimes committed during World War II. It would also bolster the legal cases of other former colonies against European powers and potentially usher in a new wave of lawsuits.
The discussion of reconciliation has been complicated by other events. In the spring of 2020 a bizarre conflict erupted over the decision by the Ruhr Triennale, an arts festival in western Germany, to invite the Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe to give a talk. After a local politician quoted passages from Mbembe’s work out of context—they drew parallels between the Holocaust and South African apartheid and criticized Israel’s actions in Palestine—Germany’s federal commissioner on anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, said such comparisons between the Shoah and other historical events represented a “recognizable anti-Semitic pattern” and called for Mbembe to be disinvited.
Although the festival was ultimately canceled because of Covid-19, Klein’s intervention outraged many on the left who believed that Mbembe and others should be allowed to suggest links between colonial crimes and the Holocaust. The leaders of more than thirty cultural institutions, including the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam, signed a letter arguing that “Germany’s historical responsibility should not lead to a blanket moral or political delegitimization of other historical experiences of violence and oppression.”
Journalists and historians have been arguing about this in the German media ever since. The debate is reminiscent of the Historikerstreit, or “historians’ dispute,” of the 1980s, which erupted after the historian Ernst Nolte argued that Germany did not bear an exceptional burden of guilt for the Holocaust, since mass killing had occurred before—particularly in the Soviet Union—and was not historically unique. Numerous scholars disagreed: Jürgen Habermas argued that such comparisons downplayed German responsibility and that the Holocaust should be seen as a singular historical event. Habermas’s view ultimately became a cornerstone of the German approach to memory culture.
In what has become known as the Historikerstreit 2.0, Zimmerer—who is the most widely known scholar to probe the connections between German Southwest Africa and the Third Reich—has been one of several historians arguing in favor of a comparative view. He makes clear that he does not believe that the genocide of the Herero and Nama was a rehearsal for the Holocaust or that the two are equivalent in scale or motivation. But he argues that by examining parallels between them, one can arrive at a more accurate view of the forces driving German and global history:
For German history, the genocide in Southwest Africa is meaningful in two ways. On one hand, it showed the existence of genocidal fantasies of violence (and the actions that followed) in the German military and German administration as early as the start of the twentieth century, and on the other, it popularized this violence, thereby contributing to its legitimization.2
Zimmerer writes that “the colonial experiences represent a cultural reservoir of cultural practices from which those serving the National Socialists could avail themselves.” In the 1920s and 1930s German Southwest Africa was romanticized in public memorials, school curricula, films, and books, including a popular genre known as “colonial literature.” Until 1945 the best-selling book for young readers in Germany was Peter Moor’s Journey to Southwest Africa, about a young man who volunteers as a soldier in the German colony and heroically takes part in the campaign against the Herero and Nama. Zimmerer argues that these cultural influences helped build support for Nazi policies based on racial difference and anti-Semitism.
He notes that geographers affiliated with Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University) had been involved in conceiving colonial policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and pushed for the expansionary policies that led to the occupation of Eastern Europe during the Third Reich. Anthropologists who later became leading proponents of “race biology” in Nazi Germany were influenced by research carried out in German colonies in Africa. Some of the regulations imposed during the Nazi occupation of Poland—a ban on Poles riding bicycles and entering movie theaters, a requirement for all Poles to greet passing Germans—echoed policies previously instituted in Southwest Africa.
Zimmerer also argues that the “biological interpretation of world history—the conviction that a Volk needs to secure space in order to survive—is one of the fundamental parallels between colonialism and Nazi expansion policy” in Eastern Europe. Hitler’s Generalplan Ost called for much of Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union to be emptied of inhabitants and resettled by German farmers. A special effort was to be made to recruit settlers who had previously lived in African colonies. In 1941 Hitler said about Ukraine, “The Russian territory is our India, and like the English rule it with a handful of people, we will rule our colonial territory.”
In 2021 in Die Zeit, Zimmerer and the American scholar Michael Rothberg emphasized that “a ban on any comparison and contextualization leads to the Shoah being excised from history.”3 Such a ban would undermine attempts to learn from history: if a singular event can occur only once, there’s no need to worry about it happening again.
Some have argued that proponents of the comparative view misrepresent the ideological nature of the Holocaust and ignore the particular history of anti-Semitism in Europe. The historian Saul Friedländer writes:
It is not a question of belief as to whether the Holocaust should be seen as singular or not, because it is differentiated not only in individual aspects from other historical crimes, but on a fundamental level…. Nazi anti-Semitism didn’t just aim to eradicate the Jews as individuals (at first through expulsion, then through extermination) but also by erasing any trace of “the Jew.”
At other times the debate has invoked straw man arguments, with some commentators falsely claiming that postcolonial scholars want to equate the Holocaust with colonial crimes. Occasionally it has become a proxy for a battle over the adoption of progressive American views about racial justice. The editor and journalist Thomas Schmid accused Zimmerer of being part of a “trendy” US-imported attempt to “position the Holocaust behind colonialism,” which “fits with the contemporary culture of general suspicion against the white man (and white woman).”
The new Historikerstreit has emerged out of a confluence of factors—the debate over reparations, the pushback against the Humboldt Forum, and, more broadly, the rise in Germany of a globalized sense of history, in which debates about slavery in the US and colonialism in the UK, for instance, are often transposed onto local experiences. But it has also coincided with a debate about German identity and how to reconcile Germany’s postwar self-image, largely centered on atonement and guilt for the Holocaust, with its modern status as a country defined by immigration.
In the past ten years the proportion of German residents who are immigrants or have immigrant parents has risen from approximately 19 percent to 27 percent. Many of these new arrivals come from countries that were previously colonized by European powers. Activists have pushed for German identity to be broadened to accommodate immigrants from Africa or the Middle East, for instance, arguing that their greatest historical trauma is colonialism, not World War II.
In a comment on the Historikerstreit 2.0 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the journalist Thomas Ribi said that German memory culture should not change to accommodate these new arrivals, because immigrants have been the source of a new wave of violence against Jews: “Immigration in recent years ‘enriched’ Germany with a new form of anti-Semitism, derived from Islam.” It is true that anti-Semitism is a problem among some immigrant communities, in particular those from the Middle East, but official statistics suggest that most anti-Semitic attacks in Germany are carried out by members of the far right. Clearly the existing approach to German memory culture—and its resistance to drawing connections between the Holocaust and colonialism—hasn’t been infallible either.
In the fall of 2021 Habermas joined the debate. In Philosophie Magazin he insisted that the singularity of the Holocaust did not mean “that the political self-understanding of a nation’s citizens can be frozen” and argued that the country’s transformation in the past decade called for a reassessment of its self-image. When an immigrant arrives in Germany, he wrote, he or she “acquires at the same time the voice of a fellow citizen, which from now on counts in the public sphere and can change and expand our political culture.” Germany’s political imagination must “expand in such a way that members of other cultural ways of life can recognize themselves in it with their heritage and, if necessary, also with their history of suffering.”
The debate has often operated under the assumption that memory is zero-sum and that a greater acknowledgment of colonial crimes will devalue the historical importance of the Holocaust. Rothberg offers an alternate view in Multidirectional Memory (2009), which sharpened this debate when it was published in Germany in 2021. He argues that “the Holocaust is frequently set against global histories of racism, slavery, and colonialism in an ugly contest of comparative victimization,” but that one should “consider memory as multidirectional: as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive and not privative.”
In 2021 Zimmerer and Rothberg argued in Die Zeit that
perhaps the solution is not ritualized remembrance and invocations of the Holocaust’s blanket incomparability, but ideas that explore the Holocaust’s historical place in global history and questions about the ways in which its memory is now intertwined with postwar global events.
If that was the historical approach to the Shoah, they write, “the end result is not less German responsibility, but more, not less, but more struggle against anti-Semitism and racism. Shouldn’t that be the goal of any discussion of the Holocaust and the crimes of National Socialism?”
Such an approach also allows for a more coherent narrative of German history—one in which the Third Reich is viewed not as an anomalous malignancy but rather as a convergence of events that include colonialism. To reexamine the connections among the Third Reich, the genocide of the Herero and Nama, and other colonial crimes is to throw a more critical light on a broader arc of German history, including the Wilhelmine period. It means understanding that colonialism had long-term consequences not only for the colonized but also for the colonizers.
In a 2017 essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German novelist Navid Kermani, born to Iranian parents, movingly wrote about the importance of shame to the development of his sense of national belonging. The first time he felt like a German, he wrote, was during a visit to Auschwitz: “Anyone who is naturalized in Germany will also need to bear the burden of being German.” He then summarized German identity by paraphrasing a Polish rabbi, Nachman of Breslov: “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” The path to self-knowledge and harmony, in other words, must lead through a shared sense of shame.
Berlin’s only memorial to the victims of the Herero and Nama genocide is located in a cemetery near Tempelhof, an airport turned park at the southeast edge of the city center, and remains unknown to most Berliners. In an overgrown corner of the site, visitors can find a granite stone from 1907 with an inscription commemorating seven German soldiers who “voluntarily fought in the campaigns of Southwest Africa and died heroes’ deaths.” In 2009, thanks to pressure from activists, a black plaque was installed below that inscription to honor the “victims of German colonial rule in Namibia.” It does not include the word “genocide,” but at the bottom it bears a quote from Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian philosopher and educational reformer: “Only a person who knows the past has a future.”
Translated by Anthony Mellor-Stapelberg (Berghahn, 2021). ↩
Jürgen Zimmerer, Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz?: Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust (From Windhoek to Auschwitz?: On the Relationship Between Colonialism and the Holocaust; Münster: LIT, 2011). ↩
Jürgen Zimmerer and Michael Rothberg, “Enttabuisiert den Vergleich!,” Die Ziet, April 4, 2021. ↩