As German-speaking Namibians of different generations and backgrounds we are concerned over the apparent continued refusal of some in our language group to admit the full dimensions of the lasting impact German colonialism had on the people of our country. This legacy is not past but lives on through the shadows it casts into the present.
We don’t dispute that the South African occupation significantly impacted the Namibian people too, reinforcing and anchoring much of what had started under German colonization. However, we cannot downplay the consequences of imperial Germany’s rule of Namibia by comparing it with the subsequent actions of others or the prevalent Zeitgeist of the time. Such comparison of any morally questionable actions is just another escapism evading responsibility. Instead, we urgently need to address the lasting consequences German settler colonial rule had both in material as well as mental dimensions to build a common future. Unfortunately, however, many among us tend towards self-righteous defence mechanisms if not outright denialism.
The refusal to admit any wrong doing on behalf of German colonizers voiced by two “local Germans”, prominently published as front-page article in the Windhoek Observer (“Local Germans Deny Genocide”, 16 March) was deplorable – both in terms of the views articulated as well as the kind of journalism which gave the anonymous voices such undue prominence. Their deeply offending lecturing only displayed reactionary ignorance, ideological blinders bordering to racist insults and lack of any conceptual understanding of the notion of genocide. We would like to stress that they cannot claim nor should be misunderstood to represent the views of all or most German-speaking Namibians, as the article might have suggested. We are however devastated and outraged that there are still members in the German-speaking community that until today hold such views.
We are equally adamant to dismiss the implications in the Open Letter by Eberhard Hofmann to Dr Nagarikutuke Tjiriange (Windhoek Observer of 29 March), that he represents the opinion of all of us as German speaking Namibians (by implication including all those German speaking Namibians who - like the late Nora Schimming-Chase and many more - as a result of German colonialism have very different backgrounds from those misleadingly so often only associated with the language group).
We acknowledge that there is need for “detail to be thrashed out in good spirit” as Hofmann states. His letter and the views uttered by the two “local Germans” in the Windhoek Observer show the need to have an open discussion on German colonial past not only between different Namibian language groups but also within the German-speaking Namibian community.
The order issued by von Trotha on 2 October 1904 (followed by a hardly ever mentioned similar order issued against the Nama on 22 April 1905), the resulting actions, as well as the internment of the Ovaherero and Nama communities in concentration camps with exorbitantly high mortality rates and the introduction of laws resulting in the complete destruction of the existing way of life of the surviving members of these communities (including the further expropriation of land) were indeed acts tantamount to genocide. Eberhard Hofmann downplays such systematic extermination strategy. Turning the “Vernichtungsbefehl” (extermination order) once again into a “Schiessbefehl” (shooting order) is a standard repertoire of acrobatic semantics seeking to avoid recognition of what really had happened by intention. After all, the “intent to destroy” is at the core of the definition of genocide. Claiming that the subsequent order to “shoot above the heads” of those who tried to return from the Omaheke to drive them back was to save their lives is a cynical misinterpretation: after all, those were forced to return into the semi-desert to die of hunger and thirst. – It would have been more humane, to end their lives through the bullets. Mass executions, which Hofmann claims “have been recorded nowhere”, come in different forms and methods.
Those seeking to downplay the events tend to make use of selective quotes from what they consider reliable sources on the German side. This is a waste of time and energy. After all, we can easily produce at least as much credible evidence by soldiers, missionaries, observers and the official records to the opposite. Let us illustrate this by a quote with which the official account published on the war against the Herero by the German military command in Berlin ends: “The tribunal had come to an end. The Herero stopped to be an autonomous tribe.” – We can engage in the futile exercise to exchange quotes for the rest of our lives. But by doing so we will only avoid to address and deal with the real issue at stake.
The “issue at hand” (Hofmann) is not as he claims, to “place history in a wider context than the genocide and reparations lobby does, which seems to be fixated solely on the shooting order of General Lothar von Trotha”. Such polemical insinuations are no sign of true willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue. Wrongly so suggesting to speak for all of us, Hofmann argues, “that Namibians of German descent put the German Herero war, or genocide, as you are pleased to say, in a much broader context than all those who are solely fixed on the dogma of genocide”. This suggests not to deal with what happened as the necessary point of departure. The “issue at hand” is, however, in contrast to the promotion of such amnesia the acknowledgement that reconciliation starts by seeking to come to terms with such past. It cannot be left behind through being ignored or even dismissed. Building a solid foundation for the present and future of all Namibians requires the honest and painful admission of historical guilt and injustice. Only then can we engage in joint efforts to seek best ways to live peacefully together in mutual respect and recognition of shared common goods and goals, which manage to cross the historical divide of erstwhile perpetrators and victims.
There is no excuse for these acts, which changed the Namibian society irreversibly and produced lasting structures (and mind sets) existing until today. All Namibians should come to realise that “the past is not dead, it is not even past” (William Faulkner). Living in a peaceful sovereign Namibia, it seems hard for us to understand why any person would ever issue such orders, in total disregard for the lives of unarmed civilians, women and children (which indeed has been a fundamental difference to the command issued by Chief Maharero). Looking at other places in our world, however, we realise that such acts are still happening. Facing the ongoing task to come to terms with the consequences of such crimes against humanity, we can only appeal to everybody, to condemn any such actions in solidarity with those who suffer unimaginable harm, destroying their lives and their future. We should always stand united against any such disregard of human life.
But a necessary first step requires that we need to start at home. We should be critical of our own actions and the actions of the generations before us. Only by learning from the past through self-critical interrogation and reflections with the aim to seek social justice can society advance and improve for all of us sharing what we consider as a common home. Playing the blame game all day long, which we Namibians have driven to perfection, is a huge waste of time and energy and won’t benefit the urgently needed advancement of our society.
Fear to acknowledge the wrongs of the German colonial period might stem from the fear of being rejected from Namibian society and being looked upon as a lasting evil in Namibian history. It might also stem from a feeling of unfair scrutiny, as many other groups within Namibian society still fail to acknowledge or even address the wrongs of their past in the Namibian context. Many German-speaking Namibians, like the authors, don’t even have a direct connection to the German colonial period as the South African Administration removed many of the early settler generation when taking over. Most German speakers arrived long after the end of German colonialism. But as Namibians of German descent we should build our future on (self-)critical reflections about our past. We cannot afford to put history aside. As proud Namibians we should humbly deal with the wrongs of the generations before us to strengthen the bonds history created within our society. We are grateful as German-speakers to be a part of this nation. Addressing past injustices won’t eject us from society. It will make us an even more integral part of Namibia.
There is need for thorough reconciliation. Those of the German-speaking community who do not realise the cruelty and inhumanity of von Trotha’s orders and the resulting actions and consequences are not only morally wrong. There is no harm in us German-speaking Namibians genuinely showing remorse and condemning these acts of genocide. There is room for critical discussion on the issue of reparations with the German government and the true intentions of those representing the Namibian side. Disputing the historical facts by remaining in denial, however, is no valid argument and only destructive. The German government through its Foreign Ministry has acknowledged in 2015 the genocide committed by Imperial Germany in its colony (even though it took some time). With the German government willing to address the historical injustice, why and for what reason should German-speaking Namibians still be in denial?