Vor einiger Zeit schrieb ich einen Essay zur Deutsch-Namibische Erinnerungskultur, den ich jetzt mit euch teilen möchte. Er knüpft an den kürzlich geposteten Film „Deutsch-Südwas?“ an, indem er der Frage nach Reparationszahlungen und einer offiziellen Entschuldigung der deutschen Bundesregierung für den Genozid an den Herero und Nama nachgeht.

A Common Culture of Remembrance?

While some call it the first German genocide (1), most Germans do not even know about it. In contrast to Namibia, where the atrocious war against the Herero and Nama committed in 1904-08 by the Germans, in former German South-West Africa, is a crucial part in the national consciousness, this event is close to absent in the German public memory. Since the independence of Namibia in 1990 this German culture of remembrance, which can rather be described as a “culture of amnesia”, has repeatedly been challenged by the claims of the Herero and Nama ancestors for appreciation, excuse and reparation. In this essay I will assess the recent changes in the common culture of remembrance of Namibia and Germany, considering particularly the proceedings on the centenary day of the Herero uprising in 2004 and the handing over of twenty sculls of Herero and Nama in 2011. Secondly, I will elaborate the reasons for the German “selective memory” when it comes to the genocide and conclude with the future chances for the German-Namibian partnership.
The main reason why the Federal Government of Germany has long rejected the idea of an official apology and acceptance of responsibility for the genocide committed on behalf of Germany is the fear of reparations. In assessing the apology of the then German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, at the memorial of the centenary of the Herero uprising in 2004, this fear has to be considered. Even if this gesture of sorrow was a first step towards symbolic justice between Germany and Namibia the excuse remains a highly individual gesture. The apology was never made officially and only emphasised her personal action while she never mentioned the German responsibility for the atrocities committed. Instead, she turns to the use of the subjunctive when it comes to the word “genocide” and pleases for forgiveness instead of taking responsibility for reconciliation:

The atrocities committed at that time would today be termed genocide – and nowadays a General von Trotha would be prosecuted and convicted. We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by the Germans at that time. And so, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we share, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses. (2)

Clearly symbolic justice in the form of verbal appreciation and apology is a crucial step towards a responsible and just relationship between Namibia and Germany. But equally obvious is the fact that a personal excuse of one single German minister and her emphasis on a “historical and moral responsibility” without turning the rhetoric into action is not enough to outweigh the atrocities committed during the genocide and the colonial time in general.
That Germany is not even willing to produce a symbolic apology and reconciliation became clear during the one-week visit in September 2011 in Berlin of the Namibian Genocide Committee including 60 high officials and headed by the Namibian Minister of Culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo. The main reason of their visit was the handing over of twenty skulls of Herero and Nama brought to Germany during the war for pseudo-scientific and racial experiments. The delegation was neither given an official welcome upon their arrival or at any time during their stay in Berlin, nor did the Federal Government endeavour to organise the handing over ceremony, which was as a result carried out by the Charité University Hospital. Moreover the Minister of State, Cornelia Pieper, as the only representative of the Federal Government present at the ceremony, caused a scandal when she did not stay to listen to the speeches of the Namibian representatives, but disappeared right after her speech through a back door without an excuse.
These examples demonstrate a clear resistance by the German government to accept responsibility, which they state frequently. The missing willingness of responsible action can be ascribed to the German highly “selective memory” when it comes to the genocide in particular and its colonial past in general. I call it “selective” because it is not true that Germany does not reflect on its past at all. In contrast to the colonial period, Germany has a strong culture of awareness and takes a high degree of responsibility in the case of the Holocaust and the Third Reich. But the selectiveness of the public memory offers Germans the possibility to appreciate their own identity despite the confessed guilt during the time of National Socialism. If the German memory is filled with guilt and shame concerning the Third Reich, Germans consider themselves innocent in reference to colonialism. This virtual innocence also results from the relatively short time of German colonial rule, due to loosing the First World War, and the small number of colonies, compared to other European colonial powers. It seems as if the “selective memory” serves to preserve the German self-image as “at least not the worst” concerning colonial history. Acknowledging the colonial past generally and the genocide of the Herero and Nama in particular would destroy this self-image as a consequence. Moreover the acceptance of this part of German history would force Germans to reconsider their history anew and take into account possible connections and continuities between the colonial past and the Third Reich as well as between the “first German genocide” and the “second German genocide”. Such a reconsideration of the German past in turn would entail the confrontation with questions about where the racial mindset of the National Socialists came from and why a huge inequality exists between Germany and its former colonies. Against this background of inconvenient questions it is not surprising that Germany preserves this “selective memory” with much effort, as we have seen in the examples presented above.
To strengthen an inclusive culture of remembrance between Namibia and Germany the first step consequently would be that Germany officially recognises and apologises for the genocide. Further, the compensation must go beyond symbolic reparation and has to include material reparation for the lost land, goods and cattle as well. Neither the repeated emphasised “special” historical and moral responsibility towards Namibia nor the development aid paid every year to the Namibian state can substitute this symbolic and material compensation. These steps must be accompanied by a deep critical engagement by the German society with the genocide and their colonial past as a whole. This engagement would entail a public and scientific debate on German colonialism as well as the inclusion of the colonial history in the curriculum at schools and the decolonisation of public spaces in Germany in form of renaming streets which glorify colonialism (3). Above all a regular, open and intensive dialogue between the German Federal Government and the Namibian Government, as well as the representatives of the victimised Herero and Nama, is inevitable for a partnership and an inclusive culture of remembrance for both countries.

(1) Cf. Zimmerer, Jürgen: „War, Concentration Camps and Genocide in Sout-West Africa. The Frist German Genocide”, in: Zimmerer, Jürgen/Joachim Zeller. Genocide in German Sout-West Africa. The Colonial War of 1904-1908 and its Aftermath. Monmouth: Merlin Press, 2009, 41-63.

(2) Cf. Speech by Federal Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul at the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the suppression of the Herero uprising, Okakarara, on 14 August 2004.

(3) In many German cities streets are still named after colonial personalities like civil servants, founders of the German colonies, governors, warriors and “explorers”.

Vielen Dank an Bella Burr-Evans für den sprachlichen Schliff!

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