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Saturday, January 20, 2024

Why Namibia is invoking a century-old German genocide in court - The Washington Post

Why Namibia invoked a century-old German genocide in international court

Herero captives in chains in 1904 or 1905, during the German genocide in German South West Africa, now known as Namibia. (ullstein bild/Getty Images)

"A day after Germany defended Israel from charges of genocide in Gaza, Namibia’s president denounced Germany for hypocrisy, citing a genocide that the Germans committed in the African nation more than a century ago when it was a German colony.

“On Namibian soil, #Germany committed the first genocide of the 20th century in 1904-1908, in which tens of thousands of innocent Namibians died in the most inhumane and brutal conditions,” Namibian President Hage Geingob said in a press release posted Jan. 13 on X, formerly Twitter. “The German Government is yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil.”

Geingob wrote that he was shocked by Germany’s decision, announced a day earlier, to intervene as a third party in defense of Israel after South Africa brought a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. South Africa accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, where thousands of civilians have been killed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“Germany cannot morally express commitment to the United Nations Convention against genocide, including atonement for the genocide in Namibia, whilst supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza,” Geingob said.

On Jan. 12, the same day Germany announced its intervention, Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, Tal Becker, denied the South African accusations.

“The State of Israel is singularly aware of why the Genocide Convention, which has been invoked in these proceedings, was adopted,” Becker said in an opening statement before the International Court of Justice. “Seared in our collective memory is the systematic murder of 6 million Jews as part of a premeditated and heinous program for their total annihilation.”

Also on Jan. 12, a spokesperson for Germany’s Foreign Ministry denied the genocide accusation against Israel, saying, “The claim that Israel is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip is false and not covered by the Convention,” given that “targeted action against armed attackers ... is not action with the intention of destroying an ethnic group.”

“In light of German history,” Steffen Hebestreit, a spokesman for the German government, said in a statement, “and the crimes against humanity of the Shoah, the German government is particularly committed to the (U.N.) Genocide Convention,” signed in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust.

But Geingob said Germany had not completely reckoned with the first genocide it committed last century, which its government finally acknowledged in 2021. That massacre, in what was then known as German South West Africa, is sometimes called “the forgotten genocide.”

After the suppression of the Herero uprising, captured Hereros are transported by rail to a camp to the coast in 1905. (ullstein bild/Getty Images)

For years, Namibians have fought to obtain full reparations from Germany for the genocide of the Herero and Nama people in the land now called Namibia.

By the late 19th century, German colonial forces had taken over vast territories in Namibia, confiscating land and cattle from the Herero people, also known as the Ovaherero.

“It is a well-known fact that cattle are a necessity in the life of the Ovaherero. For Ovaherero, without cattle and land, could hardly survive,” K. Riruako, a member of Namibia’s Parliament, said in 2006. “German colonial rule was oppressive and cruel.”

On Jan. 12, 1904, the Herero people, led by Samuel Maharero, fought back, attacking a German garrison at Okahandja, according to the Montreal Holocaust Museum.

“The German ruling forces were unprepared for the attack, and approximately 123 German colonial settlers were killed by the Herero,” the Wiener Holocaust Librarystated on its website “The Holocaust Explained.” But the Herero were eventually overwhelmed by the better-equipped German forces.

In June 1904, the German government appointed Lt. Gen. Lothar von Trotha to lead the war. He promised to “annihilate these masses with a simultaneous blow.”

Von Trotha chased the Herero into the Kalahari Desert.

“Under Trotha’s command, the Schutztruppe ruthlessly pursued the thousands of Herero men, women and children who were attempting to cross the desert to reach to British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana),” the Weiner Librarywrites. “Thousands of Herero died from being shot to death, drinking water from poisoned wells, or from thirst and starvation in the desert.”

On Oct. 2, 1904, von Trotha issued his infamous “extermination” order:

The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other body parts of wounded soldiers.... whoever delivers Samuel will receive 5000 Mark. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr. Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.

In November 1904, the German government overturned von Trotha’s extermination order, according to the Wiener Holocaust Library, insisting instead “that the surviving members of the Herero population be incarcerated in concentration camps.” But by then, many thousands of Herero had already been killed. In the camps, many Herero endured forced labor, medical experimentation and starvation.

In 1905, the Nama people in the south of Namibia staged an uprising.

On April 22, 1905, Von Trotha issued a second extermination order, this time against the Nama:

The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in German territory will be shot, until all are exterminated. Those who at the start of the rebellion committed murder against whites or have commanded that whites be murdered have by law, forfeited their lives. As for the few not defeated, it will fare with them as it fared with the Herero, who in their blindness also believed that they could make war successfully on the powerful German Emperor and the great German people. I ask you, where are the Herero today?

More than 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were slain by German troops between 1904 and 1908, according to the Namibian Parliament.

In 2006, a member of Namibia’s Parliament presented a motion demanding reparations from Germany. The member read a statement written in the early 1900s by a German soldier who witnessed the Germans chasing the Herero to Botswana.

“The path,” the soldier wrote, was strewn with “skins, and ostrich feathers, household utensils, women’s ornaments, cattle, and men dead and dying and staring blankly. … All this life lay scattered there, both men and beast, broken in the knees, helpless, still in agony, or already motionless. At noon, we halted by water holes which were filled to the brim with corpses.”

In 2018, Germany returned to Namibia human skulls of people who were killed in the genocide. Three years later, it officially acknowledged the genocide and announced more than 1 billion euros in financial aid to community projects in Namibia.

In a 2021 statement, Germany said it recognized its “moral responsibility for the colonization of Namibia” and apologized “for the historic developments that led to the genocidal conditions between 1904 and 1908 … with its gross human rights violations and human sufferings.”

Germany, the statement said, “apologizes and bows before the descendants of the victims. Today, more than 100 years later, Germany asks for forgiveness for the sins of their forefathers. It is not possible to undo what has been done. But the suffering, inhumanity and pain inflicted on the tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children by Germany during the war in what is today Namibia must not be forgotten. It must serve as a warning against racism and genocide.”

DeNeen L. Brown, who has been an award-winning staff writer in The Washington Post Metro, Magazine and Style sections, has also worked as the Canada bureau chief for The Washington Post. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote dispatches from Greenland, Haiti, Nunavut and an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage. Twitter"

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