Photos: Photo archive of the German Colonial Society / University Library Frankfurt am Main; University of Cape Town. Libraries; Forensic Architecture

"It's As If We Never Existed" Namibia Continues Seeking Justice for Germany's Colonial-Era Genocide

"Every Herero, with or without a gun, will be shot." That was the order given in October 1904, setting off Germany's genocide in Namibia. New research shows how the crime continues to have an effect today, and how Berlin seems uninterested in real reconciliation.

The pain comes on suddenly, says Kambanda Nokokure Veii. It comes when she is driving through the steppe of central Namibia, past the trees where German soldiers hanged Veii’s ancestors. It comes when she is in the capital city of Windhoek and sees compatriots with lighter skin, many of whom are descendants of rape victims. Or when she, as on this afternoon, visits a memorial site on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in the Omaheke region, one of the few places that recalls the genocide committed by the German Empire against the Herero and Nama from 1904 to 1908.

DER SPIEGEL 45/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 45/2022 (November 4th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Veii, a 60-year-old retired English teacher and a member of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation from Windhoek, is standing before a grave that is covered in thornbushes. Some of her fellow campaigners have joined her, and together, they sink to a knee. A man recites verses in the Otjiherero language, and the others repeat after him. Veii’s voice falters. She wipes tears from her face. "Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized," she says.

More than a century has passed since the Herero and Nama rose up against the German colonial regime in Namibia, then called German South West Africa. German rule was incredibly cruel.

On a hill not far from the memorial, the senior commander of the German "Schutztruppe," or "Protection Force," Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, issued the order for genocide on October 2, 1904: "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." According to estimates, between 50,000 and 70,000 people were slaughtered by von Trotha and his troops.

Despite the brutality of the crimes committed by the German Empire against the Herero and Nama, they are hardly discussed today. When present-day Germans look back on the atrocities committed in their name, the focus tends to be on the Nazis and the Holocaust. The violent German colonial regimes in Africa and Asia, which culminated in the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, are hardly mentioned.

The fact that the first genocide of the 20th century is even a topic at all internationally is largely thanks to people like Kambanda Nokokure Veii.

Kambanda Nokokure Veii, a member of the Herero, says: "Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized."

Kambanda Nokokure Veii, a member of the Herero, says: "Even today, our suffering goes unrecognized."

Foto: Davies Samkange / KANYANGA MEDIA / DER SPIEGEL

Veii herself only learned of the crimes committed against her people later in life, and then only piecemeal. She grew up with her great-grandmother, who had lived through German colonial rule, but was too ashamed to talk about the genocide. Her father was a politician who rose up against the South African regime which took over from the Germans and ruled Namibia until 1990. He was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island, where he became friends with Nelson Mandela, according to his daughter. Her mother fled into exile in Britain.

Like so many Namibians, Veii’s first introduction to politics was the fight for independence. Only once that struggle was won did she develop an interest in the history of her own people, the Herero. The more she read about the genocide and the more she listened to the stories told by descendants of survivors, the clearer it became to her, she says, the degree to which this crime continues to shape the country today.

Together with others who share her view, Veii founded a committee that prepared the commemoration ceremony on the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2004. German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul traveled to Namibia for the occasion, becoming the first member of a German government to apologize for the German atrocities. A short time later, Veii and her committee introduced a motion in parliament in Windhoek demanding the acknowledgement and investigation of the genocide.

Another 10 years passed before the dialogue between Germany and Namibia about their shared history really got underway. In 2015, the two countries began discussions, which ultimately led in summer 2021 to a joint Reconciliation Agreement.

An historical photo of a Herero settlement: Germany's violent colonial rule in Namibia is overshadowed by World War II and the Holocaust.

An historical photo of a Herero settlement: Germany's violent colonial rule in Namibia is overshadowed by World War II and the Holocaust.

Foto: Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft / Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main

In the agreement, Germany officially recognizes responsibility for the genocide committed against the Nama and Herero for the first time, though only historically and not legally. Berlin has also committed to paying a total of 1.1 billion euros to Namibia in development aid over the next 30 years.

German politicians have described the deal as an historical step, but in Namibia, it is widely viewed with disgust. The Herero and Nama, in particular, feel as though they have been ignored. In the Namibian parliament, dissatisfaction with the agreement is so great that the lawmakers still haven’t ratified it. The Namibian government wants to renegotiate the agreement now – making it look as though Germany’s attempts to face up to the crimes it committed in the colonial era have reopened old wounds instead of closing them.