Politics, rather than a reckoning with it's past, is driving Germany's "gesture" in Namibia and the victims of the genocide see right through it.

After more than a century, Germany is officially recognising the Herero and Nama genocide it carried out during its brutal colonisation of Southwestern Africa.

While German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas claims the move was a step toward reconciliation, Germany doesn't deserve praise. 

The recognition does not stem from a moral engagement nor concern for the victims but is merely an attempt for Germany to comfortably get over one of the dark chapters of its history without significant damage.

A history of silence and denial

Rather than paying reparations or initiating long-overdue conversations about the crimes, Germany has negotiated an economic deal with the Namibian government behind closed doors. Berlin will pay €1.1 billion ($1.3 billion) in developmental aid over the next three decades, but no compensation to the descendants of the victims.

Maas has presented this decision as a "gesture", but descendants of victims rejected the deal, and some protested in Windhoek, Namibia's capital. They were excluded from the negotiations between Germany and Namibia. 

Herero paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro said, "No self-respecting African will accept such an insult in this day and age from a so-called civilized European nation."

Germany is seemingly prioritising its economic and political interests over actually dealing with its past. The country's colonial-era is mainly absent from public conversations, and many Germans have never heard about the Herero and Nama genocide.

It's not taught in schools, nor is it part of the tradition of commemorations. For over a century, German governments – from the Reich to the Federal Republic – failed to engage with this era of German history.

German colonialism

In its colonial endeavors, Germany began to seize and settle the land of the Herero and Nama in Southwestern Africa in 1885.

Indigenous inhabitants were killed or coerced into treaties with the German Empire. An indigenous uprising in 1904 was violently crushed, and German general Lothar von Trotha issued an extermination order, asking for every Herero to be executed: "I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people."

As a result, indigenous people were executed or expelled into the desert, their wells were poisoned, and many died of starvation and exhaustion. 

The German empire established concentration camps, in which the indigenous people were exploited for slave labour and would die of diseases and malnutrition. Death certificates had been issued in advance upon imprisonment. The living and the dead were abused for biological experiments, and their skulls paraded in Germany, promoting fantasies of racial supremacy.

An estimated 80 percent of the Herero and half of the Nama population were exterminated in the first genocide of the 20th century.

Germany did not give up its colonial rule voluntarily. Only after its defeat in World War I led to a loss of its colonial possessions. 

Colonial nostalgia was widespread throughout the Nazi Era. Meanwhile, some streets in Berlin are still named after German colonists. Their crimes remain largely absent from public the public imagination. Within Germany, efforts to engage with the colonial era have been marginal.

There were, however, attempts to further marginalise the genocide.

Germany's leading far-right party, AfD, presented a parliamentary petition in December 2019 asking the federal government to refrain from any apology and to decline reparations categorically. 

The AfD demanded a more flexible interpretation of the events and, while acknowledging atrocities, stressed "profitable aspects" of colonialism, claiming that "the German colonial era has contributed, in particular in Africa, to free the continent from anarchist structures."

According to the AfD, the €870 million ($1.06 billion) Germany provided to Namibia in developmental aid since 1990 proves Germany shouldered its historical responsibility.

Indeed, while the German government's rhetoric differs from the AfD's, they intersect in their interests to uphold German hegemony. Berlin still refuses to pay reparations and instead claims that aid was an appropriate measure.

Germany's violent past and present

A comprehensive dialogue or efforts at reconciliation remain absent. The descendants of the victims have been struggling for years to bring Germany to court and demand justice. Berlin claims that it has no legal obligations since the legal framework for genocide was only established in 1948, long after the Herero and Nama genocide.

Germany's colonial past extends into the future. Whether the current media attention to the genocide will be seized to finally initiate an engagement within Germany is uncertain.

Historians have argued that there is a continuity between the colonial genocide and the Nazi genocides. The connection is evident not only in thought, practice, and ideology but also in several individuals who were involved during both eras.

Voicing these connections is still controversial in Germany, whose dominant national narrative tends to view the Nazi era as a historically isolated period. After all, discussing Germany's previous genocide and death camps might point to a more profound depth and historical continuity of German racism.

A broader discussion of the colonial genocides would also reveal that Germany's exploitation of Africans did not stop with the fall of its colonial empire.

While the descendants of the Herero and Nama were subjugated to apartheid under South African occupation, West Germany remained a staunch ally to Apartheid South Africa and even ignored UN embargos and provided the apartheid regime with military equipment. The West German arms industry benefited from the oppression of Black Africans.

These dynamics are not common knowledge. As a largely marginalised phase of German history, the colonial era becomes particularly fragile for appropriation, including historical erasure.

Germany is now trying to find a convenient way to overcome another atrocity in its violent history without ever having to adequately engage with it. In providing developmental aid instead of reparations, Germany may be further adding to the silencing of Herero and Nama voices.

Like in 1904, contemporary Germany is prioritising the security of its economic and political power over moral responsibility and placing the comfort of German national consciousness over ethical obligations, prolonging the culture of denial. 

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