When you think of a German-led genocide in the twentieth century, the Holocaust may come to mind. In all its ugliness, the Holocaust constituted a series of inhumane living conditions, brutal medical experiments, and other truly, truly horrific crimes against humanity. However, this also fits the description of the Herero-Nama genocide, which took place in German-occupied South-West Africa, now Namibia.
Unlike Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the Herero and Nama people have not received reparations from Germany. You may have never heard of it, either. I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago either. This lack of recognition and education about the Herero-Nama genocide, unfortunately, seems commonplace in the West.
So, what happened? In January 1904, the Herero and Nama people attempted to lead a rebellion to overthrow German colonial powers twenty years after German colonized the region. Unfortunately, their attempts to gain sovereignty over their land were unsuccessful, and the Germans responded with intense violence. Thousands of Herero and Nama people were subsequently taken from their homes and shot. Those who survived this initial slaughter escaped into the Namib Desert, where German forces guarded its borders and trapped survivors. This genocide “resulted in the annihilation of approximately 80 [percent] of the Herero people and 50 [percent] of the Nama people.”
The German government has since apologized for the atrocities committed against the Herero and Nama people, but descendants of survivors have yet to see any financial compensation or the return of land.
The colonial legacy left behind by the German colonizers in Namibia is blatant. German is still recognized as a national language. White Namibians, the descendants of German colonizers, control 90 percent of the country’s land. Efforts by black Namibians to gain control of land where their ancestors lived before nearly being wiped out under German colonial rule have been unfruitful.
The experiences of the Herero and Nama people should be enough to receive reparations, including receiving control back over their ancestors’ land. The 1985 United Nations Whitaker Report on Genocide established that the atrocities committed against the Herero and Nama people at the beginning of the twentieth century qualifies as genocide, just like the Holocaust. Why, 40 years later, hasn’t Germany taken measures to adequately address this genocide when they often take responsibility for their crimes during World War II?
Germany has given several lackluster excuses for its inability to provide reparations. The German government argued that because they had led development projects in and gave aid to Namibia, they would not need to give reparations. The real reason, though, maybe attributed to implicit racial biases. Predominantly white German leaders may have been quick to give reparations and apologize for the brutality of the Nazis because it affected white people living in Europe and conditionally white Jews. When it comes to violence on black and brown bodies in Africa, however, it’s a different story.
Herero and Nama people have continued to fight to receive reparations from Germany despite Germany’s reluctance to even entertain giving reparations. In 2018, a U.S. court heard the case from descendants of survivors of this genocide. They sued Germany for financial “reparations akin to those Jewish Holocaust survivors received after World War II” and for direct negotiations with Germany on how to figure out how to “reckon with colonial-era atrocities.” Unfortunately, in March 2019, a U.S. judge dismissed this lawsuit, saying that “Germany was immune from claims by descendants of the Herero and Nama tribes.” On May 7 2019, however, lawyers representing the Herero and Nama Plaintiffs in New York filed a motion U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to have their case reviewed again.
Despite this setback, the Herero and Nama people have scored some victories in their quest to receive justice. In 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Herero-Nama genocide victims, (which were initially sent to Germany to conduct research on the racial superiority of white Europeans) back to Namibia. This success shows that the activism by Herero and Nama people to receive justice for genocide victims and survivors is working.
The Herero and Nama people deserve reparations for the genocide that their ancestors survived. Germany’s extremely delayed recognition of returning the skulls of genocide victims and even recognizing this genocide, alongside their refusal to give reparations, shows that we cannot expect them to reckon with the Herero-Nama genocide for the sake of doing the right thing. The activism that the descendants of survivors of the Herero-Nama genocide have done in an attempt to receive reparations deserves more international recognition and should not be in vain.
Note: A lawyer representing the Herero and Nama people in New York reached out to the writer after the publication of this article with information about the U.S. Court of Appeals filing.