THE German and Namibian governments should finally acknowledge the genocide committed by German colonial troops of the Herero and Nama populations during the 1904-1908 war, the leader of the Herero people said in Berlin, last week.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Friedrichstadtkirche to hand over 27 human remains from German universities, research institutes, and museums, the Ovaherero Paramount Chief, Advocate Vekuii Rukoro, said: “The German government should learn to take direct responsibility, instead of abdicating its responsibility to the Churches and society.”
Human remains taken from them for scientific research, to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans over Africans, were returned to representatives of the Namibian government and the Herero and Nama populations in a joint church service and ceremony presided over by the German Protestant Church (EKD) and the Council of Churches in Namibia. It was the third such return of human remains; the first two took place behind closed doors in hospitals and museums.
The ceremony was attended by representatives of the German and Namibian governments and many former ambassadors. There was a visible absence, however, of prominent German politicians in the centre of the German capital.
In April 2017, the EKD acknowledged the part that it played in the genocide. The EKD is the successor organisation of the former Prussian Evangelical High Church Council (Oberkirchenrat), which, at the time, acted on behalf of all regional German Protestant churches.
“Whilst members of the clergy did not themselves directly call for mass killings, a deep-seated racism poisoned their speaking and acting. It was based upon a cultural sense of superiority and a deeply established fear for their own potentially endangered identity which distorted their theological thinking and practical action,” the EKD’s Bishop for ecumenical relations and ministries abroad, the Rt Revd Petra Bosse-Huber, said in her sermon.
“Through the theological justification of an imperial claim to power and colonial rule, they prepared the ground for the death of many thousands of members of the Namibian ethnic groups,” she said.
“This is a great sin and not to be justified at all. Today, we expressly repeat this acknowledgement before this congregation and ask the descendants of the victims, and all those whose ancestors suffered under the exercise of German colonial rule, for forgiveness for the wrongs committed against and the suffering inflicted upon them, from the very bottom of our hearts.”
The colony of German South West Africa existed for more than 30 years from 1884. German rule ended in 1915, in the middle of the First World War, when it lost control to South Africa. Namibia did not gain full independence until the 1990s.
In this first genocide of the 20th century, 10,000 Namas are thought to have died. Historians still argue about the figure for the Hereros, said to be between 24,000 and 100,000, 40 to 60 per cent of the population at the time.
The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia, the Rt Revd Ernst Gamxamub, said in his sermon: “To many, the genocide seems to have become a minor insignificant event, but to us it’s a historic, memorable, and a dark chapter in our fight against colonialism and foreign occupation from the earlier days.” He continued: “This barbaric act calls for restorative justice to the entire Namibian nation, which is still haunted by the effect of the 1904–1908 genocide.”
There are deep divisions within the Namibian ranks. While the German and Namibian governments are currently negotiating an official apology and restorative justice, Advocate Chief Rukoro is not part of the Namibian delegation.
Last year, he and others brought a class-action lawsuit in the United States, seeking reparations over the tens of thousands killed in the massacres. The Herero and Nama communities are suing Germany using a 1789 US law — the Alien Tort Statute — which is usually invoked in human-rights cases.