Thursday, June 3, 2021

Reparations...or maybe not

 Michael - Thursday

This week Germany and Namibia announced a deal whereby Germany would pay around $1.5 billion dollars in reparations to Namibia for the genocide that they executed there at the beginning of the twentieth century. It sounds like a lot of money, and it would seem to bring to a close a shameful chapter in Germany’s colonial history. Except that it really doesn’t.

Let’s start at the beginning.

At the end of the 19th century, the scramble for Africa was in full swing and Germany was settling the area now known as Namibia – then Deutsch-Südwestafrika (German South West Africa). The area they chose was currently occupied by the Herero and Nama peoples. Initially, fraudulent deals were made to buy stretches of land, but soon the German authorities grabbed the Herero’s land, forced them to work, and stole their cattle. The cattle probably angered the people the most. Cattle are central to Herero life and culture. (The Herero language doesn’t have a huge vocabulary, but there are over a thousand words for the colours, shapes, and designs of markings on cattle.) To cut a long and very painful story short, when the German forces went south to deal with trouble there, the Hereros rebelled and killed 100 German settlers (but spared the women and children). Later the Namas followed suit. Fourteen thousand troops were sent from Germany, and at the Battle of Waterberg, the Hereros were defeated - killed, captured, or driven into the desert.

After that, the Germans implemented a deliberate policy to exterminate the Herero and the Nama. Any caught were enslaved or executed. Women and children were driven into the desert without food or water. Upwards of 100,000 people died. Corpses were taken to German for “race science” experiments. The first genocide of the twentieth century was the direct precursor of Hitler’s “final solution.”

The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism by Casper Erichsen and David Olusoga  is a powerful history of that time and those events. They are also movingly woven into Tony Park’s partly historical and partly modern day thriller Ghosts of the Past.

So why has Germany’s 1.1 billion euro offer been controversial?

In the first place, while Germany has apologised, it has not accepted that the money is reparations. It’s described as a gesture of reconciliation to put the past behind the two nations. Their argument is that the international treaty on reparations wasn’t in place in the early 1900s. (No one thought anything of killing indigenous populations at the time; everyone was doing it!)

Secondly, the money is to be used for infrastructure projects that will be implemented by Germany in areas where many of the affected populations currently live over 30 years. That’s a long time. And the proponents of reparations point out that reparations can’t have strings attached. It’s like saying that you will repay a debt to someone provided they use the money to build a house and let you build it for them. (It’s understandable that Germany wants to be in control of spending the money. They don’t want it to just go into government coffers and disappear without trace.)

The most powerful argument against the settlement comes from leaders of the Herero and Nama populations themselves, minorities in Namibia. They claim that their role in the negotiations has been only consultative and that they don’t support this agreement, which they call an insult. They refer to the settlements Germany reached with Jewish peoples after the Second World War, pointing out that they didn’t only negotiate with Israel, but with surviving families and the diaspora. They reject the settlement, and are currently pursuing a case against Germany in New York.

Battle of the Waterberg

I have a lot of sympathy with the reaction of the Herero and Nama peoples. After all, they were the ones whose forefathers (and mothers) were killed in awful ways. It’s a precedent that needs to be set. And let’s not kid ourselves that this is a German issue. Every colonial power was responsible for something similar. And what about the Native Americans, the Aborigines of Australia, and black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved? There needs to be something more than apologies and shoving statues out of sight. Is it really supposed to be a coincidence that all the modern decedents of these groups remain disadvantaged?

On the other hand, where does it stop? When do we say: that’s too far back, we have to be sorry about history and move on? Take the Herero people themselves for example. They invaded Namibia in the middle of the 18th century, seized the best grazing lands for their cattle, and killed and enslaved the local inhabitants – the Khoisan and San (Bushman) peoples. Over time, the rest were driven out into the desert to live or die. So how much of that billion euros do the Bushmen deserve???

On a more cheerful note, please join us for a celebration of the launch of Facets of Death in the UK and South Africa. The wonderful Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Queen of Icelandic Crime, will be grilling us. It should be great fun!

Tuesday 8th June, 7pm in the UK, 8pm in SA and Europe, 2pm EDT.

Contact Cole at orenda Books for the Zoom link.


  1. Congrats on the launch!
    Aren't human beings baffling? They invade territory that doesn't belong to them and then they punish the subjects for fighting back. But why did you invade in the first place? I don't get it.

  2. And, Kwei, when those very people seek help, you try to ban them from your shores. I don't think colonial attitudes have changed much, it's just the clothing that has changed.

  3. Cannot blame people for fighting back against invasions, occupations, land seizures, murder, torture, etc.
    Interesting what you are saying about Germany saying they would pay $1.5 billion, but wants to control how it's spent and be involved in the projects!
    It is little money considering that Germany is among the richest countries in the EU, if not the richest. And much of its wealth was gotten from the blood and sweat of African peoples.
    Much more is owed and there should be self-determination about how it's spent.
    Glad that you brought this up. Reparations should be paid. And, here, too. It is an issue in the U.S., and is for many peoples around the world.
    All of the wealthiest countries got rich from the labor of the peoples they colonized and the land and natural resources they stole -- gold, copper, zinc, etc.
    Glad to see the interview will be available to watch. So it's 2 p.m. in the U.S. EST?

    1. It's set for 2PM NY Time...Eastern Daylight Time.

  4. Reparations have been discussed for decades, but are now the hot topic of the moment in the US, what with the Tulsa Massacre centennial...among other things. How it plays out in this Congress is yet to be seen.

  5. Yes. Tulsa is so important. Friends often bring up that no Black farmers ever got their 40 acres and a muel, not even that.