San and/or Nama prisoners severely abused and lined up for the camera (from Erichsen’s ‘Angel of Death’)

Why won’t Germany pay reparations to the victims of its other genocide?

Germany has paid $89 billion directly to Holocaust victims and their families. But it has never directly compensated a victim of the Herero and Nama genocide.

Germans know they’re guilty. They instigated the deadliest war in history and the deadliest genocide in history. More than 70 years later, the nation is still dealing with those two facts and the uncomfortable questions that spiral off of them: How should we atone for this? Was grandpa a murderer? Could this ever happen again?

The principle of collective responsibility means the Holocaust is a legacy of all Germans of that era. Those who never touched a trigger or a canister of Zyklon B supplied the Nazi government with political will and tolerated the crimes of their neighbors. People like Carl Jung and Günter Grass have helped Germany recognize this common guilt. In 1945, Jung characterized the nation of Germany as a mental patient suffering from “the first outbreak of epidemic insanity.” He also prescribed a cure:

If a German is prepared to acknowledge his moral inferiority … before the whole world, without attempting to minimize it or explain it away with flimsy arguments, then he will stand a reasonable chance, after a time, of being taken for a more or less decent man, and will thus be absolved of his collective guilt.

Seventy-one years later, Germany has tried to make amends, diligently supplying $89 billion to Holocaust victims and their families over the years. The German president went to Israel to ask forgiveness. Grass’s The Tin Drum is taught in schools, and emblems of the Nazi party are illegal. Remembering is a civic duty.

But in all of this, Germany has written off an atrocity of similar barbarity, if not magnitude. The world has mostly forgotten it, but the heirs of Germany’s other genocide have not.

The Holocaust was foreshadowed

In 1906, a Dutch-British man named Johann Noothout took a job transporting supplies to colonial authorities in German South West Africa. One of his destinations was a windswept port town called Lüderitz, in modern Namibia on the edge of a vast coastal desert. Lüderitz attracted a rough set of merchant sailors and imperial soldiers. They filled the saloons and raped the women.

Lüderitz Bay with Shark Island bottom right

An unruly, boozy harbor wouldn’t have been surprising to Noothout. But something else stuck with him bitterly.

Just west of town, jutting into the sea, was a craggy spit of earth called Shark Island. Named for the infested waters surrounding it, battered by cold ocean winds, the barren island was not suitable for human habitation. But the Germans didn’t consider Herero people as human (they based this belief upon skull measurements), so Shark Island was an ideal site for a concentration camp.

Recalling his arrival in Lüderitz, Noothout said one of the first things he noticed was “nearly 500 native women lying on the beach, all bearing indications of being slowly starved to death.” And the longer he stayed there, the more hellish was the scene before him. “Every morning and towards evening, four women carried a stretcher containing about four or five corpses, and they also had to dig the graves and bury them.” But not everyone was buried. By the side of the road, vultures preyed on the bodies of women tortured to death by flogging. They were lashed so savagely and for so long that “pieces of flesh would fly from the victim’s body into the air.” (This description, and my information about Shark Island, is from a book by Casper W. Erichsen called The Angel of Death Has Descended Violently Among Them.)

This was just one aspect of a genocide of the Herero, Nama and other indigenous people that left 75,000 people dead. Most of them were Herero, 80 percent of whom were murdered between 1904 and 1907. Their deaths were ordered in writing by the governor of the colony: “Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them.” German troops shot families, poisoned wells, drove people into the Namib Desert to die of thirst and built death camps like Shark Island.

Why is this genocide different?

In 2004, a German minister traveled to Namibia and apologized for “what today would be termed genocide.” But she said there would be no reparations, only a continuation of the development aid Germany was already sending.

Last week, the government announced it would more formally recognize the genocide, saying it was still negotiating the final language and implications. A spokesman was firm, however, that those implications would not include reparations.

But if Germany has compensated victims of the European Holocaust, how can it avoid compensating the victims of its African genocide just 30 years prior?

Writer Daniel A. Gross explained in a recent feature story for Latterly that “the 1948 convention [against genocide] made it internationally illegal — but Germany’s argument was that in the early 1900s, it wasn’t yet a crime.”

If that’s the case, then the Holocaust from 1933–1945 was not a crime, either. Yet Germany recognized the weight of its transgressions and began making payments “out of a sense of responsibility” rather than any legal claim. It’s not surprising that governments wouldn’t want the Genocide Convention applied retroactively: From the conquests of the Americas and Africa to the Ottoman genocides of World War I, the scale of Europe’s crimes is massive.

Herero reparations activists are persuasive, though. They draw parallels between Germany’s genocides, explaining that the African one was in many ways a precursor to the European one. They point out the efficiency and sincerity with which Germany has paid Jewish victims. And, frankly, they aren’t asking for very much: just $600 million, according to Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann’s book Reparations to Africa.

So of course the Herero people feel slighted — and suspicious. Howard-Hassmann quotes Mburumba Kerina, a Namibian professor and activist. He says the reason for the different treatment of the Holocaust and the Herero genocide is obvious: “The Jews are white; we are black.”

Hereros returning from the desert and into captivity

What Germany should do

Post-war Germany has been a model nation. It has battled anti-semitism and diligently sought to repay its victims. In recent years it has been a global leader in furthering human rights, including recognizing the Armenian genocide and treating refugees, for the most part, with decency.

It should go further. If Germany intends to officially recognize the Herero genocide, it should officially compensate the group it tried to decimate.

Aid money isn’t enough. Germans, like other colonial powers, should repair the damage they caused through theft of land and labor. That’s what the development money is for. Genocide, rather, is a singular evil and deserves a special acknowledgment.

The truth is Europeans (and Americans) still view Africans with disdain or disregard. It’s why they export their toxic waste there. It’s why they tolerated the Rwandan and Darfur genocides. It’s why they still colonize through their corporations. It’s why they allow Africans to drown in the Mediterranean and view them as economic migrants instead of refugees.

If the Herero people are asking for $600 million, Germany should pay it. Justice calls for at least this much. And it should also use the opportunity of this formal recognition of the genocide to forcefully resurrect the notion of collective responsibility. As paranoia and fear of foreigners rebound in the 21st century, will Europe (and the United States) repeat its mistakes or learn from them?

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