Namibia - A turning point that is ashamed

A turning point that is ashamed

"Captain Franke in the fight against the Hereros", 1904

Photo: The Print Collector / Heritage Images / Picture Alliance

After 115 years the federal government has finally recognized the genocide of the Herero and Nama in Namibia and wants to apologize. Undoubtedly a turning point. The way in which that happens, however, is shameful.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) said he was happy and grateful that an agreement had been reached with Namibia, with the participation of those affected. If one emphasizes a matter of course, such as the fact that the descendants of the victims of the genocide were involved in the negotiations, then mainly because it is not a matter of course or is not (entirely) true. Herero and Nama had already criticized in advance that they did not feel sufficiently involved. In the meantime, not inconsiderable groups have rejected the agreement and even declared Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who should apologize in the Namibian parliament, persona non grata.

There is also anger that there should be no reparation, only reconstruction aid. Germany rejects any legal claim, also in order not to create a precedent for claims for German war crimes in the Second World War.

For this one is prepared to offend Herero and Nama, to sacrifice their sensitivities on the altar of national German interest. Foreign policy is not a moral issue. But then you should stop acting so morally. It is the enormous gap between political rhetoric and actual action that determines the height of the fall.

The Merkel government's post-colonial memory policy is characterized by its half-heartedness. It only acts when it can no longer be avoided. The vision for dealing with the colonial heritage is missing, symbolic gestures are not their thing, instead bureaucratic understanding of the inevitable. So the Berlin Humboldt Forum, this Prussian Disneyland filled with looted colonial art, was dumped in the sand. They allowed themselves to be criticized for years before they decided to recognize the colonial core, to let years pass again to restitute objects - and only half-heartedly, limited to selected objects, although the magazines overflow with looted property.

Nevertheless, the declaration on the first genocide of the 20th century represents a historic milestone. For the first time, a German government has acknowledged that a genocide was committed and that payments must be made for it. This is fueling the international debate about reparations for slavery and colonialism. For the first time, a German government officially declares that there was a German genocide before the Holocaust. That will shift the tectonics of memory politics. And finally the topic of racism in German history is on the agenda, after all, the military genocide in Namibia was part of a more comprehensive project to create the first “racial state”, including the intended administrative-economic motivated, cultural genocide.

What is missing, however, is the large, connecting gesture. It's a shame this opportunity was missed.

Jürgen Zimmerer is a historian and Africa scientist