Thirty years before Hitler's crimes, Germany's southwest African colony was the scene of mass killings of ethnic Hereros, whose descendants are still waiting for answers.
WINDHOEK — Outside, the spirits of the past are set to rise from the desert's dust. Men, women and children are glaring at the enemy, while soldiers in khaki bark out orders. The commander of the troops, proudly wearing a black-red-golden ribbon, walks towards the pond and opens a bottle to pour the liquid content in. This oasis of water could have saved the fugitives in the desert, but is now poisoned. Soon, the first bodies will begin dropping, lying motionless on the floor.
Each year the Herero people recall their history with this amateur theatrical reenactment. None of the cruel details are spared. These descendants, here in the modern state of Namibia, should know who to thank for their forebear's misery: Germany.
In the early years of the 20thentury, German colonial troops of the emperor Wilhelm II conquered vast territory in southwest Africa, exploiting the lands and abusing the inhabitants. Nevertheless, Germany is part of Namibia's DNA today, with one out of every 100 locals of German extraction. In a nation of some two million inhabitants, the ethnic Germans are still a wealthy and influential minority.
But back in Germany, since this summer, the Bundestag (parliament) has been facing the accusations of past genocide, which predates Hitler's crimes. According to most German and African historians, what happened to the Herero ethnic group could be considered as the first tribal genocide of modern times — 35 years before the Jews and the Nazi regime.
During the time before World War I, race theories blossomed in Europe, and Africans were largely considered inferior by the self-proclaimed master race. That leaders in Berlin at the time settled on eradicating the Hereros is an undisputed fact of history. But even if the German government has recognized the violence as genocide, it has refused to indemnify the Hereros as victims of their crimes. But perhaps even more problematic is that many German-Namibians still deny that a genocide took place.
Chained Herero in 1904 —Source: Ullstein Bilderdienst
A 59-year-old ethnic German farmer and land owner who gives his name as Diekmann is a Namibian citizen, and he loves his country. He lives in a farmhouse with a tropical garden and swimming pool, where he has raised his four children. Diekmann says he doesn't need to see the historical play each year. "I know that. I don't have to watch it again," he says. "But I am interested in a peaceful neighborhood, after all. We have 20 kilometers of common border. And there are more Hereros than Germans."
Slaves and revolt
Namibia is a peaceful country, but if Berlin continues to ignore its debt, people here would start to lose patience. The history, after all, is not in dispute. Starting in 1884, the area had officially been under "the protection of the German Reich." The Germans bought up the Hereros' land, bit by bit, with more or less honest contracts, and soon owned all the land that contained the precious few ponds and lakes. The Hereros sank into poverty, the men often became the Germans' slaves, and sometimes the women were taken too.
The night of January 12, 1904, the Hereros struck back, tearing down the telephone masts, destroying the rails of the newly built railway, setting fire to the colonial administration's offices and storming the headquarters of German-owned companies.
In response, Emperor Wilhelm II sent in Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha, known to be particularly cruel. By August 4, Trotha reported back that he would "attack the enemy from all sides, destroy him finally, once and for all." What happened next, on August 11, is now known as the "Battle of Waterberg" among Germans, and the "Battle of Hamakari" among Hereros.
German officers in southwest Africa in 1904 —Source: German Federal Archives
Hamakari is also the name of Diekmann's guest farm —and indeed, part of the battle took place there. The German-Namibian steers his jeep through thorn bushes and termite hills down to the small lake, in front of which thousands of Hereros had gathered after Trotha's attack.
That evening the "real genocidal phase," as the historian Jürgen Zimmerer calls it, began. Yes, the first genocide of the 20th century was committed by Germans. An officer testified: "The death rattle and the screaming died away in the grand silence of eternity." The General Staff reported that the drying up of all drinkable water, "should finish what the German troops had started: the extinction of the Hereros."
After mass deaths in the desert-like savanna, the "rest of the Hereros," as they were officially called, had been deported to concentration camps, forced to do hard labor, sold to German businessmen as slaves. Many died in the camps.
They started it
But genocide? Nonsense, according to most of German-Namibians. According to Diekmann, whether the Hereros should get back their land more than a century later is not the right question. "The Hereros started the war. If you start a war and it doesn't end the way you want it to, you can't really complain." But thinking like Diekmann's has been refuted by the German government itself in July, when Berlin officially acknowledged the crime as genocide. But that only added fuel to the fire in the debate about reparations.
Zedekia Ngavirue, a retired diplomat, aims at repairing the tricky relationship between Germans and Namibians. Having once served as Namibia's ambassador in Brussels, he is now busy trying to negotiate such topics as the official apology from Germany, as well as reparations for the genocide. The Hereros themselves are divided. Many think he's a puppet, a docile official of the government.
Diekmann, the ethnic German farmer whose ancestors arrived in Africa at the beginning of the last century, is worried. He remembers in the spring of 2000 when Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe started to expropriate the land of white farmers. Houses burst into flames, farmers ran for their life, some were killed.
Diekmann has a plan B: Uruguay. It hasn't come to that yet, but he and his wife are planning to go visit the South American country soon. "We're just having a look," Diekmann says. "There's nothing wrong with having a look."