15 February 2013

Namibia: German-Namibian Relations Remain Fragile

THE skeletons are once again out of the closet, as the intense political and public debates around the atrocities committed by the troops of the German emperor at the beginning of the 20th century in the empire's colony of 'German South West Africa' document. Let me hasten to add that the phrasing of this opening is a rather insensitive one, supposed to be provocative: in this particular case, it was indeed the material remains of genocide victims which added new rigour to this unresolved matter.

Some of the skulls taken to Germany for the infamous human-anthropological research contributing to the pseudo-scientific megalomania of the lethal Aryan ideology of the Nazi regime were finally, as a first batch, returned to the sons and daughters of the Nama and Herero ancestors. They were - like those among the Damara and San - the most affected and traumatised by the colonial warfare then and could now at least (more than a century later) put some of the physical remnants of their forefathers to rest at home.

What was supposed to be a solemn and spiritual act of restitution, when a delegation visited Berlin in late 2011, turned into a scandalous clash over the essence of reconciliation and ended in disaster. The delegation was offended and humiliated by the lack of sensitivity displayed by the German government and its officials. For these domestic policy priorities (by claiming that the delegation was hijacked and manipulated by the 'wrong' political interests in Germany) counted more than coming to terms with a colonial past and its Namibian descendants.

The subsequent emotional outburst of the then minister heading the official Namibian delegation was seen as an over-reaction. True, he might have had a general problem with anger management also on other occasions. But as an offspring of the circumstances created by historical injustice as a son of Herero refugees in Botswana, his reaction simply testified to the deep-seated sentiments and hurt feelings provoked by the arrogance of power still on display.

The finger-wagging posturing that followed in the local subsequent exchanges between the German ambassadors to Namibia - first with Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba in early 2012 and now a year later with Prime Minister Hage Geingob - show the resistance in the official German attitude towards advice on how to come to terms with a past. Both highest-ranking representatives of the Namibian state promptly and rightly so dismissed this lecturing as offensive.

The highly praised good bilateral relations seem more to be wishful thinking on the part of German officials rather than any political reality. All the money that has been spent on so-called development cooperation cannot make the deep-seated longing for justice go away. This desire is not for sale and therefore cannot be bought, since it has to do with dignity and respect.

Even though forms of adequate material compensation are part of the controversy, the issue is a much more principled and fundamental one. It is a matter of how to deal with crimes against humanity committed in the name of Western civilisation and how to treat the victims.

Germans of today remain in the main either ignorant or in denial of what has happened then in the ruthless efforts of their forefathers to exterminate the 'brutes', wherever they objected to colonial subjugation. Emperor William II in his infamous "Hunnenrede" dispatched the soldiers on a killing spree to North China in retaliation for the Ihetuan ("Boxer") uprising at the end of 1900 with the categorical command that "there will be no pardon". The subsequent war against the Herero and Nama with the extermination order by General Von Trotha was the next stage. Ultimately the policy of scorched earth in response to the so-called 'Maji Maji rebellion' in then 'German East Africa', culminated in even more victims among the local people through deliberately induced starvation.

All this happened in the so-called "good old times" preceding the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. It left deep marks on the collective memory of the Namibian descendants and wounds which do not heal without a deliberate act of reconciliation. In the absence of any significant sign of remorse, which could be considered as honest insight into the historical injustices, the German-Namibian relations will remain at best a fragile and precarious affair. This is also a challenge to all German-speaking Namibians. If we do not take sides for our Namibian home and join our fellow Namibians in their thirst for recognition of their legitimate grievances, we miss an opportunity to reconcile. The present challenges us to come to terms with the past, if only to secure a common future based on mutual respect.

The words of William Faulkner in his 'Requiem for a nun' of 1950 rings as true today as ever: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." We cannot escape it, and it won't disappear by trying to avoid or ignore it. Only if we face history can we build a future.

* Henning Melber joined Swapo as a son of German immigrants in 1974. Between 1994 and 2000 he was the chairperson of the Namibian-German Foundation for Cultural Cooperation (NaDS). He is based as director emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala and is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria.

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