Untold Stories from Germany’s First Genocide

The second court hearing for a reparations suit against Germany for colonial-era genocide, originally set for July 21, has been postponed until October. Plaintiffs requested an adjournment of the July conference as Germany refused to accept their summons, which formally accuses them of the 1904-1908 Namibian genocide. Upwards of 100,00 Ovaherero and Nama were killed in Namibia (then known as German South West Africa) during the German colonial period.

On January 5 of this year, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit with a U.S. federal court in New York under the Alien Tort Statute, a law dating back to 1789 that is often invoked in human rights cases. Though a pre-trial conference was held in New York on March 16, the hearing itself was postponed until July as Germany failed to appoint counsel in the matter.

In April, plaintiffs served the defendant in Berlin via the Hague Service Convention, the method typically employed in serving judicial documents to a foreign government. The Hague Service Convention is a treaty amongst dozens of countries allowing judicial documents to be processed form one state to another without the use of diplomatic channels. In a June letter to plaintiffs, Germany refused to acknowledge their complaint. 

Germany holds that, as the plaintiffs’ damages claims are derived from Germany’s sovereign actions, they have no basis under the Hague Convention, which is grounded in the service abroad of judicial documents relating to civil or commercial matters - not sovereign.

According to plaintiffs’ lawyer, Ken McCallion, the next step is for plaintiffs to initiate a “diplomatic service” on Germany, whereby legal papers would be hand-delivered by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to the German Foreign Ministry. At that point, it is expected that Germany will appoint counsel. Should Germany not appear in court, plaintiffs believe they have a sound basis for filing a motion for default. The case has been adjourned until October 13 to give Germany enough time to respond (for my full article in Namibia’s New Era newspaper, click here.)

Plaintiffs claim that Germany has excluded representatives of the Ovaherero and Nama communities from talks with Namibia regarding the genocide. Though Germany has acknowledged the genocide, they have said that even if settlement is awarded to Namibia, such payment will not include direct reparations to the ancestors of the victims themselves.

Although these atrocities were committed over a century ago, it was not until recent years that this history had an audience, as political unrest plagued Namibia for years. After the first World War, Namibia, then known as South West Africa, fell under South African administration. Most of the natives’ efforts from then until independence in 1990 were aimed at freeing their country from the apartheid regime. Once South West Africa won independence as Namibia, a resurgence by the two groups most deeply affected by colonial German policies began to raise their voices.

Though many historians have deemed this the “forgotten genocide,” the story has been coming to light in recent months, largely due to the New York court case. From 1904 - 1908, upwards of 100,000 Ovaherero and Nama died from murder, starvation, and being overworked in concentration camps during Germany’s colonial occupation of Namibia. The extermination order issued by German General Lothar von Trotha on October 2, 1904 against the Ovaherero would lead these crimes to be deemed a genocide - the first one of the 20th Century.

Chained prisoners at work in Swakopmund - Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia

Execution of prisoners by hanging, during the war of 1904-1908 - Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia

Starving Herero return from the Sandveld after von Trotha’s extermination order was lifted - Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia

When the politics and legal nuances are peeled back, therein lie the untold stories of the ancestors of the genocide survivors. Though the New York court case helps in the Herero and Nama’s fight for restorative justice, what they deeply want is for their history to have a voice. The natives’ stories have a common thread woven throughout - that of an identity fractured by colonial-era crimes and years of ongoing neglect of the past.

A Herero elder recounts stories her family told her from the genocide.

Many Ovaherero (Herero) today are of both German and Herero descent. However, the union between Herero women and German men was often not by choice. During colonial times, Herero and Nama women were often forcefully taken from their husbands. Oftentimes, the children born of a forced union were not acknowledged by their German fathers. This led to a break in the family structure and caused extreme pain for the Herero as family is paramount to them. “When I am with the Herero, they call me German, but the Germans call me Herero. Where do I belong?” explained Gerson Kaapehi, a Herero elder.

There are several reminders of Germany’s colonial past littered throughout Namibia. In the town of Otjiwarongo, Gerson points out a von Trotha street sign. This street was named after the German general who issued the infamous Herero Extermination Order. And 400 kilometers away in Swakopmund, a Namibian coastal town, one can find a statue hailing the German military’s efforts during the Herero Wars. 

These markers serve not only as a painful reminder of the past for the two Namibian communities affected by the genocide, but an affront to their very identity. Monuments and signage depicting German colonial prowess far outnumber those memorializing the genocide victims. In an era where many countries, Germany included, are removing colonial-era signage, the abundance of German vs. native memorials highlights the ever-present cultural imbalance in Namibia. 

A statue in Swakopmund commemorating fallen German soldiers during the Herero Wars. Activists splashed red paint on it as an act of protest.

A salient feature of the Namibian genocide was the eugenics studies conducted to demonstrate that the Herero and Nama were inferior to Germans. A meeting hall and former church in Swakopmund lay at the center of one of the town’s three main concentration camps. During those times, the church served as a site where Herero women were forced to clean the flesh off the skulls of their dead peers (sometimes, their family members) and package them for shipment to Berlin. “Some had to skin other people’s heads like goat’s heads, and clean them to be taken away to a nation unknown to them.” said Gerson Kaapehi. “When my grandmother would tell me about this history, she would just start to cry.”

During the early 20th Century, German scientist Eugen Fischer conducted racial field research in German South West Africa. European racial theories at the time suggested that Africans were inferior to white Europeans.  To that end, Herero and Nama skulls were shipped back to Germany so they could be examined. These studies were recorded in various anthropological literature.

Anatomical preparation of a female head, taken from a deceased Nama prisoner from Shark Island ca. 1905. This photo was originally published to illustrate an article in “Rassenanatomische Untersuchungen an 17 Hottentottenköpfen” by Christian Fetzer. - Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia

Anatomical preparation of a female head, taken from a deceased Nama prisoner from Shark Island ca. 1905. This photo was originally published to illustrate an article in “Rassenanatomische Untersuchungen an 17 Hottentottenköpfen” by Christian Fetzer. - Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia

Fischer’s work would soon be channeled into Nazi ideology. As an eerie precursor to his experimentation on Jews in Nazi Germany, Fischer and his team collected Herero and Nama skulls for studies on eugenics. Fischer’s theories served to justify the Nazi party’s attitudes of racial superiority. In fact, Hitler would come to read Fischer’s German South West Africa research whilst in jail during the 1920s. He used Fischer’s notions on eugenics to support the idea of a pure Aryan society, later channeling these ideas into Mein Kampf.

This century-old history is still ever-present in the minds of Herero elders. In a town 300 miles northeast of Swakopmund lay the Herero town of Okakarara. Tjongora Tjiuoro, a Herero elder, recounts a painful story his grandmother told him years ago. 

She explained that, upon hearing that their families would be taken to Shark Island, the most feared concentration camp in German South West Africa, parents resorted to desperate measures. “When the train started to move, they started to throw their children out the window,” said Tjongora, “Among those, my grandmother was one of those who had been thrown out of the window. It’s how we survived today.” 

Tjongora Tjiuoro, Herero Elder

Tjongora Tjiuoro, Herero Elder

Today, Shark Island serves as a municipal campground, with no indication that it ever served as a concentration camp. Like in Swakopmund and other sites of colonial-era atrocities, there are no memorials to indicate that these locations served as concentration camps.

Shark Island Municipal Campground

The descendants of the genocide survivors continue to fight for restorative justice. Though many Herero see the New York court case as a saving grace for their long-forgotten ancestors, they are no stranger to delay tactics currently being employed by the German government. As Veraa Katuuo, one of the plaintiffs in the New York case, has said, the Herero have waited 100 years, and they will continue to wait until justice is restored. 

In addition to the reparations to buy back land lost to them during the colonial era, the Herero and Nama want the future generations to know their history as a comprehensive means of understanding their identity. They want their untold stories heard, and museums and memorials built to honor their lost ancestors.

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