Historical Amnesia and the Case for Reparations in the 21st Century: The Herero Genocide and Its Afterlives

The following blog post is excerpted from a paper that I wrote during my time at Yale as a final essay for a class on the Rwandan Genocide in Comparative Perspective. The course was taught by phenomenal lecturer David Simon, the Director of Yale's Genocide Studies Program and an expert in the politics of development assistance and post-conflict situations. If you have any interest in reading the essay in full, please reach out via the Contact page on this website. I am publishing this here because of recent reports that German authorities are moving towards recognizing these horrific events as "genocide." Talks with Namibia on a joint declaration about the events of the early 20th century are ongoing.

The Holocaust has been the central preoccupation of fields such as Judaic Studies and Genocide Studies, however our comprehension of how such unspeakable evil came to be is incomplete without an understanding of the atrocities committed in German South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the 20th century. As the indigenous Herero tribe attempted to rebel against the German colonial administration’s campaign and oppression, they were met with a brutal response that decimated almost 80% of their population. Although the Holocaust may garner the most attention, the Herero genocide is almost universally acknowledged as first genocide of the 20st century. Moreover, the events of 1904 - 1908 laid the groundwork for many Nazi philosophies and extermination tactics. In 2001, the Herero People’s Reparation Corporation sued the German government and several German companies for $2 billion in reparations. Although the Namibian government and the German government have rejected the legitimacy of this claim, the examination of the nature of the genocide as well as its pernicious legacy in modern Namibian society have important implications about how abuses under the colonial era should be addressed today and the role of reparations as a part of reconciliation. Despite claims that the genocide took place outside of the purview of current international humanitarian law, numerous historical treaties undermine the argument that Germany’s actions did not violate the jurisprudence of the colonial era and a growing contemporary consensus on human rights and post-conflict reparations legitimate the Herero’s right to compensation. 

In the idyllic town of Swakopound, on the coast of Namibia, German and English tourists often frolic on the beach or explore the desert dunes unaware of the mass graveyards that lie forgotten just next to the century-old railroad line.[1] In Namibia, there are no memorials of the victims of the Herero genocide. Rather, there are memorials to the oppressors, the soldiers from the Second Reich who waged a war of annihilation on the Herero people. Despite the lack of acknowledgment of these events, the deliberate nature of the violence is undeniable. Before the war, the Herero population stood at 80,000. By the end of General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha’s vicious campaign, there were only 15,130 Herero in Namibia.[2] Over 80% of Herero were killed during the genocide and their land was re-distributed among various German settlers by the German government. Initial attempts at extermination took brutal forms such as death by bullets and clubs, hanging, burning of huts and forced starvation or ingestion of poisoned water.[3] However, even after the extermination order was lifted, the Herero continued to be killed in a less conspicuous fashion through de facto concentration camps. The tales of starving Herero who were given smaller rations than prisoners from other communities bear an eerie resemblance to events that would take place only 30 years later in the Holocaust.

In hindsight, the genocide was an easy way to mitigate the overpopulation in Germany’s major cities that created an atmosphere of misery in Deutschland. To alleviate this suffering, the Kaiser’s government encouraged settlement in the German territories of Africa, especially German South West Africa (GWSA). Although indigenous peoples already occupied these territories, the Germans were prepared to take the land by force if necessary. “The issue of who was to own the land created huge tensions between the German settlers and the Africans, but what also began to push the two groups towards conflict was that many settlers were so convinced of their racial supremacy that they began to treat the Africans with impunity.”[4] With no legal resource to fight their abuse and objectification, the Herero began to rebel. While the Germans had legitimate reasons to quell the rebellion, they responded with a disproportionate level of violence. The Herero rebellion finally gave them a pretext to take over the land. Their method of choice would be ethnic cleansing of all Herero, regardless of their level of participation in the rebellion. Correspondence from that era reveals that the merciless nature of the genocide was the explicit design of its architect, General von Trotha. His reputation for cruelty was widely known in the Germany’s other African colonies. “Between 1894 and 1897, von Trotha had been a commander in German East Africa and had forged a reputation for ruthlessness. During the Wahehe uprising, von Trotha had unflinchingly ordered mass hangings and summary executions of prisoners of war. He had burned down entire villages, sometimes with their inhabitants still inside.[5] His reputation for violence would follow him to German South West Africa.  

Von Trotha adopted these same tactics in his war against the Herero. His brutality is unsurprising in light of the fact that he “described [the Herero] in his diary as Unmenschen – non-humans”[6] and wrote that the Herero “nation must vanish from the face of the earth.”[7] At the Waterburg Plateau in northeastern Namibia, the von Trotha-led mass extermination of the Herero began when 50,000 Herero men, women and children retreated from the German army in hopes of escaping the violence. As the Germans encircled their encampment, the Herero’s last attempt at an offensive was met with machine gun fire. The survivors were forced into the desert where they died of thirst or exhaustion.  The Waterburg massacre was followed with an official annihilation order on August 2, 1904 when von Trotha proclaimed his intent to kill all Herero within the territory. Although the Kaiser ordered von Trotha to end the campaign in December 1904, the extermination continued unofficially through the establishment of concentration camps that served as “reservoirs of slave labor”[8] as well as a de-facto hell on earth. The most dreaded concentration camp during this era was Shark Island. It inspired such fear in the Herero that after one prisoner was informed that he was to be sent to the camp, he “fell to the ground, bleeding profusely, having drilled his fingers into his own neck in a desperate attempt to commit suicide.”[9] Gruesome postcards from this period show soldiers at the concentration camp posing with the skulls of dead prisoners. By the end of the genocide in 1907, there would be “one corpse for every 100 meters of railway track where enslaved Hereros were forced to participate in infrastructural projects for the colony.”[10]

From explicit nature of the extermination order, there is no mistaking the intent of the von Trotha's orders. He wanted the Herero dead. The 1948 Convention of Genocide defines genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”  By this definition, the events of 1904 – 1908 constitute genocide. However, many Germans as well as those who oppose the idea of reparations for the Herero claim state that, because the Genocide Convention took place after the Herero Genocide, the acts of the Germans were legal at the time. This stance neglects to acknowledge the stipulations of agreements among Western European states at the turn of the century. “At the signing of the General Act of the Berlin Conference in 1885 [which] formalized the partition of Africa between imperial powers…contracting parties undertook ‘to watch over the preservation of native tribes and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being, and to help in suppressing slavery.’”  The 1890 Brussels Conference reinforced these views by prohibiting slave trafficking. Furthermore, arguments that the acts of genocide might be permissible because they occurred in the context of war must also be refuted because the 1899 Hague Conference on the Law of War contains language mandating the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Article 7 of the agreement states that “failing a special agreement between the belligerents, prisoners of war shall be treated as regards food, quarters, and clothing, on the same footing as the troops of the Government which has captured them.”  From these three agreements, one can decipher that customary law of the colonial era prohibited slavery and mandated the ethical treatment of Africans.

While some scholars might argue that the Herero Genocide lies outside of the bounds of the Hague Conference because the tribe was not a signatory to the proceedings, the study of the Berlin Conference and the Hague Conference gives strong credence to the idea that an consensus among European states on the treatment of prisoners of war developed pre-genocide, making Germany’s crimes even more reprehensible. Additionally, “these conventions conferred rights on the Hereros through the third-party beneficiary doctrine. The parties to these international agreements intended to confer a distinct set of protections upon indigenous Africans.”  Despite the fact that the term “genocide” may have been an anachronism in 1904, the events of that time period were clearly illegal due to the human rights laws of that period. According to Article 15 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, “if a crime was criminalized under customary law before [any of these treaties] came into effect, it is not limited by the retrospective nature of the operation of the treaty.”   

Considering that Germany paid reparations to individual Jews as well as Israel after World War II, the concept of reparations is neither unrealistic nor misplaced. If the Germans paid reparations from crimes committed a mere thirty years after the Herero genocide, “what is the legal – or moral – distinction between German genocide directed at Jews and German genocide directed at Africans?”  Reparations for the Herero would be a logical step because the precedent of reparations has been set repeatedly throughout the 20th century. “Germany [has] paid some 103 billion DM to victims of Nazi persecution.”  The United States paid reparations to Japanese-Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II. In Rwanda, survivors were able to claim compensation against individual perpetrators. “Payment of damages is a symbol of moral condemnation of the abuses that occurred.”  The lapse of time between the genocide and the tribe’s decision to take legal action should not be an impediment to receiving compensation because “if human rights are truly inherent and universal, then they apply not only territorially, but temporally and provide a basis to judge past practices.”  Additionally, in the 2001 UN Articles on the Responsibility for States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, “the state responsible for an internationally wrongful act is under the obligation to make full reparation for the injury caused by it. ‘Injury’ is defined as any damage, material or moral, caused by the act.”  While the Articles state that restitution is the preferred form of reparation, compensation is an acceptable substitute in its absence. 

Was Oscar Wilde right when he said “no man is rich enough to buy back his past” or are reparations capable of repairing some of the damages of the dark side of Namibia’s colonial past? Historical precedent suggests that it may help alleviate old wounds. Reparations are a standard mechanism of making amends for misconduct. In the case of the Herero genocide, this misconduct amounted to genocide, the deliberate killing of an ethnic group. Considering that the Herero genocide laid the foundation for the philosophies underpinning the Holocaust and the Namibian government’s attempts to undermine its legitimacy, reparations would be an effective mechanism for the Herero and Germany to settle their score without engaging the Namibian bureaucracy. Despite the fact that Germany has repeatedly set the precedent of paying reparations for their genocidal acts of the 20th century, they have refused to do so on the grounds that international law in 1904 did not prohibit their acts and because of their substantial development aid contributions for Namibia. However, numerous treaties pre-genocide illuminate European customary law condemning such flagrant abuse of indigenous peoples. Moreover, Namibia’s vast inequality prevents the Herero of reaping the benefits of this aid. 

Morality and a growing international consensus on human rights both compel Germany to shift its position on reparations for the Herero genocide and to make a comprehensive apology that recognizes moral wrongs and legal obligations. 

Recently, the rights of indigenous peoples have risen to the forefront of the international agenda. In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 28 of the documents contains a clause that states that “indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution, or when then this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensations, for lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied… which have been confiscated… without their free, prior and informed consent.”  In light of the fact that this resolution was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, a body of which Germany is a member, Germany has a clear diplomatic obligation to provide compensation in order to mitigate the landless status of today’s Herero people. 


[1] Namibia - Genocide and the Second Reich, directed by David Adetayo Olusoga, BBC, 2005, accessed April 28, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4OZ7Xc5pWQ

[2] Allan D. Cooper, "Reparations for the Herero Genocide: Defining the Limits of International Litigation," African Affairs 106, no. 442 (January 2007): 114, accessed April 28, 2013, http://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/content/106/422/113.short.

[3] Jeremy Sarkin, Colonial genocide and reparations claims in the 21st century(Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), [Page #], accessed April 28, 2013, http://orbis.library.yale.edu/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=10451248.

[4] Namibia - Genocide and the Second Reich.

[5] David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s forgotten genocide and the colonial roots of Nazism (London, UK: Faber & Faber, Limited, 2010)s, 138.

[6] Olusoga and Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, 40.

[7] Olusoga and Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, 40.

[8] Namibia - Genocide and the Second Reich.

[9] Olusoga and Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, 210.

[10] 100 Years of Silence: The Germans in Namibia, directed by Halfdan Muurholm and Casper Erichsen, 2006, accessed April 28, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3P_gvFVuXA.

Akinyi OchiengComment