Namibia, Gaza and German hypocrisy on genocide

Namibia’s response to Germany’s ICJ intervention on behalf of Israel exposed the former colonial power’s inability to learn from its past mistakes.

people wave a palestinian flag outside an old building with a tower
Protesters hold a Palestinian flag as they gather outside the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as judges rule on emergency measures against Israel following accusations by South Africa that the Israeli military operation in Gaza is a state-led genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 26, 2024. [Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo/Reuters]

On January 12, Germany said it will intervene on Israel’s behalf in the genocide case brought against it by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its war on Gaza.

“The German government firmly and explicitly rejects the accusation of genocide that has now been made against Israel before the International Court of Justice. This accusation has no basis whatsoever,” a spokesperson for the German government said in a statement as it accused South Africa of “politicising” genocide.

“In view of Germany’s history, crimes against humanity, and Shoah [the genocide of Jewish people under the German Nazi regime during World War II, the Ηolocaust], the government is particularly committed to the UN Genocide Convention,” the spokesperson added.

The announcement, which shockingly suggested Germany has a better understanding of the convention than any other nation due to its responsibility for the genocide that led to its conception, caused widespread anger across many Global South countries that had tied their hopes of bringing an end to the carnage in Gaza to South Africa’s landmark case at the World Court.

One country was particularly vocal in expressing its frustration with and disappointment in Germany’s intervention: Namibia.

On January 13, Namibia’s presidency condemned Germany’s “shocking decision” to support Israel at the ICJ.

In a statement published on X, it reminded the world that Germany committed the first genocide of the 20th century in Namibia in 1904-1908, in which “tens of thousands of innocent Namibians died in the most inhumane and brutal conditions”, and never fully atoned for this horrific crime.

In light of its apparent inability to draw lessons from its horrific history, the presidency said, Germany should “reconsider its untimely decision to intervene as a third-party in defence and support of the genocidal acts of Israel” before the ICJ.

“Germany cannot morally express commitment to the United Nations Convention against genocide”, or truly atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil, it concluded, while “supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza”.

In this short statement, the tiny Southern African nation of 2.7 million, which was a German colony between 1884–1919, exposed Germany’s comprehensive failure to deal with its atrocious colonial past, and blatant double standards about genocide, in one breath.

Between 1904 and 1908, German settlers systematically killed up to 100,000 Herero and Nama people following a popular uprising over unlawful land seizures and forced labour in what was then known as German South West Africa.

On October 2, 1904, Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, the supreme commander of German South West Africa, issued an extermination notice ordering German soldiers to kill “every male [Herero], armed or unarmed” and displace (or shoot) the Herero women and children.

Although Germany rescinded the order on December 8, 1904, the settlers had already displaced and killed thousands of Herero people.

Von Trotha issued a second annihilation order on April 22, 1905. This time, he directed troops to kill the Nama people. As the methodical massacres were under way, German colonisers systemically raped Nama and Herero women and girls – often with no repercussions.

A 1985 UN report (PDF) by special rapporteur Benjamin Whitaker concluded these massacres in German South West Africa were a genocide.

Despite the UN’s findings, and despite accepting full responsibility for the Nazi genocide of European Jews between 1941-45 that claimed some six million innocent lives, Germany refused to acknowledge that its atrocities in Namibia also amounted to a genocide for many years.

For decades, Germany treated its genocide of the Nama and Herero people, which took place just 33 short years before the Holocaust, as an old, trivial and conventional brutality that did not require any official apology, specific introspection, or meaningful monetary compensation.

For successive German governments, the lives of 100,000 African men, women and children brutally killed by the German state in modern-day Namibia clearly did not hold the same value as those Jewish lives brutally extinguished in Europe during the Holocaust.

After six years of negotiating in bad faith, Germany eventually recognised the Nama and Herero genocide and offered a formal apology to the Namibian people, signing a so-called “joint declaration” with Namibia in May 2021.

In the document, Germany acknowledged that it has a “moral, historical and political obligation” to apologise and “provide the necessary means for reconciliation and reconstruction”.

However, it did not commit to paying reparations.

Instead, Germany pledged to provide Namibia with 1.1 billion euros ($1.2bn) in financial aid over 30 years towards a development-support programme focused on various initiatives, including land reform, rural infrastructure and energy and water supply.

According to the “joint declaration” this pledge was designed to “settle all financial aspects of the issues relating to the past” and seemingly take reparations off the table.

After raising several objections to the structure and size of the proposed 30-year grant, Namibia has yet to sign the deal.

Of course, rather than “settling” financial or any other aspect of its senseless colonial violence in Namibia, Germany’s less than adequate pledges expose the racist hierarchy it has assigned the different victims of its genocidal violence.

In 1951, Germany agreed to hold direct discussions with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), a non-profit organisation that negotiates for and disburses funds to victims of Nazi persecution.

The German government has since paid about $90bn in reparations through the Claims Council. In March 2022, it agreed to provide an additional $720m to the Claims Council to fund home care, food and medicine for 120,000 impoverished Holocaust survivors.

In stark contrast, Germany has plainly refused to pay a single cent in reparations to the Nama and Herero people. And the 1.1 billion-euro ($1.2bn) financial aid it eventually pledged to give Namibia over 30 years is just a tiny fraction of the payments it made directly to the victims of the Holocaust.

Moreover, several groups representing the descendants of the 1904-1908 genocide – including the Namibian Genocide Association, Nama Genocide Technical Committee, Nama Traditional Leaders Association, and Ovaherero Traditional Authority – were excluded from the negotiations that culminated in the much-criticised 2021 “joint declaration”.

To this day, most Herero and Nama people in Namibia – where white Namibians, the descendants of German and South African settlers, own 70 percent of the best land – are largely poor and landless.

They have been forced to bear the multidimensional socioeconomic consequences of the 1904-1908 genocide, but Germany refuses to properly and directly compensate them for the atrocities it committed that have led to their marginalisation and poverty.

It’s the same Germany that has now declared itself the utmost authority on what constitutes a genocide and is actively defending, in every way it possibly can, the genocide Israel is demonstrably committing in Palestine.

Germany says it is defending Israel’s indefensible genocidal acts in Gaza in view and memory of its past “crimes against humanity, and Shoah”.

Of course, if it had actually learned anything from its horrendous history, and the Holocaust, it would atone properly for the countless crimes committed by its short-lived colonial empire in Africa and take meaningful action to put an end to the genocide Israel is currently committing against Palestinians – not go to court to defend it.

Namibia is right – Germany needs to immediately “reconsider its untimely decision to intervene as a third-party in defence and support of the genocidal acts of Israel before the International Court of Justice”.

The failure to reverse this indefensible position would be irrefutable proof that Germany learned nothing from its past, and an insult to all victims of its long history of genocidal violence – whether they are Nama, Herero or Jewish.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.