BERLIN — Germany’s government acknowledged on Friday that it committed genocide during its colonial occupation of what is now Namibia and promised more than $1 billion in development projects in communities descended from victims.

The announcement from Germany’s foreign ministry comes after more than five years of negotiations between Berlin and Windhoek, the Namibian capital, where the news was received cautiously as a “first step in the right direction,” according to the president’s spokesman. Germany refused direct reparations that victims’ descendants had lobbied for, and said development projects would be carried out over the next 30 years.

The acknowledgment came more than 100 years after the genocide — a stark contrast with the public recognition and deeply imbued sense of national shame around the Holocaust that has become part of Germany’s modern identity.

Between 1904 and 1908, German colonial forces in what was then known as South West Africa brutally quashed a rebellion spearheaded by the Herero and Nama tribes against the seizing of land and livestock by colonists, killing at least 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama. Many were driven into the Kalahari desert where the colonial administration had built labor and concentration camps and died there of starvation and exhaustion. Researchers estimate that as many as 80% of the Herero and half of the Nama people were killed.

“It was, and continues to be, our aim to find a common path toward real reconciliation in the memory of the victims,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a statement. “This requires us to be unreserved and unflinching in naming the events of the German colonial period in what is now Namibia, and especially the atrocities of the period 1904 to 1908. We will from now on officially call these events what they are from a contemporary perspective: a genocide.”

Alfredo Hengari, spokesman for Namibia’s president Hage Geingob, said the announcement out of Berlin was the result of a ninth round of negotiations that began in 2015 over how Germany would move forward in making amends to victims’ descendants and repairing relations between the two countries. The process has received widespread criticism among victims’ descendants who say they have been left out.

Advertising

“President Geingob will convene in the coming weeks a stakeholder feedback session with affected communities” to figure out exactly how the agreement should be implemented, Hengari said.

As news of an agreement trickled out over the past two weeks, Herero and Nama leaders issued a joint statement rejecting the deal and condemning its lack of direct reparations.

“The so-called ‘compensation’ to finance ‘social projects’ is nothing but a coverup for continued German funding of Namibian Government projects,” the statement from the Ovaherero Traditional Authority and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association. “Germany must pay reparations for the genocide.”

The German foreign ministry’s statement said the roughly $1.3 billion in development aid would serve as a “gesture of recognition for immeasurable suffering.”

Germany has repeatedly ruled out paying reparations for the colonial-era genocide in what is now Namibia. “We’re talking about an event that happened 100 years ago,” Ruprecht Polenz, the German special envoy for the genocide talks with the Namibian government, told the German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk in 2018. “And for this reason we can’t consider personal reparations and we see the question over which we’re negotiating as a political and moral, not a legal one.”

Zed Ngavirue, who negotiated the agreement on behalf of Namibia, told the Namibian newspaper this week that his government was “well aware of the fact that the German government would not be able to restore and restitute our losses.”

Advertising

On Friday, a small number of protesters gathered in Windhoek alongside tribal leaders to reiterate their opposition to the agreement.

During its colonial period, Germany also occupied parts or the entirety of Tanzania, Cameroon, and Togo among others. In what is now Tanzania, German troops killed at least 100,000 in another quashing of a rebellion that took place during the same years as the Herero-Nama genocide. Known as the Maji Maji war, it was sparked by a German attempt to force the native population into plantation labor and is still remembered in part for the ruinous famine that swept the region in its aftermath.

Some human remains of Herero and Nama people were shipped to Germany as colonial-era researchers tried to create a pseudoscientific basis for racial hierarchies. Their findings were later used by the Nazis to justify mass murder during World War II.

Germany was stripped of its colonies by other European powers at the end of World War I.

Germany’s announcement comes one day after French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged his own government’s shared responsibility in allowing a genocide in Rwanda to take place 1994. Analysts noted that both France and Germany have recently sought to grow their trade with African nations and that a push for reconciliation over past atrocities coincided with economic interests.

— — —

Bearak reported from Nairobi, Kenya and Immanuel reported from Windhoek, Namibia.