This week, the German parliament will debate a motion presented by the opposition Social Democratic, Left and Green parties calling for Germany to formally apologize for its massacre of thousands of inhabitants of its former colony of South West Africa, now the Republic of Namibia, between 1904 and 1907. German behavior in Namibia was in fact genocidal, and an apology – and material restitution – is long overdue. But it was far from unique in Europe’s colonial domination of virtually the whole of Africa.

During the “scramble for Africa” at the end of the 19th century, Germany had entered the game partly for economic and partly for geopolitical reasons, namely to counter the roles that France and Britain were already playing on that continent. The founder of modern Germany, Prince Otto von Bismarck, originally did not envision creating a large overseas colonial empire, but changed his mind and set in motion actions which led Germany to control all or part of modern Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Cameroon and Namibia.

In all of these places, European explorers, settlers, merchants and soldiers engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the case of Germany, a bad precedent was set by pioneering “explorer” Karl Peters, who outdid his very brutal Anglo-American rival, Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) in cheating and murdering Africans. Others followed in Peters’ footsteps. Jesco von Puttkamer, Bismarck’s nephew by marriage, was appointed German governor of the Cameroons.  British historian Thomas Packenham, in his comprehensive 1991 book The Scramble for Africa, White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912, gives examples of the horrors perpetrated under the watch of Puttkamer and other German colonial officials:

…a Lieutenant Dominik was sent on an expedition to negotiate a treaty with the Bahoro. Instead, he shot down all the men and women in the village, and the fifty-four children that survived were put in baskets and drowned like kittens” (Packenham, “The Scramble for Africa”, page 623)

The specific matter for which an apology is being demanded is the genocide directed against the people of Namibia by the German General Lothar von Trotha between 1904 and 1907. German settlers had been encroaching on the lands of the cattle raising Herero people. The Hereros rebelled in 1904, and General von Trotha not only mowed them down with modern weapons but also drove them in their thousands into the Kalahari Desert, where the vast majority starved or died of thirst. He meted out similar treatment to the Nama people in Southern Namibia. The end result of Trotha’s effort was the extermination of three quarters of the Herero people and half of the Namas.

But why stop with Germany? No European colonial power in Africa, not the Dutch, the British, the French, the Belgians, the Germans, the Spanish nor the Italians has clean hands. The genocidal champion of the scramble for Africa was, without a doubt, Leopold II, King of the Belgians. He convinced the major powers to agree to let him have his way with the Congo (his personal project) with the pretext that he was engaged in a civilizing mission, for the benefit of the Congolese people. In fact his plan was to bleed them dry, murdering them if they resisted. All the other major countries agreed to support his “Congo Free State” project, U.S. President Chester Arthur being the first to sign on the dotted line. Belgian administrators, soldiers and merchants set up a system of exploitation, concentrating on wild rubber harvesting, so horrible that its like was not seen on earth until Hitler invaded Poland. The Congo Free State’s “Force Publique”, tortured or murdered villagers who did not cooperate. Troops had to account for ammunition they expended; to do so they had to cut off the hands of people they shot, to prove that they had not been using the bullets for hunting animals instead of humans. Frequently, Leopold’s men cut off the hands of living people, including small children. Leopold had promised to fight against slavery; in fact he enslaved the Congolese to amass vast fortunes that he spent in adorning Belgium with pretentious monumental architecture. This was all kept hush-hush until a few outsiders ferreted out the information as to what was going on. They concluded that half of the Congo’s population, or up to 10 million people, had been killed by Leopold’s regime, and of course putting a money figure on the looting of the Congo was as difficult then as it would be now. Eventually, Leopold was forced to surrender the Congo to the Belgian government, which improved matters only slightly, and left the colony in a very poor state when they finally departed in 1960.

After the First World War, Germany was stripped of its African colonies, which were handed over to other European colonial powers whose behavior toward the indigenous people was sometimes almost as brutal. And the economic looting never stopped.

Many will applaud if the motion in the German parliament leads to a formal apology to Namibia’s people. We also hear that Germany has been providing financial aid to Namibia. That’s nice. But perhaps quite a bit more than apology and a few crumbs of foreign aid, and not just to Namibia, is in order.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.