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At a German military graveyard in Namibia's Waterberg national park, only a small plaque commemorates the Herero people. (Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)
At a German military graveyard in Namibia's Waterberg national park, only a small plaque commemorates the Herero people. (Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Africa

Memories of genocide at the hands of Germany fuels radicalism in Namibia Add to ...

The tattered ribbon from a German wreath hangs inside a nearly empty museum in the bleak capital of the Herero people. “Forgive us our trespasses,” say the fading words.

It’s as close to an apology as the Herero have ever received from the German government. But today their militant leaders want more than just a vague expression of regret for the death camps and extermination orders. They want their land back – and they’re threatening to use violence to take it.

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In the bush and scrub of central Namibia, the descendants of the surviving Herero live in squalid shacks and tiny plots of land. Next door, the descendants of German settlers still own vast properties of 20,000 hectares or more. It’s a contrast that infuriates many Herero, fuelling a new radicalism here.

Every year the Herero hold solemn ceremonies to remember the first genocide of history’s bloodiest century, when German troops drove them into the desert to die, annihilating 80 per cent of their population through starvation, thirst, and slave labour in concentration camps. The Nama, a smaller ethnic group, lost half of their population from the same persecution.

New research suggests that the German racial genocide in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a significant influence on the Nazis in the Second World War. Many of the key elements of Nazi ideology – from racial science and eugenics to the theory of Lebensraum (creating “living space” through colonization) – were promoted by German military veterans and scientists who had begun their careers in South-West Africa, now Namibia, during the genocide.

The parallels between the Nazi era and the German tactics in Africa are documented by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen in their recent book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust. They list some examples: “concentration camps, the bureaucratization of killing, meticulous record-keeping of death tolls and death rates, the use of work as a means of extermination, civilians transported in cattle trucks then worked to death, their remains experimented upon by race scientists, and the identification of ethnic groups who had a future as slaves and those who had no future of any sort.”

Bizarre racial experiments, like those of the Nazi concentration camps, were performed on Herero and Nama prisoners. Thousands of their skulls were sent to Germany for experiments aimed at proving that Africans were anatomically similar to apes.

Even the brown shirts of the Nazi storm troopers were originally designed as a desert camouflage uniform for German colonial troops in Africa.

The Herero genocide began with the notorious “extermination order” of 1904, issued by General Lothar von Trotha, commander of German forces in South-West Africa, after a failed Herero uprising. “Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot,” the order proclaimed.

The order was translated into the Herero language, written on small folded pieces of paper, and hung around the necks of captive Herero elderly people and children. Volleys of gunfire then forced the prisoners into the desert to give the message to their people.

“That nation must vanish from the face of the Earth,” Gen. von Trotha said.

But the Germans eventually relented, and about 16,000 of the 80,000 Herero survived. Today, most of their descendants live in poverty. Their traditional culture is based on cattle-raising, yet they face overcrowding and land shortages in their shantytowns. They are increasingly resentful of the huge properties of the German farmers, whose ancestors arrived from 1908 to 1913 to carve up the 46 million hectares of expropriated land.

“We’ve been dispossessed,” says Vetaruhe Kandorozu, the elected regional councillor for Okakarara, unofficial capital of the Herero. “We’ve been pushed into the semi-desert areas.”

In August, at the commemoration of a 1904 battle between the Herero and the German troops, Mr. Kandorozu urged his people to organize themselves to take back their land in a Zimbabwe-style invasion of white-owned farms.

His speech was cheered by many of the Herero, and he says he has received hundreds of calls from people wanting to join him. “Even war veterans of the last liberation struggle have offered their support,” Mr. Kandorozu says, referring to the fight for Namibia’s independence from South Africa.

He says he is willing to negotiate with the German farmers, if the Namibian government provides money to buy them out. “But if the government doesn’t listen to us, the next step is to invade the land,” he says. “We can’t be afraid to die. The German farmers know that their land was stolen from us, they know their fathers did not buy the land, yet they don’t care.”

Namibia’s prime minister, Nahas Angula, said he understands the frustration of the Herero but he cannot support any illegal actions. Germany, meanwhile, refuses to offer an official apology or reparations. It says only that it accepts its “heavy moral and historical responsibility to Namibia.” And in tacit admission of the need for compensation, it has given $911-million in foreign aid to Namibia in the past two decades.

Last year Germany finally sent back 20 of the Herero and Nama skulls that had been shipped to Germany for racial experiments. When the plane carrying the skulls arrived at Namibia’s international airport, it was greeted by warriors on horseback who shouted war cries. But hundreds more skulls remain in Germany.

The German farmers are unsympathetic to the Herero demands. “They want to take the land without negotiations,” complains Wilhelm Diekmann, whose family has owned a 20,000-hectare farm near Okakarara since 1908.

“For a hundred years it was not an issue,” he says. “And now suddenly it’s an emotional issue. I think it’s because their population has increased and they don’t have enough land and they don’t live nicely. So they blame the Germans for it.”

His farm is the site of one of the most famous battles of 1904, and the Herero say it is filled with the bones of their ancestors – although the Diekmanns insist they have never seen any.

Mr. Diekmann and his wife, Sabine, have stocked their land with wildlife and turned it into a luxury lodge and “ethical hunting” farm for foreign trophy hunters. They say they offered to sell the farm to a Herero chief in 2004, but now it is not for sale.

As for Mr. Kandorozu, he is “persona non grata” on their land, Mr. Diekmann said. “We don’t allow him on the farm. He is making enemies of us.”

Not all of the Herero are hostile to Mr. Diekmann. Some praise him for selling cattle feed at cheap prices and donating meat from his wildlife to the local school. He has helped raise money for an Okakarara cultural centre, and he donated a hectare of his farmland for a small memorial to the 1904 battle.

None of this placates his critics. Keeping a 20,000-hectare farm at a time when the Herero are impoverished is “ungodly,” Mr. Kandorozu says. “We don’t want one hectare. We don’t want the meat. Why can’t he give us half of his farm and share it with us?”

Just a few kilometres from the Diekmann farm, a Herero grandmother named Gendrede Kavari lives on a small dusty plot of land on the edge of Okakarara. Once she had a few animals, but she had no fence and they were stolen.

Now she survives on a pension and a small income from collecting firewood. Some day, if she had a bit more land, she would like to have some goats. “We must get our land back,” she says.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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