On 11 January​ , at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, South Africa argued that Israel’s actions in Gaza have been ‘genocidal in character’, since ‘they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnic group.’ Lawyers cited the killing of 23,000 Palestinians (the number is now more than 33,000), the majority of them women and children, the destruction of life-sustaining infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, and the displacement of practically Gaza’s entire population. Israel staged its defence the following day, claiming that ‘if there were acts of genocide, they have been perpetrated against Israel.’ Its lawyers called on the court to dismiss the case and reject South Africa’s request that military operations against Gaza be halted.

Less than two hours after Israel concluded its case, Germany announced that it would intervene as a ‘third party’, siding with Israel. Any signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention can put forward ‘substantive arguments’ in a dispute over the interpretation of the treaty. In 2023, Germany intervened in the genocide case brought by Gambia against Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya, in support of the view that Myanmar’s actions constituted genocide. In the South African case, a German government spokesman declared that ‘in light of Germany’s history and the crime of humanity – the Shoah – the federal government sees itself as particularly committed to the Genocide Convention.’ In other words, it had expertise in such questions, and the current accusations against Israel had ‘no basis whatsoever’: they were merely an attempt to politicise the convention. The memory of the Holocaust is considered to be the moral foundation of postwar Germany, and the defence of Israel’s security, as Angela Merkel affirmed in 2008, is Germany’s Staatsräson. The idea that Israel can be accused of perpetrating a genocide – or that any genocide can be compared to the Holocaust – is therefore heresy.

On 13 January, the day after the German announcement, the president of Namibia, Hage Geingob (who died on 4 February), rebuked Germany, arguing that it ‘cannot morally express commitment to the UN Convention on Genocide … while supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza’. He added that ‘the German government is yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil.’ Tlaleng Mofokeng, the South African UN special rapporteur on the right to health, summed up the situation: ‘The state that committed more than one genocide throughout its history [Germany] is trying to undermine the efforts of a country that is a victim of colonialism and apartheid [South Africa] to protect another genocide [Israel’s].’ Two weeks later, on 26 January, by fifteen judges to two, the ICJ accepted that the allegation that Israel was in violation of the 1948 convention was plausible, and ordered it to take measures to prevent genocidal acts.

Mofokeng’s allusion to Germany having been responsible for ‘more than one genocide’ was echoed by a curious historical coincidence. The date of the second day of the hearing and of Germany’s intervention – 12 January – was the 120th anniversary of the events that put into motion the first genocide of the 20th century, which was perpetrated by Germany’s colonial army, the Schutztruppe. The targets were the Ovaherero (often referred to in European sources as Herero) and Nama peoples in a territory Germany had claimed and colonised as South-West Africa – what is now called Namibia. The region had been ceded to Germany by the other European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, which formalised the partition of Africa. Bismarck’s Second Reich sought the colonial empire it believed its power on the world stage merited, and the territories covering what are now Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Namibia were established as German ‘protectorates’.

On 12 January 1904, fighting broke out in the town of Okahandja between German troops and Ovaherero fighters led by Samuel Maharero. More than a hundred soldiers and settlers, mostly farmers and missionaries, were killed in the following days and the Schutztruppe was forced to retreat. Humiliated, Germany started to plan retribution. The Ovaherero were cattle herders whose lands were located in the region’s central plateau. These fertile hills were late to be colonised and had escaped the worst of the Atlantic slave trade because the sand dunes that stretch for hundreds of miles along the coast hid them from the view of European seafarers on their way to the Cape. In the Nama/Damara language, namib means ‘shield’. But once the German protectorate was established, the region became an ideal candidate for what in 1897 the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel termed Lebensraum – the space that was needed to sustain a species or people in their Darwinian struggle for survival. To allow German settlement, Indigenous peoples had to be moved out of the way. At first the land was taken piecemeal by enforced protection contracts and sales agreements, threats, bribes and massacres, but gradually German Africa came into existence as a matrix of farms, missionary outposts, mineral and diamond mines, and military forts like the one in Okahandja. Ratzel believed that South-West Africa was a place where the ‘German race’ could harden its character. He took his inspiration from Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued that American political and cultural identity had largely been formed, half a century earlier, by the experiences of the rugged Western frontier. The African frontier was similarly inhabited by people seen as subhuman, part of the natural environment, who could be exploited, expelled or exterminated at will.

In June 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, a Saxon colonial officer who had built his reputation by helping to crush the Boxer Rebellion in China, arrived in South-West Africa to oversee the Schutztruppe’s revenge war against the Ovaherero. Trotha argued for ‘absolute terrorism’, and vowed to ‘destroy the rebellious tribes by shedding rivers of blood’. In August 1904 an estimated thirty thousand Ovaherero took refuge around the homesteads of the Kambazembi clan, at the foot of the mountain plateau of Waterberg. The Schutztruppe formed a bulwark to prevent the Ovaherero from fleeing westwards, forcing men, women and children into the Kalahari desert, where many were hunted down and shot. On 2 October, in front of his troops, Trotha issued an infamous extermination order:

The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other body parts of wounded soldiers … The Herero people must … leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [a cannon]. Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.

Close to the site of Trotha’s genocidal proclamation, in a place that became known as Ozombu Zo Vindimba (‘wells of skin disease’ in Otjiherero), many Ovaherero died a slow and excruciating death after drinking water from wells that had been poisoned by German troops. A great many others succumbed to thirst and starvation in the desert. Those who survived did so through their intimate knowledge of the terrain, of where and how to find groundwater. Some managed to find relative safety across the border in British Bechuanaland, contemporary Botswana.

The Nama and Ovaherero traditional leaders date the start of the genocide not to the attack in Waterberg but to a little-known raid eleven years earlier. On 12 April 1893 a contingent of Schutztruppe attacked the Nama settlement of ||Nâ‡gâs – known in German as Hornkranz. It was the seat of Hendrik Witbooi, chief of the Witbooi Nama people. The territory between the Nama and the Ovaherero to the north was disputed, and skirmishes were not uncommon, but Witbooi turned down all German offers of protection, insisting that local peoples should be allowed to deal with their own problems. When in 1886 he was approached by German emissaries sent by the colonial administrator, Heinrich Göring, he refused to negotiate with anyone but the emperor himself. ‘I understand that you want to negotiate peace, you who call yourself a “deputy”,’ he responded. ‘How shall I respond? You are someone else’s representative, and I am a free and autonomous man answering to none but God.’ Witbooi kept a diary that gives an important African perspective on the experience of German colonisation.

The Nama were skilled fighters and small groups on horseback frequently ambushed the German convoys that trespassed into their lands. Cartographers were unable to enter the area and it remained blank on the map. The Germans concluded that the only way to stop the ‘rebellious natives’ was to eradicate them. The Schutztruppe approached undetected at night and attacked at dawn, forcing the Witbooi fighters to retreat. The German soldiers razed the settlement, murdering women, children and the elderly. A police station and a farm were established in the ruins.

In the years that followed, Nama tribes continued to join battle against the Germans. On 22 April 1905, Trotha issued another extermination order, this time against the Nama: ‘The few who do not submit will suffer the same fate as the Herero people, who in their delusion also believed that they could defeat the powerful German emperor and the great German people. I ask you, where are the Herero today?’ By this time, the German government had rescinded Trotha’s extermination order against the Ovaherero, which had damaged Germany’s reputation in Europe. The order against the Nama was never officially revoked.

Nama and Ovaherero survivors were sent to concentration camps, where they were exploited for slave labour to build the colony’s roads, railways, farms and administrative outposts. More than half the prisoners died in their first year of captivity. One camp was on Shark Island, a windy and exposed peninsula near the South Atlantic port of Lüderitz that breaks the endless miles of sand dunes to create a small bay. This was the first anchorage made by Portuguese seafarers in the 15th century. On Shark Island, captives were starved, beaten, raped and executed. Women were forced to boil heads severed from the corpses – which sometimes belonged to their own relatives – and scrape off the flesh with glass so that the skulls could be sent to museums, universities and anthropological collections in Germany. Shark Island is often referred to by descendants of the survivors as the first extermination camp. Up to 80 per cent of the prisoners there died.

By the end of the German campaign, in 1908, more than 65,000 Ovaherero, more than two-thirds of the population, and 10,000 Nama, around half the population, had been killed. Their ancestral lands were not returned to the survivors. Instead, some former officers in the Schutztruppe, including those who had participated in the genocide, were rewarded with farms on their victims’ land. In 1902, less than 1 per cent of South-West Africa was owned by Europeans; after the genocide the figure was more than 20 per cent. The German settlers’ possession of the land was respected when South Africa, a dominion of the British Empire, occupied South-West Africa during the First World War: affinities between European colonial nations trumped wartime animosity. Europeans farmed the fertile areas, while the Indigenous peoples were confined to Bantustans in areas affected by drought. This structure of land ownership remained in place after independence from South Africa and the foundation of Namibia in 1990.

Today, 44 per cent of Namibia’s land area, and 70 per cent of its agricultural land, is owned by 4500 European farmers who make up 0.3 per cent of the population. The Ovaherero and Nama descendants of the genocide victims have founded towns in their ‘ethnic homelands’ that bear the names of their ancestral homesteads, and have kept alive their demands for reparations from Germany and the right of return to their lands.

The Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA) and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA) wholeheartedly supported the South African case against Israel and expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians. ‘We the Nama and Ovaherero people are all too familiar with the relation between settler colonialism and genocide, with the way genocide emerges as a direct consequence, and culmination, of violent settler colonialism,’ their statement ran. But they also accused the Namibian president of ‘hypocrisy at its highest level’, for continuing ‘to play an adverse role in the quest of the Nama and Ovaherero people to achieve justice’. There has been a long-standing dispute between the communities affected by the genocide and the Swapo-led government, whose power base is the Ovambo people and other ethnic groups in northern Namibia, and whose history is tied not to German colonialism but to the armed liberation struggle against apartheid, in which Swapo took the lead alongside the ANC. The government’s nationalisation of memory meant that the ‘Ovaherero and Nama genocide’ became known anachronistically as the ‘Namibian genocide’. The dispute was over the significance of the genocide to Namibian history – Geingob claimed that ‘apartheid was worse than the genocide’ – and about who had the right to negotiate with the German government over its acknowledgment of responsibility.

In 2015, after years of struggle by Namibian and German civil society groups, the German government agreed to acknowledge that genocide had been committed between 1904 and 1908. This paved the way for bilateral negotiations. Germany’s position was that it could only negotiate with another government and that the Namibian government should choose its own representatives. While the delegation Namibia sent included Nama and Ovaherero individuals, representatives of their elected and traditional authorities did not take part. In May 2021 an agreement was reached between the two countries. According to the joint declaration, Germany said it was ready to recognise its ‘moral responsibility for the colonisation of Namibia’ and to apologise ‘for the historic developments that led to genocidal conditions between 1904 and 1908’. The Namibian government announced that it and its ‘people accept Germany’s apology’. But they hadn’t asked the affected communities.

Last year, a number of UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to both governments making clear that according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed by Germany and Namibia in 2007, ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves.’ The OTA and NTLA position is encapsulated in a slogan: ‘Anything about us, without us, is against us.’ Germany’s acknowledgment of genocide amounted to less than the affected communities had hoped for. Germany understood its admission to be morally rather than legally binding; the events of 1904 to 1908 could be described as genocide, but only if considered from today’s perspective. It was relying on a legal formality, long challenged in cases of genocide and slavery: the ‘intertemporal principle’ holds that a legal question must be assessed on the basis of the laws in effect at the time the act was committed. Germany argued that since the UN Convention on Genocide only came into force in 1948 it couldn’t be applied to the genocide in South-West Africa. A similar argument was presented by Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem: since Hitler’s orders possessed ‘the force of law’ in the Third Reich, Eichmann was acting according to the laws of the time. The mass killing of civilians in the context of war was already illegal under the terms of The Hague Convention of 1899 when both genocides were perpetrated; but since international law referred to wars between ‘civilised peoples’ this was taken to exclude colonial violence against Indigenous populations. Germany argued that crimes committed in South-West Africa should be assessed not in line with modern legal standards but in accordance with the racist laws of the colonial era. This prompted Sima Luipert of the NTLA to retort that Germany was effectively saying that the Nama and Ovaherero were exterminated as ‘uncivilised savages’.

Germany’s admission of genocide in the historical rather than the legal sense also meant it denied it had any obligation to pay reparations or facilitate restitution. Accepting legal responsibility would have set a precedent that could be used by other colonial peoples that had experienced genocide at the hands of European states including France and Britain. Germany announced that it would pay €1.1 billion over thirty years in development aid. Before colonisation, the Ovaherero and Nama had been rich in land, cattle and culture. Luipert puts it like this: ‘Development is the greatest Northern lie, the presumed generosity of a civilisation founded on our oppression.’ The affected communities insisted that Germany purchase some of their ancestral lands from the descendants of German settlers and return them. Almost three years after its publication, as a result of objections from Namibian civil society groups and opposition parties, the joint declaration has not been ratified by either the German or the Namibian parliament.

The OTA and the NTLA often make historical connections between the genocide they suffered and the Holocaust. ‘We always felt empathy and affinity with the Jewish people as survivors of a German genocide, and were inspired by their quest for reparation,’ their statement reads. ‘This is not only because we too experienced genocide, but because the Jewish Holocaust is directly linked to what happened at Shark Island and other German-established extermination camps on our lands.’

There are clear continuities between the two German genocides. Many of the key elements of the Nazi system – the systematic extermination of peoples seen as racially inferior, racial laws, the concept of Lebensraum, the transportation of people in cattle trucks for forced labour in concentration camps – had been employed half a century earlier in South-West Africa. Heinrich Göring, the colonial governor of South-West Africa who tried to negotiate with Hendrik Witbooi, was Hermann Göring’s father.

The claim that there is a relationship between colonialism and National Socialism may still be controversial in German academic and political circles, as well as in the media, but it is certainly not new. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt argued that ‘European imperialism played a crucial role in the development of Nazi totalitarianism and associated genocides.’ The ‘boomerang effect’, as defined by Aimé Césaire, identified European fascism as the homecoming of colonial violence. In 1947, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that ‘there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women, or ghastly blasphemy of childhood – which the Christian civilisation of Europe had not long been practising against coloured folks in all parts of the world.’ These connections have been discussed more recently by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen in The Kaiser’s Holocaust (2010), and by Juergen Zimmerer in From Windhoek to Auschwitz? (2019). The links between the genocide in South-West Africa and the Holocaust depend on something else that Zimmerer makes clear: the colonial dimension of the Nazi exterminatory war in Eastern Europe. As Timothy Snyder put it, colonial ambitions transformed the ‘black earth’ of the Ukrainian steppe into ‘bloodlands’ of ethnic conquest, enslavement and genocide. After imperial Germany lost its colonial empire in the First World War, the Nazis planned to attain Lebensraum by colonising the fertile, food-producing regions in Ukraine, where the majority of Eastern European Jews lived. Germany’s colonial policies may have been factors in the near total destruction of Jews and the enslavement of Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe, but the imperial-colonial dimension can’t explain every aspect of the Holocaust, which has ideological roots in a European antisemitism that long predates colonialism.

The connection between the Namibian genocide and the Holocaust isn’t only academic. In 2017, plaintiffs representing Nama and Ovaherero organisations brought a class-action lawsuit against Germany in New York City, claiming that some of the wealth derived from slave labour and the expropriation of property in former South-West Africa had been invested there. They demanded the same legal redress and reparations that Jewish Holocaust survivors had received. Two years later the judge announced that the case had no legal standing, and it was dismissed.

I have visited Namibia several times over the past few years with teams from Forensic Architecture and its Berlin-based sister group, Forensis. We were asked by the OTA, the NTLA and the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Genocide Foundation to collaborate with traditional oral historians to locate and map ancestral villages destroyed during the genocide, along with concentration camps and mass graves, and to help construct evidence files to be presented in support of cases demanding their preservation, along with reparations and land restitution. In December, together with the OTA and the NTLA, we presented our findings in a cultural centre in Berlin and at the Bundestag’s Committee on Human Rights.

Some of the sites we identified are found in farmland owned by descendants of the Schutztruppe. The farms around the Waterberg have in recent decades been turned into game reserves where tourists pay to hunt. On occasion, affected communities have been refused access on memorial days, on the grounds that they would disturb the wildlife. This is a historical irony: Indigenous people were dispossessed because under the legal principle of terra nullius, which was used to facilitate the transfer of lands from Indigenous people to settlers in the colonial era, they were considered ‘part of the natural environment’.

There are countless monuments across Namibia to German perpetrators of genocide. But a lack of government funding and structural neglect has allowed sites important to the affected communities to fall into ruin. In Swakopmund, local residents have taken it on themselves to maintain a cemetery where genocide victims are buried in face of mainly white residents who use it as a field on which to test all-terrain vehicles. Other historical sites are unknown and unmarked. Namibia’s economy depends on European tourism, and commemorating a European genocide makes visitors uncomfortable. In the tourist camp at the Waterberg National Park, a restaurant serving German dishes – ‘game Schnitzel’ was on the menu when I went – occupies a colonial-era police station. A photograph of the Kaiser looms over the diners. The wine is sent up from a cellar that was used as a prison during the genocide. The only cemetery in the area – well-tended and much visited – contains the remains of the German soldiers killed when attacking the Ovaherero in Waterberg. Few visitors to this breathtaking landscape realise that the cemetery stands on the ruins of the Kambazembi homesteads destroyed in August 1904. This fact, known to oral historians, was confirmed by a single old photograph of the village that we found in the Colonial Photography Archive in Frankfurt. A distinctive rock formation in the mountain range in the background of the picture settled the matter.

In a recent visit to the farm still called Hornkranz – you have to make private arrangements to gain access – we saw two apartheid-era signs misrepresenting the genocide as a ‘battle’ and using a derogatory term to describe the Nama. Walking across the rocks that surround the farmstead we found 19th-century bullet cartridges testifying to the location of the skirmishes that preceded the massacre. The dry environment had preserved other traces, such as the footprints of homes made from wood and straw, allowing us to map the extent of the settlement.

On the site of the extermination camp at Shark Island, the Namibian government has poured gravel to enable cars to drive in between the rocks, and erected tables and benches for tourists who want to camp and barbecue there. Instead of a ‘place of contemplation, a place of remembrance and a place which warns that such acts of genocide should never happen,’ Johannes Isaack, the Nama chief and chairperson of the NTLA, said, ‘after 33 years of independence Shark Island continues to be a tourist destination where visitors may … wine and dine on the bones of the heroes and heroines who started the earliest resistance against colonial occupation.’

I am currently in Namibia for the anniversary on 12 April of the beginning of genocide in Hornkranz and to support the communities’ legal attempts to stop the imminent expansion of the port of Lüderitz over the site. The irony is that the planned expansion is part of a major ‘green energy’ project supported by both the Namibian and German governments. The unusually strong winds that brought colonisation to these shores and froze to death some of the prisoners on Shark Island will now power hundreds of turbines to produce liquid hydrogen – fuel that will be transported to Europe from a dock on Shark Island.

There are ‘worrying similarities between what was played out in South-West Africa and what is being played out today in Gaza’, as Didier Fassin wrote a few weeks after 7 October. In both cases, the mass killing, destruction and displacements followed humiliating military defeats by people they thought to be inferior. The Nama and Ovaherero traditional authorities insist on the recognition of these historical continuities: ‘Our shared experience of settler colonialism and apartheid becomes a platform from which we do not claim for singularity but rather pursue global justice and a quest for solidarity and universal freedom.’ It is important to listen to these voices. Such continuities could bring together the history of the Holocaust with that of colonialism and enslavement, allowing the historical solidarity between Blacks and Jews, and between anti-Zionist Jews and Palestinians, to be recognised.

Israel and Germany’s insistence on the singularity and uniqueness of the Holocaust opens a gap between the histories of antisemitism and racism to such a degree that these two forms of political power fuelled by hatred are pitted against each other. In this context it’s inspiring that the Nama and Ovaherero groups decided to respond to the political atmosphere of censorship and intimidation that greets any expression of support for Palestinians – something they experienced when they visited Berlin in December. ‘It is also with concern that we note attacks against voices from activists from Palestine, the Global South, the Muslim world, as well as dissident Jewish artists and scholars speaking out against [Israeli] policies. We stand with them because we know what it means to speak truth to repressive powers, and what are the consequences of such acts.’

12 April

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