In the tradition of open dialogue and free press that Namibia is known for since independence, discussions and frank debate could ideally narrow the gap across the present divide on how history should be recalled, labelled and commemorated. And we conduct this exchange in the English language, brought to Africa by British colonists. It is neither yours nor my mother tongue but a colonial legacy we have adopted by consensus with our constitution.
Dr. Tjiriange, as a point of departure in the Open Letter addressed to Namibians of German descent you used the lead story of Windhoek Observer, 16 March 2018, entitled “Local Germans deny genocide”. That same article is a pretty candid rendering of Nam-German perceptions, understanding, cognition and opinions. Credit to the Windhoek Observer for a straight forward rendering in the tradition of the newspaper, which interviewed two Namibians of the German mother tongue who spoke openly. It is disheartening that the same two Namibians wish to remain anonymous.
You see Dr Tjiriange, verbal ‘German bashing’ from some prominent Ovaherero-quarters, seems to be effective. Some of my compatriots – but not all– are intimidated as the verbal barrage electively targets one Namibian minority on account of origin and language, 28 years after the Namibian framers of the constitution have rejected discrimination on account of race, language, origin, religion, sex etc. Non-discrimination is enshrined as a fundamental right.
Remember, Dr Tjiriange, during the 1930’s in Germany, some influential Germans started to ostracise, denigrate and isolate other German citizens simply because ‘those others’ adhered to the Mosaic belief and were of Jewish descent. I don’t need to lecture you on what the eventual outcome of that hate campaign was.
Allow me to address some trite statements in your letter on Germans in general. “Germans”, you say, “came uninvited ‘for meal tickets’ to this country”.
You are correct, Germans were not different from other colonisers. The era of European expansion spanning well over 500 years started with Portuguese maritime exploration (note Cape Cross and Dias Point on the Namibian coast) and spice ships to East India, followed by the spice trade (initially) and colonisation by the Dutch, the Spanish, British, French and eventually the imperial Germans. It is not known whether any indigenous people from New Zealand to Canada, from Chile to India had invited their colonial masters. Likewise the Khoi-San of Namibia (Great Namaqualand) did not invite the Orlam who came with guns and horses from the Cape Colony. Neither had the locals of ca. 1870 invited the Baster. The San did not invite the people of Bantu languages from the Great Lake regions to Namibia. But they came all the same. The Anglo-Saxons occupied England without any invitation by indigenous Celts. You see, Dr Tjiriange, with the example of the uninvited Germans you have opened up a useful discussion to complement the picture in greater context.
Population dynamics, migration, expulsion and territorial conquest are manifested historically and in contemporary times by numerous other examples, one of the latest being the land grab of the Crimea by Russia. The South Africans under British rule expelled and deported 50 per cent of the German population in 1918/1919 from then South West Africa.
Present day migration by hundreds of thousands of people from Africa and Asia Minor to Europe – migration in reverse! - , in particular to Germany comes also to pass without any invitation from Berlin, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel is known to encourage a “welcoming culture” for such uprooted persons.
The upsurge of China as an economic superpower has brought substantial Asian migration to Africa. In Namibia, Asians seem to be settling upon express invitation, setting the Chinese for instance apart from earlier European colonial powers. It is quite obvious, migration originates from the expectation for greener pastures, new existence and indeed for that meal ticket.
Let us return to the issue at hand. You see, Dr Tjiriange, by and large Namibian German speakers place history in a wider context than the genocide and reparations lobby does which seems to be fixated solely on the shooting order of General Lothar von Trotha.
We are here at a point of divergence which we should elaborate for more mutual understanding, even though we cannot expect complete mutual consensus. But in the good culture of Namibian dialogue which we have cultivated particularly since independence, we could agree to differ. In the whole debate and campaign for reparations and apology we need to take note of the greater picture and the train of events, of cause and effect, of departure and consequence. It is a much more complex picture than some want us to believe. In this limited space, I give you a few salient examples:
Nowhere do the present campaigners for reparations point to the order issued by Chief Samuel Maharero to “shoot all Germans”, executed effectively as from 11 January 1904 on over 100 civilian men and even some women and children. Yet Maharero had ordered not to shoot women and children. It was the start of the war. The reasons can be expounded in more detail. The war started with those attacks. That von Trotha ordered his troops, outside the formal proclamation, not to shoot women and children but to “shoot above their heads” to frighten them away is also suppressed by the reparations lobby because it would weaken the genocide dogma.
The text alone of von Trotha’s proclamation can be understood as a genocidal order. Dr Tjiriange, many Nam-Germans will follow you here. But you ignore and omit the rescindment of von Trotha’s shooting order on 8 December 1904, to months after it had been issued, as this too would detract from the genocide dogma. When the text became known to Reichskanzler Bernhard von Bülow in Berlin at the end of November [in that same year], he moved Kaiser Wilhelm II to reverse the shooting order of von Trotha. Von Bülow on 24 November 1904 inter alia said in the Reichstag that Von Trotha’s approach “is in contradiction to the principles of Christianity and humanity”.
On 8 December 1904 by imperial order, the Kaiser decreed that mercy be shown to those Herero who voluntarily return.
What needs to be done is to investigate meticulously the period between the shooting proclamations of 2 October 1904 up to its rescindment on 8 December 1904. Again, this is obviously avoided, as it will water down the genocide dogma. Diary reports of soldiers who followed dispersed groups note that prisoners were taken, contrary to the shooting order. However, there were single exceptions. Mass executions, as could be construed from Trotha’s proclamation, have been recorded nowhere.
The rescindment was followed by interning many Ovaherero in prisoner or concentration camps. A genocide policy would have obviated the necessity of camps.
The end of the war resulted in the destruction of the Herero political structure, loss of land and property (cattle) followed by a successful process of reconstruction which 108 years later continues in the negotiations between Germany and Namibia.
I have tried to outline the position and some salient points as I and some other Namibians regard this chapter of history.
The difference in our approach, Dr. Tjiriange, I venture to argue, is that Namibians of German descent put the German Herero war, or genocide, as you are pleased to say, in a much broader context than all those who are solely fixed to the dogma of genocide.
I am conscious that much of our history has been written in blood. To me, this has always meant that we belong to a particular community of fate (Schicksalsgemeinschaft), creating bonds of responsibility and respect upon which we continue to shape and ensure a peaceful Namibian future. We had advanced far on the road of reconciliation when paramount Chief Riruako attended the Waterberg commemorations in full regalia and retinue in the 1980’s together with German ex-soldiers of WWII, boy scouts and members of the public.
Red Flag Day in Okahandja has occasionally been addressed by Namibians of German descent and by German ambassadors. And on the satirical front, Dr Fanuel Tjingaete entered the barrel satire (Bütt) of Windhoek Karneval as “der grosse Herero-General”, mingling with other jesters and merrymakers, poking fun at our history. What has turned sour in our midst? There is much more detail to be thrashed out in good spirit.
Your concluding statement in the Open Letter, “We are trying to forgive but will never forget,” is truly an apt approach to pave the way for better understanding, considering authentic sources. I regard this as our common denominator.