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The age of European enlightenment: The city of Hamburg apologises for its role in African genocide

In a recent reception in Hamburg, Germany, Senator Dr Carsten Brosda addressed the atrocities Germany had inflicted on German South and West Africa, as well as those perpetrated by the City of Hamburg. “There is no doubt that the war of extermination in German South West Africa constituted a war crime and genocide.”



On 6 April, Senator Brosda gave an address at the Senate Reception for the Herero and Nama Delegation of the Second Transnational Herero and Nama Congress. In his address the senator highlighted the atrocities committed by Germany in German South and West Africa and the steps the country is taking towards reconciliation and historically accurate remembrance.

He started by applauding August Bebel, a Social Democrat member of the Berlin Reichstag, who had the foresight to “anticipate the dreadful war crimes that German colonial forces would commit against the Herero and Nama in German South West Africa a few years later, from 1904 to 1908.”

In a 1905 speech, Bebel also expressed solidarity with the Herero and Nama people when they rebelled against German colonial rule. “Every people and every tribe that feels its human rights to be oppressed to the utmost,” said Bebel, “has the right to rebel and the right to revolt.”

Senator Brosda went on to detail what Germany’s stance is currently and moving forward:


 Recognition of the Herero and Nama peoples’ struggle for freedom;
 Condemnation of the atrocities committed by German forces under the command of General Lothar von Trotha against your forebears;
 Plea for forgiveness;
 Joint pursuit of reconciliation and remembrance;
 Obligations regarding transitional justice, support and aid

The genocide that occurred under German colonial rule cost the lives of about 80% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama. A staggering 100 000+ people died, most left to die from dehydration and starvation by German troops. The survivors were dispossessed, interned in camps, abused, raped and subjected to heavy forced labour.

Herero Genocide Survivors photo credit Wikimedia Commons

“The consequences of the genocide are tangible and visible to this day. The descendants of the victims… are among the poorest of the poor… and where the descendants of the white German colonialists, settlers and soldiers still belong to the upper classes. The genocide is a trauma for society as a whole, one whose psychological, economic, social, cultural and political dimensions continue to have an effect 100 years later,” Brosda said

Read: Popular Versus Official Iconography: The Case of Namibia’s Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo

Despite all this, the first recognition of German atrocities by Germany only happened in 2004 by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul (SPD), the Development Minister at the time, during her visit to Namibia, then again in 2015, when the President of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, described the brutal suppression of the Herero and Nama resistance struggle once again as genocide.

Since then, a coalition treaty has been negotiated by the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party to tackle the colonial past, the crimes of Nazi Germany and the injustices of the GDR Government. “From now on, the question of the colonial past is at the core of our democratic consensus. It is an invitation to join forces and to build up common ground for a better future!” Lammert stressed.


The City of Hamburg

Hamburg itself, in its role as a port, mercantile city and economic hub of European colonial expansion, has a research centre that studies “Hamburg’s (post-) colonial legacy/Hamburg and (early) globalisation”. The centre contributes to the historical research of the Herero and Nama genocide, thus informing the changes the city of Hamburg is making towards reconciliation and remembrance.

So far the city has made changes in science, museums (displays and repatriation efforts) and even to monuments.

The Reiterdenkmal (English: Equestrian Monument) in Windhoek was erected after the Genocide in 1912 to celebrate the victory and to remember the fallen Germans with no mention of the killed indigenous population. Photo credit Wikipedia

Alterations have been made to “Trotha House”, a monument for German General Lothar von Trotha; who defeated the Ovaherero in the Battle of Waterberg and drove them into the desert of Omaheke, one of Namibia’s 14 regions. Until now, Trotha has been a celebrated war hero.

Read: Marginalised Namibians are trying to reclaim photography after colonialism

A caption has been mounted on “Trotha House” that identifies the colonial troop commander as a war criminal. It reads: “Lothar von Trotha, a convinced supporter of a “race war” (…) (conducted) an extermination campaign in German South West Africa against the Herero and Nama, including against women and children. His ‘order to shoot’ of 2 October 1904 legitimised the genocide (1904-08). As a result, tens of thousands died in the desert, in battles, in massacres or in the concentration camps. Since 2015, the Federal Government has also designated this genocide.”


Tens of thousands died in the desert, in battles, in massacres or in the concentration camps.

Senator Brosda finished his address by saying, “We cannot undo what has been done. But we can achieve reconciliation through shared grief and shared remembrance. As Achille Mbembe writes, “To create this world common to us all, we have to give back to those who in times gone by have experienced a process of abstraction and objectification of that portion of humanity which has been taken from them.”

“We will contribute actively to achieving the vision of the African Union of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena,” the senator concluded.