Germany is being sued over its forgotten genocide

Historical consequences.
Historical consequences.
Image: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The descendants of the people massacred in Germany’s forgotten genocide 110 years ago are suing the present-day Berlin government. Namibia’s Herero and Nama people filed a class action lawsuit in a New York court on Jan. 5, demanding damages for the first genocide of the 20th century.

After more than a century, Germany finally apologized for the 1904-1907 genocide last year, and entered into talks with the Namibian government on a common understanding and policy to address the often-ignored mass killing. The chiefs of the two groups say they have been excluded from the negotiations.

“They have decided to put their heads in the sand the ostrich way, disrespect our people and our government. We have faith that restorative justice will prevail,” ovaHerero paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro told The Namibian newspaper.

The chief, who is also a legal advocate, said they had tried the diplomatic route and had no results, saying he believed international and human rights law was on their side.

A century ago, German colonial troops committed what historians believe was a precursor to the Holocaust. Within three years, German troops oversaw the extermination of 85% of the Herero population and thousands of Nama people, expropriated their land and seized their cattle, their primary source of wealth. Many indigenous women and girls were also raped by colonists and used as forced labor.

Today, the once powerful Herero make up about 10% of Namibia’s population and live in some of the country’s most underdeveloped regions, struggling with high youth unemployment. The plaintiffs are also seeking reparations for the thousands of square miles of land that was seized by German colonial authorities, according to the suit.

Berlin has refused to pay reparations, saying that it would instead fund targeted development projects. The lawsuit will not affect the ongoing negotiations, said Ruprecht Polenz, Germany’s special envoy for dialogue with Namibia. For Germany, dealing with the genocide is not a legal mater, but a political and moral question, he said.

“We are negotiating with the Namibian government about the political and moral consequences,” he told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“There is no assurance that any of the proposed foreign aid by Germany will actually reach or assist the minority indigenous communities that were directly harmed,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer Ken McCallion told Reuters. “There can be no negotiations or settlement about them that is made without them.”