The Cable

Germany’s Oft-Forgotten Colonial Atrocities in Africa Spark New Lawsuit

A new lawsuit brings Germany's forgotten genocide in Namibia back into the spotlight


In the early 1900s, German colonial rulers carried out a series of massacres in modern-day Namibia that came to be known as the 20th century’s first genocide. Now, representatives from two indigenous Namibian groups want justice.

The Ovaherero and Nama people filed a lawsuit Thursday in New York for unspecified sums against Germany to seek reparations and compensation for the atrocities committed over a century ago. Under colonial rule from the 1880s to the early 1900s, Germany killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Ovaherero and Nama people in a clash known as the Herero revolt. The plaintiffs also say Germany stole thousands of square miles of land, used forced labor, and turned a blind eye to colonialists carrying out rapes and other atrocities against the indigenous people.

German officials acknowledged the atrocities as a genocide as early as 2004. But it has repeatedly refused to pay direct reparations to the victims’ descendants, citing the hundreds of millions of euros of development aid it sent Namibia since the country first gained independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990.

Critics cite racism in Germany’s slow recognition of the Namibian genocide compared to its forthright and open recognition of the Holocaust. “The only difference is that the Jewish are white in color and we are black,” Sam Kambazembi, a traditional Herero chief, told New York Times in December. “The Germans thought they could keep this issue under the carpet and the world would never know about it. But now we have made noise.”

The German Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy for comment on the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs, including Vekuii Rukoro, chief of the Ovaherero people; David Frederick, chief and chairman of the Nama Traditional Authorities Association; and the Association of the Ovaherero Genocide in the USA, are also seeking “to be included in any negotiations between Germany and Namibia.” The two countries started negotiations about issuing a joint declaration on the massacres in 2016, but the talks haven’t concluded.

In the 1880s, Germany invaded southwest Africa amid European colonial competitions for control of the continent that precipitated World War I. An estimated 1 million people in East Africa died in World War I during proxy colonial battles between Europe’s warring powers.

Photo credit: BRIGITTE WEIDLICH/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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