Transatlantic Dynamics in Ongoing Postcolonial Negotiations

The genocide of the Herero and Nama, committed between 1904 and 1908 under German colonial rule in today’s Namibia, is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Over the past decades and especially since the commemoration of the 100 years of the genocide in 2004, when the German government refused to recognize the crimes committed as such, struggles for the recognition and a reparation of the genocide led by descendants of the survivors have intensified. This presentation presented the results of a two-month research project on the impact of Herero and Nama activists in the United States on the ongoing negotiations between the German and the Namibian governments concerning the recognition and the reparation of the genocide. Based on biographical interviews conducted with Herero and Nama activists living in the United States, it reflected on how the migration path of the interviewees has evolved over time and has affected their strategies, how the U.S. context has impacted their actions and how their transnational experiences and activities open up possibilities for transnational or postnational memories.

Key takeaways:

  • After a Herero rebellion against colonial treatment, German authorities in the area began the genocide, of which 20 percent of the Herero people and 50 percent of the Nama survived, either fleeing to neighboring countries or being housed in concentration camps.
  • One hundred years after the genocide, descendants of the survivors still feel the pain of the genocide, and descendants of the German colonizers (approximately 40,000) control about 60 percent of productive land in Namibia.
  • Since independence in 1990, there has been an intensification of claims for recognition, apology, and reparation of the genocide of the Herero and Nama.
  • It was not until July 2015 that members of the German government showed any willingness to recognize the genocide, and even then the government refused to work with Herero and Nama groups, preferring to work with the Namibian government.
  • Herero and Nama have limited resources in both Germany and Namibia, and the United States allows for pushback through freedom of expression.
  • Other victim groups are present in the United States (for example, Jews and Rwandans) who understand the struggle for recognition. Holocaust survivors support how to talk about genocide, there are connections to the African American community and demands of reparation concerning slavery.
  • Education in the U.S. has a greater sensitivity towards genocides.
  • Postnational memories take a critical stance toward the nation state. The German government’s engagement with Namibia rather than the Herero and Nama on this issue and public spaces that honor perpetrators reinforce the legacy of colonialism.
  • Germany’s response to pressure for reparations could have European-wide implications.
  • Within Herero and Nama groups, there is disagreement about what reparations should be, or if there should be any at all.
  • Some suggest there should be decolonization of formerly colonizer states, an aim for qualitatively new relations, or bidirectional access, for example exchanges between Germans and Herero youth.

Dr. Elise Pape is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in July and August 2017. She completed her binational German-French dissertation in the field of sociology of migration at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and at the University of Strasbourg, France, in 2012. She has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Strasbourg (2012-2014) and a postdoc at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris since 2014. Her research interests concern current postcolonial debates in Germany and France, intergenerational transmission in migration processes, social policies, and the use of biographical interviews in social research.

August 30, 2017