The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has asked the descendants of the victims of the OvaHerero and Nama genocide in Namibia during the German colonial rule of the country for forgiveness.
“As the successor organisation of the former Prussian Evangelical High Church Council (Oberkirchenrat), we expressly confess our guilt today towards the entire Namibian people and before God,” says the statement released on Monday (24 April) under the heading “Forgive us our sins (Matthew 6:12)”.
It continues: “From the depths of our hearts, we ask the descendants of the victims, and all those whose ancestors suffered from the exercise of German colonial rule, for forgiveness for the wrong done them and the pain they suffered as a consequence.”
This is the first time that the EKD has expressly accepted its role in the crimes committed by the German colonial administration in the then South-West Africa.
The EKD admitted that the German Protestant pastors sent to South-West Africa prepared the ground for the death of many thousands of Namibians from different ethnic groups in acts of war and concentration camps through the “theological justification of imperial power and colonial rule, and a deep-seated racism”. The statement added: “This is a great sin and not to be justified at all.”
“We are aware of the burdens that the descendants of victims and victimizers bear to this day,” explains Petra Bosse-Huber, EKD Bishop for ministries abroad. “In no way can the present statement wipe away the wrongdoing.”
However, she adds, it expresses the lasting historical and ethical obligation of the EKD to join the descendants of the victims in keeping the memory alive, to call for the genocide to be recognized as such and to work at overcoming the injustice. “We need to remember the colonial era but we also need a spirit of reconciliation.”
This can only come about if all population groups extend the hand of friendship, according to Ms Bosse-Huber.
During the war of 1904-1908, the Germans fought a brutal battle against the native OvaHerero and Nama peoples who resisted the violent confiscation of their land and cattle by the settlers. In what historians called the first genocide of the 20th Century, extermination orders were issued by the German commander, Lieutenant General von Trotha, to his troops to kill and drive away the natives from their land. At the end of the military campaign some 65,000 OvaHerero, about 80% of the then OvaHerero population, and 10,000 Nama, about 50% of the Nama population, had been wiped out.
German forces gathered the genocide survivors and made them forced labourers in concentration camps, where many would perish from starvation, violence and disease.
The governments of Germany and Namibia are currently negotiating on how to deal with this historical tragedy in their relations. However, the progress of talks about restorative justice has been slow and groups representing the descendants of the OvaHerero and Nama victims of the genocide have criticised the negotiations as they are left out.
The groups have consistently demanded to represent themselves directly in the talks, but their request has so far been rejected by both the German and Namibian governments.
Germany has officially acknowledged the genocide in 2015, however it has not formally apologised for it.
The genocide victim groups have taken the German government to court in New York. The plaintiffs are suing Berlin for damages to be paid directly to the descendants of the OvaHerero and Nama genocide survivors.
They are invoking the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 United States law often used in human rights cases. The case was brought to court in the US because it allows lawsuits that address claims on behalf of entire communities.
Germany has ruled out direct reparations. It has made clear that it prefers payments to the Namibian government in the form of foreign aid.
The victim groups are optimistic that international human rights law will be on their side. If the case succeeds in American courts, other claims for genocide damages especially from the era of colonial occupation of Africa may follow, say analysts.