Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Countries of the global South are most often denied a voice in Europe and North America. Our cable news brings on often corrupt former generals to explain countries such as Iraq and Yemen, but no Iraqi-American or Yemeni-American professors or journalists who actually know what they are talking about.
This imbalance in who is visible on television, in the press, and even often in academia is one of the things that makes the South African genocide case against Israel at the UN’s International Court of Justice so riveting.
Narratives of European history are consumed by the two world wars, the Holocaust, the Soviet menace, and are remarkably inward-looking. From Europe Israel appears as the nation that can do no wrong because it was formed and populated by Holocaust survivors, and it would be churlish for countries like Germany, which committed the Holocaust, and France, Italy and Poland, which were implicated in it, to criticize the state into which they chased those of Europe’s Jews whom they did not simply murder.
Germany thus ranged itself against South Africa, declaring a position in support of Israel and denying that Tel Aviv is committing genocide, despite the daily video available to anyone who wants to see it of the mind-boggling daily Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Germany might seem distant from South Africa, but in fact it was once a neighbor, as I will explain. And its lack of sympathy with the mass murder of non-Europeans is embarrassing it because of its brutal colonial past.
The small southwest African country of Namibia (population 2.3 million) responded sharply to this German claim. You see, the Germans had genocided Namibians, so they are sore about this issue, and seeing Berlin whitewashing the killing of tens of thousands of brown people a little over a century later.
Windhoek’s Allgemeine Zeitung wrote in German last week,
- “The Namibian president, Hage Geingob, was extremely angry at the weekend about Germany, which had sided with Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. South Africa’s complaint aimed at stopping Israel’s ongoing warfare in the Gaza Strip and also at broaching the question of whether President Netanyahu and the rest of Israel’s leadership should be held responsible for a genocide.
Numerous politicians in Namibia reacted angrily and the otherwise reserved First Lady, Monica Geingos, wrote on X: ‘The build up to the Herero-Nama genocide in Namibia, perpetrated by Germany started on 12 January 1904. The absurdity of Germany, on 12 January 2024, rejecting genocide charges against Israel and warning about the “political instrumentalisation of the charge” is not lost on us.’
Geingob had warned in his New Year’s message: ‘No peace-loving person can ignore the massacre of the Palestinians in Gaza.’
The Windhoek Observer reported, “Leader of the official opposition party Popular Democratic Movement, McHenry Venaani, echoed the President’s sentiments. Venaani emphasized the inconsistency in Germany’s moral stance, criticising the nation for expressing commitment to the United Nations Genocide Convention while simultaneously supporting what he called the ‘equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza.’ . . . ‘We agree with the president’s statement and Germany is misbehaving. They want to turn a blind eye. Israel cannot do a global punishment because they have lost a thousand people, yes we agree and are not disputing that but what they are is against the law. So what Germany is doing is psychological guilt,’ said Venaani.”
Ironically, Belgium, which committed an earlier genocide in the Congo, has taken the side of South Africa in this dispute.
By 1800, Europe had conquered 35% of the world. Despite the fairy tales they told themselves about their benevolence and their spreading of progress, these conquests were brutal. Philip Hoffman has argued that they depended heavily on advancements in gunpowder technology, which tells you everything you need to know about the character of European advances. By 1914 the Europeans ruled 80% of the world. Gunpowder did not become less important, i.e. the pile of dead bodies only got bigger. Of course colonialism was a complicated system that also required getting buy-ins of various sorts from the colonized, but ultimately it involved keeping guns aimed at the locals and being willing to use them.
The Dutch war on Aceh in what is now Indonesia, 1873–1904, involved killing 60,000 locals by military force or exposure and disease. The US in the Philippines killed at least 20,000 directly and some 200,000 – 400,000 died from exposure and disease.
The historians of the colonial powers have written the history, so that the colonial era is often depicted as a civilizational triumph. It is British railways in India or French road building in Senegal that is celebrated. The pile of dead bodies is mentioned in passing, surrounded by embarrassed silence, when it isn’t suppressed entirely. The history of enslavement and forced labor has often been downplayed. In the second half of the twentieth century, sometimes historians of the metropoles have dropped the colonial dimension entirely from the national narrative, obscuring it. François Furet at one point wrote that he would omit mention of Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt since the episode occurred beyond French soil. (I fixed that.) Edward Said pointed out in Culture and Imperialism that a lot of Victorian literature is incomprehensible today unless we remember that Britain was an empire at the time and not a small nation-state. Since people in the North Atlantic world don’t much read historians based in the global South, these histories have become invisible.
In 1904, the Herero people rebelled against German colonialism in southwest Africa, and the German government responded in 1904-1908 by committing the twentieth century’s first genocide against them. So writes Hamilton Wende.
Germany was awarded Namibia at the 1884 Berlin conference as part of what historians have characterized as the “scramble for Africa.” Since the Africans were just going about their lives, the “scramble” was by predatory Europeans. Some 5,000 Germans flooded into Namibia and lorded it over a quarter million local Bantus. To this day, whites, including persons of German descent, own 70% of the land there.
After a Herero attack on colonists that killed over 100 in early 1904, the German Schutztruppe or colonial military replied with Maxim machine guns and artillery (Professor Hoffman might note the prominence of gunpowder). Military commander Lothar von Trotha called for the extermination of the Herero and Nama peoples. As many as 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were mowed down just at the beginning of the punitive German campaign.
Germany grudgingly recognized the genocide in 2021, with the foreign minister saying “If you want to call it a genocide, you can.” Germany’s position is that it took place before the 1948 Genocide Convention, however, and so cannot be the basis for any lawsuit or formal reparations. Berlin did pledge $1.4 billion in aid for Namibia, to be paid over 30 years, but without admitting legal liability. At the same time, German officials have often reprimanded Namibians, saying that they cannot compare their experience to the Holocaust, as though extermination of Europeans is forever more significant than the extermination of Africans, millions of whom were killed by Europeans in the 19th century.
Namibians have complained that the sum offered in aid is not enough to compensate for the damage done or for the ancestral lands lost, which people want restored to them. President Geingob says that Namibia is not done with Berlin, and plans a further lawsuit.
So, for a traumatized Namibian population, to have Germany now engage in genocide denial when it comes to Palestinians just brings back the nightmare all over again.
And at the International Court of Justice, Namibia has a voice, even though it still won’t have access to CNN’s air waves or receive much attention in the North Atlantic newspapers of record.