The German apology is a commendable step and important precedent. But its parameters are inadequate, and one reason why may be embedded in your family’s heirloom engagement ring
Germany for the first time on Friday recognised it had committed genocide in Namibia during its colonial occupation, with Berlin promising financial support worth more than one billion euros to aid projects in the African nation.
German colonial settlers killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people in 1904-1908 massacres—labelled the first genocide of the 20th century by historians—poisoning relations between Namibia and Germany for years.
While Berlin had previously acknowledged that atrocities occurred at the hands of its colonial authorities, they have repeatedly refused to pay direct reparations.
“We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today’s perspective: genocide,” said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a statement.
He hailed the agreement after more than five years of negotiations with Namibia over events in the territory held by Berlin from 1884 to 1915.
“In light of the historical and moral responsibility of Germany, we will ask forgiveness from Namibia and the victims’ descendants” for the “atrocities” committed, Maas said.
In a “gesture to recognise the immense suffering inflicted on the victims”, the country will support the “reconstruction and the development” of Namibia via a financial programme of 1.1 billion euros ($1.34 billion), he said.
The sum will be paid over 30 years, according to sources close to the negotiations, and must primarily benefit the descendants of the Hereo and Nama.
However, he specified that the payment does not open the way to any “legal request for compensation”.
Namibia was called German South West Africa during Berlin’s 1884-1915 rule, and then fell under South African rule for 75 years, before finally gaining independence in 1990.
Tensions boiled over in 1904 when the Herero—deprived of their livestock and land—rose up, followed shortly after by the Nama, in an insurrection crushed by German imperial troops.
In the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904 around 80,000 Herero, including women and children, fled and were pursued by German troops across what is now known as the Kalahari Desert. Only 15,000 survived.
German General Lothar von Trotha, sent to put down the rebellion, ordered the peoples’ extermination.
At least 60,000 Hereros and around 10,000 Namas were killed between 1904 and 1908.
Colonial soldiers carried out mass executions; exiled men, women, and children to the desert where thousands died of thirst; and established infamous concentration camps, such as the one on Shark Island.
‘Overcome the past’
The atrocities committed during colonisation have poisoned relations between Berlin and Windhoek for years.
In 2015, the two countries started negotiating an agreement that would combine an official apology by Germany as well as development aid.
But in August last year, Namibia said that Germany’s offered reparations were unacceptable. No details of the offer were provided at the time.
President Hage Geingob had noted Berlin declined to accept the term “reparations”, as that word was also avoided during the country’s negotiations with Israel after the Holocaust.
But in an effort to ease reconciliation, in 2018 Germany returned the bones of members of the Herero and Nama tribes, with the then foreign minister Michelle Muentefering asking for “forgiveness from the bottom of my heart”.
Millions of carats in diamonds have been exported from Namibia since 1908. These same sparkling stones have a dirty history tied to German colonial rule. Right now, official statements about Germany’s debt to Namibia do not account for those gemstones at all. The debt Germany owes is construed as limited to the recognized period of genocide—even though the real money that Germans made and controlled in Namibia came after 1908, and the process of making that money implicated many parts of the world in a deadly, brutal colonial process. We cannot really assess what Germany and the world “owe” Namibia until we consider this economic dimension of the past.
For much of modern history diamonds were rare, at least outside of India and Brazil. In the 1870s, the situation changed because of giant open-pit mines in and around Kimberley, South Africa. Nowhere was this development more welcome than in the United States, which in the late 19th century became by far the biggest consumer of diamonds in the world.
Given the ubiquity of advertising for jewelry today, one might assume that Americans always had a passion for diamond engagement rings. In fact, the custom of giving such rings became widespread only after the diamond boom in Southern Africa. Even among the rich in places like New York City, a diamond was only one of several stones that a fiancé might choose, if he even gave anything ornamental. There was not yet a standard for “engagement” rings, let alone a thought that every bride could or should possess them. But one thing about diamonds was already true: they held extraordinary profit potential, with the “value” of a stone multiplying several times between extraction in Africa and arrival in a retail case at an American jeweler’s shop.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the idea that engagement rings should be diamond started to take hold in the United States, to the point that it looked like a tradition despite never having been one. Meanwhile, Germans began settling in Southwest Africa with the conviction that diamonds would turn up there, because of the Namib desert’s proximity to lucrative South African mines. Adolf Lüderitz, the “founder” of the German colony in Namibia, conned indigenous leaders out of their land. But his hunt for diamonds proved fruitless—and, in fact, he died while prospecting.
Lüderitz’s successors hunted clues, spurred on by gemstones that sporadically popped up in the hands of indigenous traders and European missionaries. Backed by major German banks, some Germans sought to colonize stretches of land judged likely to contain diamond mines. Between 1904 and 1907, a dozen spots taken from slaughtered Herero and Nama people—the victims of the recently acknowledged genocide—were identified by engineers as containing “blue ground,” a type of rock that had so far accompanied all diamond finds in South Africa. German Emperor William II viewed documents on this subject around the same time as he backed an infamous “extermination order” from his now-reviled general, Lothar von Trotha. People can view the correspondence today in the Berlin-based archives of the German state.
In 1908, when Germans at last found major reserves of diamonds—in sand dunes, not underground mines—they discovered quantities so massive as to allow for more than a century of continual mining. Insiders confirmed to a consortium of German financiers that billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds (in 1908 terms!) lay buried in the shifting sands of the Namib desert. Germany, owing to its colonial occupation of Namibia, suddenly controlled as much as 30% of the world’s diamond supply. There was major money at stake. And there was a compelling new reason for Germans to continue, and legally endorse, violent acts that left Germans as owners of nearly all Namibian property. Chillingly, the core of the nascent German diamond business, a boomtown oceanside settlement grandiosely named Lüderitz, served as the site for a German concentration camp imprisoning Nama and Herero from 1904 to 1908.
As the German government sought to monetize Namibian diamonds after 1908, they had to assemble a workforce but, owing to the genocide, found few Nama and Herero willing or able to participate. The “solution” was the importation of tens of thousands of additional African workers. The largest such group consisted of Ovambo people, who were indigenous to Southwest Africa but lived in an area to the Namib desert’s north, outside German colonial control. Starting in 1908, many Ovambos traveled to diamond fields hoping they could send their wages home to families devastated by drought and harvest failure. Once arrived, though, the workers met with a nightmare. Living conditions were abysmal, beatings and contractual fraud were rampant, and death rates grew so high as to rival those of the genocide. The diamond industry established under German colonial rule perpetuated a relationship between violence and profits. And Namibian diamonds became “blood” or “conflict” diamonds, before the concept existed.
German output from Namibia involved clear, high-quality stones that were small, typically ranging between 1/8th and 1 carat in size. The world had never before seen this kind of stone in such a prodigious volume as Namibia yielded under German rule. Meanwhile, the increased flow of diamonds from Namibia coincided with the notion, captured in contemporary newspaper ads, that “there was a diamond ring for everyone,” and thus with the triumph of engagement ring culture in the USA. Demand stemmed not only from rich consumers, but increasingly from the poor and middle class. For millions of Americans, German violence in Namibia became a precondition for, and provided a symbol of, romantic love.
Today, conversations in Germany about Namibia tend to operate within established parameters, concentrating on moral debt to the descendants of the Nama and Herero, the indigenous peoples nearly wiped out between 1904 and 1908, and on the repatriation of Namibian cultural artifacts sitting in German museums. While these emphases are proper, the conversation is incomplete if it doesn’t also include economic history. As with Namibian land—the large majority of which still rests in European hands—ownership of Namibian diamond wealth was effectively seized by Germans before, during and after the genocide. Later, as German rule started to collapse in World War I, control of diamond rights in Namibia was sold to South Africans at prices generous enough to make many millionaires.
It is crucial to remember that, absent German colonial violence, lasting transfers of wealth from Namibia would not have occurred in the way they did. It is also important for global consumers to realize how they and their ancestors might have played an unwitting role in this tragedy.
Though brief in its duration, German colonialism in Namibia proved economically significant—for Germans, for Africans and for global commodity chains connected to the United States. Germany’s official conversation about genocide has made notable progress. But Namibia, and the world, need more.