Paying tribute to colonizers – A reflection on colonialist Germany effects on Namibia

Image credits: The Independent
Snapshot of German colonial Africa

Over the last decade, the remnants of the dark side of colonialism have been discussed more and more. Moreover, numerous countries that used to be colonies face discussions related to whether it is right or not to have so many influences and tributes honoring big colonizers and genocides. An example of a country affected by it is Namibia after the German colonization of the nation during the 19th century. Over the course of this article I plan on presenting a background history on the matter and expose how harmful this moment in history was for the African country and its effects on present day Namibia.

To begin the discussion, it is necessary to understand how Germany obtained colonies from the 19th century onwards. When the German Empire was founded in 1871, colonies were not Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s main objective. While great world powers such as France and Great Britain established a large number of colonies, Germany had been more reluctant.

At the time, the Chancellor focused more on economic growth and on trying to have diplomatic relations with other European countries. According to Bismarck, the primary concern should be with the Reich and its people and only then the establishment of colonies should be considered. Furthermore, he did not want to compromise the European balance of power for the sake of colonies.

To this day, it is still unknown what made the Chancellor change his mind in 1884, but there are several hypotheses about some possible reasons. The first one is that he wanted to support the National Liberal Party in the Reichtag elections. In addition, there were economic reasons, and businessmen such as Adolph Woermann and Franz Lüderitz feared that their African plantations or commercial bases could be in danger without the protection of the German state. It was also argued that the colonies could bring economic benefits through raw materials – another aspect that spoke in favor of the colonies was the growth of the German population. As a result, the government ended up seeing the colonies as an alternative to these problems.

After Germany acquired the first colonies in Africa, Bismarck invited the main European powers, the US, and the Ottoman Empire, to the “Conference of Congo” in Berlin in November, and for months the African continent was divided by the powers without taking into account the will of the local population.

It is important to note that at the beginning of the establishment of the colonies, Bismarck simply allowed the colonial pioneers to live without being subject to any laws, but still promised them support if necessary. It is also worth remembering that the situation happened to turn out like this because the Chancellor did not want to invest too much money into establishing colonies. However, this strategy was very utopian, and one can use the “German Southwest Africa” as an example, since the government wanted to have large plantations, railways and create train lines in the colony, but to achieve all this they also had to have German workers. 

The problem they had to face was that no one wanted to move to the colony since there was no German culture to be found in the country and no protection from the natives, who were seen as aggressive and savage. For this reason, police, and officers working in administrative positions were sent there and schools, churches and other elements of culture were introduced to “German Southwest Africa” and other colonies. After these changes, more people emigrated from Germany, but the numbers were not high enough. There were also many scandals about the colonies, especially in 1904 because of the genocide of the Herero and Nama in colonial territory.

The native people had more than enough reasons for a revolt. Not only because of social and political discrimination, but also because of the exploitation of land and people the natives faced. For different reasons, the two tribes initiated revolts and after some time,  a war against the colonialists began. After a few months, the war came to an end and its consequences were fatal for the Nama and Herero. Excessive violence led to the deaths of most of their respective tribal populations, and the rest of the survivors were sent to extermination camps or labor camps where inhumane conditions continued. Later, however, the extermination camps were abolished, and the Herero and Nama were enslaved on German farms. According to certain laws, they were prohibited from raising cattle, and were obligated to carry around a passport type to be identified. 

More than 75,000 Hereros and Namas were murdered during this historical period and this situation was only fully recognized as a genocide in May 2021 when Germany announced financial aid worth more than one billion euros. Still, there is no amount of material compensation worth the lost lives. 

Foto preta e branca de pessoas ao redor

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Image credits: DW 
Extermination camp at Shark Island, German West Africa (now Namibia), ca. 1903

It is important to note that after the end of the first World War, Germany lost all colonies, but even today one can identify traces of German culture in Namibia. Since much was built up during the colonial period and around 20,000 Germans emigrated to German-Southwest Africa and German influence in Namibia is considerable even today. The main elements of the culture can be found in Windhoek, the capital of the country. Taking into account numbers regarding the white population, around 32% speak German which is considered an important language, especially in business and tourism, even though it is not an official one. Many elements of the architecture have a clear European influence, such as the Lutheran Church of Christ. In addition, according to locals and tourists, there are also Germanic influences in gastronomy and culture.

Moreover, there are an endless number of streets that pay homage to Germans. The tributes range from harmless names like Mozart to Otto von Bismarck and Franz Lüderitz, two important figures in German colonial history and therefore to the genocide of the Herero and Nama.

Now, through different opinions and personal reflections, it is possible to discuss how right it is to have street names in memory of German colonists in Namibia today. Taking into account not only the opinion of one side of the story, I aim to present different points and thus reach a conclusion for such a neglected issue.

Considering the claims presented, it is possible to start the debate on whether those tributes should exist or not. There is an infinite number of opinions in this debate, but the two most common ones  are those who think there’s not a single issue in this situation and those who are in favor of abolishing the tributes. To represent both opinions, I did some research on the subject in general and found opinions not only from historians and journalists from all around the world who are experts on the subject, but also from Namibians who are descendants of the Herero and Nama and are engaged with politics.

Placa de propaganda

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Image credits: Wikipedia

I will first present the point of those who see the whole situation as harmless. To represent this side of the argument, I will use as an example the opinion of the German-Namibian lawyer Andreas Vaatz on the Bismarckstrasse (Bismarck Street) shared in the local newspaper “The Namibian”. According to him, the name Otto von Bismarck is not heavily politically charged, and he also believes that by renaming the streets, uncertainty and confusion is accentuated. Moreover, he defends that such a change would be awkward and harmful for people who have to work with these names. It is important to remember that Otto von Bismarck played an important role during colonialism and is indirectly linked to genocide.

In contrast, we have the opinion of the Swapo Party Youth Organization. This party was largely responsible for the independence of German-Southwest Africa, as it was the first to declare war on the colonialists in the 20th century. According to the youth organization, formed by young Namibians, the national identity must be reinforced. They also think that Bismarck doesn’t deserve a street to be named after him, as he should be seen as the father of colonialism and therefore responsible for the destruction and suffering that took place in present-day Namibia. It is necessary to consider that these are descendants of those who were killed by the colonizers and have suffered various types of prejudice for decades. The youth organization has also completely taken a stand against Andreas Vaatz and the tributes.

As stated before, there are different opinions on this topic and to end the debate I will present my opinion. After a lot of research, I discovered that there are many elements of German culture in Namibia through architecture, gastronomy, and entertainment media. Even today, one can clearly see the influence that Germany and its culture have on Namibia, and that is not a problem. According to numerous interviews and newspaper publications, such as the open letter the SPYL wrote towards the government, the issue that the descendants of the murdered natives, are tributes made towards the colonialists. It was also clear from the beginning of my research on the matter that those who are bothered by this and feel that such men are not to be honored are those who directly suffer daily oppression and prejudice.

I believe that, in such situations, the speech of those who suffer or have suffered directly from the matter is more relevant than what white privileged people have to say about it, and the right thing to do is listen to them. In this particular situation, the youth of the Swapo party should be heard. They are the current representatives of their ancestors, who suffered at the hands of men like Otto von Bismarck and Franz Lüderitz. The atrocities that were committed at the hands of these men have been wrongfully ‘honored’ by naming streets after them, and since the youth organization considers such tributes disrespectful, the right thing to do is to rename streets as has been done in the past, such as Current Independence Avenue in Windhoek, formerly known as Kaiserstraße (King’s Street).

Although in the current political climate this topic is already a pressing issue, it is still possible to make a connection with what has been discussed in the last couple years. After the innumerous acts of police brutality in the USA, the Black Lives Matter movement gained strength. Since then, more and more people have become interested in the black movement against racism and oppression. Thus, the boycott of tributes and memories of oppressors began. Some examples were the demolition of the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, and the beheading of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston. While the examples given refer to statues and not street names, the idea behind the protests and complaints is the same: that historical figures who were complicit in or committed atrocities against innocent people do not deserve to be honored.

To resume the article, it should be remembered that symbols of German culture in architecture, gastronomy, and entertainment media, such as newspapers, are already very present in Namibia. However, the fact that certain streets are named after historical German figures, who were part of an oppressive and violent colonial history, disturbs many Namibians.

Finally, it can be said that in today’s Namibia it is impossible not to have traces of German colonization and influences, and also that these aspects contribute to the country’s history and culture. Regardless, there is no need to honor the colonialists as history can be remembered in other ways and Namibia is much more than an old German colony. The country has an amazing and rich culture that should be appreciated. Furthermore, in such situations, one should always listen to those who suffer from prejudice and discrimination in order to make a fair decision.

For those who are interested in further research and insight on the topic, here are the sources that were  used during the research: 

https://www.namibiansun.com/news/spyl-wants-bismarck-street-renamed/
https://www.namibian.com.na/191688/archive-read/Lawyer-activist-cross-swords-over#:~:text=In%20his%20newspaper%20insert%2C%20Vaatz,to%20remember%2C%E2%80%9D%20he%20stated.
https://rdl.de/beitrag/namibia-ndert-stra-ennamen-aus-kolonialzeit

https://www.rbb24.de/panorama/beitrag/2020/07/berlin-kolonalismus-umbenennung-strassen-karte-tearthisdown.html
https://www.n-tv.de/panorama/Namibia-hadert-mit-deutschen-Strassennamen-article20468304.html
https://www.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/aufarbeitung-der-deutschen-fremdherrschaft-namibia-entfernt-strassennamen-von-kolonialisten/25228554.html

https://www.handelsblatt.com/english/politics/german-colonialism-where-the-streets-have-bad-names/23573166.html?ticket=ST-7874247-SbIAFIh0TFqOMANlqaWs-ap2

https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/africa/namibia-a-unique-snapshot-of-german-colonial-africa-10373137.html

https://www.dw.com/pt-br/as-sombras-do-colonialismo-alem%C3%A3o/a-53865540

Written by Olivia Lucchesi

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