Its Past on
Its Sleeve, Tribe Seeks Bonn's Apology
DONALD G. McNEIL Jr., New York Times, Late Edition - Final ED, COL 01, P 3, Sunday May 31 1998
OKAHANDJA, Namibia - Asked where he got his traditional Herero dress
hat, Alexander Tjikuzo, 63, answered, "My grandfather left it to me."
What is unusual about the old khaki hat with the round gold badge is that it is an imitation of those worn by the German soldiers who from 1904 to 1907 nearly wiped out the Herero tribe, which dominated what is now central Namibia. Locally, Mr. Tjikuzo is said to have one of the snappiest German uniforms that the Hereros wear on Red Flag Day and Heroes Day, when they visit the graves of their chiefs here.
It was in this sleepy farm town in 1904 that the Herero finally exploded. For 20 years, German settlers moving inland had been stealing land and cattle, raping women, lynching men with impunity and calling them "baboons" to their faces. When the Herero attacked, they killed all the men, but on the orders of their leader, Samuel Maherero, spared women, children, missionaries and the few English and Afrikaner farmers.
When word reached Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, the counterattack was brutal and quickly expanded into slaughter, which some later saw as an ominous portent of the Holocaust. In a bizarre twist, many racist theories adopted by Hitler were being formed at roughly the same time here by a visiting geneticist. In this age in which national apologies are demanded, in which President Clinton expressed regret for slavery on a trip to Africa and German leaders have gone down on their knees to Jews and Poles for World War II, the Herero are asking for their turn. Germany seems to be wavering on the edge of apologizing and even paying reparations, but the politics of modern Namibia -- the former German colony of South-West Africa -- complicate matters.
The historical facts are not disputed. Lieut. Gen. Lothar von Trotha, notorious for his butchery in German East Africa, was dispatched with 10,000 volunteers and a battle plan. Von Trotha pushed the Herero guerrillas and their families north to Waterberg and then attacked from three sides, leaving one exit: the Omaheke Desert. When the Herero fled into it, he poisoned the water holes, erected
guard posts along a 150-mile line and bayoneted everyone who crawled out. He then issued the Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order: "Within the German borders, every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or children. I shall drive them back to their people -- otherwise I shall order shots to be fired at them." The remaining Herero were rounded up and sent to labor camps, where they starved or died of overwork, typhus and smallpox. By 1907 the order had been denounced and von Trotha had been recalled -- but the rebellion had been crushed. Before the war there were 80,000 Herero. In the 1911 census, 15,000 were found. Few people outside southern Africa or Germany have heard of the tribe
unless they have read Thomas Pynchon's novel "Gravity's Rainbow" or seen travel books depicting their unusual clothes. In Mr. Pynchon's 1973 novel, a psychedelic take on World War II during the rain of German rockets on London, a fictional Herero battalion called the Schwarzkommando runs rocket batteries in the occupied Netherlands. Historians say they are a figment of Mr. Pynchon's imagination. The tiny numbers of black Germans, descendants of French African soldiers occupying the Rhineland after World War I, were sterilized by the Third Reich, not drafted.
The unusual clothes are another issue. Alone in Africa, Herero women habitually wear hoop skirts. They adapted their high-waisted dresses and hats that jut out like cattle horns from the wives of Victorian-era missionaries. On holidays they wear versions of the dress in red and black, the colors of Herero nationalism -- and of the 19th-century German Empire. Their men wear the German volunteers' uniform.
German diplomats are always invited to Herero celebrations. "We are treated like V.I.P.'s and often asked to give the keynote speech," said one diplomat, who confessed that he is baffled by the practice. The peculiar attraction between the Herero and Germans here resembles the one in the Natal region of South Africa between the Zulus and British, two other peoples who fought a brutal colonial war. "It's the respect of a soldier for a soldier," explained Kuaima Riruako, paramount chief of the Herero. "We never gave up our army, even during the German period." The chief is a leader in the quest for reparations. But the links are much closer. Because many Herero women were forced into sexual slavery to survive after the rebellion, many Herero today have German ancestors, and German is widely spoken here. Those relationships later helped underwrite Nazi pseudoscience used to justify the Holocaust. Eugen Fischer, a University of Freiburg geneticist, studied mixed-race children in the colony and concluded that each was
physically and mentally inferior to his or her German parent. Hitler read his book, "The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene," while in prison in 1923 and used its notions of subhuman races in "Mein Kampf." Under Hitler, Fischer was named rector of the University of Berlin and in 1934 taught the first course for SS doctors. "This was the peak of scientific racism," said Frank Chalk, co-director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. Now the Herero are a minor tribe, greatly outnumbered by the northern Ovambo people, who were beyond German reach in colonial days but led the fight against white South African rule, which ended victoriously in 1990.
The governing party, the South-West Africa People's Organization, is dominated by Ovambo and many Herero belong to the opposition, so the Government does not back their quest. Per capita, Namibia gets more German aid than any other country -- $350 million since 1990 -- but almost every pfennig is spent in Ovambo areas. Another Herero leader, Mburumba Kerina, says his people do not want cash but "a mini-Marshall Plan" to get businesses started, and scholarships to German universities. "Helmut Kohl came here in 1995," Mr. Kerina said, "but he refused to see us." Mr. Kerina led protests. In March, President Roman Herzog of Germany visited and the issue was raised anew, with different results. Calling the massacre "a dark chapter in our bilateral relations," Mr. Herzog declined to apologize, but came close in saying that the colonial authorities had "acted incorrectly" and that the killings were "a burden on the conscience of every German." He said international laws requiring reparations were not in place in 1907, but he promised to take the Herero petition to Bonn.
One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not be surprised if some aid were forthcoming, although it would never formally be called "reparations" and paying one tribe might offend others. The Nama, for example, rebelled after the Herero did and lost 50 percent of their population. But they never faced a written extermination order. A further complication is the nervousness of the country's small but economically powerful white German-speaking population. "It wasn't our generation that did it," said Eberhard Hofmann, editor of Allgemeine Zeitung, a local paper. "It's like the biblical quote -- the sins of the fathers being paid for by the children. If you asked all the Germans in Namibia today, I'd say the majority would not want reparations." Since any apology and money would come from modern Germany itself, the issue would seem to make no difference to Mr. Hofmann's subscribers. But their real fear is land rights. Half of Namibia's 1.7 million people are impoverished and living in crowded tribal areas, while German-speaking ranchers own millions of acres seized 90 years ago. "We want reparations to buy land and give it to people who need it," said Chief Riruako. "We don't want to seize it the way they're doing in Zimbabwe. I don't want to destroy." Efforts to win apologies gain strength when abuses on one side of the world are mirrored on another. Mr. Kerina, who like many Herero has a German grandparent, is delighted that Japan apologized for having kept Korean women as army sex slaves during World War II. "I thought, hey, that's my grandmother -- a comfort woman," he said. "And I thought, if the Japanese could pay for that, the Germans could."
Copyright (c) 1998 The New York Times. All rights reserved. By Walter Peters
Swakopmund Windhoek Herero holocaust? Horse graves
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