In this documentary I attempt to explain what significance a crime which occurred one hundred years ago can acquire for our coexistence in the modern world. How have the Herero kept alive and passed on their memories of the catastrophe of their defeat? And how have the Germans handled their history, initially celebrated as a victory and then damned as a crime?
Now hundred years ago – on the 12th January 1904 the first shot rang out in Okahandja, the most important military station on the Swakopmund to Windhoek railway line in German Southwest Africa. On this day the uprising of the Herero against their German colonial rulers began.
Kaiser Wilhelm II sent his regiments to the African colony in 1904 to quell the revolt by the Herero. A few months before, they had begun to defend themselves against the confiscation of their land by the colonial rulers. As a result of this, General von Trotha issued the order, "to shoot every Herero found on sovereign German territory". During the three years in which this colonial war was prosecuted, an estimated 65,000 Herero lost their lives – more than two thirds of the people in total.
Since the beginning of 2003, this oppressive episode of German history has also acquired a very topical aspect from a legal point of view: In the USA, the Herero people have instituted proceedings against two German companies for reparations. In their lawsuit, the Herero are demanding $4 million in damages for the "enslavement, genocide and destruction of the social and cultural organisations of the Herero people".
In Namibia, people remember the events from 1904 to 1907 in a completely different manner to those in Germany. Something which still has great significance in Africa is of almost no interest to anyone in Germany.
Why have the Germans forgotten and suppressed their past in Africa so thoroughly, and why do the Herero celebrate these events which are described as genocide nowadays and during which they take over and imitate the uniforms and badges of rank of their onetime adversaries?
THE LAW SUIT
Here the plaintiffs and their representative on the one side – the Herero – and the defendants on the other side – the German companies and the German government – will be given an opportunity to speak their minds. Both sides will explain to us the background to the ongoing lawsuit, their legal positions, their intentions and how they will achieve their target, i.e. having the lawsuit decided in their favour.
Our questions to both the plaintiffs and the defendants will however go beyond this. We would like to learn in which manner those involved have to do with the historic events being heard at the American court. Whether this is personally as a direct descendant of the victims or perpetrators, or indirectly as the representative of the German companies being sued or as a member of the Herero people today.
"Thus did you carve up among yourselves the bloody remains of a dead colossus. From Tunis to Benin and from the Sahara to the Congo we were French from then on. Further to the south and east we were English. In Tripolitania we were supposed to be Italians, in the Congo Belgians, at the Tropic of Capricorn Portuguese and German in a few corners and in the middle. Which people should survive that?”
(Ousseynou Kane, Philosophy Faculty of the University of Dakar/Senegal in a letter to the French ambassador to his