“We would like to develop a
common culture of remembrance”
As Special Envoy for German-Namibian Relations, Ruprecht Polenz is conducting the negotiations to reach a common understanding of German colonial history in Namibia.
Mr Polenz, you have been Special Envoy for German-Namibian Relations since November 2015. You are conducting the negotiations to reach a common assessment of German colonial history in Namibia. What exactly is your task?
In cooperation with the Namibian side we would like to find a common language for dealing with a very dark chapter of the German colonial period: the quashing of the uprising of the Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. Reference should be explicitly made to the injustice that was done at that time – and it should be done in a way that Namibia can accept. We would like to find a formula that expresses the regret of the German side. Ultimately, it is also important to us that Namibia is able to accept an apology from the German side. Then, on that basis, we would like to develop and maintain a common culture of remembrance.
You have actually already retired. What did you find so appealing about this job that you decided to return to politics?
I was already occupied by conflicts all over the world during my active time as a foreign policy maker. Although the brutal events in Namibia are now 100 years in the past, they are still an important part of German history. Coming to terms with this past would be an important matter for Germany and for me personally. In addition, this assignment interests me because – unlike in my previous work as a parliamentarian or Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs – I am involved operationally and can experience the consequences of our talks directly.
The Namibian side had already waited a long time for a comprehensive examination of German colonial history in Namibia. Then, in July 2015, the Federal Foreign Office recognised the murder of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people from 1904 onwards in the then colony as a war crime and genocide. What exactly are the next steps now?
In December 2015, I visited Namibia for the first time in my new role. On my visits I am accompanied by the Federal Foreign Office’s Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel, Ambassador Georg Schmidt, and Martin Schmidt of the Federal Foreign Office’s International Law Division. We didn’t only speak with representatives of the government in Windhoek, but also travelled to the settlements of the Herero people. It was important to us to visit the locations of the uprising and the brutal fighting at that time and to speak with members of the victims’ families. Although we conducted the negotiations with the Namibian government, we also wanted to gain an impression of the feelings and experiences of the Herero and Nama communities. Our very first visit was a great success: my counterpart on the Namibian side, the former diplomat and Herero, Zed Ngavirue, accompanied us during the entire journey. This shows the great significance of the subject for both sides.
How are you making sure that the interests of the Herero and Nama peoples are taken into account in the negotiations?
The Namibian government negotiates for Namibia – and therefore naturally also on behalf of the Herero and Nama peoples. However, they have also been involved from the very beginning. They express their expectations, demands and wishes through the Technical Committee. These expectations are then subsequently expressed, assessed and rated in the Political Committee, which is headed by Namibia’s Vice President Nickey Iyambo. This guarantees that the interests of the Herero and Nama peoples are represented in the negotiations.
What hopes do Germany and Namibia have of the negotiations?
Two subjects are especially important to us: healing the wounds and a common culture of remembrance. Neither will be complete with the conclusion of the negotiations. We see them much more as a permanent responsibility. At the moment we are still seeking an appropriate form. Conceivable, for example, would be the establishment of a foundation in which the affected communities could be directly represented. Additionally, we are considering educational projects, scholarships or a youth exchange programme. The Namibian side will also present proposals that we can discuss together.
What effects are your talks having on bilateral relations?
If we succeed in healing the wounds and cultivating a common culture of remembrance, then the German view of the colonial period will also change. My impression is that the colonial era tends to be glossed over in German schools – often based on the argument that Germany gave up its colonies early on and did not remain on the scene as a colonial ruler for very long. This impression is deceptive. The traces of German colonies have remained very strong in some countries until today. During the colonial period many crimes were committed that must be remembered. We would like to give more space in German schoolbooks to this chapter of German history.
How strong is this subject’s presence in Namibia?
The significance of our negotiations is far greater for Namibia, where there is a culture of remembrance that commemorates the victims. The crimes are real. Many people in Namibia miss a process of reconciliation. To a certain extent, that still stands between our two peoples. We would now like to dismantle this barrier piece by piece. Should we succeed in that, then I can see it setting a good example for shaping relations between Africa and Europe in the 21st century – namely, based less on paternalism and more on collaboration. ▪
was a CDU Member of the Bundestag for 19 years and long-time Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs