Is Germany’s verbal acknowledgment moral responsibility enough?

22 October 2021 | Opinion

Joyce Vivien Muzengua

Any government has a moral and legal responsibility for historical crimes and injustices committed by its predecessors as it has always been a fundamental and familiar moral practice across the globe.

The German government, led by Chancellor Conrad Adenauer, paid reparations in 1952 to the State of Israel and individual surviving Jews for the genocide (known as the Holocaust) committed by the German Third Reich under the notorious Adolf Hitler between 1939 and 1941.

Similarly, in 1988, the Canadian government paid $230 million to Japanese Canadians as an act of correcting the wrongs perpetrated by its predecessor between 1941 and 1943.

In 1990, the George H Bush-led government paid $1.2 billion to the American Japanese for war crimes committed by the Franklin D Roosevelt regime of 1932-1936 and 1942-1944.

The above examples and many others demonstrate how governments globally have legally and morally accepted responsibility for gross human violations committed by their predecessors to correct injustices and improve the human condition.

It does not matter how much time elapsed since the crimes were committed, these governments and many others were guided by their inner sense of compassion for the human race to making amends where political, economic and social injustices have failed.

Lack of contrition

Let us narrow down the joint declaration between the Germany and Namibia, in context of the former colonial power’s acceptance of a moral - but not legal -responsibility towards the descendants of the victims of genocide in Namibia.

The German government’s stance that the extermination of the Nama and Ovaherero peoples “is genocide in today’s perspective” shows their lack of contrition and an evasive ploy to avoid moral and legal responsibility towards the crimes committed by their predecessors.

In fact, the argument legitimises and exonerates the heinous crimes committed, and sustains the historical morality of the Third Reich.

Germany has a dark past of pseudo discrimination that resulted in heinous crimes against humanity. In the early 20th century, crimes of genocide were morally acceptable to the German government. These crimes included atrocious acts such as rape, slavery, starvation and solitary confinement in concentration camps; murder en masse, land confiscation and forced displacement by order of land ordinances of a self-imposed government. To Germany, brutality at the dawn of the 20th century was a mundane activity.

Hence the question, is it rational to solely rely on the verbal recognition of the moral responsibility by the German government, given its moral history?

Circumventing semantics

It is apparent that the circumventing semantics in the joint declaration were dictated by the Germans in the absence of a legal obligation. This should flag a cautious approach to the descendants of the victim communities and the Namibian government in any dealings with the German government.

The callousness of the events that transpired in 1904 to 1908 should trigger genuine contrition and sympathy from the perpetrators because the desired outcome should be an unpretentious reconciliation.

Sustainable justice requires three components: Judicial accountability, truth and reparations. The crime of genocide is succinctly enshrined in international law and any form of reparations should be commenced on a legal foundation for amicable redress.

The consequences of genocide crimes such as reparations in favour of individual victims is an important aspect of affirming the legitimacy and credibility of the international legal order and human rights standards.

Reparations serve to acknowledge the legal obligation of a state, or individual(s) or group to repair the consequences of violations - either because it directly committed them or it failed to prevent them.


I have keenly observed the German-dominated negotiations process between the two government and the philology in the joint declaration is a just a mere reiteration of the German government’s stance on the 1904-908 Nama/Herero genocide.

The neocolonial relations underpinned by bilateral talks between the governments puts Germany in a more advantageous position than Namibia. It picturises nothing but a third world country begging for more aid, contrary to the demands of true justice and reparations by the descendants of the genocide victims.

The absence of a legal obligation provides leeway to Germany as a perpetrator, given its position in the international sphere. Therefore, domestically, genocide memorial laws and restitution laws should be promulgated as an act of redress. International law should apply to Germany and, subsequently, reparations instead of projects should be paid.

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