Murder and Memory

In a lodge outside Namib-Naukluft National Park, I chatted with the Herero bartender about tribes, politics and mass murder in Namibia. She was surprised (and probably amused) by my interest, and gave me a free beer. Later that day, I saw her serving dinner to a table full of German men: solid, middle-aged, Middle European types on a group Urlaub. No one looked awkward or apologetic, and nobody mentioned genocide. It was an ordinary transaction between a waitress and diners, or rather between a local and tourists in a Third World country, and it was the ordinariness that made me recoil, because it represented two distinct cultures of forgetfulness: one of the community of killers, and another of the killed.

In the first years of the twentieth century, in what is now Namibia, German forces killed about a hundred thousand Herero and Nama people on the basis of ethnicity. Lothar von Trotha, the senior commander in the colony, made a decision to exterminate the tribes, which had risen in rebellion against the inescapable curtailment of their political autonomy and territory, the rampant use of slave labor by the colonial regime, and the growing pressure of white settlement. With the support of the government in Berlin, von Trotha’s troops shot and hanged the males from teenagers up, shot some of the women and younger children as well, chased the rest into the desert, and prevented them from accessing the water holes. Most of those who survived the bullets died of hunger and thirst. Von Trotha’s orders regarding the shooting of women and children were ambiguous: on the one hand, he worried that such shootings would injure ‘the good reputation of the German soldier’ (a notion that had not yet acquired its heavy coat of irony), and gallantly suggested that firing over their heads might suffice to frighten them to death. On the other, he was clear about his goal: he was engaged in a ‘race war,’ and ‘I shall spare neither women nor children.’ With men and boys he was even clearer: ‘All will be shot.’

Ethnic extermination is almost never complete, however, partly because of the slippery nature of ethnicity, and partly because bodies consigned to death by the racist state have uses even when alive. While the majority of the Herero and Nama died, others ended up in the concentration camp on Shark Island, where they were subjected to ‘scientific’ experiments that often killed them. Their heads were then shipped to German universities for study and display. Some survivors were relatively fortunate, managing to cross the desert to the relative safety of British-controlled territory.

The murder of the Herero and Nama has entered the history of modern genocide somewhat retrospectively: it has become common to see it as a precursor of the Holocaust, i.e., an earlier sign of the genocidal inclinations of the German state, and an experiment that produced lessons that would be put to a larger use in the 1940s. This reading is not incorrect, but it is nevertheless limited and misleading, because it gives the Namibian episode a pioneering status that disconnects it from the wider history of whiteness. The extermination of indigenous populations already had a long pedigree in settler colonialism, the indiscriminate murder of racially marked civilians was, likewise, a commonplace of colonial counterinsurgency, and concentration camps had already entered the lexicon of war and population-management in southern Africa. Rituals of mutilation and body-snatching had been part and parcel of the colonialism of ‘pacification’ and would remain so through the Vietnam War, and the scientific-exhibitionist allure of the bodies of the undead – established in southern Africa in the Saartjie Baartman exhibitions a century before the taking of Namibian heads – would continue through the Tuskeegee experiments with syphilis.

The genocide of the Herero and Nama was, in that sense, an ordinary affair. It might be argued that its only pioneering feature was the level of control exercised by a centrally directed metropolitan state. Even that was, in some respects, a sign of weakness: German colonists in Southwest Africa were too few, and their colonial project too underdeveloped discursively and institutionally, to achieve without direct state intervention what Afrikaner and Anglo-identified settlers had achieved semi-autonomously (but rarely without the backing of troops) in South Africa, Australia and America. Bypassing militias and mobs, imperial Germany resorted immediately and exclusively to the military to clear its colonial space. It was, one might say, more efficient. Also, in the sense that it established terror as both a ubiquitous administrative modality and a monopoly of the state, it was a closer ancestor of totalitarianism than other, more conventionally genocidal, settler colonial societies. Von Trotha’s exercise in mass murder was thus radical as well as ordinary: generically white, but not disconnected from the specific atrocities of the post-1941 Third Reich.

When it comes to the remembrance of mass murder, however, the Namibian tribes and the victims of the Holocaust occupy very different historical niches. As a brown man, I winced at the sight of the Herero woman bringing the German tourists their dinner, visited involuntarily by the shadow of the radical within the ordinary. But I may not have recoiled similarly from the sight of Germans being served by a Jewish woman in a New York restaurant, even if the ethnic identities were reliably evident to all parties. Since 1945, Germans, Jews and ‘the West’ have had a conversation about the Holocaust in particular, about anti-Semitism generally, and even more generally about civilized codes of racism and murder. This conversation has become a foundation of a revised West. The new West is signified not only by a penitent and anti-militarist German nationhood, and an elaborate culture of European introspection, acknowledgment and apology epitomized in a vast body of literature, art, scholarship, memorial infrastructure, common sense, and language itself, but also policies of reparation and compensation. Most importantly, it is marked by a consensus about the reality of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization,’ which has become the publicly admissible code for ‘whiteness.’ In other words, the hypothetical encounter between the waitress and the tourist in New York is structured around a profound historical reckoning, and a major revision of the boundaries of identity on the part of the genocidal community: an erstwhile Other is now normatively part of the Self. This accommodation is the most fundamental reparation for the Holocaust. The waitress and the tourist are both aware of it, as is an eavesdropping ‘third party,’ who knows better than to be disturbed by an encounter of insiders.

In the case of the Herero and Nama, none of that reckoning and revision has occurred. The post-Holocaust German state belatedly acknowledged the genocide, issued an apology and returned the severed heads, but it was a diplomatic gesture, unattached either to reparations or to a wider culture of acknowledgment and self-transformation. While it is possible that individual Germans ‘know about’ von Trotha’s exploits, that knowledge is not backed up by a repertoire of films, novels and essays that constitutes national culture, let alone civilization. There is no Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll of the Herero genocide. Namibia was done somewhere else, by people who can be disavowed as belonging to a different time and hence a different nation, and to people who are ultimately of limited relevance to being German or European. Even Hannah Arendt, the most brilliant philosopher of ‘western civilization’ after the Holocaust, and who famously made the connection between colonialism in Africa and totalitarianism in Europe, took no notice: there is hardly a word about Namibia in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s silence was entirely consistent with the limits of her critique of racism and fascism: post-war Europe – which remained the locus of a salvaged liberalism – could include within its civilizational ambit some, but not all, of its victims. Thus, even in the most generous circumstances, there could be sympathy but not identification. It might be argued, further, that Arendt’s eagerness to situate the roots of totalitarianism in South Africa and Rhodesia rather than Namibia was compatible with the post-war German embrace of a dispersed European collective, making it easier for Germans to relegate certain episodes from the national past to a slippery, transnational legacy. The weakening of nationalism, ironically, also weakened the ethical imperative of ownership.

There was, consequently, no imperative to remember Namibia. Nor was there a discursive product like ‘Never again,’ which is ambiguous to begin with: it can mean either ‘never again to us,’ or ‘never again to anybody,’ and the two meanings undergird very different types of memory-politics. Europe – which, like whiteness in general, retains its nationally-identified kernels but also loses them forgetfully in the vagueness of a fragmented past – has, after all, been remarkably efficient at forgetting colonialism, not in the sense that it does not acknowledge it, but in that it can be dealt with dishonestly and desultorily, or, all too often, with nostalgia and narcissism. The British East India Company’s famine of 1770 may have killed ten million people, and the 1943 redux another four million, but these catastrophes have left no imprint upon either ‘western civilization’ or ‘Britishness.’ Located entirely outside Europe, colonial crimes require no adjustments of identity or boundary. Germans in Namibia can thus segue effortlessly from seeing the Herero as colonial vermin to seeing them as servers in exotic tourist space – a maneuver that is not possible with Jews or Russians (although it may be possible with the Roma and Sinti).

The connections between memory and responsibility are quite different when it comes to Namibians themselves. The Herero waitress knew about the mass killings, but only in very general terms. She gave no indication that the knowledge informed her identity – especially her sense of her political responsibility – in the way that awareness of the Holocaust is a part of Jewishness. In the museums of Windhoek, we find some memorialization of the events of 1904-1907, but once again, it is quite different from the European – or the aboriginal – template of remembering mass murder, in which genocide itself is a privileged category, producing ethnicity and undergirding the justification for either statehood or a particular claim upon the state. It is tempting to read that difference as a form of underdevelopment: as the failure of Namibians (and not just waitresses) to fully grasp the power of the discourse of genocide and its associated modes of self-representation. That grasp, however, is enabled by particular political configurations: the state acting in the name of the remorseful but secure killer, the victim claiming reparation, or the outsider-turned-insider.

All of those configurations are visible in the (highly contested) importance that memorializing genocide has taken on in settler-colonial societies since the 1960s, where indigenous people have found in the memory not only the symbols of their present-day political marginality, but the substance of community. (American Indians and Australian Aborigines are the most obvious examples.) It must be kept in mind, however, that ‘native,’ ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’ are not automatically interchangeable terms. The latter two acquire meaning primarily in the context of settler colonialism accompanied by the near-eradication of a particular ‘native’ category, the residue of which becomes ‘aboriginal,’ defined against the numerical, political and cultural dominance of the settler-ethnicity. In Namibia, neither the Herero nor the Nama – whose populations have rebounded – are aborigines. The Nama in particular, with their origins in the Dutch, San and Malay racial stew of the Cape region, are a relatively new ethnicity. They are, on the one hand, members of a large indigenous majority that is in control of the state. On the other hand, they are minorities within the indigenous population. They are politically weaker than a relatively large ‘tribe’ like the Ovambo (who dominated the organized struggle against South African rule and have a greater presence in the political establishment), but they are not subject to the discourse of imminent eradication that marks the aboriginal condition, relative to either blacks or whites. The roughly seven percent of the population that is white/settler includes German-speakers, but Afrikaans-speakers predominate, and its visible roots are in the long occupation of the country by the white-supremacist South African regime that displaced the Germans in 1915. They do not, as such, represent the genocidal element. They are better educated and wealthier than most Namibians, but the political reins and considerable wealth lie in the hands of a new, post-occupation black elite. The settlers, in other words, are not powerful enough to produce aboriginality among the indigenous. They were not powerful enough in 1904 either; it took the military resources of the German state to produce, through genocide, a temporary aboriginality in the Herero and Nama.

The sites in Windhoek that memorialize the violence of Namibia’s colonial past are the Independence Memorial Museum (known to local guides as ‘the coffee maker,’ due to its odd architecture), and Heroes’ Acre, the sprawling complex to the south of the city. At each place, and the former in particular, the genocide of 1904-07 is absorbed into standard narratives and iconographies of wars of national liberation, i.e., rendered not as victimhood but as heroism. At the Independence Memorial Museum, images of German soldiers and the victims of von Trotha’s ‘extermination order’ are situated amidst Soviet rocket launchers and South African armored vehicles from the liberation war of the 1980s, and old photographs of hanged Herero are placed near new friezes that depict a tormented but defiant Namibian nation. Sam Nujoma, the SWAPO leader who became the first president of independent Namibia (and whose statue stands Moses-like on the steps of the museum), is highlighted as the direct legatee of Herero chief Hosea Kutako (after whom Windhoek’s airport is named), and also as a friend and partner of Castro and Mandela. At Heroes’ Acre, the trajectory is even less subtle: at the top of a hill studded with the names of dead nationalists and allies, we find a frieze in which colonial mass murder is only the starting point in an increasingly mechanized and triumphant struggle. There is, throughout, an absence of the sentimentality that marks the iconography of individual suffering, such as Steven Spielberg's notorious girl-in-the-red-coat. There is no appeal to the psychologized personhood that is a hallmark of the modern West, and that, in its genocide-remembering manifestation, undergirds a subjectivity (and indeed, ethnicity) defined by trauma and entitled to various kinds of ‘post-traumatic’ political conduct. There is, instead, a tendency to lapse into the crude rhetoric of national glory that marks the self-representation of a ‘Third World country’: the over-investment of identity in the state to compensate for the weakness of civil society, and a parallel investment in the most powerful instruments of violence available in the present to compensate for the weaknesses and humiliations perceived in the past. (It is fitting, although ironic, that a giant Iron Cross sits at the base of Heroes' Acre.) Emphasizing genocide without the surrounding images of fighters and clenched fists would be to underline that weakness: the sense of shame that many Jews felt about ‘being led to the slaughter,’ which tightened their embrace of a state.

The memorialization of genocide in Namibia is thus somewhat crowded, i.e., without a privileged space of its own. It has lacked a constituency that might create that space, because the Herero and Nama have been neither the dominant groups within Namibian nationalism, nor existentially marginal within that nation. In a relatively poor society, the development of space in which the past is remembered is necessarily dependent upon state patronage. For the Namibian state that has inherited a history of genocide, memory-making has been eclipsed by other agendas, including especially the need to ‘nation-build’ across tribal identities, within which focusing on the victimhood of particular tribes would not only threaten the narrative of national unity, but also challenge the unacknowledged hierarchies within that nationhood. This is not necessarily a failure, any more than absence of Indian memorials to the dead of 1770 should be a matter of regret. The urge to remember 'what they did to us' is a second-rate sentiment (one that is literally sentimental) compared to the imperative of recalling what 'we' have done or are capable of doing to 'others.' Indeed, there is something salutary about the ‘low-key’ way in which Namibian nationalism has structured the memory of genocide, using it as a historical bridge to other victims and adversaries of colonialism, rather than a fetish of exceptional victimhood that calls for exceptional measures in the pursuit of reparation or deterrence (which is essentially the marriage of ethno-nationalist ‘Never again’ discourse with state power). As a source of justice, memorializing genocide is more necessary for the murderers than for the murdered. The rest is therapy.

Friezes at Heroes' Acre, The Iron Cross at Heroes' Acre, the Coffee Machine, Sam Nujoma on the steps of the National Independence Museum.

January 3, 2018