The SPD Should Return to Its Anticolonial Roots

Germany’s Social Democrats now have a chance to make amends for the German empire’s genocidal policies in Africa. In doing so, they’d be returning to the party’s anti-imperialist roots.

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier gives an interview to the media during the open-house day at the Villa Hammerschmidt on June 24, 2018 in Bonn, Germany. Andreas Rentz / Getty

In January 2017, representatives of the Herero and Nama nations filed a lawsuit before a district court in the state of New York in order to force the German government to include delegates from both groups in negotiations between the Namibian and German governments.

These negotiations, which have been ongoing since 2015 and were supposed to come to an end before the last German federal elections in September 2017, could possibly lead to Germany finally officially acknowledging the genocide committed against the Herero and Nama nations by German troops between 1904 and 1908. A successful conclusion of the consultations could also result in a formal German apology for this genocide.

However, since the negotiations are officially only occurring between the German and the Namibian governments, the Herero and Nama are fearing that without their direct involvement potential future payments might not reach the descendants of those most affected by the German atrocities. The victims’ descendants want to use potential reparation payments in order to buy back the land that German colonial authorities took from them and then gave to white settlers over a century ago.

However, in addition to refusing to talk directly to the Nama and Herero, the German government excluded the issue of compensation at the outset of the talks in 2015. Germany’s official stance is that the democratically legitimated Namibian government represents the interests of both groups. As a result, negotiations with the Namibian government are supposed to automatically take care of the Herero’s and Nama’s interests. From the official German perspective one possible solution of this increasingly embarrassing situation is the establishment of special funds for those Namibian communities that were — and still are — most directly affected by the war and genocide.

For years now Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has been using the term genocide when referencing the mass deaths of Herero and Nama, and numerous politicians of both the Green and Left parties have been calling on the German government to quickly conclude the negotiations with Namibia and to officially acknowledge this crime that was committed by both civil and military German authorities at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the fact still remains that the German government so far has not done anything: No compensation and no official recognition of the crime.

Yes, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 Germany has made relatively high developmental aid payments to the country — and German officials have at times maintained that these payments amount to, in effect, unofficial reparations. Yet according to the Herero and Nama, these payments have never reached them.

What happened in German Southwest Africa during the Herero War and what did the SPD, Steinmeier’s party, do in response at the time? In January 1904, the ruthless behavior of German settlers and the exploitative practices of white merchants drove the Herero to take up arms against the German colonizers. After death threats by a German lieutenant against Chief Samuel Maharero, the Herero, who were eventually joined by the Nama, began to wage war against the German colonial regime and its representatives. The conflict lasted until 1907.

Initially, the Herero surprised the small German protection force and surrounded settlements in the colony’s central-west region. Herero warriors then ransacked farms and police stations, cut the telegraph and railway links to Southwest Africa’s capital Windhoek, and killed 123 German soldiers and settlers. The Herero explicitly spared women and children.

The colony’s governor, Theodor Gotthilf von Leutwein, who was not able to control the rebellion with the small, eight-hundred-men-strong militia contingent at his disposal, asked that Berlin send military support. This support eventually totaled fourteen hundred troops and was initially under the command of Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who had also commanded German troops in China during the Boxer Rebellion just four years earlier.

Leutwein and Trotha soon began to disagree over how to deal with the uprising. The goal of the colony’s civilian governor was a negotiated surrender that envisioned targeting those Herero factions most determined to fight against German rule. In contrast, Trotha attempted to encircle and annihilate all Herero fighters at the Waterberg in central Southwest Africa. Yet his tactics failed.

Instead, the Herero were able to defeat the weakest German position at the Hamakari watering hole, which then allowed them to escape into the Omaheke Desert. Trotha then decided to pursue the Herero in order to force them to either fight or retreat back into the waterless desert. These tactics eventually hardened into a policy of genocide aimed at driving not only the rebel factions of the Herero, but also the people as a whole out of German Southwest Africa, either dead or alive. The Herero were left with only one option, namely to escape to British Bechuanaland through the Omaheke, which few of them managed to do.

On October 2, 1904, Trotha made his extermination strategy official by issuing an order that threatened the Herero with annihilation. This order was posted throughout the colony and read to the German troops: “Within the German border, every Herero, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer give shelter to women and children but will drive them back to their people or have them shot.”

On December 8, Emperor Wilhelm II (strongly influenced by the German head of government, Chancellor Bülow) compelled Trotha to rescind this order, but the end result of the war was genocide nevertheless: in 1911, only fifteen thousand Herero were still alive from prewar estimates of as high as eighty thousand. The Nama did not fare well either: Their numbers were reduced by around 50 percent, from an estimated twenty thousand to around ten thousand.

Unlike the National Socialist government during the Holocaust, between 1904 and 1907 the German imperial government did not attempt to keep the German troops’ eventual embrace of a strategy of genocide secret. Instead, the actions of Germany’s so-called “protection force” and its commander Lothar von Trotha were widely discussed in national newspapers and the German parliament as well as internationally.

At least from a present-day perspective it is therefore astonishing that during a time of growing international tensions even observers from Germany’s future World War I enemies were critical of — but not outraged by — the murderous conduct of the German military. Clearly, the racist attitudes that underwrote Trotha’s eventual willingness to engage in genocide were so widely shared among his contemporaries, not only in Germany but in the Western world at large, that the atrocities committed by the German military garnered little attention.

The Socialist Exception

There was one exception, however: Germany’s Social Democrats.

The SPD, despite embracing certain integrative and moderate tendencies during the years leading up to World War I, was the only political force in imperial Germany that not only rejected Germany’s partially autocratic political system, but also the country’s elites’ extreme nationalism, its militarism, and its participation in Western imperialism and colonialism.

When it came to the war in German South West Africa and Trotha’s murderous tactics, SPD representatives did not mince words and repeatedly pointed out that the military’s actions had resulted in mass murder. Moreover, the party’s parliamentary deputies did not let the issue go. Even eight years after Trotha’s decision to force the Herero to perish in the Omaheke, a Social Democratic representative pointed out “that because of Trotha’s extermination strategy the Herero have been reduced from eighty thousand to twenty thousand . . . Today, there is no doubt that nothing could be more condemnable than Trotha’s tactics.”

There has been a tendency in the current scholarly literature to gloss over or negate the SPD’s resistance against German colonialism. As a result, a number of recent accounts describe Germany’s Social Democrats as essentially having concurred with the country’s efforts at colonization, and in South West Africa’s case, also extermination.

Yet just as the Social Democrat Steinmeier is one of Germany’s few current top politicians calling the war in Namibia for what it was — genocide — an older generation of Social Democrats did exactly the same, under much more dangerous circumstances. Before World War I, Social Democrats were both political and social outcasts in Germany, and they risked severe repercussions when they criticized the German government or representatives of the military.

Yet between 1904 and 1907, many of the party’s highest leaders harshly and unwaveringly criticized the actions of the German military and civilian authorities in South West Africa. Moreover, this criticism was not limited to specifics. Instead, Social Democrats made sure always to link their censure of particular decisions to their party’s general rejection of imperialism and colonialism.

Even before Trotha issued his extermination order in October 1904, the SPD’s chairman August Bebel, who was widely recognized as one of the best orators of his time, publicly chastised the German military for its murderous conduct. Quoting a letter from a dismayed German soldier currently on a tour of duty in the German colony, Bebel decried that German soldiers were “prohibited from taking prisoners” and that they had been ordered “to shoot everything alive and dark-skinned.” Bebel also drew parallels to the Boxer Rebellion in China four years earlier, where, according to Bebel, there “were never any prisoners, only dead Chinese.”

A year later, Social Democrat Georg Ledebour quoted from Trotha’s extermination order during one of his many acerbically anti-colonialist speeches, stating that the military practices in South West Africa violated “our understanding of humaneness so much … that General v. Trotha has to be recalled immediately.” Like Bebel, Ledebour, who was one of the SPD’s designated parliamentary speakers on colonial matters, did not approach the military’s conduct in Namibia as an isolated matter. Instead, in detailed fashion he repeatedly pointed out that Trotha’s murderous actions in Germany’s only settler colony were inseparably linked to not only Germany’s but Europe’s and North America’s imperialism and colonialism.

Anticipating Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Ledebour argued that compared to their metropolitan counterparts the representatives of German authority, military or otherwise, who were sent to the colonial context did not arrive there already “deficient in character or good will.” Instead, the reasons for the brutality regularly displayed by these (mostly) men once immersed in the colonial context were “connected to the capitalist colonial system itself.” According to Ledebour, in the colonies German administrators and military personnel were given “almost unrestricted power over people who they [Germans] regard as inferior.”

It was this unfettered power in connection with the colonial officials’ racism that caused atrocities not just in the German overseas possessions, but in the colonies of other Western countries as well. Ledebour thus concluded that “if you maintain this colonial system, you also always continue such atrocities. And because of this reason alone … we Social Democrats reject colonialism.”

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideologies like Nazism can partially be traced back to European colonialism and to the encounters of white colonial officials and settlers with the vast African landscape and the continent’s native population. The colonialists’ new and in every way borderless way of life led them to embrace sweeping imperialist visions of new state forms organized around racial hierarchies and continuous spatial expansion. During the early twentieth century, these ideas then migrated back to metropolitan debates and discourses, shaping nascent fascist ideologies.

Before Arendt, Ledebour warned that “colonialism will drive this process of brutalization [Bestialisierung] into European society.” However, unlike Arendt, who insinuated that the change in white colonialists’ ethical and sociopolitical attitudes was at least partially due to their encounter with the continent’s “barbaric” natives, Ledebour made very clear that Africa and Africans had nothing to do with the colonialists’ ideological transformation. Instead, it was “the horrible curse of the system of [capitalist] colonial exploitation” that drove whites in the German and European colonies to “completely abandon even the little bit of civilization, cultural sensitivity, and humanity that they had so far preserved in our capitalist era.”

If Ledebour could make this critique without the benefit of historical hindsight over a century ago, present-day Germans, particularly those Social Democrats involved in the current German government, should make his words part of the premise of their actions with respect to the negotiations with Namibia.

Principled Anticolonialism

Thus, unlike Arendt’s ex-post interpretations, contemporaneous Social Democratic criticism of colonial atrocities such as the genocide in Namibia (and its potential consequences for the German and European sociopolitical context), managed to do without any resort to racist attitudes. That early twentieth-century Social Democrats rejected German and European colonialism wholesale does not, of course, mean that they embraced present-day notions of cultural relativism. If “anticolonialism” is defined in such presentist terms, statements made even by the most ardent anticolonialists in the pre-1914 SPD do not qualify, since Bebel, Ledebour, and even Rosa Luxemburg firmly believed that cultural, economic, and national differences were expressions of higher and lower stages of a single process of historical development.

Yet it was their embrace of socialist thought that made most pre-1914 SPD representatives ardent critics of any kind of colonial policies undertaken by the German Empire and other European states. Yes, even radical socialist anticolonialists such as Ledebour believed that Europeans should send educators and teachers into the world to show less “developed” peoples to acquire European cultural techniques. At the same time, however, Ledebour censured the genocide in Namibia in the harshest possible way and denounced the German colonial authorities’ racism — and these views represented the SPD’s official position on colonialism before 1914.

Of course, today’s SPD is a very different party than August Bebel’s and Georg Ledebour’s pre-1914 Social Democratic Party. The party’s support for Germany’s war effort during World War I resulted in the SPD’s split into a moderate, reformist majority faction, and a more radically inclined (eventually communist) minority section. Moreover, after World War II, at least in the Federal Republic of Germany, the SPD already jettisoned its few remaining ties to Marxism.

However, for today’s Social Democrats there is no better occasion than Germany’s ongoing negotiations with Namibia to reconnect with their party’s principled opposition to German colonialism and attempts to help the victims of German expansionist and genocidal policies. Given that the root cause of the negotiations is nothing less than the first genocide of the twentieth century, the German government’s legalistic stance that such a step would violate the sovereign immunity of the Federal Republic of Germany is both shameful and unconvincing. Given their party’s history, present-day German Social Democrats especially should feel obliged to change that stance by pushing for a just, quick, and generous conclusion of the Germany-Namibia talks and for the inclusion of representatives of the victims’ descendants in the negotiations.