- An unusual religious service recently took place in the Protestant church of the small village of Ginsheim in Gross-Gerau, south of Frankfurt, Germany. Descendants of the leaders of each side of Namibia's brutal Herero war - also called the Herero genocide - of 1904 joined hands to seek reconciliation after 100 years.
- Something big has happened in Ginsheim, said Bishop Reinhard Keding of the German-speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN-DELK), who jointly led the service with the local parish pastor. He was speaking to two families, whose names have been painfully intertwined by history for the past 100 years – the German von Trotha and Namibian Maharero families.
In November, Herero Chief Alfons Maharero travelled to Germany for a special meeting with descendants of the infamous General von Trotha. Alfons' grandfather, Samuel Maharero -thus paramount chief of the Herero - declared war on German colonialists in January 1904, after his people had suffered under foreign rule, oppression and land expropriation for 20 years.
The war ended several months later after the Battle of Waterberg, and the mostly unsuccessful attempt of the Herero to flee into neighbouring Bechuanaland, now Botswana. In October the same year, General Lothar von Trotha, the German troops' commander-in-chief, issued his "extermination order" for the annihilation of the Herero people.
About 60,000 - or 80 percent - of the Herero died as they fled or were put to hard labour in concentration camps. Also massacred were an estimated 10,000 Nama and 17,000 Damara peoples. Survivors were chased from their land and their cattle were confiscated.
For 100 years the name Lothar von Trotha has been a symbol of terror and destruction for the Herero people. Until recently they have continued to commemorate the events of a century ago with unbroken sadness and bitterness, because the Herero have remained a relatively small, impoverished and powerless people in Namibia.
Now constituting only 8 percent of Namibia's population of 1.8 million people, they have little chance – even in an independent, democratic country - to represent their specific interests in a government dominated by the Ovambo people. They only profit marginally from the euro 500 million development aid from the German government, seen as a recognition of a special responsibility by the former colonial power.
The meeting between the Maharero and von Trotha families was initiated by both sides. While Chief Alfons Maharero told the German Ambassador in Namibia, Wolfgang Massing, about his deep-felt desire to visit the country that had brought so much suffering to his own, the von Trotha family in Germany asked Bishop Keding how one could find gestures of reconciliation with the Herero during the 2004 Waterberg centennial commemorations.
Following negotiations by the Namibian Lutheran bishop, the Evangelical Church in Germany invited the Herero chief to travel to Germany and meet with the von Trotha family.
- We can neither apologize nor repair what happened 100 years ago, said Wolf-Thilo von Trotha at a commemoration meeting on the Isle of Nonnenau near Ginsheim on the Rhine. "But the least we can do is to show the Maharero family that today's von Trothas do not stand for racism and violence, but for reconciliation and acknowledgment of the pain of the Herero people."
In a statement read to the Namibian guests, the German family expressed their deep regret for the killing of the tens of thousands between 1904 and 1907 through the brutal incomprehensible acts of the German Schutztruppe under General Lothar von Trotha's command.
For Alfons Maharero, the extraordinary encounter was not an easy exercise - in a foreign country among foreign people, the von Trotha name sounded painfully familiar. But he knew "that one has to look into the other’s face in order to see if healing and the way forward is possible," he explained to the von Trotha family members.
- In our culture you cannot move forward before you have reached an understanding of each other, said Chief Maharero. "Therefore I wanted to meet and get to know you." Mr Maharero had especially hoped that these talks "would inspire future generations to become custodians of peace and of the good relationship between our countries."
Chief Maharero considers the meeting with the von Trotha family as the beginning of a reconciliation process, and is convinced, like a number of other Herero chiefs, that there will be a new quality of dialogue between Germany and Namibia.
He embraces a different approach than that taken by another Herero Chief Kuaima Riruako, well-known in Europe for his legal actions against the German government and German companies, demanding billions in reparation.
The openness toward reconciliation was evident when Ms Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, German Minister for Cooperation, recently made a public apology for her country’s actions in Namibia. At the August 2004 Waterberg commemoration, Ms Wieczorek-Zeul, unimpressed by the legal quibbling about what might add legal weight to the reparation calls, used the Lord's Prayer to ask forgiveness for the crimes the Germans committed against the Herero.
Traditional leaders are now hoping that the "brave lady," as she is fondly referred to in Namibia, will place greater emphasis on the Herero people's specific needs within the framework of bilateral German-Namibian development cooperation.
In the small church in Ginsheim, it was evident something historical was happening. Namibian Bishop Keding placed two candles from Namibia on the altar, then asked Chief Maharero and Mr von Trotha to come forward and light one candle each. Both would exchange the candles after the service so each could carry one home to their respective families as a token of this day's remembrance.
For the concluding Lord's Prayer, the congregation stood up and formed a large circle, held each other's hands and prayed in German and Herero. "I can feel that healing has started," Chief Maharero concluded.
By Erika von Wietersheim, Lutheran World Information
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