Namibia, Genocide and Germany: Reinhart Kössler interview

For ROAPE Heike Becker spoke to  the celebrated German scholar-activist of Namibia Reinhart Kössler about his intellectual and political engagement in national liberation on the continent.

Firstly, can you tell about your intellectual and political involvement with African nationalisms and national liberation movements? How did it start? What were your inspirations and motivations at the time? What are your current interests?

When I entered Heidelberg university to study sociology and social anthropology in 1967, my choice of subject was strongly influenced by a concern for general Third World issues. In 1965/66, I had spent a year as a highschool exchange student in Youngstown, Ohio. Apart from forthcoming hospitality, I became appalled by the many identity and race based divisions I was more or less directly asked to follow. In a way, this experience was complemented by discussions I enjoyed with other exchange students, particularly from Brazil, who related some of the situation in their home countries. I also experienced first stirrings of resistance against the Vietnam War in what you may call a US backwater. When I returned to West Germany, it was clear for me that I should shelve my earlier plans to study archaeology. Something had to be done, and I wanted to contribute; this was of course a somewhat naïve idea of scholarship. One further push was the fatal shooting by police, of the student Benno Ohnesorg during a demonstration against the presence of the then Shah of Iran in Berlin on June 2, 1967. This became a clarion call for many of my generation, which also sent me to the streets for one of my first vigils.

In Heidelberg I got involved almost instantaneously in the emerging student movement. Confrontations ranged over a wide array of issues and so did our study of the theory of imperialism, or reading Rosa Luxemburg on the mass strike. Remember: Paris in May ’68 was literally next door – these were exciting times! In spring 1969, I took part in an awareness raising campaign about the liberation struggles in what then still figured as the Portuguese Colonies in Africa. On that occasion, I also made connections, sort of, with some Portuguese and Mozambican comrades. A little more than a year later, this apparent sideline of the Heidelberg student movement erupted into a major turning point. The World Bank, whose president was then Robert McNamara, held a conference in a classy hotel in the very centre of Heidelberg – just imagine that today! One prominent participant was Erhard Eppler, then Minister of Economic Cooperation, and arguably the most progressive person ever to have held that post. However, we held McNamara – who of course as a former Secretary of Defence, was seen as one of the masterminds of the Vietnam War- along with Eppler, above all [as] responsible for planning at this venue the Cabora Bassa Dam, now known as Cahora Bassa. We perceived that as a huge project of counterinsurgency, involving large scale removals of the local population, and the settlement of huge numbers of settlers from metropolitan Portugal. Our demonstration under the slogan “Eppler is planning with his dam, here a new Vietnam!” was banned by the police, but it took place, nonetheless, to the front of the Heidelberger Hof. It became the most militant demonstration to date in Heidelberg, and the state government of Baden-Württemberg responded by banning the local SDS, the last surviving chapter of the formerly national radical student organisation.

All of this was very influential for me politically and intellectually, but did not generate an immediate, sustained interest in Africa. This happened only in 1979 when I landed my first formal job as Executive Secretary of the Information Centre on Southern Africa (ISSA) in Bonn. ISSA had been created as a Centre for counter-information, serving the broad anti-Apartheid movement. Among other tasks, I edited a monthly magazine, and ran a small publishing venture, where I was responsible for both editing and salesmanship. I delved into the relevant issues, did a lot of journalistic writing, and was helped in all that by the fair amount of material that was streaming into ISSA’s little office, or could be found in its archives. It was tremendous to observe the amount of work and energy that came out of these shabby little offices, which were run by grossly underpaid staff, in Bonn, in London; in Amsterdam the situation was a little better …  

Then, at the end of 1979, I got a university appointment, but remained with ISSA as a board member and frequent contributor.  I still am. At the Institute of Sociology in Münster, where I was employed, I continued to pursue African issues, but these really started only to take centre stage from 1991 onwards and resulted in a number of projects, mainly in Namibia.

For now, I have realised that after the publication of my book, Namibia and Germany: in 2015, I cannot steer free any time soon from the issues. In particular there has to be a proper German apology for the 1904-08 genocide, committed in what was then the German colony of South West Africa, and consequent reparations to the affected communities. This is an obvious case for activist scholarship. 

Were West German scholars and solidarity activists like yourself connected with activists elsewhere in Western Europe?

As long as I can remember, there were lots of links with like-minded individuals and projects across Western Europe as well as the US and partly also Japan, apart from relations with Third World countries, largely represented in Europe by students from these regions.  I myself have not belonged to a political organisation since 1972, so links tended to be rather on an individual level, and unfortunately, I was not always able to sustain them over a long period of time, so there were a lot of breaks and shifts.

An important contact was established late in 1976 with ROAPE, at the time, the acronym was still RAPE. It involved a bit of adventure. A colleague, Werner Biermann, and myself had come up with the idea of a radical Third World quarterly in German, and so we decided to find out about role models and attend the editorial conference of ROAPE. To share cost, we took along an Eritrean colleague, who however had not cleared transit through Netherlands, Belgium and France, or entry into Britain. After an arduous journey, we made our way to Dover, only to be detained there. Eventually, us Germans were, reluctantly, allowed to proceed, but our friend was taken back across the Channel. The meeting was very interesting and fruitful, with people like Doris Burgess, Ruth First, Peter Lawrence, Colin Stoneman and last [but] not least Lionel Cliffe in attendance. Lionel was very thin at the time, since he had just got out of prison in Zambia. The main topic was the situation in Zimbabwe, which remained important for my contacts with the group, including a seminar held in Leeds in summer 1980 to assess the recently won independence.

Apart from your own involvement you have also carried out research on the solidarity movement in West Germany, as it were. Can you describe who came together and how they campaigned for solidarity with Southern Africa?

An important strand of the solidarity movement came out of the student movement, where Third World solidarity was once important, though by no means the only component. But there were others. They included, with considerable overlap, church people, partly from missionary societies once these had turned, quite fundamentally, towards a critique of colonialism by the late 1960s. There were also development aid workers who had returned from stints abroad; groups in the unions, particularly the youth organisations; also civil society groups like Amnesty International. During the 1970s, the various student parties of communist pretensions, the Maoist “K-groups”, and also the re-established German Communist Party, the DKP, which was close to the East German government, played prominent roles, both by engaging in spectacular action like “arming a ZANLA detachment up to their teeth”, and by their pervasive sectarianism. This had been a serious problem for my predecessor at ISSA, where we tried to work with the entire range of solidarity groups. There was repeatedly a need to moderate between the broad Anti-Apartheid Movement, the AAB, and a group called the Organisationskomitee, OK, which was close to some of the K-groups. When I took over in January 1979, the K-groups were already dissolving. Many of their activists who had engaged in Third World issues continued work in the Green party or in structures of the Protestant Church.

Apart from OK, which relied on sections of the Maoist left, AAB was the most important and largest group. It was formed on the initiative of people who came from the various strands I just mentioned. One important core was Mainzer Arbeitskreis Südliches Afrika, MAKSA, which had been formed by a group of Protestant pastors and their wives who had spent some years in South Africa and Namibia. Most of them at some point had been expelled by the Apartheid regime. Besides opposing Apartheid more generally, these people also opposed the collaboration of the German Protestant church with the Apartheid regime, and in this sense, they still stick to their guns even today, now that they are octogenarians.  Soon after AAB had been formed, it entered into a close working relationship with ISSA, although the relationship had its own problems. AAB insisted throughout the 1980s to closely reflect the positions of ANC and SWAPO, whereas ISSA took a broader view and during the later 1970s tried to reflect a greater range of groups in Southern Africa, while trying to take a more critical stance in their solidarity, even while unquestionably supporting the mass struggles of the 1980s.

One particularly painful instance concerned the so-called SWAPO spy drama, which cost many activists their lives. What had been happening was fully realised only once survivors made their appearance in Windhoek in mid-1989, during the run-up to the independence elections. Even then, responses by supporters remained divided and there was considerable controversy at the time. So the more considered, critical efforts actually failed.

Did the specific situation of Germany being divided between the major blocs of the cold war era impact on the solidarity activism?

One must keep in mind that in contrast to the Scandinavian countries, but also to some others in Western Europe, the solidarity movement in Germany was always clearly opposed to the state. This came out especially around the issue of nuclear cooperation with South Africa. The enormously dedicated research of a small group of activists, many of them based in West Germany, unearthed proof of these deals, and the stiff denial of the Schmidt government was shamed once the official facts emerged in 1994. I would venture to say, however, that apart from adherents of the DKP, the existence of East Germany was of minor importance to the activists. Only very few ventured to East Berlin to visit missions of national liberal movements, or such. On the other hand, the structures close to the DKP were clearly nurtured by the GDR.

How did Germany’s past colonial rule over Namibia feature in the West German solidarity movement? Did it feature at all?

Seen from the vantage point of today’s postcolonial concerns and initiatives, one is struck by the very small role Germany’s colonial past played at the time. The facts were certainly known, but they were not addressed in any consistent way. Of course, the Federal Government was criticised for maintaining a consulate in Windhoek, or for sending commissions to administer end-of-school exams at the German high school. Yet this was related to the illegality of South African occupation of Namibia, rather than to the legacy of German colonialism.

Namibia’s independence coincided with the end of the cold war. Did this, among solidarity activists, change expectations for post-independence developments, as compared to earlier when Zimbabwe or Mozambique gained independence? 

I feel this is difficult to assess. Some of us had already analysed the performance of ‘liberation movements in power’ for some years and had realised the chasm that existed between the dreams of some Western intellectuals and the reality on the ground. Of course, this did not mean that one presaged the pervasive triumph of neoliberalism right on November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the great majority of those in the solidarity movement, in particular members of AAB, things look differently. Membership of AAB rose steeply during the late 1980s, only to plummet [almost] as swiftly after 1990. Obviously many of these people felt that there was a job well done, and they could shift their commitment to other issues or maybe have some rest. This was precisely what we at ISSA tried to counter, arguing for the need to continue our critical solidarity by closely monitoring liberation movements in power. Obviously this had little effect as far as the erosion of the broader movement was concerned, except that ISSA and its journal still exist today, while AAB found its demise some 20 years ago.

Many of us who used to support the liberation struggles in southern Africa have been disturbed by the forms of social and political rule reproduced by national liberation movements in power. What do you think have been reasons for that

Well, Third World liberation struggles – not just those in Southern Africa – tended to become something of a foil on which people on the left, who did not see a realistic chance for their aspirations to come true at home, projected their frustrated dreams and hopes. This attitude may have been understandable, but it was obviously deeply flawed. One might even say, this was a specific, well-meaning kind of Orientalism. Once people awoke to reality, despondency and cynicism were likely responses. It seems that attempts to reach an understanding of ‘liberation movements in power’, in my case, since about 1980, were not effective in changing this.

In more mundane terms, there has been a tendency, at least in the West German solidarity movement, to shift attention to other countries and regions rather quickly. Thus, after 1975, few people would concern themselves any more with Indochina, thereby of course ignoring what was happening there. Concerning Southern Africa, probably more people were aware of the crises and needs in SWAPO’s camps in Angola, than seriously cared about the fates of ‘socialism’ there, of the modalities of political rule, or even human rights.

As you have pointed out, national liberation movements were regarded as the most radical form of fight against colonialism, and imbued with high hopes for overcoming colonial legacies. With decades of liberation movements in power this hope has certainly lost its shine. You suggest that, beyond evaluating the hegemonic governing practices of national liberation movements in power in the dominant party states, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, which has been done by Roger Southall and, for Namibia specifically, Henning Melber, and others, we need to rethink, more profoundly, nationalism as legitimising postcolonial modes of rule. Can you elaborate on this?

In important ways, the 20th century has been marked by ideas and projects of emancipation and liberation veering towards nationalism – not exclusively but in decisive ways in the processes of anti-colonial movements and decolonisation. Amilcar Cabral noted that such nationalist movements were marked by suspending or even by denying social cleavages within the nation. Cabral stated explicitly that such cleavages would break up once again after independence had been attained, and dubbed this as the return of the erstwhile colonised into history. The practices of post-colonial governments of various shades tend however, up to the present, to continue laying claim to national unity and cohesion and [to] deny social conflict. In this way, social conflict is to a large extent de-legitimised and its articulation has been framed as a criminal act in a number of cases. Still, the claims of the nation have their substantive basis. Let’s just think of the quest for security, which relates to what people may hope for, such as protection for a state’s citizens in foreign countries. Also some state-sponsored solidarity which was present in the, now often defunct, welfare state; think of rudimentary forms of social security such as old age pensions in Southern Africa. Then there is the provision of infrastructure, education, and the like. All this may appear quite fictitious from today’s African vantage point, but it forms the substantive basis of what people expect from the nation state. Just think of the linkage between ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ that became apparent in many democracy movements in Africa during the 1990s. We can say, where the state proves unable to deliver on such promises and expectations, it will be delegitimised in the short or medium run.

Over the past twenty-five years you have spent a lot of time in Namibia. Can you tell us a bit about the situation there in the early 1990s, the immediate post-independence years?

There is little doubt that, upon the attainment of independence and during the years immediately following it, hopes were running high. At the same time, the brokered transition stood for continuity, above all in everything relating to the socio-economic structure. Compared to today, there was less cynicism, less concern with ethnicity, and more civic commitment. How the opportunities of this situation were lost is an important question. There were factors working towards demobilisation of civil society, but there was also the concern of SWAPO in government to let bygones be bygones and get on with their own goals. Apparently this has not resulted in overcoming the structural constraints that must be considered the legacy of apartheid, above all extreme social inequality, which is still patterned predominantly along racial lines.

In Namibia, SWAPO has claimed to embody anticolonial and postcolonial nationalist politics; even the United Nations declared it the sole legitimate and authentic representative of the Namibian people. As your research on memories and anticolonial struggles of southern and central Namibian communities has shown, this hegemonic declaration of legitimate nationalism still has problematic consequences. Can you say a bit more on the underlying contradictions?

The basic issue may be phrased in how to operationalise the standard slogan of ‘unity in diversity’. To date, SWAPO does not seem prepared to acknowledge the very diverse trajectories and experiences of different Namibian regions under colonialism. Only the central and southern regions were subjected to settler colonialism while the northern regions did not experience land dispossession, even though the migrant labour system impacted enormously on social structure and basic features, such as gender-related division of labour, or the standard male biography. Again, ‘native reserves’ in the Centre and South meant very close surveillance and constant meddling into even petty affairs of residents, while indirect rule in the northern regions was invasive at points, but this could not compare to the situation in the zone of settler colonialism. The genocide committed by the German colonial power in 1904-1908 lies at the root of these experiences, mainly of the Ovaherero and Nama, but certainly felt as well by Damara and San. Recognition of such difference has been slow and uneven and is not evident, in particular, in the current negotiations with Germany about the consequences of the genocide. The Namibian government’s stance of claiming to be the sole representative of the nation is grounded in the formal legal position, but ignores the specific situation of Namibia as a whole and of the victim communities – Ovaherero and Nama in the first place. The Namibian government’s stance here reflects a rather rough and unsophisticated idea of national unity.

Reinhart Kössler’s new book, Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past looks at the decades of German denial of the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama, which was committed by the German colonial army in 1904-1908 during the war against the people of central and southern Namibia. Talks are under way now between official German and Namibian delegations over three steps: acknowledgment, apology, reparations. The German government has already indicated their unwillingness to pay reparations. In Namibia, representatives of the communities directly affected claim their inclusion in the negotiations. Kössler’s book examines German-Namibian relations, from the violent colonial relationship, and its consequences for a racist ideology, which prepared the ground for the genocide, through to the legacies of colonialism and genocide in the postcolonial setting.

Heike Becker is Professor of Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape, where she directs research and teaching on multiculturalism and diversity. Heike is a regular contributor to


  1. A tribute to Reinhart the elder, having known him since he was ‘the younger’ ! As always, his clear vision is leading the way and it is here we should perhaps re-visit the roape-sponsored Sheffield conference in 1987, ‘US Imperialism in the 1990s’ as a springboard for not only Reinhart but Chomsky who wanted us to continue the discussion with ‘the role of the intellectuals’. Why not?!

  2. Dear Reinhart,
    Thanks for sharing your personal trajectory of scholarship and activism. Full of insights and sustained by a deep commitment to reflective, critical scholarship and a search for social justice.

  3. Dear Heike and Reinhart,

    Thank you, Heike, for giving us such a wonderful interview, and thank you, Reinhart, for your most impressive critical scholarship, insights and reflections.


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