Namibian-German Relations and Normative Challenges: Beyond the Constrictions of International Development and International Relations?

Prof. G. Hellmann, Dr H. Weber & Dr M. Weber: Collaborative Research Project

Over the past two decades, German colonial history, its continuing legacies, and the question of its selective marginalization in post-WWII German political discourse have finally received sustained and detailed attention among historians and social scientists. In this context, Namibia, and the Genocide committed by German Schutztruppen against Ovaherero and Nama, has rightly been a central focus in such efforts. Comprising the first Genocide of the 20th century (Mamdani, 2001: 31; between 24000 and 100000 Herero and around 10000 Nama were killed), and the first use of concentration camps as extermination camps, German colonialism in Namibia constitutes a particularly dark chapter in German history, and a significant ongoing moral challenge for contemporary relations. Partly as a result of this, German foreign policy towards Namibia has attracted increasing interest as questions of how relations with the descendants of the survivors of genocide should be conducted (in contrast, for instance, with the relative disinterest in relations with the descendants of former German colonial subjects for instance in the Pacific or China).
Our project builds on this research, and in particular on the well-developed theme of the continuous ‘entangled histories’ of Namibians and Germans (Koessler, 2008), the inequalities that continue to be reproduced through these, and on more recent attempts to consider what this means for the practice(s) of (German) foreign policy and “development assistance”. With that literature, we understand the current political relationships between Germany, Namibia, and Germans and Namibians to be fraught by inequalities and inequities linked to biases, silences, elisions, erasures, and complicities (Roos & Seidl, 2015). The normative dimensions of Namibian-German relations (and beyond) are thus inadvertently central, and have been raised specifically by Namibian efforts aimed at contesting the registers of normalcy and normalization that have characterized German foreign policy and “development assistance” approaches. The latter has occurred despite more general public concessions that Namibia deserves special attention because of Germany’s transgressions and influence during, and their continuing legacies after, colonialism (Koessler, 2008) . Adding to the findings of this literature, though, we ask in what ways the conventional institutional scripts of international relations and international development, and their reflections in the social science disciplines that deal with them, are implicated in rendering any political progress towards addressing the clear normative demands inherent in the relationships as if such a project were unrealistic or unrealizable. At the same time, the dominance of these institutional scripts also provides the backdrop for the perpetuation of particular interests, the empowerment of specific actors, and the justifications for both. Thus, for instance, despite the insistence of German officials on the exceptional volumes of aid and support to Namibia, there seems little concern for persistent gross inequalities (generally, see UNDP, 2016. UNDP-NNPC, 2015; also land-ownership, where around 4000 white families, one quarter of them German, own 44% of the land; Jamfa, 2008: 207). At the same time, German aid to Namibia more often than not reflects the quite unexceptional practice of ‘tied-aid’, as indicated for instance by the flagship Ohorongo Cement Factory project, which is in fact an exclusively owned subsidiary of the German family enterprise Schwenk (see KFW-DEG: 2011).
To investigate this constellation, our project contrasts reconstructive analysis of the impasses in Namibian-German relations (reflected in the inequalities reproduced through them), with a counterfactual account of plausible and possible engagements focused on a politics of restorative relations. Though the latter is absent in the case of German-Namibian relations, it is not as if German political discourse, or indeed foreign policy has no practical experience of it grounded in moral commitments. This is clearly writ large in German foreign policy and public political culture engaging in repertoires consistent with restorative relations with regard to the legacies of Holocaust; it comprises remembrance and memorialization, restitution in the form of compensation for loss, or return of property, public visibility of Jewish religious, cultural, political and social affairs rendered in relation with German responsibility and responsiveness, public support and funding for continuing education programs about the Shoa, comprehensive presence in School education explaining and debunking the race-theories that underpinned National Socialist ideology, and restraint in criticisms combined with a solidarist assistance stance in foreign policy making.
Despite the socio-economic and political importance of the relationship with Namibia for Germany, there has been little effort to rethink the terrain upon which the debates have been conducted, or the relationship shaped. The question of colonialism and its legacies must be evaluated from a frame of reference that goes beyond entangled histories, in ways that can explicitly open up engagement of established analytical frames of reference and the practices these enable. For instance, in contrast to German-Jewish relations, the Namibian descendants of victims from the earlier Genocide perpetrated by the German military have not experienced comparable repertoires of restorative relation¬-building. It is noteworthy that German-Jewish relations were firmly grounded in eliding the ‘foreign-domestic’ divide, in ways that do not obtain in the context of Namibian relations.  Our project probes the question why this is so, using the counter-factual model of restorative relations approaches not tethered to the script of performing normal foreign policy and development assistance. We thus problematize the hold that practices of methodological nationalism, comparativism, and stages-logics continue to have on even critical work about colonialism and decolonization in the context of Namibia.  This logic is at the core of the reproduction of inadequate normative registers, and the problematic practices we have identified above from ‘foreign policy’ capture by nationalistic fragments to the pervasiveness of ‘tied aid’.
In sum, our project examines an important substantive case in the history of development, drawing out the significance of colonialism and its legacies for emerging or ‘prevented’ normative orders. The construal of the postcolonial context in accordance with the formal comparative method serves to disarticulate, as well as justify the conditioning of the perpetuation of inequalities in continuing alignment with colonial logics of race in development. This case, we argue, comprehensively puts the question of foreign policy on the line by returning it to its normative paradoxes.

Co-Authored Research Article targeted at European Journal of International Relations or Review of International Studies.


Jamfa, L. (2008) “Germany faces colonial history in Namibia: A very ambiguous “I am sorry”.” In Gibeny, M (ed) The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press; 202-215.

KFW-DEG (2011) “Deutsche Zementproduktion in Namibia gestarted”. Available at (accessed Feb 10, 2018).

Koessler, R. (2008) “Entangled history and politics: Negotiating the past between Germany and Namibia.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 26:3; 313-339.

Koessler, R. (2010) “Images of History and the Nation: Namibia and Zimbabwe Compared.” South African Historical Journal 62:1; 29-53.

Mamdani, M. (2001) “A Brief History of Genocide”. Transition 10:3; 26-47.

Roos, U. & Seidl, T.  (2015) “Im ‘Suedwesten’ nichts Neues? Eine Analyse der deutschen Namibiapolitik als Beitrag zur Rekonstruktion der aussenpolitischen Identitaet des deutschen Nationalstaats”. Zeitschrift fuer Friedens- und Konfliktforschung 4:2; 182-224.

UNDP (2016) “Human Development for Everyone- Briefing note for countries on the 2016 Human Development Report: Namibia”.
Available at (accessed Feb 11, 2018)

UNDP-NNPC (2015) Poverty and Deprivation in Namibia 2015. Windhoek: National Planning Comission.


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