BERLIN — Germany is formally recognizing as genocide the killing of tens of thousands of people from two ethnic groups in what is now Namibia in the early 20th century, the foreign ministry said on Friday, a major acknowledgment of colonial-era crimes.
Germany is asking for forgiveness and establishing a fund worth more than a billion euros to support projects in the affected communities.
Successive German governments denied the country’s responsibility for the killings, in contrast to its earnest and transparent atonement for the Nazi Holocaust that has been a cornerstone of the country’s post-World War II identity.
The recognition was reached after six years of negotiations between the governments of Germany and Namibia, which Germany occupied as a colonial power from 1884 to 1915. Between 1904 and 1908, German soldiers killed tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people, who launched the biggest — and last — rebellion against the occupiers who had taken their lands.
In 1985, the United Nations included the killings in a report on genocide, but it was not until Friday that the German government used the same language.
“We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today’s perspective: genocide,” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said in a statement. “As a gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering inflicted on the victims, we want to support Namibia and the victims’ descendants with a substantial program of 1.1 billion euros for reconstruction and development.”
The announcement from Germany came as neighboring France made a high-profile statement of its own to reckon with the damage caused by its past in Africa. President Emmanuel Macron said in Rwanda on Thursday that France had “a duty to confront history and to recognize its part of the suffering it inflicted on the Rwandan people.
Mr. Maas said that the German fund, worth the equivalent of about $1.35 billion, did not open the way to any “legal request for compensation.” The fund is slated to make payments over the course of 30 years to projects supporting infrastructure, health care and training programs for the benefit of the affected communities.
The Herero and Nama are minorities in a nation that has been led since independence by the liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organization, known as SWAPO, which is dominated by the Ovambo ethnic group.
Descendants of the tribes have sought to win damages over genocide and property seizures by colonists for years, including through United States courts. In 2019, a judge in U.S. District Court in Manhattan rejected a lawsuit filed by the tribes seeking compensation.
Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, intends to travel to Namibia this year to officially ask for forgiveness for the killings.
A spokesman for President Hage Geingob told the Agence France-Presse news agency that “the acceptance on the part of Germany that a genocide was committed is the first step in the right direction.”
But representatives of the affected communities, the Ovaherero Traditional Authority and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, rejected the German offer as insufficient and accused the Namibian negotiators of caving in to Berlin for political reasons, The Namibian newspaper reported on Friday.
Zed Ngavirue, who negotiated the agreement on behalf of Namibia, defended the deal as an important political response for the African country, while acknowledging that there would be no way to fully compensate for the lives lost.
“We assessed the damage suffered and worked with what we thought was needed,” he told The Namibian, adding, “We are well aware of the fact that the German government would not be able to restore and restitute our losses.”
Increasing international awareness about the importance of recognizing such colonial-era crimes applied pressure that led to the acknowledgment on Friday.
In 2016, the German Parliament recognized the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as a genocide. President Biden last month did the same, in a step that broke with previous U.S. governments.
German museums have also acknowledged their role in colonial wrongs. They sought to compensate by returning human remains of Herero and Nama victims that had been brought to Germany for research intended to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans. In 2018, a ceremony was held to return the remains of 25 people.
Historians estimate that German soldiers killed as many as 75 percent of the Herero and up to half of the Nama populations during the war from 1904 to 1908, although exact numbers are not known.