Authorised Heritage Discourse Interrogating the German colonial narrative in Namibia

The memory and heritage landscape in Namibia today visibly recalls the German colonial era, with many of its prominent monuments and buildings safeguarded by National Monument status.

By Gina Paula Figueira

The legacies of colonialism are still strongly felt across the globe today. Postcolonial societies continue to grapple with unequal distributions of wealth and land resulting from many years of systemic oppression of indigenous communities. Arguably, oftentimes along with these legacies comes what heritage studies scholar Laurajane Smith calls an inherited ‘authorised heritage discourse’ (AHD) about the history of colonialism, particularly in postcolonial societies.

Selective memory

The memory and heritage landscape in Namibia today visibly recalls the German colonial era, with many of its prominent monuments and buildings safeguarded by National Monument status designated to them under apartheid South African mandated administration after Germany’s colonies were removed from its empire in 1919 (George Steinmetz: “Harrowed Landscapes: White Ruingazers in Namibia and Detroit and the Cultivation of Memory”, in Visual Studies 23/3, 2008).


These monuments form tangible pillars of an AHD that privileges an idea of German colonial history as a positive influence on the former colony. Smith describes AHD as ‘a hegemonic discourse about heritage, which acts to constitute the way we think, talk and write about heritage’. This discourse centres around monumentality and so-called ‘experts’ who form gatekeepers and narrators of what constitutes valuable and worthy heritage. In the case of German colonialism in Namibia, the persistent AHD around this era and its relics focuses on the achievements of German colonial soldiers or Schutztruppe as well as pioneering colonial settlers.

The Woermann Haus: historic German colonial building in Swakopmund, Namibia The Woermann Haus: historic German colonial building in Swakopmund, Namibia | Photo: Egmont Strigl © picture alliance/imageBROKER

By highlighting the purported positives gained from German colonialism, such as the often noted German colonial infrastructure, descendants of colonial soldiers and settlers in contemporary Namibia ‘justify their deeds and … blot out any remembrance of their crimes’, writes Reinhardt Kössler (“Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past” in: Windhoek: University of Namibia Press, 2015).

Whose history?

Between 1904 and 1908 a genocide was committed against the Herero and Nama people of Namibia by German colonial forces under the orders of General Lothar von Trotha. This resulted in the decimation of approximately half of the Nama population and over two thirds of the Herero population. Near the site of the first concentration camp in Windhoek, a monument was installed in honour of the German colonial soldiers who died during this time.
 
The monument “Reiterdenkmal“ in Windhoek, Namibia, photograph taken in 2008 The monument “Reiterdenkmal“ in Windhoek, Namibia, photograph taken in 2008 | Photo (detail): © Leo Koolhoven
The Reiterdenkmal stood for over a century, a symbol of German colonial domination and heritage at the expense of thousands of indigenous Namibian lives. Just how intrinsic this monument was to the AHD of German colonialism in Namibia became apparent by public outcry when in 2009, it was moved for the first time to make way for a new Independence Memorial Museum. A few years later in 2013 it was moved again, this time inside the courtyard of the nearby Alte Feste, former headquarters of the Schutztruppe.


Many Namibians, particularly German-speaking Namibians, argued that the statue should not be moved at all due to its cultural and historical significance. German-Namibian historian Andreas Vogt maintained that ‘Namibian-born German-language speakers’ are entitled to ‘demand the preservation of their cultural heritage in the context of their constitutionally enshrined cultural and minority rights’ (“To Move or Not to Move: On the Relocation of the Equestrian Monument in Windhoek”, in The Namibian Newspaper, 2008).

De-proclaiming the Reiterdenkmal as a national monument in 2013 allowed for the Namibian government to remove it from its prominent hilltop position, starting a state-sanctioned challenge to this status quo.


While it is true that German-Namibians are a minority in terms of numbers, their cultural rights have arguably been protected by an AHD that serves to centre and validate their heritage and history. The Historical Monuments Commission for South West Africa was formed in 1948 and the majority of its members were German colonial settlers. As a result, between 1950 and 1990, 77 of the 117 sites declared national monuments were German structures predating 1918, which, according to Steinmetz, showing the importance placed on preserving relics from this colonial era. This is just one example of how systemic and long-standing the preservation of German colonial heritage has been.
 
De-proclaiming the Reiterdenkmal as a national monument in 2013 allowed for the Namibian government to remove it from its prominent hilltop position, starting a state-sanctioned challenge to this status quo. Despite this assertive move, or perhaps in response to it, in February 2019 a private restaurant owner in the coastal town of Swakopmund, also known as ‘Little Germany’ due to its visceral German colonial heritage, installed a replica of the Reiterdenkmal in his restaurant’s courtyard.
Copy of the equestrian monument in the restaurant "Die Altstadt", Swakopmund, Namibia, shot from 2019 Copy of the equestrian monument in the restaurant "Die Altstadt", Swakopmund, Namibia, shot from 2019 | Photo (detail): © Helen Harris
When questioned about this, the owner stated that he is ‘planning to display all Namibian history, starting from the old South West Africa as a means of preservation and to educate those coming to his restaurant’ (Eveline de Klerk: „Swakopmund Restaurateur Stirs up Emotions with Reiterdenkmal Replica“ in New Era, 2019). At the time of visiting the restaurant, it appeared that no other relics from any other part of ‘Namibian history’ were on display. The covert meaning in his sentiment then, is that German history is Namibian history. All other histories, or indeed versions of history, are not only overlooked but consciously neglected.
 

Despite challenges to this AHD of German colonialism, as Smith elaborates, ‘[AHD] validates a set of practices and performances… and undermines alternative and subaltern ideas about “heritage,”’ as Smith explains. In this way, AHD is so easily replicated and perpetuated as it is hegemonic in its nature. In order to start to interrogate postcolonial power relations in contemporary Namibian society, the narratives that highlight the accomplishments of German colonialism, while simultaneously omitting the brutality and violence on which it was built, need to be understood for the ways in which they form part of this AHD. 
 
This article is based on research undertaken in 2019 during the author’s MA studies at University of Leeds, made possible through the Chevening Award.