Tag Archives: war crimes

Namibia’s Nazis — This Week’s Other Birthday

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 23, 2016

Until quite recently, while Queen Elizabeth and her family were celebrating her birthday every April 21, a group of elderly men in south-west Africa were nursing the effects of the birthday toasts they had drunk the night before.

The birthday these ageing men were celebrating was that of Adolf Hitler, who was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria. The men had been senior officials in Hitler’s Nazi party and its military wing, the Waffen-SS, and had managed to escape capture by the Allies at the end of the Second World War.

It is well known that about 9,000 former Nazis wanted for war crimes escaped capture using the Odessa network, usually with the complicity of sympathetic Catholic priests, and made their way to various South American countries. Less well documented is the story of the several hundred former Nazis who managed to make their way to the far more inviting sanctuary of the former German colony of Southwest Africa, now called Namibia.

By Brian McMorrow - http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/45156182, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=833719

Swakopmund, in what is now Namibia, was an inviting sanctuary for former Nazis wanted for war crimes. Photo by Brian McMorrow via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

And once there, most of them gravitated to the town of Swakopmund, 280 kilometres across the Namib Desert west of the capital Windhoek, at the heart of the fabled Skeleton Coast.

Exactly how many former Nazis made it to Namibia and how has never been conclusively established. In then 1970s a young German ethnologist, Karl Budack, moved to Namibia with the intention of exploring the Nazi refugee story. He managed to get a few interviews, but not many and when the German magazine Der Spiegel tried to follow up the story, also in the 1970s, the entire German-Namibian community closed ranks.

I got much the same treatment when I first went to Swakopumnd in the late 1980s after hearing rumours of the Nazi exiles. I was then the Southam News Africa Correspondent and one of the first major stories on my plate were the negotiations for Namibia’s independence from South Africa, which had occupied and ruled the country since 1915. In all my visits to Swakopmund I never did find ex-Nazis who were willing to talk. But after a few visits some townspeople opened up enough to tell me about the long tables set up in private dining rooms in some of Swakopmund’s hotels where, on the evening of each April 20, the increasingly elderly comrades would eat together and share silent toasts.

There was other evidence of their presence. Swakopmund’s antique shops had on display for sale significant amounts of Nazi memorabilia. There were well-thumbed copies of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, lots of swastika flags of various kinds, and now and then Waffen-SS daggers, which are much prized by collectors of this sort of dross of history.

The book store run by Peter Haller and his son Ludwig was one of the main outlets for this sort of stuff. But not any more. When German tourists starting coming in significant numbers after Namibia achieved independence from South Africa in 1990, many of them were not pleased to see on display these affronts to their country’s determined efforts to expunge the Nazi past. After many angry confrontations with customers, the Haller’s culled their stock and focussed more on offering arts and crafts produced by Namibia’s many African ethnic groups.

There are other ambiguities in Swakopmund. The war memorial, for example, is a large stone cross surrounded by a low fence. The writing on the cross simply gives the dates “1914-1918,” and “1939-1945.” The only clue to whom is being remembered are the imperial German crosses built into the gates of the small enclosure.

For the Nazis who did make it to Swakopmund it was a sensible choice, and a much more attractive and safe refuge than hellish bolt-holes like Paraguay.

Before my first visit I had been warned it is a bizarre place, and it lived up to its billing. It is Bavaria in the desert. The architecture is from the German colonial period of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The faux medieval half-timbered houses, ornate Lutheran churches and imposingly Germanic public buildings would fit neatly into some small Black Forest, Alpine town. But, surrounded by the Namib Desert on one side and the crashing South Atlantic Ocean on the other, Swakopmund looks like some particularly demented Disneyland.

Yet the architecture undoubtedly offered the comfort of the familiar to Hitler’s refugees.
And it was not just the buildings.

Germany held its Southwest Africa colony for only 31 years from its founding in 1884 until it was captured by the British moving up from neighbouring South Africa in 1915 during the First World War. But for some reason, Germany has left a far greater mark on even modern Namibia than it left in its other African colonies: what are now Tanzania, Togo and Cameroon.

German remains one of Namibia’s 13 official languages and is still widely used. It was even more prevalent when the Nazi exiles slipped into the country after 1945. There are now about 40,000 German-speakers out of a population of just over two million.

Namibia offered many other comforts not available in Paraguay.

Namibia still brews beer by the same rules established in Bavaria in 1516. These specified that pure beer must only contain water, malted barley and hops. Namibian breweries import barley and hops from Germany to make their beer.

Then, just down the road, are South Africa’s Cape Province vineyards. They offer fine accompaniments to the produce of land and sea from around Swakopmund. Just south of the town is the old British outpost of Walvis Bay, which produces some of the best oysters to be found anywhere. The West Coast rock lobster, or crayfish, halved and grilled with garlic butter, is one of life’s delights.

Namibia used to boast massive fish stocking in its territorial waters off the Skeleton Coast. But in the late 1960s, the United Nations withdrew the mandate given South Africa after the First World War to manage the old German colony. Once South Africa’s occupation was declared illegal, pirate fishing fleets from the Soviet Bloc and other countries such as Portugal and Spain, took advantage of this legal immunity, swooped in on Namibia’s fishing grounds and vacuumed them clean.

The fisheries have recovered dramatically since Namibian independence in1990, when the new country gained the legal clout to manage its resource. These are again some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But it’s a bit late for Swakopmund’s Nazi exiles, most, if not all, have now crossed to Valhalla.

Old-style German cooking remains a staple in Namibia. It is an arid country that allows agriculture only grudgingly. Rainfall around Swakopmund is only about 20 mm a year. Many plants and animals rely on moisture from the abundant sea mists created by the collision of the cold Benguela sea current and the warm air.

Most of Namibia’s food production remains the domain of farmers of German heritage, who with a lot of patience, courage, and large reservoirs of minimally-paid black Namibian labourers, have forged a productive pastoral industry. The quality of the cattle, pigs and sheep are first rate, and are one of the country’s major exports.

Another major attraction for the Nazis was the legal vacuum when South African occupation was declared illegal by the UN. It made formal extradition impossible for any people wanted for war crimes, and, anyway, the apartheid regime in South Africa included people with more than a passing support for Nazi doctrines.

Such legal niceties never stopped Israeli secret services from hunting down Nazi war criminals in other parts of the world. However, there are no indications Mosad or other Israeli agencies operated against the Namibia Nazi exiles. Even the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which has played such a large part in tracking down Nazi war criminals in the last 70 years, has no records of the Swakopmund Boys in its public archives.

One of the reasons for Israel’s detachment from the Namibia connection may be the highly ambiguous relationship successive Tel Aviv governments maintained with South Africa’s apartheid regime. The international sanctions imposed on apartheid South Africa created a market, and Israeli companies and institutions took advantage of that opportunity.

One relationship does not appear to have been so ambiguous. On September 22, 1979, a massive double flash characteristic of a nuclear explosion was detected in the South Atlantic by a United States satellite. It is widely believed this was a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test, though there has never been public confirmation of that by Washington or anyone else.

There is significant contention that the Nazi links to Namibia and German Southwest Africa before are far more deep and old than the story of the old comrades in Swakopmund.

Germany grabbed what became known as German South-West Africa in 1884 during the “scramble for Africa” by European colonial powers. The British had already taken control of the only useful deep-water port on the coast, Walvis Bay, so in 1892 the Germans started constructing a harbour at Swakopmund, and linked it by railway to the capital, Windhoek.

The first Germans to arrive were Schutztruppe colonial forces and farmers. All were male, and their marriages to local women led to the creation of one of modern Namibia’s distinct ethnic groups, the Basters.

Back in Berlin, the administration of Otto von Bismark was not happy about what their colonials were up to with the local women. Much like the filles du roi who were shipped out to Quebec from France in the mid-1600s, Berlin arranged passage of cohorts of German women to stock its south-west African colony.

Not all Namibia’s local people welcomed the Germans with open arms.

In 1904 the Herero and the Namaqua took up arms against the Germans. The three-year war was brutal and on the German side, entirely merciless. In what is sometimes called “the first genocide of the Twentieth Century,” the Germans used machineguns and other industrialized weaponry. It is generally reckoned that about 10,000 Namaqua, half the population, were killed and about 65,000 Hereros, about 80 percent of their number.

The German government formally apologized for the war against the herero and the Namaqua in August, 2004.

Insurgents who were not killed, and their women and children, were kept in concentration camps, a strategy employed a few years before by the British against the Afrikaners in the Second Boer War in South Africa.

Some visitors to Namibia read more into the country’s place and street names than is there. Göringstrasse in Windhoek is often said to have been named for Herman Göring, Hitler’s close confident and head of the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In fact, it was named for Heinrich Ernst Göring, the father of Herman Göring, and one of German South-West Africa’s first governors. Since 1990, the street has been renamed for Danial Munamava, the founding president of the South-West Africa People’s Organization, which fought against South Africa for the independence of Namibia.

Other old Nazi links are more certain. In 1908, soon after the wars against the Herero and the Namaqua, a German professor of anthropology and eugenics, Eugen Fischer, spent a couple of years studying the Basters. His report railed against mixed marriages and in 1912 interracial marriages were prohibited in all German colonies.

Fischer’s work had a strong influence on Hitler and the Nazis. He went on to experiment on Jews in Germany and to provide the pseudo-scientific justifications for the Nazis’ racial laws.

Skulls of Basters and other Namibians collected by Fischer were returned to Namibia in March 2014.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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Squib: Balkanization and the Radovan Karadžić verdict

Radovan Karadzic attends a Bosnian Serb parliament session in Pale in this May 1993 file photo. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic/Files

Read the report: UN Court Finds Karadžić Guilty in Bosnia Genocide Trial. Above, Radovan Karadzic attends a Bosnian Serb parliament session in Pale in this May 1993 file photo. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic/Files

March 24, 2016

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić  was convicted and sentenced today by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The U.N judges found him guilty of genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and of nine other war crimes charges.

Read the Reuters news report on F&O, with a photo-essay: UN Court Finds  Karadžić Guilty in Bosnia Genocide Trial, by Thomas Escritt and Toby Sterling.

© Deborah Jones 2011

Karadžić is the most senior political figure to be convicted in the tribunal  — but  in some ways this is only another chapter in the larger sage of the Balkans conflicts. There are dozens of accused from the former Yugoslavia, some convicted, others whose cases are winding their way through the tribunal.

“The justice process is not yet finished,” noted a statement from the prosecutor’s office. “Too many victims in the former Yugoslavia are still waiting for justice. And too many families still do not know the fate of their loved ones.”

No one, I wager, can legitimately claim to understand the Balkans; novelist and diplomat Ivo Andrić perhaps came close. The lands — some as rugged as any on earth — have been contested for as long as humans have inhabited them, and the communities are complicated by religion, rivalry and bitter history.

The so-called Balkans Conflicts of the ’90s, as the eastern communist bloc crumbled and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, was horrific. We see the evidence of that in the documents and testimony before the tribunal, but also in the shattered walls,  ravaged earth, and traumatized people.

Everywhere through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska to the north lie tombstones. Buildings are still hollowed out from the war. Almost nothing is free of damage left by weapons.

“It was a village war,” said the owner of the bed and breakfast where I stayed in Mostar in the winter of  2011. He was a 20-something Muslim who called himself “The Turkman,” and he talked about roaming freely through the whole village as a kid, pointing across the river at the new part of town. His family sent him to safety in Germany throughout the conflict. When I met him, he had just recently returned to help them start a tourist business.

His hostelry was a sign that Mostar, and the region, was showing signs of economic life.

Yet, still, he said, no one of the different religious communities in tiny Mostar dared cross the borders of the other communities, though until the conflict they had been friendly.

Gravestones filled all of the yards along the street in the Muslim area, bombed-out buildings dotted the town.

“A village war is the worst,” he said.

Reconstruction, paid for by international donors, was well underway when I was there. Yellow buses with the flag of Japan, which paid for them, provided public transit in towns. Heavy equipment was at work throughout the countryside building roads. The famous bridge of Mostar, the Starry Most, was a tourist draw after being refurbished by money from the United Kingdom. Even ancient roadside villages, such as Počitelj in Bosnia, right, housed little cafes and signage in multiple languages for the tourists they hoped would eventually come.

Rebuilding the physical structures might be the least challenging remedy to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Fixing  people is harder. Will the justice now being meted out at the Hague, along with time,  repair the extreme social damage?

Copyright Deborah Jones 2016

Recommended, for history and context:

Non-fiction: Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, by Robert D. Kaplan. Also his Reader’s Guide to the Balkans, New York Times, 1993

Fiction, The Bridge on the Drina, by Nobel-winning author Ivo Andrić, 1945. From Wikipedia: The Bridge on the Drina revolves around the town of Višegrad in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina river. The story spans about four centuries during the Ottoman and subsequently Austro-Hungarian administrations of the region and describes the lives, destinies and relations of the local inhabitants, with a particular focus on Muslims and Orthodox Christians living in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Fiction, The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, 2010. From Wikipedia: “It’s a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.”

Fiction: The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, 2008. From Wikipedia: “The novel is set during the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s and explores the dilemmas of ordinary people caught in the crisis.”


UN Court Finds  Karadžić Guilty in Bosnia Genocide Trial, by Thomas Escritt and Toby Sterling.

Tribunal convicts Radovan Karadžić for crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, press release, United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

The Cases, United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: Karadžić is one of dozens of accused from the former Yugoslavia, some convicted, others transferred, others whose cases are winding their way through the tribunal.

Watch the March 24 verdict:

Related works on Facts and Opinions:

A woman cries near coffin of her relatives who were victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, at the Memorial Centre in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

A woman cries near coffin of her relatives who were victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, at the Memorial Centre in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Bosnia divided two decades after peace deal, by Daria Sito-Sucic, November 21, 2015  Report

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – A metal capsule containing over 20,000 wishes for the future was stored away in a Sarajevo museum on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the peace deal that ended the Bosnian war but left the country deeply divided and dysfunctional.

In Srebrenica, digging for the dead and fighting denial 20 years later, By Daria Sito-Sucic and Maja Zuvela, Reuters July, 2015.

POTOCARI, Bosnia ( Reuters) – Tens of thousands of people will gather at a cemetery near Srebrenica  …

Ruling on Srebrenica may affect UN peacekeeping By Regina E Rauxloh, University of Southampton, The Conversation,August 1, 2014

A Dutch civil court in the Hague ruled that the relatives of some 300 men and boys killed after being evicted by Dutch peacekeepers from the Potočari compound could receive compensation from the Dutch state.


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In Srebrenica, digging for the dead and fighting denial 20 years later

A woman cries near coffin of her relatives who were victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, at the Memorial Centre in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 10, 2015.  REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

A woman cries near coffin of her relatives who were victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, at the Memorial Centre in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Daria Sito-Sucic and Maja Zuvela, Reuters
July, 2015

POTOCARI, Bosnia (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of people will gather at a cemetery near Srebrenica in Bosnia on July 11 to mark the 20th anniversary of Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two, still tortured by voices of denial and a seemingly endless search for the dead.

Abandoned by their U.N. protectors toward the end of a 1992-95 war, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serb forces over five July days, their bodies dumped in pits then dug up months later and scattered in smaller graves in a systematic effort to conceal the crime.

More than 1,000 victims have yet to be found.

The bones of 136 newly identified victims will be interred beneath marble gravestones in the Potocari memorial cemetery in eastern Bosnia, in what has become annual ritual as the graves are discovered.

A U.N. court has ruled the massacre was genocide. Many Serbs dispute the term, the death toll and the official account of what went on – reflecting conflicting narratives of the Yugoslav wars that still feed political divisions and stifle progress toward integration with Western Europe.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik last month described Srebrenica as “the greatest deception of the 20th century”.

Serbia, which backed Bosnian Serb forces with men and money, is sending Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, fresh from enlisting ally Russia to veto a U.N. resolution last week that would have condemned the denial of Srebrenica as genocide.

A former disciple of the “Greater Serbia” ideology that fuelled much of the bloodshed of Yugoslavia’s demise, Vucic has rebranded himself as pro-Western, embracing Serbia’s ambitions of joining the European Union, which depend partly on the pursuit of regional reconciliation.



Russia called on July 10 for all people responsible for the massacre to be brought to justice.

“You cannot build reconciliation on the denial of genocide,” said Samantha Power, Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations who was a 24-year-old journalist in Bosnia at the time.

“It is important that he (Vucic) goes there and that he sees for himself the results and the destruction caused by the genocide in Srebrenica,” Power was quoted as saying on Thursday by the Bosnian daily Dnevni Avaz.

Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president at the time, is among those due to attend.

In Washington, President Barack Obama said the United States would mourn the loss of the victims of what he also called a genocide.

“On July 11, we join people of all faiths and nationalities in commemorating the Srebrenica genocide,” Obama said in a statement on Friday night. “Only by fully acknowledging the past can we achieve a future of true and lasting reconciliation.”

Ever since the massacre, the West has faced questions over how it allowed the fall of Srebrenica, a designated U.N. “safe haven” for Muslims Bosniaks displaced by the war.

Months later, NATO air strikes forced the Serbs to the negotiating table. A U.S.-brokered peace treaty ended the fighting and enshrined in Bosnia a complicated and unwieldy system of ethnic power-sharing that survives today.

The accused chief architects of the massacre – Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic – remain on trial at a U.N. court in The Hague, protesting their innocence.

“One cannot describe with words how I feel today,” said Zijada Hajdarevic as she escorted the remains of her brother on Thursday from the morgue to the cemetery, where her grandfather and other close relatives are all buried.

“We knew he was gone, but it will be easier now we know where we can visit his grave,” said Hajdarevic, who is still searching for her father.

Copyright Reuters 2015

(Additional reporting and writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Alison Williams and Lisa Shumaker)





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