Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor on the connection between German colonialism and the federal court of New York

Katharina von Hammerstein, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, delivered a talk titled the “Voices of Genocide: From German Colonialism in Africa to the Southern District Federal Court of New York. Photo courtesy of UConn’s Human Rights Institute website.

At first glance, the German colonization of Africa and the Southern District Federal Court of New York have little in common. Though this might be true in many regards, if you dig deeper, you will find out how the Herero and Nama genocide, which took place at the start of the 20th century, prompted the Ovaherero and Nama v. Germany lawsuit to be filed in federal court. This lawsuit sought justice and garnered international attention for the massacre of over 24,000 Herero people and 10,000 Namaqua peoples killed at the hands of the Germans. 

Katharina von Hammerstein, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, delivered a talk titled “Voices of Genocide: From German Colonialism in Africa to the Southern District Federal Court of New York,” as part of the Provost’s Distinguished Speaker Series to discuss her own research on this topic. This series is focused on fostering intellectual, professional and personal growth among the UConn community.  

“I hope that my scholarship will further make the case of the Ovaherero genocide widely known,” von Hammerstein said.  

The Herero and Nama genocide is considered by some to be the first genocide of the 20th century. German General Lothar von Trotha led German forces to defeat the Ovaherero and drove them into the desert where many died from dehydration and starvation. This lack of regard for human life led many human rights scholars and other individuals and groups to call for the German government to pay reparations for the harm and mass killings they were responsible for. The government has continually rejected and ruled out any form of financial compensation for the victims’ descendants, a topic of contention within the country and worldwide.  

Despite Germany’s lack of acknowledgment, in 1985, the United Nation’s Whitaker Report classified the massacres as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples. Therefore, it became one of the earliest cases of genocide in the century.  

“Overall, the Ovaherero history includes stories of both incredible victimization and courageous agency.”

“Overall, the Ovaherero history includes stories of both incredible victimization and courageous agency,” von Hammerstein said. 

Many scholars and historians have drawn connections between the Herero genocide and the Holocaust. Occurring roughly 40 years after, it can be argued that Nazi Germany followed a precedent set by the genocide.  

In her discussion, von Hammerstein talked about how the Ovaherero peoples have a long tradition of oral history and retelling, including songs like “The Flight” which, according to von Hammerstein, created community and agency in the post-genocidal society and, more specifically, the Ovaherero community. In addition to this, a lot of activism has taken place in Germany in an attempt to appeal to the German Bundestag, the federal parliament, to recognize and compensate for the genocide. One such initiative was titled “No Amnesty No Genocide” and laid out specific requests to shed light on the colonial and racial injustices that occurred and provide material compensation.  

“The Ovaherero insistence on telling their own stories, their own history, was and is one way for the genocide victims and their descendants to claim authority over narrating their own path and claim agency in shaping their own present and future,” von Hammerstein said. 

Von Hammerstein joins a long list of accomplished professors who have been recognized as the Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, the highest honor the university grants. It is given to faculty who have demonstrated excellence in teaching, research and service. Along with von Hammerstein, Pamir Alpay and C. Michael White were chosen as the 2020 honorees.  

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