How not to forget victims or: lobbying for remembrance

How to cite this journal: Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post, ISSN: 2628-6998,

This essay explores Germany’s selective remembrance of historical atrocities, focusing on the Holocaust while neglecting others like the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples. It examines factors contributing to this selectivity and advocates for a more inclusive approach to remembrance. Drawing on remembrance strategies, it emphasises the importance of acknowledging all victims and their individual stories. The author reflects on personal struggles with Germany’s memory policy and expresses hope for change following the recent apology to the Herero and Nama peoples in 2019.


On the international stage, Germany often gets praised for its dealing with its past, like in the opinion essay “Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?” (Norris 2021). But not many people know that the “horrible past” only refers to a tiny excerpt of Germany’s past: the Holocaust. Being German, I was confronted with the Holocaust in history class when I was still a teenager. However, German colonial rule was a widely neglected topic in school. Only during my B.A. studies, I stumbled upon the Genocide of the Herero and Nama. How can it be that a society that attaches so much importance to righting old wrongs is so selective in its approach and that some crimes are simply ignored?

Selective Memory: Remembering or Forgetting?

Alone the atrocities Germany committed are hard to remember all without being overwhelmed by emotions. Having a closer look just at the atrocities of the Nazis during the Third Reich, there is an overwhelming variety of victim groups. For example, people with disabilities were killed systematically before the Holocaust started (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2020). Other social groups who suffered and were killed in the concentration and labour camps were Blacks, communists, homosexuals, and Romani. Out of all these groups, mainly the European Jews are widely remembered. The Holocaust, which describes the systematic killing and the attempt to wipe out European Jews by Hitler and his followers, rewrote history as it laid the foundation of Genocide studies. Even today, the Holocaust is singled out among other genocides as the term “Holocaust and Genocide studies” for the academic discipline shows. It is not my intention to question the emphasis on the Holocaust. On the contrary, I am sure that the Holocaust needs to be remembered even more in the future as almost 10 % of Germans have not learned anything about the Third Reich and 23,5 % “only little” in school or elsewhere (Stiftung Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft 2021). The Holocaust must continue to be remembered especially when contemporary witnesses have died. However, this does not imply that other victim groups are to be neglected.
Generally, there are various reasons why some victims or victim groups are neglected while others are remembered. First, when analysing atrocities, we realise “that not all victims are equal” (Ryrie 2020). Ryrie argues that victims are only remembered if their suffering and/or death is useful for successors. At the same time, repression is a very important coping mechanism for humans, “especially of use when awareness produces unbearable pain” (Minow 1999).

Another reason for the selectiveness of the remembrance of victims could be the total number of victims. About the Blacks who suffered as a social group, Kesting (1992) says: “Even though their losses were minimal compared to other groups, their torment and suffering were no different.” This shows another problem when remembering atrocities. It is easy to reduce victims of atrocities to anonymous grey masses, thinking only about quantitative data like victim numbers and/or death tolls, and to forget that behind each victim stands an individual with a past, present and (robbed) future (Minow 1999). In this way, atrocities become pure historical facts that do not allow any emotional processing, neither by victims, perpetrators nor bystanders.

Last, but not least, local factors can shape the memory culture of conflicts and atrocities as well. The Genocide of the Herero and Nama, for example, has never found much attention among Germans. The government took over a century to issue a formal apology (Auswärtiges Amt 2021). While it is questionable whether the geographical distance between Germany and Namibia (formerly German West Africa) is satisfactory as a monocausal explanation for the hesitant endeavouring to reappraise history and to ask the victims and their descendants for forgiveness, surely the genocide was easier to neglect in society as the perpetrators were single colonists and the majority of Germans had perhaps not even heard about the massacres ordered by General von Trotha. Even today we notice due to media coverage that geographical proximity changes our perception of and interest in armed conflicts and atrocities. In the EU, the probably most evident cases are the wars in Syria and Ukraine and the reception of refugees. While refugees from Syria were accepted only reluctantly, for the Ukrainian neighbours the doors were wide open (Wamsley 2022).

Giving victims their individuality back

When attempting reconciliation after an atrocity, it is crucial to put the individuals who suffered and died at the centre of this process. This goes especially after a genocide which uses de-individualisation and dehumanisation of the victim group as reasoning for the horrendous violence against a specific social group (cf. Browning 1992). Genocide victims must get their individuality and identity back if there is to be a healing process. This can happen with different strategies.
While quantitative data like victim numbers are important, the “story behind victims” must be remembered. This can happen when survivors or other eyewitnesses are interviewed and the gathered information is archived. Kesting (1992) lists in his essay single incidents of Blacks being executed, giving some information about their military position or their backgrounds. Even though there are no names given, just listing different incidents and the specific details about the death of the respective victims gives their cases individuality. With that, the reader sympathises with the victims and will more likely remember them. When institutionalised in the form of educational programmes and museums, the processed knowledge is made available to the public. Including remembrance of atrocities committed by Germans in the educational plan of secondary schools ensures that new generations will be aware of past conflicts and their consequences even after all eyewitnesses have died.

In Kesting’s (ibid.) essay, there is also another positive example that shows another way of strengthening remembrance. He writes of a monument being erected by the townspeople of Wereth, Belgium to remember and honour the victims of the horrible mutilation and execution of eleven Afro-American soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. Making victims visible in the townscape is a way of including remembrance in daily life. Additionally, public discourse must shift and balance out the former imbalance of power between perpetrators and victims. How can it be that there are still street names named after colonists who participated in the extermination and enslavement of thousands and millions of people while the names of the victims are forgotten (Kastner 2013)? Taking these names out of the public sphere does not mean that their deeds should be forgotten but rather that the perpetrator is no longer supported by “the system”.
While there are many strategies for remembering past atrocities and starting a reconciliation process, it is very selective which atrocities are dealt with. Political intentions and goals, victim numbers, the anonymisation of victims, and geographical proximity are factors that influence the probability of the remembrance of an atrocity.


As a German, looking back on the history of my country, I cannot help but wonder whether our “exemplary” memory policy of the Holocaust is really that – exemplary – or whether it was not simply imposed on us by the victorious powers and picked up by Germans to continue getting the support of the U.S. Keeping the Genocide of the Herero and Nama in mind, it can certainly feel that way. I know firsthand that dealing with one’s country’s ugly past can be difficult. It can be uncomfortable and upsetting. It will for sure raise many emotions – guilt and shame, and maybe even abhorrence. What I cannot help but wonder: How must it feel for the victims and their descendants to be trapped in the collective trauma for decades and still be ignored or even antagonised? Fortunately, recent changes put me in a hopeful mood. In 2019, an apology was finally issued towards the Herero and Nama. Now, remembrance of the genocide of these two peoples must be institutionalised in Germany to nourish that new-found awareness and compassion.


– Auswärtiges Amt (2021) Außenminister Maas zum Abschluss der Verhandlungen mit Namibia,
– Browning, C. R. (1992) Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final Solution in Poland. HarperCollins: New York.
– Kastner, B. (2013) Umbenennung von Straßen: Ehre, wem keine gebührt,
– Kesting, R. (1992) Forgotten victims: Blacks in the Holocaust, The Journal of Negro History 77(1), pp.30-36.
– Minow, M. (1999) Essay: The Work of re-membering: After Genocide and Mass Atrocity
– Ryrie, A. (2020) Forgotten Victims from the Age of Atrocity
– Stiftung Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft (2021) Wie viel haben Sie in der Schule über die Zeit des Nationalsozialismus gelernt?,
– United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2020) Euthanasia Program and Aktion T4,
– Wamsley, L. (2022) Race, culture and politics underpin how — or if — refugees are welcomed in Europe,

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