Germany should pay reparations for its colonial past

updated 2024

Please note, this Topic Guide should be the starting point of your research, you are encourage to conduct your own independent research to supplement your argument.

Following wartime reparations, most notably to Holocaust survivors, attention now has turned towards reparations in relation to Germany’s colonial past. In particular, there has been a long-standing discussion surrounding reparations over the genocide against the Herero and Nama people of Namibia [Ref: BBC].  In June 2021, the German and Namibian governments published a Joint Declaration to come to terms with the genocide in Namibia. Instead of reparation payments, the government promised development aid amounting to €1.1 billion, to be paid in the course of the next 30 years. [Ref: Guardian]

However, there has been criticism from some commentators who say the agreement does not include representatives of the Herero and Nama tribes [Ref: Guardian], with others arguing the Namibia agreement should mark a beginning, and not an end to negotiations [Ref: DW]. Furthermore, in 2022, the Namibian vice president demanded the renegotiation of the 2021 treaty, saying the old one was insufficient [Ref: Deutschlandfunk Kultur]. 

Namibia’s calls for reparations have been echoed by similar demands from Tanzania, another former German colony [Ref: DW].  In 2023, on a visit to Tanzania, Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, issued an historic apology for the atrocities committed by his country, but did not offer reparations [Ref: DW].

These are just two examples of an increasing demand for reparations from Western nations to individuals and countries who have been affected by colonialism. Claims for reparations relating to the transatlantic slave trade [Ref: Britannica], for example, could add up to as much as $14 trillion [Ref: Newsweek] and some argue that slavery facilitated the rise and wealth of colonial powers to such an extent that its effects are still felt today [Ref: Le Monde]. The implication of this is that slavery has filtered down through generations and had a discernible material impact on the present, benefitting the descendants of those who owned and traded slaves, and holding back the descendants of slaves [Ref: Guardian].

Critics of reparations, on the other hand, have pointed to several problems with this position. One is that the demands from Namibia, where reparation claims have been made on behalf of the Herero, rely too much on the problematic notions of ‘tribe’ and ‘race’ [Ref: GHI Bulletin No.37]. Others argue against apologising and paying reparations for something that no modern German was a part of, and question whether reparations are ever the way to resolve historical injustice. They argue that reparations ‘weaponise this history for political gain’ casting certain groups as perpetual victims and others as their saviour  [Ref: spiked].  In his Letters on Liberty essay, historian James Heartfield argues that reparations are an easy way to buy apologies for past wrongdoings. Moreover, reparations will never work because they are more about those in power disguising their lack of authority in the present and less to do with the injuries done to their forebears in the past [Ref: Letters on Liberty].

Though few would argue about the inhumanity of crimes committed in the name of colonialism, the issue at hand is whether there is a moral and financial debt still to be paid by modern Western states, such as Germany. Would financial reparations absolve Germany once and for all from its debt to generations of peoples affected by colonialism? Or should we stop trying to find solutions to today’s problems by resolving history’s wrongs?

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The moral case

In a seminal piece on the topic, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights philosopher John Locke’s observations in his Second Treatise of Government that, ‘he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation’ [Ref: Atlantic]. This right to seek redress lies at the heart of the moral case for reparations as a way of atoning for hundreds of years of unpaid labour, suffering and exploitation. Speaking at a congressional hearing in 2019, Coates furthered this argument to say that American citizens are ‘bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach’ [Ref: The Guardian].

However, after 10 years of debate, a 2023 poll found that the majority of Americans remain opposed to reparations, with respondents arguing it is ‘impossible to place a monetary value on the impact of slavery’ and ‘African Americans are treated equally today’ [Ref: NPR]. In Britain, where the call for reparations has been a highly contested debate, some commentators have highlighted the role Britain played in the abolition of the slave trade, at great financial cost, as moral atonement [Ref: Forbes]. Columnist Stephen Bush notes that ‘the problem is that arguments about reparations inevitably become about who should pay, rather than about who needs money. Politics becomes a debate about the moral status of creditors and debtors.’ [Ref: FT]

These commentators view the moral opprobrium surrounding reparations as problematic, and question whether it is ethically right for modern citizens to apologise or pay reparations for actions carried out by ancestors, generations ago. For example, in his rebuttal to Coates, writer Coleman Hughes states that ‘the moment you give me reparations… you’ve made one-third of black Americans who poll against reparations into victims without their consent. And black Americans have fought too long for the right to define themselves to be spoken for in such a condescending manner.’ [Ref: Guardian] Do we as a modern society have a collective duty to atone for this historic act of inhumanity, or is it unreasonable to expect people to make amends for actions they did not do and events they had no control over?

A lasting legacy?

Opponents of reparations are wary of attributing any modern social, economic or cultural problems to the institution of slavery, and reject the idea that the descendants of slaves are determined by the events of the past. In this vein, journalist Christian Watson warns of the legacy of a ‘victim mentality’. For Watson, the topic of reparations is weaponised by politicians to homogenise African-Americans into voting as a bloc, and that ‘encouraging people to confront societal ills themselves is a far better route to equality than reparations’ [Ref: spiked].

Others are also reluctant to accept that colonised countries have been thrust into abject poverty as a result of the legacy of colonial rule, such as the former Dutch colony of Indonesia [Ref: MIT News]. This adds to a body of research showing ‘Most slave colonies in the Caribbean are now fairly successful middle-income countries, or better… the Bahamas has a GDP per head close to that of Italy or Spain. Barbados scores higher on the UN Development Programme’s human development index than any of its much larger South American neighbours.’ [Ref: Economist] While some British writers go so far as to dispute the entire idea that Britain was built on slavery [Ref: Telegraph].

However, advocates dismiss these suggestions, and say that we can clearly see a modern legacy of slavery in both the UK and the Caribbean that needs redressing. A British writer and academic, Kehinde Andrews, argues that the wealth of the West would not exist without the enslavement of millions of African people, and that racial equality can only occur with ‘nothing short of a massive transfer of wealth from the developed to the underdeveloped world, and to the descendants of slavery and colonialism in the West’ [Ref: Guardian]. Similarly, columnist Kenneth Mohammed writes that ‘the legacy of slavery and colonialism continues to shape our social, economic and political structures, entrenching inequalities spanning generations’ [Ref: Guardian].

The key point for reparation proponents is that although slavery was abolished nearly 200 years ago, the effects of this time are still felt around the world today, and reparations would help address the wrongs of slavery so that the countries and peoples that suffered throughout history can begin economic and social development on equal terms with former colonisers.

A realistic solution?

One of the leading arguments from those who are critical of colonial slavery reparations is that the policy is impractical. Many point out that the majority of slaves were actually sold by fellow black Africans to Europeans [Ref: BBC].  Furthermore, in the UK, by the time of the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, slave owners were given money by the British government to compensate them for the loss of their slaves (who were considered ‘property’) and these payments were known as ‘reparations’ [Ref: BBC]. Therefore, they argue, is it right to continue to treat human beings as a commercial entity by providing reparations in the present day?

Similarly, in addition to his remarks at the congressional hearing, Coleman Hughes questions how best to resolve racial inequality, writing that ‘the debate… is not between reparations and doing nothing for black people, but between policy based on genealogy and policy based on socio-economics… an ancestral connection to slavery is a far less reliable predicator of privation than low income’ [Ref: Quillette]. He also warns that reparations are likely to ‘function as a kind of subsidy for activism’.

For supporters, however, reparation and compensation programmes do have precedent. Japanese-Americans descended from prisoners of Second World War internment camps, for example, were given a formal apology and $20,000 in 1988 [Ref: New York Times] while Germany’s Holocaust reparations to Israel are argued to be the basis of 45,000 jobs and 15 per cent of Israel’s growth across the 12 years of the agreement [Ref: Atlantic]. On the other hand, not all reparation agreements are viewed as successful, as demonstrated by Japan and Korea’s ongoing feud about their 1965 agreement to ‘normalise relations’ after the Second World War, which included a payment to South Korea of $300 million and a $200 million loan [Ref: LA Times]. When a compensation plan was finally proposed by Seoul that sought to resolve the long-running forced labour dispute with Japan, it was criticised by many in South Korea, ensuring the feud continues [Ref: Guardian].

Most important for supporters of transatlantic slavery reparations, however, is the injustice of the compensation. The British Government gave an amount equivalent to £17 billion to slave owners in 1834, one year after the British abolition of slavery [Ref: UCL], while the freed slaves received nothing [Ref: UCONN.] Injustices such as this have led to a number of carefully considered reparations proposals and calculations that proponents argue are realistic, most notably a 10-point plan outlined by NAARC (The National African American Reparations Commission), which includes granting of ‘substantial tracts of government/public land… to be utilised for major educational, commercial, economic/business and health/wellness institutions and enterprises to benefit people of African descent’ [Ref NAARC].

However, the question remains, how genuinely helpful are reparations as a means to rectifying historical wrongs? Are they simply a symbolic gesture, an impractical and misguided policy? Or can reparations really help heal the wounds of the past?

Reparations

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

FOR

Don’t listen to the critics, reparations for slavery will right historical wrongs
Kenneth Mohammed Guardian 21 August 2022

Payback time, a case for reparations
Shreya Gulati LSE Blog 16 May, 2023

Why the key to the past lies in the future
Matthias Goldman Verfassungs Blog 20 August 2020

Germany acknowledges genocide in Namibia but stops short of reparations
Nora McGreevy Smithsonian Magazine 4 June 2021

AGAINST

Against reparations
James Heartfield spiked 8 August 2023

If anyone should be paying slavery reparations, it’s West Africa
Lawrence Goldman Telegraph 20 May 2024

Preparations not reparations
Eric Silver & John Iceland Quillette 19 November 2023

Reparations and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Pyrrhic Victory
Coleman Hughes Quillette 17 March 2019

Reparations over formerly enslaved people has a long history:
4 essential reads on why the idea remains unresolved

Howard Manley The Conversation 1 June, 2023

The arguments for and against slavery reparations
The Week Staff The Week 31 March 2022

Reparations for slavery: Top 3 pros and cons
Britannica ProCon.org

Should America pay reparations for slavery? Ta-Nehisi Coates v Coleman Hughes
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Coleman Hughes Guardian 19 June 2019

The long road ahead for colonial reparations
Max Fisher New York Times August 2022

What reparations for slavery might look like in 2019
Patricia Cohen New York Times 23 May 2019

The case for reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic June 2014

Reparations and the victim mentality
Christian Watson spiked 23 April 2019

Reparations for slavery are not about punishing children for parents’ sins
Julian Baggini Guardian 30 November 2018

The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid
Kehinde Andrews Guardian 28 August 2017

Justice requires former colonialists pay reparations
Verene A Shepherd New York Times 8 October 2015

The slave trade was not my fault
Patrick West spiked 9 October 2015

Jamaican reparations: British taxpayers are not to blame for the horror of slavery
Julia Hartley-Brewer Telegraph 29 September 2015

If Glasgow University is serious about slavery reparations, it would pay those still affected
Claire Heuchan Huffington Post 23 August 2019

Japan, Korea and the messy question of how to pay for historic wrongs
Victoria Kim Los Angeles Times 17 August 2019

While the US debate heats up, why won’t the UK even talk about reparations for slavery?
Kuba Shand-Baptiste Independent 17 July 2019

If you think affluent black people or mixed raced people shouldn’t qualify for reparations, I have something to tell you
Christabel Nsiah-Buadi Independent 28 March 2019

Britons suffer ‘historical amnesia’ over atrocities of their former empire, says author
Matt Broomfield Independent 5 March 2017

Are Trans-Atlantic slave trade reparations due?
New York Times 8 October 2015

We shouldn’t pay blood money for slavery
Tristram Hunt The Times 3 October 2015

We British Would Be Delighted To Accept Reparations For The Slave Trade
Tim Worstall Forbes 26 July 2013

Caribbean Community Secretariat

Colonialism Reparation

National Commission on Reparations

The national African American Reparations Commission

Debate: The West should pay reparations for slavery
Intelligence Squared 25 September 2019

Coleman Hughes testifies against reparations
C-Span 19 June 2019

Coleman Hughes talks to Quillette’s Jonathan Kay about his reparations testimony
Quillette Podcast 22 June 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover make case for slavery reparations
C-Span 19 June 2019