Holocaust survivors obtained reparations. Why not the descendants of slavery?

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By Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann

Jewish Holocaust survivors received reparations, but African descendants of slave trade victims did not, although it is the moral responsibility of the nations that benefited from slavery to provide them.

Some have cited Holocaust reparations as inspiration for those who advocate the same for descendants of slavery.

But in my book Repairs to AfricaI explain that one of the reasons for the difference is the considerable obstacles faced by those of us seeking redress from the slave trade.

My research for the book revealed that it is easier to obtain reparations when the event has occurred in living historical memory. It is also easier when there are only a few identifiable authors. And it is even easier when the number of victims is limited and the event has occurred within a short period of time.

In addition, the pecuniary amount claimed must not appear unreasonable to the persons who are supposed to pay for the reparations. Finally, the support of a powerful nation is useful to those who seek reparations.

In living memory

Much of this helped those seeking Holocaust reparations. Some Holocaust survivors are still alive, so the event is in living historical memory. The main author, the German Nazi regime, is known. About six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, which took place over a short period of time, between around 1933 and 1945. And after World War II, the United States pressured Germany to pay for reparations.

By 2020, the German government had paid out around $ 70 billion to people who suffered from the Holocaust.

On the other hand, the demand for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade is much more difficult. About 12.5 million Africans crossed the Atlantic over more than 300 years, of which 10.7 million survived and actually landed in the Americas.

If you add the people killed in Africa as a result of the slave trade, that number could reach 30 million. And the number of descendants could well run into the hundreds of millions.

In addition, none of the direct victims of the slave trade are still alive. Particularly for the descendants of the perpetrators of slavery, historical memory is much more distant than the Holocaust.

The end of the slave trade

Both legal and illegal transatlantic slave trades lasted from the 15th to the mid-19th century, ending around 150 years ago. The time since the end of the trade makes it more difficult to persuade governments whose predecessors supported the trade that they should pay reparations to the descendants of the victims.

There were a lot of perpetrators of the slave trade. They included private slave traders and the governments of all countries that supported both the slave trade and legally supported slavery. Some Africans were also involved as slave sellers, attracted by the payments offered by Western buyers. This makes it harder than it was for Jewish Holocaust victims to identify who should pay them reparations.

Finally, some activists are calling for up to $ 100,000 billion in reparations for the slave trade. This is a difficult figure for any government to accept. The GDP of the United States, for example, is currently around $ 21 trillion.

There is also no world power agitating for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade.

Centuries of atrocities

A precise comparison of crimes against Jews with crimes against Africans should cover eight centuries of European history. For example, Jews were expelled from Britain in 1290 and could not return until 1656. Mass killings of Jews, known as pogroms, were common in Russia and Eastern Europe. at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The last pogrom took place in Kielce, Poland, in 1946, after World War II, carried out by ethnic Poles.

There is no doubt that the Jewish community would also find it very difficult to seek redress for all these atrocities committed over so many centuries by so many people; the Holocaust gave them a specific focus.

Nonetheless, there have been some successful movements for reparations to Africans for crimes committed during the colonial period. The Herero are an ethnic group living in southwestern Africa, now Namibia, once colonized by Germany. From 1904 to 1905, around 60,000 Herero were massacred by the Germans who wanted their land. The German government apologized for this genocide in 2021 and agreed to fund $ 1.3 billion in reconstruction and development projects in Namibia.

The social movement for reparations was successful in this case because there were relatively few Herero victims. When the campaign began, the massacre was still in living memory. There was a known author, the German government. And the massacre took place in no time.

The Herero situation was also similar to the Holocaust. Having accepted responsibility for the Holocaust, Germany could hardly deny it for the Herero massacre.

The descendants of the African slave trade absolutely deserve reparations.

But there are major obstacles facing the social movement for reparations for the slave trade. These reparations are a moral imperative, but politically, obtaining them successfully will be extremely difficult.

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

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