Study

German Foreign Policy and the Rwandan Genocide

A First Examination of Archival Records from the German Federal Foreign Office

Brockmeier Large Peez 2024 Germany Rwanda Genocide
A view of the interior of St. Jean catholic church in Kibuye, Rwanda — the site of and today a memorial for a massacre during the 1994 genocide.  | Photo: MilanoPE / Shutterstock
15 Mar 2024
Funded by

Heinrich Böll Foundation

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With approximately 800,000 deaths in one hundred days, the 1994 genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi population marked a global turning point that raised fundamental questions about the responsibility of the international community in the face of such mass violence. It cast doubt on the effectiveness and capacity of both the United Nations and individual member states to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. While many aspects of the Rwandan genocide have since been examined in detail, numerous questions about Germany’s foreign policy before and during the events of that time remain unanswered to this day. Drawing on archival research, this study shows that German diplomats in 1993 and 1994 were better informed about the situation in Rwanda than was previously known. However, they underestimated the ethnic dimension of the violence against the Tutsi as well as the degree to which it was planned and organized. They also overlooked crucial warning signs, such as the activities of Rwandan hate media. 

Although the German government debated steps to adjust its development cooperation with Rwanda and to withdraw a Bundeswehr advisory group that had been stationed in the country since 1978, relevant German ministries overall failed to coordinate and change Germany’s policy toward Rwanda in the years before the genocide. Consequently, there was no early response from German policymakers to the deteriorating situation in the year leading up to the mass violence. Despite Germany’s self-perception as a particularly credible political actor in Rwanda and the wider region at the time, the German government did not attempt to engage more actively in peace negotiations or initiate its own political initiatives. In the summer and fall of 1993, the year before the genocide, the UN, Rwandan authorities, and international partners repeatedly requested soldiers and equipment from the German government for the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Although the Foreign Office supported such a contribution, the federal government ultimately rejected a German participation in the mission due to concerns at the Ministry of Defense. The deployment of medical personnel to the mission during the genocide was also prevented by the defense ministry, and the deployment of a German transport aircraft was delayed until after the genocide had ended. 

In 2020 and early 2021, 26 years after the genocide, the Political Archive of the German Federal Foreign Office granted us access to a selection of relevant records amassed by the ministry. The documents contained in those records primarily cover the year 1993 and the months of the genocide (from April 1994 onward). Based on an analysis of the reviewed documents and additional original interviews, we summarize in this study new insights into Germany’s foreign policy before and during the Rwandan genocide. We do so in three thematic areas that still warrant more extensive debates in German foreign policy today:

  1. Early warning and political analysis for crisis prevention;
  2. Coordination between relevant ministries and the strategic capacities of the German government in matters of crisis prevention and peacebuilding;
  3. The conditions for early action and a timely response to warning signs.

Read the full study to learn more about the lessons Germany should draw from its foreign policy leading up to and during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

This study is a slightly updated translation of a German version, which was published in March 2021. Both the original German publication and this translation were funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.