Germany’s other genocide.
Germany’s Genocide of the Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II, His General, His Settlers, His Soldiers
by Jeremy Sarkin
James Currey, 264 pp.
The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism
by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen
Faber and Faber, 400 pp.
By the time the German emperor Wilhelm II ascended the throne in the summer of 1888, it was clear that Germany had arrived late to the Great Game of European Imperialism. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium had long laid claim to hefty chunks of Asia, South America, the Mideast, and parts of Africa, but Germany’s holdings were mostly limited to small commercial colonies in Africa and Asia founded by private German traders. Kaiser Wilhelm, alternatively insecure and belligerent, pushed to expand these holdings and acquire others, desperate to be on par with his colonial peers. Moreover, Germany aspired to export the Fatherland beyond cramped central Europe. Every year large numbers of its booming population were emigrating to the Americas, where they became lost to Germany forever. Some lightly colonized lands in southwest Africa, in particular, were seen as insular locations perfect for nurturing a kind of New Germany, one that preserved the volkisch ethos that was rapidly disappearing in a modernizing, industrial Europe. Germany could then also rely upon these colonies for raw materials, export markets, and military manpower in times of war.
For this vision to succeed, vast tracts of free land were required to lure Germanic emigrants to the rough African countryside and the trials of pioneer life. The primary obstacle was that ancestral people like the Herero and Nama tribes already lived on the choicest land, many of them on a great, arable plateau with plentiful fresh water and surrounded by the boundless Namib and Kalahari deserts.
Too little has been written about this period in German history; there is, however, a growing literature—in German and English—on Germany’s mass murder of the Herero and Nama peoples in southwestern Africa between 1904 and 1907. South African legal scholar Jeremy Sarkin presents a compelling case against Germany and in favor of reparations for today’s Herero (for whom he acts as legal counsel) in his book Germany’s Genocide of the Herero. Another new contribution is The Kaiser’s Holocaust, by Anglo-Nigerian author David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, a Danish-born historian living in Africa. Both these titles make much the same argument, in line with current scholarship, namely, that the German empire’s onslaught against these tribes-people clearly constitutes genocide, and that many of its elements—like supremacist racial theories, the quest for Lebensraum, Social Darwinism, and even the use of concentration camps—reemerged later in the Nazi Reich.
German authorities in Africa during the 1880s displayed no particular knack for colonial governance. Indeed, the handful of German settlers there—as well as powerful nationalistic lobbies back home—kicked up a storm, demanding better farming land and a more decisive subjugation of the natives. Initially, German administrations employed the conventional tools of colonial rule to divest the tribes of their property: dirty tricks, fraud, extortion, and brute force. Yet the Herero in particular, a tribe of cattle herders, were defiant and armed, quickly serving up the Germans a full-scale revolt that was no match for the protectorate’s modest Schutztruppe.
To quell the Herero uprising, the Kaiser turned to General Lothar von Trotha, a husky, bald-pated Saxon with a thick handlebar mustache and black leather riding boots. A hardened military man harboring a ferocious hatred of black Africans, von Trotha had crushed previous uprisings in Germany’s eastern African colonies and elsewhere. In May 1904, he was named commander in chief of the Kaiser’s army in German South West Africa—what is now Namibia—with 6,000 well-trained reinforcements as well as the latest in European armaments, including mounted rapid-fire machine guns, light portable artillery, and repeating rifles.
Von Trotha didn’t mince words about his objectives. “All the tribes of Africa share the same mentality, in that they only retreat when confronted by violence,” he wrote to the German military high command. “My policy was and is, to apply such violence with the utmost degree of terrorism and brutality. I will exterminate the rebellious tribes with rivers of blood.”
“With an enormous army standing idle under his colors,” write Olusoga and Erichsen, “the rising of the Herero offered Wilhelm II and Germany the rare opportunity to showcase her military might and underline her status as a colonial power.” In contrast to the civilian governor he was replacing, von Trotha understood that his mission, sanctioned by the Kaiser, was not simply to put down the uprising, but to annihilate the rebellious Herero, whom he described in his diary as “Unmenschen”—nonhumans. The Herero would be punished, and a message would be sent to Germany’s possessions everywhere about the consequences of dissent and the inevitability of the white man’s subjugation of inferior races.
Von Trotha planned from the beginning to rid the entire territory of the Herero once and for all. Without giving negotiations a thought, he had his forces encircle the Waterberg—the expansive plateau named “Water Mountain” by the Dutch—where an estimated 50,000 Herero, about two-thirds of the tribe’s total number, either lived permanently or had fled to during the hostilities. The Herero, expecting talks or even contemplating leaving the territory for good, had had no warning when artillery shells and grenades began raining down on their encampments on August 11. The massacre, now known as the Battle of Waterberg, continued all day, until the Herero warriors finally broke through the German lines bordering the Kalahari Desert—which was exactly what von Trotha had intended.
The Herero fighters, women, children, and their cattle rushed headlong into the vast desert sands (in present-day Botswana) with the Germans in pursuit. Von Trotha had given the order that no prisoners be taken. For weeks German soldiers hunted down the refugees, executing them on sight. One German guide present at the Waterberg siege described what he witnessed:
After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance.
By the time the Germans tracked down the last survivors, the brutal sun and lack of nourishment had already taken their toll, as one German private described: “The greater part of the Herero nation and their cattle lay dead in the bush, lining the path of their morbid march. Everyone among us realized what had happened here.”
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