On Political Books

September/October 2011 Heart of Dunkelheit

Germany’s other genocide.

By Paul Hockenos

But von Trotha wasn’t finished. He divided up his units, putting half along the desert’s perimeter to shoot any Herero trying to make it back to their homeland and water sources, while the other half conducted mopping-up operations elsewhere in the territory. The general’s Vernichtungsbefehl (“extermination order”) of August 2, 1904—which today survives in the Botswana National Archives in Gaberone—is the most incriminating single piece of evidence illustrating the Germans’ intention to completely eradicate the local population. The edict, signed by the “Great General of the Mighty Kaiser,” reads,

The Herero people will have to leave the country. Otherwise I shall force them to do so by means of guns. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, whether found armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or children. I shall drive them back to their people otherwise I shall order them to be shot.

This proclamation, argue Olusoga and Erichsen,

was the explicit and official confirmation of the policies that most of the German units had followed since the battle of Waterberg. The aim of the conflict was to eradicate the Herero as an ethnic group from German South West Africa, either by extermination or by their wholesale expulsion from the colony.

The authors call the document “an explicit, written declaration of intent to commit genocide.” The Germans pinned the proclamation on the backs of Herero women and children refugees, ordering them to bring in any of their people still living in the desert. Most experts gauge that between 60,000 and 90,000 Herero were killed—roughly 75 to 85 percent of their total population. The German troops returned from the long killing raids physically exhausted and emotionally shattered.

Some of the protectorate’s civilian administrators argued that the colony needed local tribespeople as a steady supply of free labor power. So in German South West Africa in early 1905 the first concentration camps of the twentieth century opened. A German missionary there wrote that the Herero prisoners, mostly women and children,

were placed behind a double row of barbed wire and housed in pathetic structures constructed out of simple sacking and planks.… From early morning to late at night, on weekends as well as holidays, they had to work under the clubs of the overseers until they broke down.

The missionary was appalled at the cruelty and the “brutish sense of supremacy that is found among the troops and civilians here.” The prisoners who survived the grueling conditions of the camps— mortality rates were as high as 70 percent—were hired out to private companies and local farmers as slave laborers.

The ethnic cleansing of the Herero wasn’t the end of the Germans’ killing mission. The fate of the Herero caused the Nama people, initially on better terms with the colonialists, to rise up. Unlike the unsuspecting Herero, the Nama sensed what was in store for them and waged a fierce guerilla war against von Trotha’s forces; in the end, the losses inflicted on the Germans prompted von Trotha’s recall to Berlin. Nevertheless, 10,000 Nama would lose their lives before the killing and internments finally stopped in 1907. Wilhelm II lavished praise on von Trotha for his loyal service to the Fatherland, bestowing on him the highest military accolade of the day.

In the aftermath of the 1904-07 campaign, the colony exploded in size, although it never lived up to expectations as a New Germany or a lucrative economic asset. “With the Herero and the Nama decimated and the survivors reduced to virtual slaves,” write Olusoga and Erichsen, “German South West Africa truly belongs to the Germans.” By 1908 the colony had seized forty-six million hectares of land from the region’s tribes. Five years later, there were 1,331 German farms, compared to just 480 before the Herero and Nama wars. The size of the white population grew from 300 settlers in 1891 to 5,000 in 1904 and 15,000 in 1913. Even if the settlers were never able to shrug off the superficiality and materialism of modernity the way nationalist ideologues had foreseen, the community was an ethnically pure society that lived according to white supremacist convictions.

While German ownership of South West Africa, as with its other colonies, came to an abrupt end with World War I, the genocide’s beneficiaries mostly remained in the territory. South Africa took control of the area, and the region’s inhabitants suffered under the apartheid system for another seven decades. Namibia only gained its independence in 1990.

In the growing scholarship on genocide, which has expanded the category beyond the Holocaust, the destruction of the Herero and the Nama is now commonly regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century. Whether or not the Kaiser explicitly envisioned— and, as Sarkin claims “orchestrated”— the tribes’ complete eradication, he and other top officials in Germany certainly were well aware of the atrocities of 1904-07, and thus share the responsibility. Von Trotha was by no means a rogue figure operating on his own, as some observers have tried to argue.

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to equate the African genocide with the Holocaust as such, which the unfortunate title of Olusoga and Erichsen’s book does. There are enough significant differences between the means and volume of the Nazis’ mechanized slaughter of six million Jews and the 1904-07 massacres to distinguish them from each other. But since Olusoga and Erichsen don’t even attempt to make this argument, one might assume the title wasn’t their idea, but rather that of the Faber and Faber marketing department.

Professional scholars are, however, attaching greater legitimacy to the links between the German-run colonizing of Africa and the ideology of the Nazi dictatorship. The imperial Germans’ rationale for Lebensraum, for example, was explicitly articulated at the turn of the century and drove the German colonial enterprise. The Nazis didn’t invent this discourse, they picked up on it—and applied it closer to home, in eastern Europe.

In the same spirit, Olusoga, Erichsen, and Sarkin all illustrate how dominant racist thinking had become in Wilhelmine Germany. Von Trotha understood his mission as a “race war,” no less than did Adolf Hitler. Crass Social Darwinist ideas of biological supremacy and survival-of-the-fittest theories had won out over the ostensibly humanitarian, nineteenth-century logic of colonialism as a mission to civilize backward Africans. The Germans under von Trotha went on to pioneer a society in South West Africa based on racial laws. The concentration camps built to house the Herero served as field laboratories for racial science. The German scientists, who believed utterly in the need to have racial purity, used the Herero prisoners as human guinea pigs, conducting gruesome medical experiments on the tribespeople who had been either worked to death or killed by disease— another domain that became later associated with the Nazis.

Paul Hockenos is a writer living in Germany. His most recent book is Joschka Fisher and the Making of the Berlin Republic.

Comments

  • Charles Lemos on September 07, 2011 10:03 AM:

    "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."

    Why should I read an article whose opening line is historically inaccurate? Belgium was late as Germany (and Italy) to the carving up of Africa. It was the Berlin Conference of 1884 that partitioned Africa and it was then and there that Belgium received the Congo while Germany gained 4 different territories that today include the countries of Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Namibia. So the German presence in Africa predates the ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the throne.

    As per the massacre of the Herero between 1904-1907, it is well known and documented. Tens of thousands died, perhaps as many as 80,000. The estimates run from 20,000 to 80,000 but that pales in comparison to number that perished in the Belgian Congo or in British Africa. To suggest that German colonialism was somehow a dry run for Nazism is a bit much. German colonies in Africa were in fact the best run and the only profitable colonies on the continent and while atrocities did occur - the Maji-Maji War in Tanganyika is another - Germans were certainly not any worse than other European colonial powers or for that matter the Americans in their treatment of the Indians. Or more recently what do we say about the 20,000 to 30,000 Kikuyu killed during the 1950s in Kenya then British East Africa. The idea of reparations is nonsensical. I think it suffices to say colonialism was a dark chapter for tribal peoples the world over but even with colonialism largely confined to the trash bin of history, tribal peoples remain under assault from Christian missionaries and natural resources companies. Most of the former are American and certainly many of the latter are also American.

    Frankly, this is poorest article I have ever seen on The Washington Monthly.

  • Chesire11 on September 07, 2011 12:29 PM:

    ...not to mention the fact "The Great Game" is a turn of phrase coined to refer to the specific competition between Great Britain and Tsarist Russia for influence and outright control of Central Asia. It was not intended to refer to European Colonialism in general.

  • POed Lib on September 08, 2011 11:07 AM:

    The previous comments are inside baseball. For 99% of the readers, this review is welcome, interesting, and useful.

    For the experts, why are you wasting your time posting comments on a blog?

  • POed Lib on September 08, 2011 11:10 AM:

    @charles lemos

    You say "To suggest that German colonialism was somehow a dry run for Nazism is a bit much."

    The article says:

    "Nevertheless, it is a mistake to equate the African genocide with the Holocaust as such, which the unfortunate title of Olusoga and Erichsenís book does. There are enough significant differences between the means and volume of the Nazisí mechanized slaughter of six million Jews and the 1904-07 massacres to distinguish them from each other. But since Olusoga and Erichsen donít even attempt to make this argument, one might assume the title wasnít their idea, but rather that of the Faber and Faber marketing department"

    Prior to your highly accurate and careful comment, did you bother to read the piece? Doubtful.

  • LaFollette Progressive on September 08, 2011 11:49 AM:

    Charles Lemos -- "The estimates run from 20,000 to 80,000 but that pales in comparison to number that perished in the Belgian Congo or in British Africa."

    What distinguishes the massacre of the Herero is the systematic and unapologetic wholesale slaughter, and the scale in terms of the percentage of the local population that was wiped out. Southwest Africa is mostly desert, and has always been much more sparsely populated than the Congo or the Horn. The British were capable of being every bit as brutal when challenged, and the Belgians were equally vicious and far more corrupt, but their brutality was a means to an end, and the end was wealth, not extermination.

    Calling this slaughter a "dry run" for the Holocaust is misleading, but seeing it as an embodiment of the same culture and ideology that led to the Holocaust is an obvious and unassailable conclusion.

    It's not a particularly novel idea, either. This was a trendy subject for discussion back in the 1960s and a significant subplot in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

  • Crissa on September 08, 2011 7:04 PM:

    Who is to pay repatriations? Everyone? The country, the persons, the institutions which were responsible for this genocide are long gone. And by long, I mean nearly seventy years since the dissolution of the country these were in and the liquidation of the last companies which had claims there.

    Not to mention the hundred years for all the persons to have passed.

    So how do you pay repatriations from people gone a century?

  • LWC on September 08, 2011 8:16 PM:

    Well, for starters, if it's true much of the land is still owned by Germans I would say, send them home and divide up the land amongst the Herero.

  • Steve Paradis on September 08, 2011 11:00 PM:

    Reparations in the form of building and maintaining infrastructure, scholarships to German universities, the special advantages available in the UK to Commonwealth citizens extended by Germany to Namibians would be the most helpful.
    Land reform of marginal agriculture might do little.

  • jonas on September 09, 2011 11:46 AM:

    @LWC -- that usually doesn't work out too well. See Zimbabwe, e.g.

  • TCinLA on September 09, 2011 11:51 PM:

    Actually, the first concentration camps of the 20th Century weren't the German ones in Namibia. They were the British camps in South Africa, where the Boer population was held during that great civilizing event, the Boer War.

    The English like to pretend their empire was civilized and they made things better, but any history of their colonialism deals with as much mass murder as the Germans committed, both of which were as nothing compared to the mass murder committed by those brave soldiers of Freedom in the United States as they brought Mainfest Destiny to a continent and killed 90% of the native inhabitants over a period of 200 years. (roughly from King Philip's War to Wounded Knee).

    Europeans have been a disease on the planet since they fist discovered they could go sailing and not fall off the edge of what they thought in their theological ignorance was the flat earth.

  • d brown on September 14, 2011 12:44 PM:

    And yet in WW-1 black troops were fighting the Brits. The far more racist Brits were afraid to arm their blacks. And in their eyes I do mean their's.
    It happened. But the Kaiser messed up the whole world. It's unlikely there would have been a WW-1 without him. and that lead to WW-2 and the world we have today. Can you think of any one person who did more real harm than he did.

  • Jim McFarland on September 22, 2011 1:07 PM:

    Much of this history, and the relation between imperialism and genocide, is considered in Sven Lindqvist's "Exterminate All The Brutes!" (ISBN 1565843592). It's well worth reading.

  • Dal Blanca on September 22, 2011 11:50 PM:

    Regarding LaFollette Progressive's remark about Gravity's Rainbow: While Herero troops do figure in a subplot of that novel, the German treatment of the Herero as described in the books under review is an even more prominent subplot in Pynchon's V.

  • Tom S on September 23, 2011 11:19 AM:

    The blacks who were fighting the British were from the German colony of Tangangyika (sp.), on the other side of Africa. Also the Brits formed the KAR (King's African Rifles) during World War I.

  • Bruce Webb on September 25, 2011 12:23 PM:

    Well done. But it seems that the Germans may have just picked up tips from the British who used similar tactics during the Boer Wars just next door in South Africa in the years immediately prior.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Boer_War#Concentration_camps_.281900_-_1902.29
    The following is not an easy view: proceed at your own risk.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LizzieVanZyl.jpg

    Mans inhumanity to our fellow man doesn't always fall easily along racial, ethnic or religious lines, none of that came into play in the battle between Brit and Afrikaaner yet here we see Lizzie behind the wires. Which may put our views of then soldier/war-correspondent/budding politician Winston Churchill in a certain perspective. After all he could hardly have been unaware of what was happening to the civilian population.

    His was the country and generation that literally invented the concept and term 'concentration camp'.

  • Steven Koehn on October 22, 2012 1:56 AM:

    Reparations in the form of building and maintaining infrastructure, scholarships to German universities, the special advantages available in the UK to Commonwealth citizens extended by Germany to Namibians and other African people would be the most helpful. Steven