Germany’s other genocide.
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.
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