So you're here because you read the thread on twitter titled 'The Hidden Holocaust -The German Massacre of the Herero and Nama [Southwest Africa]'. Before the Holocaust, was the 2nd Reich, many of us probably do not much about the 2nd Reich, as we have always been taught about the 3rd Reich (Hitler's time). Many of us know Adolf Hitler to be a murderous, corrupt leader who massacred millions of Jews in the Holocaust between 1941 and 1945. All the aforementioned points are true. However, this article focuses on the genocide that Germany carried out... that no one talks about? The first genocide of the 20th century in fact, otherwise known as the Herero Genocide.
The purpose of the thread was to reveal the events of the German extermination regime of Southwest Africans. This took place in what is known as modern day Namibia. Although the German regime in Africa spread across Togo, Cameroon and Namibia. Again, similar to the concept of the post we made about Gandhi a couple of weeks back, this entire series of events is missing from the education curriculum. *TRIGGER WARNING* The events detailed in this post / article may be upsetting and graphic. But such is needed so that we understand the depths of the struggle of our ancestors and what they actually had to go through at the hands of our colonisers. The post will present some historical and cultural implications of the Herero Genocide, a timeline of the horrific events and some notable things that happened afterwards.
So, many people know of German History because of the connection to the Jewish genocide. Where Germans slaughtered Jews during Hitlers reign in death camps. many of you may have heard of ”Auschwitz” as the infamous concentration camp where many Jews died at the hands of Germans in gas tanks and awful working conditions. However, do not be fooled because this technique of gassing the Jews while they were bundled together until they no longer had any oxygen supply and were poisoned by the gas, is most certainly just a more recent development in Germany’s barbaric and cruel history.
Quick Facts about the Herero and Nama Genocide
Deaths: : 24,000 to 100,000 Hereros killed, some sources say it was around 60,000 (Steinhauser, 2017) Perpetrators: Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha
Target: Herero, Saan and Namaqua peoples Date: 1904–1908
German colonialism was partly in the pursuit of a very self-centered and supremacist ideology/ concept known as ‘Lebensraum’ — that is, the self-declared mandate to achieve “living space” for an overcrowded Germany. Lebensraum declared that the Germany was “inherently entitled to supplant and destroy other nations to advance German biological supremacy. This racist philosophy underpinned Germany’s invasion, subjugation, and rape of much of Eastern Europe“ (Edwin, 2016). However what many may not know is that it is not a Hilterian concept, Hitler is actually (and dare I say it) a distraction in this case. Why? Well because Lebensraum was coined at the end of the nineteenth century by a German geographer named Friedrich Ratzel.
Why was 'Lebensraum' a thing?
In the late 1800s, Germany saw large amounts of overcrowding “due to its shift from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation” (Edwin, 2016) - in Lehman terms, this means that Germany was a well refined land, before what is known as “industrialisation” started happening. This is when industries started to develop in different regions such as motorcars, farming and engineering for example. As this grew, Germany suddenly saw a natural population boom as more people filtered in to work and settle. This brought along rampant poverty. Germans in large numbers were sleeping on city streets and the social disruption ignited what is known as The ”Flight from the East.” In the 1850s, where, a million desperate Germans boarded ships with all that they owned and their families, and immigrated to American shores. Some 215,000 came in 1854 alone (Library of Congress or LOC).
Germany’s industries continued to grow, and the population condition did not improve over the next some 30 years. In the 1880s, another 1.5 million Germans came to America, Upon arrival to this country, they poured west into such centers as Milwaukee and St. Louis (LOC)
But there came a time where Germany’s identity became at stake. The destitute conditions along with many Germans leaving at the same time and migrating to America made Germany look unattractive to foreigners, much to the 2nd reich’s distaste. And so it was birthed by Ratzel ”Volk ohne Raum” meaning “a people without space.” Ratzel’s notions of racial supremacy insisted that colonizing land to create extra “living space” was the cure for Germany’s urban overcrowding - the concept they called Lebensraum. Indeed, Ratzel wrote that Africa was an ideal candidate for the push to achieve this.
The Berlin Conference 1884-85 - “Under the Radar”
Africa, with its wide-open spaces and unique natural beauty, had long appeared attractive to white Europe. By the early 1880's, England, Belgium, Portugal, France, and other countries were planning to or had already implemented colonial systems throughout Africa. Many were unfathomably brutal and exploitative regimes, such as that of Leopold and Belgian Congo, I’m sure a lot of us have heard of this regime before. Which brings me onto the mighty correlation between Belgian Leopold II and Nazi Germany; the Berlin Conference. Where in history, Germany’s stake pretty much seeps under the radar.
Kaiser Wilhelm, the German emperor and king of Prussia from 1888 to 1918, feared that Germany may be missing out on Africa and all of its natural resources,for example, cotton, gold, ivory, cobalt, oil, just to name a few. So the 2nd Reich eagerly joined what is known as the “Scramble for Africa.” It started in November 1884, Germany hosted the Berlin Conference of leading European powers to cooperatively divide the African continent between themselves.
*Lets slightly go away from the topic and just note how much Europeans actually owe African countries in reparations. Their actions of claiming a land belonging to another people, with no rights at all except the fact that what... they were white? Let's deep that.*
Enacted “in the Name of God Almighty”, the Berlin Conference scramble of Africa ordered multiple territorial invasions by European powers, as well as, land and river usage and any other necessary rules that needed to be put in place before the invasion of Africa. Not to mention, part of the treaty passed during the conference agreed to prohibit the Arab slave trade in its mist, "a lofty moralistic ideal with a double edge" (Edwin, 2016). The reason why they wanted to interrupt the Arab slave was because the more Sub-Saharan Africans that were being taken as slaves by the Arabs, the less able bodied slaves that were to make up the workforce in the European colonial territories. So, these people actually thought: no, we cant have them taking all our slaves, who are going to build our territories in their own land for us. It's the upmost extreme example of white supremacy and entitlement. And yet all people speak about when discussing that particular Berlin Conference is Leopold and Belgian Congo, so it is only right to shine a light on Germany and their horrific and cruel genocide of the 20th century. Germany colonised four territories across Africa: Togoland, the Cameroons (which they actually named 'Kamerun'), Tanganyika, and a main coastal presence in Southwest Africa, now known as Namibia. In the Southwest of Africa, they were able to establish lucrative plantations by exploiting the natives. The local 'Herero' and 'Nama' (also known as Hottentot) were the indigenous people who occupied the land before the German invaders arrived.
The invaders had economic support and investment from German banks and industrialists, a small military group to protect the white settlers, as they confronted the lightly armed African natives, who were considered subhuman in Germany’s warped notion of racial hierarchy. Upon establishing themselves, the German minority instilled a culture that was nothing short of pure labour enslavement. The region was controlled by, General Lothar von Trotha, the Supreme Commander of German Southwest Africa. The next section will detail, what exactly happened.
Timeline of Events - The Herero and Namaqua Massacre
PART 1 - The Battleground
Women were subjected to continuous and unpredictable sessions of rape and often their men were killed while trying to defend them.
German settlers frequently stole the possessions of the natives, such as cattle. They also found methods to seize ancestral lands from the natives over trivialities. Baring in mind, the confiscation of the land was often facilitated by owners held at gunpoint by the German military.
In 1903, on the verge of utter dispossession, the Nama warriors rebelled against the some 2,500 community of white Germans. Naturally, later the Herero fighters joined them and massacred scores of German settlers in a sequence of surprise attacks.
Germany were overwhelmed by the attacks and had to call in reinforcements.
In 1904, Berlin dispatched 14,000 soldiers to stop the uprising in West Africa. Lieutenant Trotha was determined to quickly and completely exterminate the African natives, leaving the land free for the fulfilment of the German dream of Lebensraum.
Trotha’s troops surrounded the natives on three sides. He Trotha wrote on October 2, 1904, “It is my intention to destroy the rebellious tribes with streams of blood and money,” his men used the German word "vernichtung"meaning "extermination".
After ravaging the outclassed fighters, Trotha turned his focus to annihilating the civilians as well. He made an open pledge to the Hereros that would let them know that they would be exterminated, his message was unmistakable. He wrote:
“I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer …The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”
Understandably, Trotha’s command became known in official circles as a vernichtungsbefehl, meaning an “extermination order.”As the natives were now surrounded, at least 3000 of them were killed off by a series of missiles fired at them rapidly and often. But bullets and cannon was just the beginning. Those who were not defeated in the battle, men, women and children who fell into the German hands were all mercilessly put to death. The Germans were in pursuit of the rest who were trying to flee with their families and cattle, and anyone they came across was either shot down or bayoneted to death.
PART 2 - A change in Strategy
Soon, Trotha felt like if he continued to order the extermination of the African natives by gunning them down, the identity of Germany would be stained...(well now it really is).
Trotha instructed his troops to fire over the heads of women, children, and weakened men, driving them east into the scorching dry Omaheke section of the Kalahari Desert.
The German troops anticipated that they would flee through the dessert in search of safety, so they poisoned the wells or surrounded them with deadly forces. Starved of food or water, the desperate and weakened Herero wandered from watering hole to watering hole.
Thousands, in family groups, gradually died, and those who did not die quickly enough were seized by the Germans once they eventually reached them.
Still whimpering, the "survivors" were then stacked by soldiers into human heaps of bush branches and human limbs. The mounds of vanquished Hereros, still barely alive and breathing, were set on fire — to finish the business. For many years, their mass murdered bodies littered the desert as a mark of the lack of sheer humanity before they eventually rotted away. Flesh and bones became flesh-less bones, as the un-buried corpses not completely immolated were finally devoured by desert elements.
A deadly fate also awaited the Nama tribes-people. Trotha sent them a similar message to the one he sent the Hereros. He stated:
“The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in German territory will be shot, until all are exterminated.”
Head of Shark Island prisoner used for medical experimentation
After killing the majority of the Africans, the Germans had to rethink the extermination order. There would be no good maintaining a colony with no workforce after all (too much killing). So, those civilian Herero and Nama people and related clans who escaped the bullets, cannon shot, killing thirst, and fiery execution were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Many died along the way and others were divided and sent to serve for German industrial concerns in Germany, for example building roads, berms, and useful holes for the German infrastructure.
One of these camps was the notorious 'Shark Island ' Concentration Camp, which was considered an “extermination by labour” camp where Nama and Herero civilians, including women and children, were knowingly and methodically worked to death. The estimated death rate there was 90 %.
Thousands of hopeless Africans perished under the brutal living conditions, the heavy loads, the endless whippings with stinging sjamboks made of rhinoceros or hippopotamus hide, awaiting all those who showed either weakness, reluctance, or just slowness of step.
When passing commentary about Shark Island, a missionary told a short story that she recalled in shock:
“A woman who was so weak from illness that she could not stand, crawled to some of the other prisoners to beg for water. The overseer fired five shots at her. Two shots hit her: one in the thigh, the other smashing her forearm.” One surviving family member of a chief later testified to a British commission, “I was sent to Shark Island by the Germans. We remained on the island one year. [Approximately] 3,500 Hottentots [Nama], and Kaffirs were sent to the island and [only] 193 returned — 3,307 died on the Island" (Steinhauser, 2017)
Lack of Acknowledgement in Historical Teachings
"Scholars commonly say the Armenian genocide of 1914–1915, perpetrated by the Turks, was the first genocide of the twentieth century. That is wrong. History records the first deliberate effort to systematically exterminate an entire group was by the Germans in Southwest Africa, 1904–1908"
A "variety of German politicians have since acknowledged their country’s burden of guilt, even uttering the dread word “genocide”, especially in the wake of the centenary in 2004" (Otavi and Windhoek, 2017). But after knowing what we now know about the first German genocide, I wonder why this was not taught in school, or spoken about openly and I have come to a pretty solid conclusion. First we need to ask ourselves why World War II, particularly Adolf Hitler's cruel regime against the Jews and his Aryan ideology were so widely taught and glamourised to us in school, as such a key part of European history? We were taught that Hitler was a terrible person, who killed Jewish people - the only victims at the hands of German cruelty. But that is clearly not true, Germans massacred millions of Africans at the start of the twentieth century. Why am I only coming to know this now as an African and as an adult?
What I have realised is that it is beneficial for English and western European curriculum's to teach only about Hitler and the negative things he was guilty of, because Hitler was their enemy. Britain prevailed over his regime following World War II which ended in 1945. So of course it is only right and well suited to British people, to teach about how BAD he was. And when they speak of Germans, ask yourself why they leave out the mention of The First Genocide which we have read about today... It is because they too were complicit in the Scramble of Africa, busy with all those countries that they call the "commonwealth", it would do no good to mention the Berlin Conference in modern day history lessons right?...
There is actually a statue in Windhoek, Namibia of General Lotha von Trotha. There seems to be a clear sequence of statues of oppressors scattered around Africa. Needless to say this needs to come down. It is not vandalism to take down a statue of a man who oversaw the enslavement of thousands of African people in their own native land. The symbolism of these statues is an insult to those people who walk the ground today knowing that those people are the perpetrators of the mass genocide of their ancestors.
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Black, E., (2016) 'In Germany’s extermination program for black Africans, a template for the Holocaust' - online article
Library of Congress 'The Germans in America' - online article
Otavi and Windhoek, (2017) 'What Germany owes Namibia' - online article
'Steinhauser, G., (2017) Germany Confronts the Forgotten Story of Its Other Genocide' online article