This is the first in a two-part series on the Herero and Namaqua genocide. Read part two here.
When the words “Germany” and “genocide” are put together, most of us inevitability, and understandably, think of the Holocaust. However, few of us associate those words with Germany’s presence in Namibia. That is not to say that the 1904 genocide of the Herero and Nama people is completely unknown, but rather has received significantly less attention than most genocides of the past. In order to understand why this has been the case, we must first understand what happened.
One aspect of genocide studies that is continually overlooked is the classification of incidents as “colonial genocides.” This phrased is used to describe the targeted destruction of indigenous groups by European colonial powers during the twenty century. Simply put, the colonial powers would first seek to destroy the indigenous peoples way of life. They would then impose their European or Westernised lifestyles on the group to complete colonization. The deliberate destruction of the Herero and Nama people is classified as such because it took place during the height of the “Scramble for Africa.” German colonizers wanted to take over the land of what we now call Namibia and saw the Herero and Nama people as an obstacle to this acquisition. In short, the rightful occupants of the land chose to rebel against German colonizers in 1904. The Herero were led by Samuel Maharero, followed shortly thereafter by the Nama and their leader, Hendrik Witbooi. The war between the two lasted four years, but the Herero and Nama stood little chance against the German military. By 1908, roughly 80,000 Herero (80% of their population) and 10,000 Nama (50% of their population) had perished.
For those who wish to know more about this war, there is a wealth of resources listed at the end of this article. What is important to establish here is not just what happened, however, but to gain recognition that this was in fact a genocide, so that the current generation of Herero and Nama people can get the recognition and reprisal they deserve.
The Fight for Recognition:
There are countless examples of colonial takeovers that may indeed be atrocious examples of mankind’s quest for power, but they are not labelled as genocide. This is because colonial domination did not always mean annihilation. More often then not, it was an attempt to quell and rule the occupants of the land, albeit through brutal measures. Unlike other incidents, however, Germany started out with a policy of colonialism that quickly escalated into a full-blown genocide.
In 1904, the Lieutenant-General for the German military, Lothar Von Trotha, issued his now infamous decree for such destruction, known as Vernichtungsbefehl (‘annihilation order’).
“The Herero people are no longer German subjects . . . Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children.”
Von Trotha’s above statement has been interpreted by some as an example of colonial attempts to drive the Herero people off the land, of an attempt at ethnic cleansing for sure, but not genocide. This argument may have had some merit given the circumstances of the colonial times, but Germany’s actions proceeding this rebellion went far beyond just trying to drive the people of the land.
When one evaluates the tactics used to essentially wipe out the people in Namibia, it is very difficult to argue that German occupants didn’t commit genocide. Concentration camps were established in Swakopmund, Karibib, Windhoek, Okahandja, Luderitz and perhaps most infamously, Shark Island. While one-third of the people died on the journey to the camps alone, Shark Island gained a reputation for its extreme brutality and harsh living conditions. Disease was as rampant, and the Germans attributed the mass death tolls to its spread , covering up the reality of the violence imposed on the Herero and Nama. Methods of starvation, torture, dehydration, rape and death by exhaustion were all utilized in the camps. These camps facilitated condition’s that would see to the destruction of the Herero and Nama people; they were not just used to quell a rebellion.
For those that did manage to escape into the desert, there was little hope for survival as German militants had poisoned most water supplies. The sharp decrease in their population, coupled with the rape and murder of many young Herero women later led to reproductive complications, a calculated way to prevent future reproduction. Racial science was also used to justify genocidal practices. Skulls of dead prisoners were sent back to German labs for experimentation, used to supposedly “prove” racist ideology of what they perceived as “African inferiority.”
The camps were dismantled in 1908, but the suffering did not end there. Both indigenous groups had lost most of their people and were further forbidden to own land, weapons, or cattle. A statement by the German military read:
“The punishment has come to an end. The Herero had ceased to be an independent tribe.”
The 17,000 Herero still alive in the aftermath were rounded up and subjected to forced labor by German forces.
The Herero and Nama people lost almost everything in this short space of time – their families, rights, property, income, dignity and freedom. They almost lost their identity entirely. But, this is just part one of their story. In part two of this series, we will examine the Herero and Nama’s current battle for official recognition and reprisals, along with discovering what you can do to help.
Decisive action on how you can help the Herero and Nama peoples case will be highlighted in part two. However, information is power. To help the current case for reprisal, the events of 1904 and how this fits into genocide studies must be fully understood. For more information, please see the following:
- The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism, by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen
- The Herero: Witnessing Germany’s “Other Genocide”, by Katharina von Hammerstein.
- From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe, by Benjamin Madley.
- Introduction: German Colonialism and National Identity, by Michael Perraudin, Jürgen Zimmerer.