Namibia: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide

Although it took Germany many decades, the German government finally accepted responsibility for the Holocaust, the German’s systematic attempt to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe. More recently, the German Parliament has passed a resolution condemning the forced relocation of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as a genocide. Turkey promptly withdrew its ambassador from Berlin, which Germany took as a confirmation of its moral rectitude and sensitivity to human rights

However, before Germany gets carried away with its self-congratulatory righteousness, it must first come to terms with its first genocidal campaign, which took place in Africa many decades before the Jewish Holocaust. During the period from 1904 through 1908, Imperial German forces annihilated over 100,000 members of the Ovaherero and Namaqua tribes in what was then called Southwest Africa (now Namibia). This is now generally recognized as the first genocide of the Twentieth Century, and yet no mention of this dark period in German history can be found in German school textbooks, and few German students are even taught that Germany was one of the great colonial powers occupying substantial portions of sub-Sahara Africa.

Imperial Germany first established its colony in Southwest Africa in 1883, and then signed a treaty with the Chief of the Herero tribe, Kamaharero, on October 21, 1885. Interestingly, the treaty was signed on behalf of Imperial Germany by Heinrich Ernst Goring, the Colonial Governor and father of Nazi Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goring. No sooner than the ink was dry on the treaty documents than the Germany began repeated violations of its terms, including the rape of Herero women and girls by Germans, a crime that the German authorities largely ignored. Under German colonial rule, natives also were routinely used as slave laborers, and their lands and cattle were frequently confiscated and given to German colonists. By 1903, over a quarter of Herero lands (originally approximately 50,000 square miles) had been seized by German colonists. In addition, the confiscation of Herero and Nama lands was expedited following the completion of the Otavi Railway Line running from the South West African coast to the inland German settlements.

In early 1904, having learned of a German plan to further divide up their territory and to establish “reservations” or “concentration camps,” the Herero finally revolted, and armed primarily with spears, killed between 123 and 150 Germans. Led by Chief Samuel Maharero, the Herero surrounded the town of Okahandja and cut links toWindhoek, the colonial capital. Colonial Governor Leutwein, who reported to the Colonial Department of the Prussian Foreign Office, called for urgent assistance, and on June 11, 1904, Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who had been appointed as Supreme Commander of South-West Africa, arrived with an expeditionary force of 14,000 troops. Trotha, who had earned a reputation as an effective and ruthless officer after effectively crushing a similar revolt against German colonial rule in East Africa, made clear his intentions to crush the resistance and to annihilate the Herero and Nama peoples. Prior to the Battle of Waterberg on August 11-12, 1904, where his troops defeated 3000-5000 Herero combatants, General Trotha issued the following proclamation:
I believe that the [Herero] nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country…This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.
After the battle, the pursuing German forces pushed the surviving Herero further into the desert. As the exhausted and dehydrated Herero fell to the ground, German soldiers acting on orders killed men, women, and children mercilessly, even though almost all of them were unarmed and unable to offer any resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle. Those who managed to make it into the desert were prevented by German troops from returning.

On October 2, 1904, Trotha issued the following warning:
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.
Trotha gave orders that captured Herero males were to be executed, while women and children were to be driven into the desert so that they would die of starvation and thirst. Trotha argued that there was no need to make exceptions for Herero women and children, since these would “infect German troops with their diseases.” Trotha further explained that his campaign to annihilate the Herero people “is and remains the beginning of a racial struggle”. Thereafter, German soldiers regularly raped young Herero women before killing them or letting them die in the desert.
The German general staff was aware of the atrocities that were taking place; its official publication, named Der Kampf,noted that:
This bold enterprise shows up in the most brilliant light the ruthless energy of the German command in pursuing their beaten enemy. No pains, no sacrifices were spared in eliminating the last remnants of enemy resistance. Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one water-hole to the next, until finally he became the victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke [desert] was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.

Governor Leutwein objected to Trotha’s “final solution” of the Herero and Nama “problem,” but not on humanitarian grounds. Rather he objected to the extermination of these indigenous peoples on economic grounds, writing that:
I do not concur with those fanatics who want to see the Herero destroyed altogether…I would consider such a move a grave mistake from an economic point of view. We need the Herero as cattle breeders…and especially as labourers.

By the end of 1904, the surviving Herero and Nama peoples remaining in South-West Africa, the majority of whom were women and children, were herded into concentration camps, where they were made available to colonists and private companies as slave laborers, or exploited as human guinea pigs in medical experiments. The most notorious of these camps was at Shark Island on the Atlantic coast, where the German authorities learned many of the lessons that were later employed at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II. All prisoners were first divided into two categories: those who were fit to work and those who were not. For administrative purposes, pre-printed death certificates uniformly gave the cause of death as “death by exhaustion following privation.” Estimates of the mortality rate from disease, exhaustion and malnutrition at Shark Island and other concentration camps were between 45% and 74%. Despite these harsh conditions, any Herero who could still stand were taken outside the camp every day as forced laborers by the German guards, while the sick and dying were left without medical assistance. Shootings, hangings and beatings of the forced laborers were widely reported by eyewitnesses and in the press. One British eyewitness reported that “cartloads of their bodies were every day carted over to the back beach, buried in a few inches of sand at low tide, and as the tide came in the bodies were out, food for the sharks.”

Medical experiments on live prisoners were made by German doctors such as Dr. Bofinger, who injected Herero that were suffering from scurvy with various substances including arsenic and opium. After these “patients” inevitably died, he autopsied the bodies and reported the results. German doctors also experimented with dead body parts from prisoners, including those by Zoologist Leopard Schultzel, who noted that the taking of “body parts from fresh native corpses” was a “welcome addition.” An estimated 300 skulls were sent to Germany for experimentation, in part from concentration camp prisoners. The primary goal of the experimentation was to “prove” the superiority of the “white race” and the “Germanic people.” In October 2011, after three years of talks, the first skulls were returned to Namibia for burial, but the last human remains were not delivered back to Namibia until 2014.

Some researchers have drawn some direct links between the medical experiments by Dr. Eugen Fischer and later medical procedures used during the Nazi Holocaust. For example, Fischer later became chancellor of the University of Berlin, where he taught medicine to Nazi physicians. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer was a student of Fischer, and Verschuer himself had a prominent pupil, the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, who experimented on victims at the Auschwitz camp. In addition, Franz Ritter von Epp, who later participated in the liquidation of virtually all Bavarian Jews, took part in the Herero and Nama genocide as well.

Although the Shark Island Concentration Camp and other death camps were finally closed, the surviving Herero were distributed as forced or slave laborers to German settlers. All Herero over the age of seven were forced to wear a metal disc with their labor registration number. The Herero were also prohibited from owning land or cattle, both of which were considered necessary for survival.

In 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the massacres as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of South-West Africa, and therefore one of the earliest cases of genocide in the 20th century.

In 1998, German President Roman Herzog visited Namibia and met Herero leaders. Chief Munjuku Nguvauva demanded a public apology and compensation, but Herzog stopped short of an apology, only expressing “regret.”

On August 16, 2004, at the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide, a member of the German government, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation, apologized and expressed grief about the genocide, but the German government quickly made it clear that her speech could not be interpreted as an “official apology” by Germany or a basis for the payment of any compensation, reparations or restitution.
The parallels between the Herero and Nama Genocides and the Holocaust are inescapable. Even the rhetoric used by Trotha eerily presages the language used by Hitler to justify the mass extermination of the Jewish people as an “ethnic cleansing.” Trotha saw the annihilation of the Herero and Nama peoples as serving a higher purpose, as part of the establishment of a new world order. He said: “I destroy the African tribes with streams of blood… Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain.”

Until Germany formally acknowledges the Herero-Nama Genocide and provides appropriate compensation, this dark stain on German history and its collective psyche cannot be fully atoned for. The return of some skulls is just not a full and adequate response. The German government has had some discussions with representatives of the Namibian government, but even if some settlement is reached between those two countries, this will not provide any satisfaction to the Herero or Nama peoples themselves since they are recognized indigenous groups with identities separate and distinct from the government of Namibia itself. Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukora is the current recognized leader of the Ovaherero in Namibia, but the Ovaherero peoples also have communities in Botswana, South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, as well as an expatriate community in the United States and other countries. Even in Namibia, the Herero and Nama communities are in the distinct minority, and the political parties they support have never played a major role in the Namibian government itself, which has been dominated by one political party since the country gained its independence in 1990. As a result, Chief Rukora and others have asked the law firm of McCallion & Associates LLP to represent them in their search for recognition and justice from Germany.