A Century Later, Namibia Demands Justice From Germany for Its First Holocaust

1900 Views from German Southwest Africa signed by Hendrik Witbooi. Photo: Keijo Knutas / Flickr / CC 2.0

From Nov. 25, 2016 to March 12, 2017, the Holocaust Memorial in Paris, France, hosted an exhibition dedicated to the genocide of two Namibian peoples: the Herero and the Nama — what is now widely considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century.

Following the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers divided Africa among themselves, Germany ruled German South West Africa (present-day Namibia), until 1915.

Between 1904 and 1908, German colonialists committed a holocaust against the Herero and the Nama, exterminating as many as 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama. In one particularly gruesome detail, some of the victims’ skulls were even sent to Germany for scientific research into supposed racial inequality.

Eventually, under the leadership of Chief Samuel Maharero, members of these two tribes mounted a successful revolt against the Germans, retaking their lands, and putting an end to widespread rape by German occupiers and other forms of degradation. They fought a guerrilla war leading to a situation Véronique Chemla described on her blog as  “a major conflict”. Véronique Chemla, an international affairs journalist for American Thinker, Ami and FrontPage Mag, explains:

Le 12 janvier 1904, « alors que les troupes allemandes sont occupées à tenter de mater la “rébellion” des Nama Bondelswartz dans le Sud, des Herero d’Okahandja, exaspérés par les injustices commises par Zürn et la perte continue de territoire, s’en prennent aux fermes allemandes, aux commerces et à l’infrastructure coloniale. Ces attaques entraînent une brutale répression de la part des soldats et des colons qui se livrent à des actes de lynchage et de représailles aveugles ».
En Allemagne, à la suite des “descriptions exagérées de ces agressions, une véritable fièvre guerrière se développe”.
“Alors que la violence se propage, le soulèvement local se transforme en conflit majeur, forçant Maharero à se ranger du côté des « rebelles ». Au grand dam des politiciens de Berlin, ses hommes réussissent dans un premier temps à résister aux troupes de Leutwein en utilisant des techniques de guérilla. Leutwein est relevé de son commandement et remplacé par l’impitoyable général Lothar von Trotha qui débarque dans la colonie en juin 1904 avec des milliers d’hommes.

On Jan. 12, 1904, “while the German troops were busy trying to suppress the “rebellion” of the Bondelswartz Nama in the south, the Okahandja Herero, exasperated by injustices committed by [Station Commander Lieutenant Ralph] Zürn and the continued loss of their territory, attacked German farms, businesses and the colonial infrastructure. These attacks led to a brutal repression by the soldiers and colonials, who held lynchings and indiscriminate reprisals.”

In Germany, following the “exaggerated descriptions of these attacks, a real desire for war developed.”

While the violence continued to spread, the local uprising transformed into a major conflict, forcing Maharero to side with the “rebels.” To the great annoyance of Berlin politicians, his men at first succeeded in resisting [Colonial Administrator Theodor] Leutwein’s troops by use of guerilla techniques. Leutwein was relieved of his command and replaced by the ruthless General Lothar von Trotha who arrived at the colony in June 1904 with thousands of men.

General Lothar Von Trotha led 15,000 men in a ruthless campaign of repression. On Oct. 2, 1904, he ordered his officers to carry out the systematic extermination of members of the two tribes, as described by a post on Le Blog de Daniel Giacobi. Giacobi is a french history professor:

Les Hereros ne sont plus des sujets allemands. S'ils n'acceptent pas, ils seront contraints par les armes. (Ils) doivent quitter le pays sinon, je les délogerai avec le « groot Rohr » (grand canon)… Tout Héréro aperçu à l'intérieur des frontières allemandes [namibiennes] avec ou sans arme, sera exécuté. Femmes et enfants seront reconduits hors d'ici – ou seront fusillés. Aucun prisonnier mâle ne sera pris. Ils seront fusillés. Décision prise pour le peuple Héréro. Dans les frontières allemandes, chaque Herero armé ou non, en possession de bétail ou pas, sera abattu. Je ne recevrai plus de femmes ou d’enfants. Je les renverrai aux leurs, ou je leur ferai tirer dessus».  «  Ma politique a toujours été d'exercer celle-ci par le terrorisme brutal, voire par la cruauté. J'anéantis les tribus insurgées dans des flots de sang et d'argent. C'est la seule semence pour faire pousser quelque chose de nouveau qui soit stable.»

The Herero are no longer German subjects. If they do not accept this, they will be forced to with arms. [They] must leave the country, otherwise I will remove them with the “groot Rohr” [large cannon]
… Any Herero seen inside German [Namibian] frontiers, whether armed or not, will be executed. Women and children will be taken out of the country — or shot. No male prisoners will be taken. They will be shot. This decision has been made regarding the Herero people. Within German frontiers, each Herero, whether armed or not, with cattle or not, will be killed. I will not receive any more women or children. I will send them back to their own, or I will have them shot. […]

My policy has always been to control this using brutal terror and even cruelty. I will use floods of money to annihilate the insurgent tribesmen in torrents of blood. This is the only seed which will grow into something new and stable.

In the August 1904, at the Battle of Waterberg, the Herero and Nama were surrounded, “leaving the only escape route across the Kalahari desert, where the water points had been poisoned.”

What happened next was even more tragic:

Pour compléter le tableau il installa des postes de garde en leur donnant l'ordre formel d'abattre tout Herero quel que soit son âge ou son sexe… Ce fut un massacre systématique que certains estiment entre 25 000 et 40 000 morts (d'autres parlent de 60 000 victimes)

As a finishing touch, he installed guards, giving them a formal order to kill any Herero of any age or either gender. The result was a systematic massacre that some estimate at between 25,000 and 40,000 dead (others speak of 60,000 victims).

Vincent Hiribarren, a lecturer at King's College London in African and World History, runs the libeafrica4.blogs.liberation.fr website, which published an interview by Jean-Pierre Bat with Leonor Faber-Jonker, a historian at the University of Utrecht, who described the extermination methods used by the Germans:

C’est en réalité la politique que suivait déjà, sans le dire, von Trotha depuis l’attaque de Watterberg. Au cours de la bataille, les Herero qui sont parvenus à s’échapper de l’encerclement allemand ont fui en direction de l’Omaheke. Von Trotha ordonna leur poursuite, ratissant systématiquement le terrain et neutralisant les points d’eau. Poussés vers le désert, ces Herero finissent par mourir de déshydratation et de faim. Cette traque n’a pas été sans conséquence, non plus, sur les Allemands…

Des copies de l’ordre écrit étaient brandis à la capture d’Herero, qui étaient forcés d’assister à l’exécution de certains de leurs camarades prisonniers avant d’être renvoyés dans le désert, afin de témoigner de ce qu’ils ont vu et de décourager les Herero de revenir.

This was actually the policy that von Trotha had been following, although unstated, since the Waterberg attack. During the battle, any Herero who managed to escape the circle of Germans surrounding them fled toward Omaheke. Von Trotha ordered their pursuit, methodically scouring the terrain and taking out the water points. Pushed toward the desert, these Herero eventually died of dehydration and hunger. This pursuit also had repercussions for the Germans.

Copies of the written order were shown when Herero were captured, and they were forced to watch the execution of some of their prisoner comrades, before being sent into the desert so they could bear witness to what they had seen and discourage other Herero from returning.

The colonials behaved appallingly, stealing land and raping Herero and Nama women. The Holocaust Memorial website highlighted that most colonials who took the Herero land and cattle treated the Africans with a total lack of respect.

Rape was common, exacerbated by the shortage of German women. The fear of the German people (Volk) of racial degeneration led ultimately to the ban on mixed marriages in September 1905. Ideas of racial difference were based on late 19th century German anthropology, which established a distinction between races deemed “civilized” and those considered “primitive.” It was hoped to gain an understanding of the human species through the objective observation of “primitives,” like those people exhibited in human zoos (highly popular in Europe at that time).

In 2011, eleven skulls from the genocide were finally discovered in Namibia. Until then, this atrocity had remained hidden, as highlighted by the Holocaust Memorial site:

Le Blue Book, un rapport officiel du gouvernement britannique faisant état des atrocités commises dans le Sud-Ouest africain allemand, réalisé peu de temps après la reconquête de la colonie pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, est censuré en 1926 dans l’intérêt de l’unité blanche. Par la suite, la vision allemande faisant du génocide une guerre coloniale héroïque domine le paysage mémoriel au sens propre : l’ancienne colonie est envahie de monuments et de noms de rues commémorant l’effort de guerre allemand.

Après 1945, le passé colonial est tout sauf oublié en Allemagne. Dans le Sud-Ouest africain, la suppression du régime d’apartheid étouffa tout débat public sur le génocide. Ce fut aux descendants des victimes qu’il incomba de garder vivante la mémoire du génocide aussi bien dans des commémorations que par la transmission orale.

The Blue Book, an official report by the British government listing the atrocities committed in German South West Africa, and compiled shortly after the reconquest of the colony during the First World War, was censored in 1926 in the interest of the new unity. Following this, the German perspective viewing the genocide as an heroic colonial war literally dominated the memorial landscape as the former colony was inundated with monuments and street names commemorating the German war effort. After 1945, the colonial past was all but forgotten in Germany. In South West Africa, the suppression of the apartheid regime stifled any public debate about genocide. Descendants of the victims had the task of keeping the memory of the genocide alive, both by commemorative events and oral tradition.

Finally, in July 2015, the German government agreed to label “the events that took place” as an official genocide, following recognition of the Armenian genocide. But the government had still failed to issue a formal apology or indicate a desire to give compensation. This led to a meeting from last October at the Berlin French Center, uniting supporters from several countries to affirm the right of the Herero and Nama communities to be directly involved in negotiating a resolution that includes recognition of the genocide, an appropriate and sincere formal apology to the affected communities, and payment of fair compensation to these two communities, who continue to suffer the ill-effects of the genocide.

Since Namibia gained independence in 1990, descendants of victims — together with human rights groups (in particular, Jewish supporters) from Germany, the United States, Botswana, and South Africa — have fought to win recognition of the genocide, nearing a major victory in court. This July, New York Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain will hear a complaint against Berlin by the victims’ descendants.

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