ADOLF HITLER'S ‘final solution’, the systematic extermination of over six million Jews and other ethnic groups is a dark and repulsive chapter in German history. But nearly 50 years before that, Germany was carrying out an organised genocide that almost wiped out an entire ethnic group of people in Africa.
The German genocide in the South East African region of what is present day Namibia, had many similarities to that of the Jewish holocaust. The order for genocide came from the very top, and the organised butchery involved the setting up of concentration camps and mass executions. However while much has been written about the Jewish genocide of WWII, what happened in Namibia is hardly known outside of the African country. It’s as if the events of that evil time has been systematically removed from the history books.
Compared to Britain and France, Germany had been slow in the land grab of Africa that was called 19th century colonialisation. But as German commercial interests started to increase in the South Eastern part of Africa that is now Namibia, the German government seized more and more control of the territory. The state of German South West Africa was born.
The ethnic make up of the region was complex and today Namibia’s population includes at least 11 major ethnic groups, ranging from hunter-gatherers to rural farmers and town dwellers. The 650,000-strong Owambo make up the largest group and live mainly in the north. Other significant tribes include the Kavango, Herero, Himba, Damara, Nama, San and Basters.
For years there had been skirmishes between the Germans and different tribal groups, but on January 12, 1904 Herero warriors, incensed by years of German settlers lynching tribesmen, stealing their land, cattle and women, launched a full scale rebellion killing about 200 German civilians over several days. They spared missionaries on the explicit orders of chief Samuel Maharero.
The Hereros were traditionally cattle herders and with their land being quickly taken from them by the Germans, their battle against the Europeans was a simple one of survival. For the Germans it was a matter of power and wealth.
An issue of the Cape Times newspaper at the time put the case in a nutshell:
‘We Whites want the Black man’s land just as we did when we first came to Africa. But we have the decency in these conscience-ridden days, not to take it without excuse. A native rising, especially when there are inaccessible caves for the rebels to retire to, is a very tiresome and expensive affair; but it has its compensations, for it provides just the excuse wanted.’
German head of state Kaiser Wilhelm II, appointed a soldier notorious for brutality who had already fiercely suppressed African resistance to German colonisation in East Africa, to settle the unrest in Namibia. Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha was quoted as saying, “I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge.”
The Germans responded ruthlessly, defeating the Herero in a decisive battle at Waterberg, northwest of Windhoek, on August 11, 1904.
Von Trotha had brought with him to German South West Africa 10,000 heavily-armed men and a plan for war. Under his command, the German troops slowly drove the Herero warriors to a position where they could be hemmed in for attack on three sides. The fourth side offered escape, but only into the killing wastes of the Kalahari Desert.
The German soldiers pursued the Herero into this harsh desert. The troops also poisoned the few water-holes there. An estimated 15,000 men, women and children died of thirst and hunger. Von Trotha set up guard posts along a 150-mile border and any Herero trying to get back was killed.
On October 2, 1904, von Trotha issued his order to exterminate the Herero from the region. “All the Herero must leave the land. If they refuse, then I will force them to do it with the big guns. Any Herero found within German borders, with or without a gun, will be shot. No prisoners will be taken. This is my decision for the Herero people.”
After the Herero uprising had been systematically put down, by shooting, mass hangings, or enforced slow death in the desert from starvation, thirst and disease, those still alive were rounded up, banned from owning land or cattle, and sent into concentration camps to be the slaves of German settlers. Many more Herero died in the camps, of overwork, starvation and disease.
By 1907, in the face of criticism both at home and abroad, von Trotha’s orders had been cancelled and he himself recalled, but it was too late for the crushed Herero. Before the uprising, the tribe numbered between 80-100,000; after it, only 15,000 remained. 85 percent of an ethnic group had been exterminated by the Germans.
Although the Herero suffered the greatest losses, other tribes were also butchered by the Germans. After the defeat of the Herero the Nama tribe also rebelled, but von Trotha and his troops quickly routed them.
On April 22, 1905 von Trotha sent his clear message to the Nama: they should surrender. “The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in the German area will be shot, until all are exterminated.” During the Nama uprising, half the original tribe of 20,000 were killed; the 9,000 left were confined in concentration camps where more perished.
A BITTER LEGACY
AT A small ceremony held in Namibia in 2004 to mark the 100th anniversary of the rebellion, Germany’s Development Aid minister Heidemarie Wiecaorek-Zeul, apologised for the 1904 massacre.
Ms Wieczorek-Zeul however repeated her government’s rejection of compensation claims but promised that German aid to Namibia, would continue.
But Herero paramount chief Kuaima Riruako insists that compensation must be paid.
“The wounds of the past must be healed. Our reparation claim must only be seen as an effort to regain our dignity and help us restore what was wrongfully taken away from us,” he said.
“I once again invite the German government to accept the genocide of my people and engage in a dialogue with the Herero to iron out issues of mutual interest.”
In 2001 the Herero filed a $2bn lawsuit against the German government in a United States court. They have also taken legal action against Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank who they allege was linked to the genocide. The bank denies any involvement.
However the chances of any legal victory in the future are very slim. As Professor James Crawford, an expert in international law at Cambridge University points out. “There was no prohibition on genocide at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact the term genocide hadn’t been invented.”
But for others the issue is not about money. Israel Kaunatjike, a Herero who lives in Berlin, said: “Our demand is that this history not be swept under the carpet. We want an apology from Germany because so many people were killed.
“Other people who were killed, be it Jews or gypsies, got what they demanded,” said Kaunatjike, adding, “I assume it’s linked with the colour of our skin. I think it’s racism.”
Today the descendants of the once great Herero are mainly impoverished cattle workers working, ironically, for the white ancestors of the German settlers who took their forefathers land.
The Namibian government, which is dominated by the Ovambo people, has shown little interest in backing the Herero claims. No government representatives took part in the ceremony and little has been done by the government to build any monuments to record the genocide.
But the issue is certainly not going to go away. While the Herero now only make up seven percent of Namibia’s 1.7m population, the problem for all Namibians is that the white descendants of those who seized land a100 years ago, own millions of acres today.
A small group of 4,500 whites, own over 50 percent of Namibian land. With so many poor and landless Namibians, it is surely a recipe for future unrest.
TOOLS OF GENOCIDE
LIKE MANY modern historians, Larissa Förster, a Namibia expert at the Museum for Ethnology in Cologne, Germany, considers the Herero rebellion the first genocide of the 20th century. “It was clearly a command to eliminate people belonging to a specific ethnic group and only because they were part of this ethnic group.”
Decades before the infamous Auschwitz or Dachau concentration camps were built, the Germans had created their own versions in Namibia. Five camps or Konzentrationslager as they were called, were set up between 1904-05. The most infamous was Shark’s Island at Lüderitz which had a shocking mortality rate of about 80 percent.
Rations were minimal, consisting of a daily allowance of a handful of uncooked rice, some salt and water. Rice was an unfamiliar food to most, and the uncommon diet was the cause of many deaths.
Disease was uncontrolled. An almost total lack of medical attention or hygiene, insufficient clothing and a high concentration of people meant that diseases such as typhoid spread rapidly. Beatings and maltreatment were also part of life in the forced labour camps.
During the brutal German era, African women were used as sex slaves. In the Herero concentration camps there were many children born to these abused women, and infamous German genetist Eugen Fischer, carried out medical experiments on them.
In keeping with the racist ‘scientific’ ideas of the time he concluded that the mixed-race child was “physically and mentally inferior to its German father” and wrote a book promoting his ideas, The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene. Adolf Hitler read it while he was in prison in 1923, and cited it in his own pursuit of ‘racial purity’.
Britain was the first nation to set up concentration camp in their war with the Boers. However while the South African camps have memorials and written histories, the Namibian camps do not.
On the site where Shark Island once lay now lies a caravan park. Even worse, at the entrance of the park is a monument to the German soldiers who died between 1905 and 1908. A monument to the victor and not the victim.
Today the 25,000 rich German settlers in Namibia are among those who deny that genocide ever happened, fearing that reparation might mean losing their valuable land.