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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.