By the time the German emperor Wilhelm II ascended the throne in the summer of 1888, it was clear that Germany had arrived late to the Great Game of European Imperialism. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium had long laid claim to hefty chunks of Asia, South America, the Mideast, and parts of Africa, but Germany’s holdings were mostly limited to small commercial colonies in Africa and Asia founded by private German traders. Kaiser Wilhelm, alternatively insecure and belligerent, pushed to expand these holdings and acquire others, desperate to be on par with his colonial peers. Moreover, Germany aspired to export the Fatherland beyond cramped central Europe. Every year large numbers of its booming population were emigrating to the Americas, where they became lost to Germany forever. Some lightly colonized lands in southwest Africa, in particular, were seen as insular locations perfect for nurturing a kind of New Germany, one that preserved the volkisch ethos that was rapidly disappearing in a modernizing, industrial Europe. Germany could then also rely upon these colonies for raw materials, export markets, and military manpower in times of war.

Germany’s Genocide
of the Herero: Kaiser
Wilhelm II, His General,
His Settlers, His Soldiers

by Jeremy Sarkin
James Currey, 264 pp.

The Kaiser’s Holocaust:
Germany’s Forgotten Genocide
and the Colonial Roots of Nazism

by David Olusoga and
Casper W. Erichsen
Faber and Faber, 400 pp.

For this vision to succeed, vast tracts of free land were required to lure Germanic emigrants to the rough African countryside and the trials of pioneer life. The primary obstacle was that ancestral people like the Herero and Nama tribes already lived on the choicest land, many of them on a great, arable plateau with plentiful fresh water and surrounded by the boundless Namib and Kalahari deserts.

Too little has been written about this period in German history; there is, however, a growing literature—in German and English—on Germany’s mass murder of the Herero and Nama peoples in southwestern Africa between 1904 and 1907. South African legal scholar Jeremy Sarkin presents a compelling case against Germany and in favor of reparations for today’s Herero (for whom he acts as legal counsel) in his book Germany’s Genocide of the Herero. Another new contribution is The Kaiser’s Holocaust, by Anglo-Nigerian author David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, a Danish-born historian living in Africa. Both these titles make much the same argument, in line with current scholarship, namely, that the German empire’s onslaught against these tribes-people clearly constitutes genocide, and that many of its elements—like supremacist racial theories, the quest for Lebensraum, Social Darwinism, and even the use of concentration camps—reemerged later in the Nazi Reich.

German authorities in Africa during the 1880s displayed no particular knack for colonial governance. Indeed, the handful of German settlers there—as well as powerful nationalistic lobbies back home—kicked up a storm, demanding better farming land and a more decisive subjugation of the natives. Initially, German administrations employed the conventional tools of colonial rule to divest the tribes of their property: dirty tricks, fraud, extortion, and brute force. Yet the Herero in particular, a tribe of cattle herders, were defiant and armed, quickly serving up the Germans a full-scale revolt that was no match for the protectorate’s modest Schutztruppe.

To quell the Herero uprising, the Kaiser turned to General Lothar von Trotha, a husky, bald-pated Saxon with a thick handlebar mustache and black leather riding boots. A hardened military man harboring a ferocious hatred of black Africans, von Trotha had crushed previous uprisings in Germany’s eastern African colonies and elsewhere. In May 1904, he was named commander in chief of the Kaiser’s army in German South West Africa—what is now Namibia—with 6,000 well-trained reinforcements as well as the latest in European armaments, including mounted rapid-fire machine guns, light portable artillery, and repeating rifles.

Von Trotha didn’t mince words about his objectives. “All the tribes of Africa share the same mentality, in that they only retreat when confronted by violence,” he wrote to the German military high command. “My policy was and is, to apply such violence with the utmost degree of terrorism and brutality. I will exterminate the rebellious tribes with rivers of blood.”

“With an enormous army standing idle under his colors,” write Olusoga and Erichsen, “the rising of the Herero offered Wilhelm II and Germany the rare opportunity to showcase her military might and underline her status as a colonial power.” In contrast to the civilian governor he was replacing, von Trotha understood that his mission, sanctioned by the Kaiser, was not simply to put down the uprising, but to annihilate the rebellious Herero, whom he described in his diary as “Unmenschen”—nonhumans. The Herero would be punished, and a message would be sent to Germany’s possessions everywhere about the consequences of dissent and the inevitability of the white man’s subjugation of inferior races.

Von Trotha planned from the beginning to rid the entire territory of the Herero once and for all. Without giving negotiations a thought, he had his forces encircle the Waterberg—the expansive plateau named “Water Mountain” by the Dutch—where an estimated 50,000 Herero, about two-thirds of the tribe’s total number, either lived permanently or had fled to during the hostilities. The Herero, expecting talks or even contemplating leaving the territory for good, had had no warning when artillery shells and grenades began raining down on their encampments on August 11. The massacre, now known as the Battle of Waterberg, continued all day, until the Herero warriors finally broke through the German lines bordering the Kalahari Desert—which was exactly what von Trotha had intended.

The Herero fighters, women, children, and their cattle rushed headlong into the vast desert sands (in present-day Botswana) with the Germans in pursuit. Von Trotha had given the order that no prisoners be taken. For weeks German soldiers hunted down the refugees, executing them on sight. One German guide present at the Waterberg siege described what he witnessed:

After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance.

By the time the Germans tracked down the last survivors, the brutal sun and lack of nourishment had already taken their toll, as one German private described: “The greater part of the Herero nation and their cattle lay dead in the bush, lining the path of their morbid march. Everyone among us realized what had happened here.”

But von Trotha wasn’t finished. He divided up his units, putting half along the desert’s perimeter to shoot any Herero trying to make it back to their homeland and water sources, while the other half conducted mopping-up operations elsewhere in the territory. The general’s Vernichtungsbefehl (“extermination order”) of August 2, 1904—which today survives in the Botswana National Archives in Gaberone—is the most incriminating single piece of evidence illustrating the Germans’ intention to completely eradicate the local population. The edict, signed by the “Great General of the Mighty Kaiser,” reads,

The Herero people will have to leave the country. Otherwise I shall force them to do so by means of guns. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, whether found armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or children. I shall drive them back to their people otherwise I shall order them to be shot.

This proclamation, argue Olusoga and Erichsen,

was the explicit and official confirmation of the policies that most of the German units had followed since the battle of Waterberg. The aim of the conflict was to eradicate the Herero as an ethnic group from German South West Africa, either by extermination or by their wholesale expulsion from the colony.

The authors call the document “an explicit, written declaration of intent to commit genocide.” The Germans pinned the proclamation on the backs of Herero women and children refugees, ordering them to bring in any of their people still living in the desert. Most experts gauge that between 60,000 and 90,000 Herero were killed—roughly 75 to 85 percent of their total population. The German troops returned from the long killing raids physically exhausted and emotionally shattered.

Some of the protectorate’s civilian administrators argued that the colony needed local tribespeople as a steady supply of free labor power. So in German South West Africa in early 1905 the first concentration camps of the twentieth century opened. A German missionary there wrote that the Herero prisoners, mostly women and children,

were placed behind a double row of barbed wire and housed in pathetic structures constructed out of simple sacking and planks.… From early morning to late at night, on weekends as well as holidays, they had to work under the clubs of the overseers until they broke down.

The missionary was appalled at the cruelty and the “brutish sense of supremacy that is found among the troops and civilians here.” The prisoners who survived the grueling conditions of the camps— mortality rates were as high as 70 percent—were hired out to private companies and local farmers as slave laborers.

The ethnic cleansing of the Herero wasn’t the end of the Germans’ killing mission. The fate of the Herero caused the Nama people, initially on better terms with the colonialists, to rise up. Unlike the unsuspecting Herero, the Nama sensed what was in store for them and waged a fierce guerilla war against von Trotha’s forces; in the end, the losses inflicted on the Germans prompted von Trotha’s recall to Berlin. Nevertheless, 10,000 Nama would lose their lives before the killing and internments finally stopped in 1907. Wilhelm II lavished praise on von Trotha for his loyal service to the Fatherland, bestowing on him the highest military accolade of the day.

In the aftermath of the 1904-07 campaign, the colony exploded in size, although it never lived up to expectations as a New Germany or a lucrative economic asset. “With the Herero and the Nama decimated and the survivors reduced to virtual slaves,” write Olusoga and Erichsen, “German South West Africa truly belongs to the Germans.” By 1908 the colony had seized forty-six million hectares of land from the region’s tribes. Five years later, there were 1,331 German farms, compared to just 480 before the Herero and Nama wars. The size of the white population grew from 300 settlers in 1891 to 5,000 in 1904 and 15,000 in 1913. Even if the settlers were never able to shrug off the superficiality and materialism of modernity the way nationalist ideologues had foreseen, the community was an ethnically pure society that lived according to white supremacist convictions.

While German ownership of South West Africa, as with its other colonies, came to an abrupt end with World War I, the genocide’s beneficiaries mostly remained in the territory. South Africa took control of the area, and the region’s inhabitants suffered under the apartheid system for another seven decades. Namibia only gained its independence in 1990.

In the growing scholarship on genocide, which has expanded the category beyond the Holocaust, the destruction of the Herero and the Nama is now commonly regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century. Whether or not the Kaiser explicitly envisioned— and, as Sarkin claims “orchestrated”— the tribes’ complete eradication, he and other top officials in Germany certainly were well aware of the atrocities of 1904-07, and thus share the responsibility. Von Trotha was by no means a rogue figure operating on his own, as some observers have tried to argue.

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to equate the African genocide with the Holocaust as such, which the unfortunate title of Olusoga and Erichsen’s book does. There are enough significant differences between the means and volume of the Nazis’ mechanized slaughter of six million Jews and the 1904-07 massacres to distinguish them from each other. But since Olusoga and Erichsen don’t even attempt to make this argument, one might assume the title wasn’t their idea, but rather that of the Faber and Faber marketing department.

Professional scholars are, however, attaching greater legitimacy to the links between the German-run colonizing of Africa and the ideology of the Nazi dictatorship. The imperial Germans’ rationale for Lebensraum, for example, was explicitly articulated at the turn of the century and drove the German colonial enterprise. The Nazis didn’t invent this discourse, they picked up on it—and applied it closer to home, in eastern Europe.

In the same spirit, Olusoga, Erichsen, and Sarkin all illustrate how dominant racist thinking had become in Wilhelmine Germany. Von Trotha understood his mission as a “race war,” no less than did Adolf Hitler. Crass Social Darwinist ideas of biological supremacy and survival-of-the-fittest theories had won out over the ostensibly humanitarian, nineteenth-century logic of colonialism as a mission to civilize backward Africans. The Germans under von Trotha went on to pioneer a society in South West Africa based on racial laws. The concentration camps built to house the Herero served as field laboratories for racial science. The German scientists, who believed utterly in the need to have racial purity, used the Herero prisoners as human guinea pigs, conducting gruesome medical experiments on the tribespeople who had been either worked to death or killed by disease— another domain that became later associated with the Nazis.

Today, the descendants of the Herero survivors in Namibia live an unhappy existence of poverty and social exclusion, the legacy of the colonial tragedy. Much of the land confiscated at the time is still in the hands of German owners. In 2004, on the 100th anniversary of the Waterberg massacre, the German government publicly apologized for the atrocities committed in Germany’s name. But it still refuses to pay the Herero reparations. This cause is one Jeremy Sarkin has made his own, and hopefully these fine books will aid the Herero’s case in the world’s courts of justice.

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Paul Hockenos

Paul Hockenos is a writer living in Germany. His most recent book is Joschka Fisher and the Making of the Berlin Republic.