On a recent trip to Namibia—one of the most stunningly beautiful countries I have ever visited—I learned of a startling piece of the country’s history, largely unknown today: the genocide of the Herero ethnic group by the representatives of Germany’s Second Reich at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though I’ve taught African Studies for nearly fifty years, this was news to me. At the beginning of our trip, when my wife and I were still in the capital, Windhoek, our guide asked what we knew about apartheid in Namibia. I answered, naively, that I thought the situation was not as deplorable as it had been in South Africa. How wrong I was.
Several days later, we were shown the BBC Documentary, Genocide and the Second Reich, directed by David Adetayo Olusoga. The film was first shown August 15, 2005, on the BBC and Channel 4, in Great Britain, but never broadcast in the United States, though you can access the fifty-eight minute video on several sites on Google or an excerpt on You Tube. Our guide–the grandson of one of the Hereros who survived the genocide, which resulted in the extermination of seventy-five percent of his ancestral tribe–said that today few black Namibians are aware of the German genocide in their country. When I left Namibia in late July, he was scheduled to work with a film crew in the country, also documenting the atrocities that—thirty years before Hitler came to power—became the model for later genocide in Europe.
In 1884, when the European powers carved up Africa, Germany acquired Togo, Cameroon, German East Africa and German South West Africa. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the latter area was regarded as suitable for German settlers, though much of the country is, in fact, desert. Frederic Ratzel formulated the theory of Lebensraum, the idea that Germany needed “living space” to expand and prosper. That “space” became the areas of South West Africa, already populated by the Herero, in the south-west part of the country. The land was free of tropical diseases and suitable for farming cattle. By 1903, there were roughly 4000 German settlers in the area, slowly pushing the Herero east, toward the Kalahari Desert.
The Herero people rebelled against this encroachment, killing roughly one hundred German soldiers. In retaliation, in January of 1904, Germany sent a much larger army into the Okahandja area, where the war against the Herero began in earnest. They were led by General von Trotha, who—with the blessing of Kaiser Wilhelm II–was sent to the continent after a salvo of propaganda in the German media characterized the Herero as “savages who should be crushed.” Attempted peace negotiations had failed. The Herero started to retreat, to avoid all contact with the Germans, but the German colonial army pursued them. In August, von Trotha issued a written directive that “Every Herero with or without a gun will be shot.”
The document was the beginning of official genocide. Thousands of Herero were killed, thousands of others starved because they had been funneled into the desert where they could not survive. On December 9th, von Trotha ordered the Herero to surrender. What followed was the opening of concentration camps in Windhoek and in Swakopmund (and later in Luderitz and on Shark Island), where the surviving Herero became slaves, worked to death. Often they were sent to these camps by rail in cattle cars. They were forced to wear numbered dog tags around their necks and loaned out to German businesses for railroad and dock construction and other projects. Their mass graves were covered up.
The next victims of the Germans were the Nama people, taken to Shark Island, where they were starved. The skulls of the dead were sold by soldiers to scientists and universities back in Germany. In 1904, Eugene (“Eugenics”) Fischer had arrived in Namibia, intent on proving that the black race was inferior to the Caucasian race, that Africans were animals. Fischer accumulated 778 skulls for illustration and “scientific” examination. By 1906, three-fourths of the Herero and half of the Nama people had been exterminated. The camps were finally shut down in 1907, but the damage had been done. The survivors of the two ethnic groups were sold to German farmers as slaves. At the end of World War I, Franz Ritter von Ept, who had been trained in South West Africa, returned to Germany, where he and Eugene Fischer aligned themselves with the Nazis and expanded their theories of “racial science,” eventually influencing such Third Reich figures as Rudolf Hess, Josef Mengele, and Hitler himself.
The subsequent Nazi genocide in Europe is well-known, but by the time of Namibia’s independence in 1990, when the United Nations took South West Africa away from South Africa, the story of Germany’s policy of genocide had largely been erased from people’s consciousness. The von Trotha memorial in Windhoek depicts the general on his horse, prominently located near a Christuskirche, a Lutheran church which contains plaques identifying the German soldiers killed in the rebellion of 1903. There is no monument in the country to mark the atrocities of the Herero and the Nama genocide.
And today? Under pressure from the Namibian government, Germany asked for forgiveness and has used the word genocide to describe von Trotha’s war against the Herero—but has it not extended the term to include the concentration camps used between 1904 and 1907. The Namibian government has asked Germany for reparations of two billion dollars to enable black Namibians to purchase the 4000 farms still held today by white commercial farmers. The largest cities in the country (Windhoek and Swakopmund) have clean, beautiful sections with buildings constructed by the slave labor in the first decade of the last century. These cities are ringed by separate “townships” (shanty towns) where black Namibians reside. Unemployment in the country stands at fifty-one percent, a continuing form of economic apartheid.
David Olusoga’s chilling documentary, Genocide and the Second Reich, is masterfully edited, beginning with visuals of Auschwitz that quickly cut to disturbing images of skulls and bones of the deceased Herero in Namibia.
The sweeping grandeur of the country is juxtaposed with still photos that are historically relevant to the plight of the Herero and the Nama at the beginning of the twentieth century. Testimonials by international scholars and descendants of the genocide propel the film to its brutal end. A concerted effort needs to be made for greater exposure of the BBC documentary around the world. Yet few people even know where Namibia is. When I recently told someone that I’d been traveling in Namibia, I was asked, “In what country is that?” If Germany can find billions of dollars to stabilize Greece’s economy, can’t it pay the two billion dollars for long-overdue reparations for Namibia? It’s still a question of “living space.”
Genocide and the Second Reich
Produced and Directed for the BBC by David Adetayo Olusoga
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.