The extermination of the Herero and the Nama peoples in Namibia occurred from 1904 to 1907 at the hands of the German settlers. It was the first massacre of a certain extent of the Twentieth Century, characterized also by the appearance of concentration and death camps.
The arrival of the German settlers in Namibia
In 1884, at the Berlin Conference, free rein had been given to Germany on the African territories of Togo, Cameroon, German Eastern Africa and South-Western German Africa – the current Namibia. At the core of this region there were rich mines of tungsten and uranium, while the Southern part was rich in gold, copper, tin and diamonds.
The tribes that inhabited that territory had varied life systems depending on where they lived. The two main tribes around the 1840s were those of the Namas and the Hereros, who were farmers. The German settlers arrived in Namibia, persuaded that they would not only be entitled to the possession of the lands, but also of the activities from which until that moment the local populations had earned their living. Such persuasion found a pretentious justification in the theory of Lebensraum of geographer Friederich Ratzel and the racist theories of the end of the century.
The relations between the German settlers and the indigenous populations were strongly influenced by the attitude of superiority of the former, although they did not immediately lead to violent clashes. The settlers’ conviction to belong to the superior race was though met with a reality, in which the Hereros owned most of the land and cattle. The settlers, strong in their racist convictions, held themselves in the right to resort to various kinds of violence on the local population, in order to achieve their goals. In the long run, this caused a strong resentment in the Hereros.
German officer with prisoners on Shark Island, circa 1905.
Chained Herero and Nama prisoners during the genocide, circa 1905.
The road to genocide
Governor Leutwein favoured negotiations and mediation, but the settlers wanted to cause a clash to have an excuse to force the Hereros out of their lands and seize them. The occasion was provided at the end of 1903, as Leutwein was forced to leave the capital to crush a revolt that had broken out in the Southern mines. Settlers and soldiers took advantage of the governor’s absence to engage in lootings, murders and rapes of the Herero women.
The Hereros reacted with a rebellion, offering the settlers and soldiers the most suitable occasion to seize the land and carry out an ethnic cleansing in the territory of Okahandja.
At the beginning, the zone of the revolt was limited to the area of Okahandja, while in other parts of the country, coexistence went on quite peacefully. In order to reach their goal of seizing the whole land, the settlers had to push the whole Herero population to revolt and turn the clash into a racial war. They succeeded in this by amassing troops also in the area not previously affected by the rebellion. In the face of the continuous provocations of the army, the whole population was drawn into a true war.
Governor Leutwein behaved according to the traditional military tactics, which recurred to negotiations and deals to put an end to war. So he sent a message to Herero chief Samuel Maharero.
In the meanwhile, in Germany the nationalists and the settlers’ supporters staged demonstrations to continue the war, depicting the Hereros like savages to exterminate. The political-military line kept by Leutwein was targeted and disputed. A heavy mixture of nationalism, militarism and racism spread in the whole Second Reich.
Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the army to go crack down on the African savages and appointed as head of the troops a personality with a reputation to be particularly fierce-hooded, general Lothar von Trotha. Six months after the beginning of the uprising, von Trotha landed in South-Western Africa. There he immediately met with governor Leutwein and formally took over the command. But Leutwein again appealed for a resumption of the negotiations with the Hereros.
The German offensive
Before the arrival of general von Trotha, these latter had in facts essentially stopped the rebellion and they had withdrawn in an area nearby the Kalahari desert, close to a waterfall, waiting for the negotiations promised by Leutwein. Not only the negotiations did never begin, but von Trotha demanded and obtained from Germany reinforcements to strengthen the army.
In the late Summer 1904, von Trotha’s army was garrisoned on the Waterberg plateau. On August 11 of the same year, the offensive was launched with the goal, as von Trotha meant, to ex terminate the Herero people. His strategy was to surround them completely, leaving, as only way out, the route leading inside the Kalahari desert. When the Hereros went past the last water pipe, the general had a 200-mile long fence built, afterwards he launched a proclamation, in which he summoned the Herero people to leave their land, on pain of death. It was a true extermination order, as the Hereros did not have any chance to survive in the desert, where they started starving and dying of thirst. The document containing such a summon is the evidence that there existed a true annihilation plan on the side of the military authority.
In Germany, though, von Trotha’s decisions were not favourably welcomed by the public opinion. Against the government’s advice and the broader audience, the Kaiser refused to order von Trotha to withdraw his extermination order. For two more months, the Hereros were chased in the desert, until the government forced the hand to the Kaiser. In the morning of 9 December, a telegram ordered von Trotha to accept the Herero’s surrender. It seemed as though the extermination was blocked, but things did not go this way.
General Lothar von Trotha at Keetmanshoop during the Herero revolt, 1904.
The concentration camps
The war survivors were taken by the German soldiers and moved to the area surrounding the fortress of Vindhoek, the capital of Northern Namibia, where the first mass concentration camp of the Twentieth century was set up. Here, 4.000 people were compelled to forced labour, mishandled and starved. The same phenomenon repeated itself in other parts of the country. In the first months of 1905, the Hereros were carried around Namibia on cattle trucks. Thousands of them were taken to Swakopmund, the colony’s main harbour. Here, concentration camps were set up because the town was an important centre for the newcomers from the German industry, a place where the prisoners’ slave labor could be exploited in the best way.
What happened in the two concentration camps of Swakopmund was meticulously recorded, filed and photographed by the very Germans. The imprisoned Hereros were about 3.000 mostly women and children, who were used to upload the ships at the docks. Life conditions were so miserable that many of them starved.
As long as the colony’s economy expanded, the army started renting the slaves to private individuals for a sum of 10 marks a month. And yet, incredibly, some companies were so big that they were allowed to keep their own concentration camps. In Swakopmund, like in other towns, besides the militaries’ camps there were camps owned by private firms.
Another concentration camp had been set up in a remote harbour in the island of Shark Island, out of sight and inaccessible. We could say that the camp of Shark Island was a death camp: the aim, for which prisoners were taken there was not to gather them to exploit them as slaves, but to definitively eliminate them.
Most of the victims of Shark Island, nonetheless, were not Herero. After witnessing the genocide of the Hereros, the Southern people of the Namas had in turn stood up against the Germans. The Namas were not dispersed, unlike the Hereros, but they became the new victims of the genocide. In Germany then it was overtly said that the Namas did not have any merit, and did not deserve to live as they had no usefulness whatsoever in the world.
The facts confirm that there was a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Namas on Shark Island. In September 1906, 1.732 Namas were sent to this death camps, after surrendering to the German army. Within six months, 1.032 of them died.
The camp of Shark Island is very clearly connected with the Nazi regime’s Vernichtungslager. In both cases, the inmates were gathered from distant places and sent via railway on cattle wagons called as “transport” headed for remote destinations, where they were systematically exterminated. The great, industrialized mass murders of Auschwitz and the other camps were still ahead to plan, but the idea of segregating the people and murdering them as quickly as possible did probably stem from Shark Island.
Another common element between the death camps in Germany and those in Namibia was the pretention to provide a scientific foundation to the racist theory, and use as evidence the remains of the victims. This was the reason why the soldiers went in for trading the skulls of the Herero and Nama victims, selling them to scientists, museums and universities of Germany. The racist eugeneticist Eugen Fischer, who was very influential in the Third Reich, had started his experiments precisely after his arrival in Namibia in 1904, prompted by some German universities.
Prisoners on a “transport” headed to a concentration camp, 1907.
Shark Island concentration camp, 1906.