First Genocide in the 20th Century

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide is considered to have been the first genocide of the 20th century. It took place between 1904 and 1907 in German South-West Africa(modern day Namibia), during the Herero Wars.

In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of South-West Africa rose up against the German colonisers in a war of rebellion. This war, and the extermination order issued by General Lothar von Trotha that followed its end, is considered by most historians to be the first genocide of the 20th century.

In 1884, the German State declared South-West Africa a German colonial territory. The Germans began to take more and more land from the local African inhabitants, instituting laws and policies that served to undermine and oppress the local population. During the early period of colonisation, the Herero people were far more economically and socially powerful than the Germans, keeping German colonisation at bay. In 1897 the Rinderpest struck South-West Africa, killing up to 90% of the Herero herds. The plague significantly weakened the Herero, both physically, by destroying their source of protein, and economically, by decimating their source of wealth. With the Herero weakened, the Germans became ever more brutal in their colonial policies. Occasionally, a group of Herero or Nama would rise up against the Germans, but to little avail.

 

By 1904, the tensions in the colony had risen to a peak. Under the leadership of their paramount chief, Samuel Maherero, the downtrodden Herero rose up against their colonisers in a wide-spread rebellion. This rebellion quickly turned into a war. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was determined to defeat the Herero, sent thousands of troops, under the leadership of General Lothar von Trotha, from Germany. In August 1904, von Trotha and his troops cornered the Herero at Waterberg, where they defeated them in battle. The Herero then fled into the Omaheke Desert, a waterless wasteland, where they were left to die of thirst and starvation.

In 1905, the Nama in the south also rose up against the German colonisers, starting the Nama-German war. With the use of guerrilla tactics, the Nama were able to engage the Germans in war for over two years.

A human skull from the Herero and ethnic Nama people is displayed during a ceremony in the auditorium of Berlin's Charite hospital September 30, 2011. The hospital is returning 20 human skulls to Namibia, which were taken from victims of the Herero and Nama tribes, who died at the hands of German colonial forces during the resistance war in Namibia between 1904 and 190. The Namibian skulls were were sent to Berlin, a hub at the outset of the 20th century for anthropological research, for racial analysis, according to Charitie's research. Many skulls are still stored at the Medical History Museum at the teaching hospital in Berlin. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz (POLITICS RELIGION)

A human skull from the Herero and ethnic Nama people is displayed during a ceremony in the auditorium of Berlin’s Charite hospital September 30, 2011. The hospital is returning 20 human skulls to Namibia, which were taken from victims of the Herero and Nama tribes, who died at the hands of German colonial forces during the resistance war in Namibia between 1904 and 190. The Namibian skulls were were sent to Berlin, a hub at the outset of the 20th century for anthropological research, for racial analysis, according to Charitie’s research. Many skulls are still stored at the Medical History Museum at the teaching hospital in Berlin. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz (POLITICS RELIGION)

During the war, all Nama and Herero people that the Germans came across, including women and children, were shipped off to concentration camps as ‘prisoners of war’. The prisoners from these concentration camps were used as slave labour to build railways, docks and buildings throughout the country. Many of the buildings in Namibia today were built by the slave labour of prisoners. The conditions in the concentration camps were so bad that it was estimated that half of all the prisoners in the camps died there.

Surviving Herero after an escape through the arid desert of Omaheke. The Herero commemorate 12th of August every year in paying homage to their forefathers who perished in the infamous battle of Ohamakari or Waterberg. Photo: WIKIPEDIA

Surviving Herero after an escape through the arid desert of Omaheke. The Herero commemorate 12th of August every year in paying homage to their forefathers who perished in the infamous battle of Ohamakari or Waterberg. Photo: WIKIPEDIA

By 1907, the Germans had suffered humiliation losses to the Nama. The general population in Germany was sick of the war and demanded that there be an end to it. On 31 March 1907, under the pressure of popular opinion, the Governor of South-West Africa, Friederich von Lindequist, declared the war officially over.

When the war finally ended on 31 March 1907, the Herero and Nama societies as they had existed before the war were completely destroyed. In the end the German war against the Nama and Herero had claimed between 65,000-80,000 Herero lives and around 10,000 Nama lives, almost completely annihilating both peoples. The survivors lost their homelands, their cattle and their freedom. They became exploited wage labourers for the Germans, and the British who came after.

The genocide of the Herero and the Nama is an incredibly important but also brutal part of Namibia’s history. Since the early 1990s, the Herero and Nama people have been working hard to ensure that this brutal crime that was committed against them is not forgotten.

 

In 2004, at the hundred year anniversary of the Herero uprising, Germany’s development aid minister expressed regret for the mass killing.

Speaking in Windhoek, the Namibian capital, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul stated: “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time”.

She also said: “The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.”

On July 6 2015, a delegation of Namibian leaders, lawyers, and heads of civic organisations, arrived in Berlin hoping to meet with German President Joachim Gauck, to present him with a petition signed by over 2,000 German public figures including members of the Bundestag, the German national parliament.

The document, titled ” Genocide is Genocide “, called on the German government to accept “historical responsibility” for the genocide perpetrated against the Herero and Nama people over a century ago. On July 8, Norbert Lammert, a heavyweight of the Christian Democrat party, and president of the Bundestag, wrote a column in Die Zeit, stating that Germany perpetrated a “race war” and a “genocide” in Namibia. (Excerpt from Al Jazeera article: Forgotten genocide: Namibia’s quest for reparations by Hisham Aidi)

A historic postcard features Herero men and women

A historic postcard features Herero men and women

Timeline of the Genocide

1904

6 January, The settler Frau Sonnenberg tells German soldiers stationed at the Waterberg, including the Sergeant in charge, Sergeant Rademacher, that the Herero in the area are stockpiling weapons with the intent to go to war. It is unclear why Frau Sonnenberg believed this as there is no direct evidence for her claims.

On the same day in Gobabis, Hereo chief Traugott Tjetjo and Lieutenant Streitwolf hold a meeting to discuss the shooting of alleged Herero cattle thieves by a settler named Bulack. Tensions between the Herero and the Germans are high.

9 January,Sergeant Rademacher’s Waterberg patrol arrives at the fort town of Okahandja carrying Frau Sonnenberg’s news about the armament of the Herero. They tell the officer in charge of the fort at Okahandja, Leutnant Zürn, of Frau Sonnenberg’s warning.

On the same day the trader Jakobs arrives at Okahandja reporting that he had passed a very large group of Herero travelling towards the fort. With Rademacher’s and Jakobs’ information Lieutenant Zürn decides that the Herero have violent intentions towards the Germans.

10 January,Late at night the trader Alex Niet arrives in Okahandja, causing panic among the settlers when he tells them that 300 armed Herero are on their way to attack the town.

In response Lieutenant Zürn orders all settlers in the area to evacuate their homes and seek refuge in the fort. He sends out a patrol to speak to the Herero. The patrol returns informing Zürn that the Herero state that they are coming to the area to discuss inheritance claims. Although the claim is legitimate, Zürn is convinced the Herero are lying. He believes they intend to attack the fort and start a war against the Germans. To this effect Zürn puts the military on high alert. He informs other military stations and the Governor that the Herero are planning an attack on the Germans.

 

A photo graph of modern-day Herero women. Herero women marching. In 2011 Jim Naughten spent four months photographing the Herero tribe of Namibia. The London-based photographer drove thousands of miles through the desert, meeting and negotiating with people, camping and continuously cleaning the dust out of his camera equipment. Photo: Jim Naughten

A photo graph of modern-day Herero women. Herero women marching. In 2011 Jim Naughten spent four months photographing the Herero tribe of Namibia. The London-based photographer drove thousands of miles through the desert, meeting and negotiating with people, camping and continuously cleaning the dust out of his camera equipment. Photo: Jim Naughten

 

 

11 January, Provisional Governor Richter reports, on the basis of a message received from Lt. Zürn at Okahandja, that the Herero have gathered in suspiciously large numbers and are planning an attack on the Germans. At 2:30pm, a train arrives at Okahandja at the behest of Lt. Zürn, bringing reinforcements to the town.

5:00pm, as tensions among the Germans begin to rise; a German delegation goes to speak to the Herero chief Ouandja, who tells the Germans once again that the Herero are there to discuss inheritance claims. He also informs them that paramount chief Samuel Maharero, with whom the Germans wish to speak, has left the region to aid a sick friend. Despite all the evidence supporting their claim Lt Zürn still refuses to believe the Herero and is convinced they are plotting a war. Samuel Maharero later writes in a letter to Governor Leutwein that he had left the area because he had seen the Germans suddenly start arming for battle and was convinced that the Germans were preparing to kill him. At this point both sides believe they are about to be attacked. At 5:30pm, a German patrol is sent out from the fort, but they do not return.

12 January,Early in the morning two German officers head over to the Herero camp for further meetings. On the way they pass the home of an old Herero man who gesticulates to them that they should go no further. They return to Okahandja convinced the man’s intention was to warn them that the Herero would kill them. They inform Zürn that they could not meet with the Herero because they had been warned by the old man that the Herero were planning to kill them.

Later that morning a number of Herero pass through the town. Shots are fired from the fort. Two German settlers who did not retreat into the fort are killed by the Herero. As more Herero pass through the town the soldiers begin to shoot at them incessantly. A battle breaks out in Okahandja. The Herero-German war begins.

23 January, German soldiers shoot at unarmed Herero at the mission station of Otjimbingwe. The battle spreads from Okahandja across the region to other mission stations and Herero holdings.

11 February, Governor Leutwein, who had been away from the colonial territory to fight Bondelswarts in the south, finally returns. Leutwein however arrives too late to prevent a war between the Herero and the colonists.

20 February, Orders are sent from Berlin that only an unconditional surrender by the Herero would be acceptable. Fighting continues.

11 June, General Lothar von Trotha, one of the most notorious generals of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, arrives in South-West Africa with the mandate to crush the Herero uprising. Governor Theodore Leutwein tries to convince Von Trotha to enter into negotiations with the Herero. Von Trotha absolutely refuses to enter into any negotiations, claiming that only a total defeat of the Herero will suffice.

11 August, The Battle of Waterberg begins. After failing to win a number of battles the Herero retreat to the Waterberg where they intend to enter into negotiations with Governor Leutwein. Von Trotha arrives at the Waterberg with the intention to crush the Herero. On August 11 the Germans initiate an all-out battle against the gathered Herero, a large number of whom are women and children. The battle turns into a massacre. In fear and desperation the Herero turn away from the German guns and run into the waterless Omaheke Desert. This is the last battle between the Germans and the Herero. The Herero are utterly defeated. Their flight into the desert marks the beginning of the Herero Genocide.

2 October, At the waterhole of Osombo-Windimbe, Lothar von Trotha reads out his infamous extermination order in which he informs the Herero that they will all be shot on sight.

3 October, In the south, the Nama Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi declares war against the Germans.

4 October, In their first act of war the Witbooi Nama kill local commissioner von Burgsdorff. They then bomb the church in Gibeon so that the Germans cannot use it as a fort for defence. This formalises the war between the Witbooi Nama and the Germans.

November,Prime Minister Bülow puts pressure on Kaiser Wilhelm to rescind Von Trotha’s Extermination Order.

9 December,After weeks of pressure by the German parliament, the Kaiser finally tells Lothar von Trotha to rescind his extermination order. Von Trotha is commanded to gather up the remaining Herero and take them to concentration camps as prisoners of war.

1905

February, The first official concentration camps for prisoners of war are established.

February – May, 40 percent of the prisoners at Swakopmund concentration camp die.

14 January, Prime Minister Bülow orders Von Trotha to stop putting all Herero prisoners of war in chains, a practice that was seen as projecting too negative an image of Germany.

22 April, Lothar von Trotha issues a declaration to the ‘rebellious Hottentots’, as he calls the Nama that echoes his extermination order of October 1904. He tells the Nama that if they do not surrender they will suffer the same fate as the Herero.

September, The last mission to ‘collect’ Herero from the desert is carried out. In 10 months the Germans have captured and imprisoned over 13,000 Herero.

29 October, The Nama attack a German food transport near Vaalgras. Hendrik Witbooi is shot in the leg. He eventually dies from blood loss. He is buried in an unmarked grave.

November, General Lothar von Trotha finally leaves South West Africa. The new Governor, Friederich von Lindequist, arrives to take his place.

After the death Hendrik Witbooi, the Witbooi finally surrender to the Germans under the conditions that they will be given their freedom upon surrender. Many Nama groups follow suit.

1 December, Governor von Lindequist announces that he is annulling any concessions given to the Witbooi, retracting the promises made to the Witbooi upon their surrender. The Governor orders that the Witbooi must be captured and punished for their betrayal of the Kaiser.

1906

February, an official rations-list allocates 0.5 kg of canned meat or flour and 0.5 kg of rice or flour as the daily ration for each prisoner.

25 February, The captured Witbooi arrive in the Windhoek concentration camp.

June, A large group of Nama who had fought under Captain Manasse arrive in the Windhoek concentration camp.

September, Over 1,700 Nama prisoners arrive at Shark Island, mostly consisting of Witbooi and Veldshoendragers. This is the single largest contingent of prisoners to arrive on the island. Shark Island becomes the most notorious concentration camp in South-West Africa. It is given the nickname ‘Death Island’. The Windhoek concentration camp records its highest month of fatalities: 252 prisoners die in the camp in one month.

December, 263 prisoners die on Shark Island in one month, an average of eight prisoners a day. Of the supposed 1,600 prisoners on Shark Island who are meant to be available for forced labour only 30 to 40 are physically fit enough to do work. The rest are either sick or dying. 17 prisoners die on Shark Island in one night.

1907

16 February, Nama Kaptein Cornelius Fredericks dies on Shark Island.

31 March, The War is declared officially over. Under pressure from a German population which was unhappy with the war in South-West Africa the German Parliament votes to call an end to the war. Despite the fact that hostilities and skirmishes still continue with small Nama factions, the Governor of South-West Africa, Friderich von Lindequist, declares the war against the Herero and the Nama officially over.

Major Ludwig von Estorff visits Shark Island. He is so shocked by the terrible conditions on the island that he writes to the German government requesting that the prisoners be moved to a concentration camp in the interior.

April, Only 450 survivors out of over 2,000 prisoners of war remain on Shark Island. In the space of only six months, over 1,500 Nama have died on Shark Island.

7 June, The death toll of Herero and Nama who had died working on the railways since January of that year rises to 1,359.

8 May, Kaiser Wilhelm II issues a decree declaring all Nama lands, apart from Berseba and the Bondelswartz’s territory, as German ground.

20 September, Jakob Morenga, the leader of the last remaining faction of Nama still fighting the Germans, is killed. This brings about the final end to battle between the Germans and the Nama.

1908

1 April, A year after the war was officially declared over, the Herero and Nama prisoner-of-war status is revoked and the last concentration camps are closed. The war has come to its final end.

References:
• Adhikari, Mohamed, (2008). ‘Streams of blood and streams of money’: new perspectives on the annihilation of the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia, 1904-1908′, Kronos, vol. 31, pp. 303-320.
• Bosam, Hendrik (2011). ‘A Nama ‘exodus’? A postcolonial reading of the dairies of Hendrik Witbooi’, Scriptura Vol. 108, pp. 329-341.
• Dedering, Tilman (1993). ‘The German-Herero War of 1904: Revisionism of Genocide or Imaginary Historiography?’, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 19,  pp. 80-88.
• richsen, Casper, (2005).‘The angel of death has descended violently among them’: Concentration camps and prisoners-of-war in Namibia, 1904-1908. Enschede, The Netherlands: PrintPartners Ipskamp. [available at https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/4646]
• Erichsen, Casper and Jeremy Silverster [undated], Lüderitz’s Forgotten Concentration Camp, available at: http://www.namibian.org/travel/namibia/luderitzcc.html [Accessed 06 February 2015]
• Gann, L.H. and Peter Duignan, (1977). The Rulers of German Africa, 1884-1914, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
• Gewald, Jan-Bart. (1999). Herero Heroes: A Socio-political History of the Herero of Namibia, 1890-1923.  Cape Town: David Phillip Publishers.
• Melber, H. (2000). ‘Economic and social transformation in the process of colonisation: Society and state before and during German rule’. in Keulder, C. State and society in Namibia, pp. 7-24.
• Olusoga, David and Erichsen, Casper W (2010). The Kaiser’s Holocaust. Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. London: Faber and Faber
• Schaller, Dominik (2013). ‘The Genocide of the Herero and Nama in German South-West Africa, 1904-1907’,in Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons (eds), Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Routledge, pp. 89-114.
• Schaller, Dominik. (2011). ‘Genocide in Colonial South-West Africa: The German War against the Herero and Nama, 1904-1907’, in Samuel Totten and Robert Hitchcock (eds), Genocide of Indigenous Peoples: A Critical Bibliographic Review. New Jersey, USA: Transaction Publishers, pp. 37-60.

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