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Thursday, October 29, 2015
In 1884, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened a meeting of European powers known as the Berlin Conference. Though the conference determined the future of an entire continent, not a single black African was invited to participate. Bismarck declared South-West Africa a German colony suitable not only for trade but for European settlement. Belgium's King Leopold, meanwhile seized the Congo, and France claimed control of West Africa.
The German flag soon became a symbol of fear for local tribes, who had lived there for millennia. Missionaries were followed by merchants, who were followed by soldiers. The settlers asserted their control by seizing watering holes, which were crucial in the parched desert. Like Belgians in the Congo and the British in Australia, the official German policy was to seize territory that Europeans considered empty, when it most definitely was not. There were 13 tribes living in Namibia, of which two of the most powerful were the Nama and the Herero.
Germany's behavior in South-West Africa was a precursor of German actions in the Holocaust. The boldest among them argued that South-West Africa was the site of the first genocide of the 20th century. “Our understanding of what Nazism was and where its underlying ideas and philosophies came from,” write David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen in their book The Kaiser's Holocaust, “is perhaps incomplete unless we explore what happened in Africa under Kaiser Wilhelm II.”
German researchers treated Africans as mere test subjects. Papers published in German medical journals used skull measurements to justify calling Africans Untermenschen — subhumans. If these tactics sound chillingly familiar, that's because they were also used in Nazi Germany. The connections don't end there. One scientist who studied race in Namibia was a professor of Josef Mengele—the infamous “Angel of Death” who conducted experiments on Jews in Auschwitz. Heinrich Goering, the father of Hitler's right-hand man, was colonial governor of German South-West Africa. What they did in Namibia, they did with Jews.
Many German farmers felt that South-West Africa was theirs for the taking. Disputes with local tribes escalated into violence. In early 1904, the Germans opened aggressive negotiations that aimed to drastically shrink Herero territory, but the chiefs wouldn't sign. They refused to be herded into a small patch of unfamiliar territory that was badly suited for grazing. Colonial leaders sent a telegram to Berlin announcing an uprising, though no fighting had broken out.
Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha took over as colonial governor, and with his arrival, the rhetoric of forceful negotiations gave way to the rhetoric of racial extermination. Von Trotha issued an infamous order called the Vernichtungsbefehl—an extermination order.
“The Herero are no longer German subjects,” read von Trotha's order. “The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them.”
German soldiers surrounded Herero villages. Thousands of men and women were taken from their homes and shot. Those who escaped fled into the desert—and German forces guarded its borders, trapping survivors in a wasteland without food or water. They poisoned wells to make the inhuman conditions even worse—tactics that were already considered war crimes under the Hague Convention, which were first agreed to in 1899.
80 percent of the Herero tribe died, and many survivors were imprisoned in forced labor camps. After a rebellion of Nama fighters, these same tactics were used against Nama men, women, and children. About 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were murdered.
Only after Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990 did the German government really begin to acknowledge the systematic atrocity that had happened there. Although historians used the word genocide starting in the 1970s, Germany officially refused to use the term. The German government used a technicality to avoid formally apologizing for genocide in South-West Africa saying that the Genocide Convention was put in place in 1948, and cannot be applied retroactively. Nevertheless, more and more German politicians have begun talking openly about genocide. In July, the president of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, in an article for the newspaper Die Zeit, described the killing of Herero and Nama as Voelkermord. Literally, this translates to “the murder of a people”—genocide.