The Forgotten Peoples of the Herero and Nama

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A genocide in Africa has not received the same attention that genocide in Europe or genocide in Turkey or genocide in other part of the world. There is still this kind of basic discrimination against the African people and the African problems.” – Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The Holocaust was a genocide carried out by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime that claimed the lives of millions of Jews and Eastern Europeans. This gruesome period in world history has been rightly acknowledged and criticized because that is the only way man can be reminded of his own inhumane tendencies. However, the Holocaust was not the first “ethnic cleansing” carried out by Germans on “inferior race sub-humans” in the 20th century. The purpose of this paper is to identify the precursors to the German invasion and colonization of Namibia such as the hysteria in the 1870s, the strategic mistakes made by the African people and the similarities in the colonial policies and military ideologies of the Second Reich in German South West Africa and the Third Reich (Nazi Germany).

The Long Depression world economies suffered in the late 19th century was triggered by the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873 and lasted until the spring of 1879. The first global financial downturn took place closer to Germany in neighboring Austria-Hungary when the Vienna Stock Exchange crashed on May 9, 1873. In the United States in September of 1873, the New York Warehouse Company went to the wall, the New York Midland failed and Jay Cooke & Co., a great banking house closed all in the space of two days. Two days later on September 20th, the New York Stock Exchange closed its doors for ten days.[1]

The main causes of this long depression in both Europe and America could be thought to be political unification and the railway boom. The German victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) led to an influx of reparations payments from France. In the United States the Union victory in the American Civil War (1861-1865) brought about the government backed capitalism of the Reconstruction era. These events inspired a boom in the economies and a resulting capital surplus.[2]

The surplus in capital flowed into speculative investments, creating a bubble of inflated asset-values.[3] Jay Cooke, the financier famous for having marketed a more than a billion dollars in U.S. bonds during the war is a good example. He invested heavily in railroads, especially a second transcontinental: the Northern Pacific Railway. However, in 1873 the road was nowhere near completion, and Cooke failed to sell new securities in a very tight market. Having underwritten the company, he went bankrupt.[4] Similar scenarios resulted in the inevitable burst of the credit bubble. This overextension was partly the result of the financial system that had emerged from the Civil War and especially the pyramidal National Banking System that facilitated the draining of money toward the East Coast financial centers.[5]

What was the effect of this long depression on the working class people in Europe and the United States? Did it bring about a hysteria among the working class folk? For the larger manufacturing companies, especially those with guaranteed contracts the panic years were golden. A good number of these large companies had enough reserve capital to finance their own continuing growth. For smaller industrial firms that relied on seasonal demand and outside capital, the situation was dire because as their capital reserves dried up so did their industries.[6] Overproduction and under consumption were two key features of the crisis. The limited purchasing power of the working class meant that most workers lacked the income to buy back all the goods and services their labor produced.[7] Farmers also received a huge hit from the crisis because of the drop in prices of their produce, especially wheat. While other industries such as chemicals and electrics managed to grow during the period, agricultural prices remained depressed. Mortgages became unavailable for several months and too expensive afterwards.[8]

One of the major responses by European countries to the dire economic times was colonialism which would provide an avenue for cheap raw materials, captive markets and investment outlets. Much of the “underdeveloped” world became a geopolitical battleground as a result. [9] Hans-Ulrich Wehler states that “imperialism was intended to flatten the extreme fluctuations of the business cycles; to stabilize national income; and create a mechanism whereby the uneven growth of the capitalist economy could be surmounted.”[10] This is clearly evidenced because as late as the 1870s, only 10% of the continent was under direct European control, with Algeria held by France, the Cape Colony and Natal (both in modern South Africa) by Britain, and Angola by Portugal. And yet by 1900, European nations had added almost 10 million square miles of Africa – one-fifth of the land mass of the globe – to their overseas colonial possessions. Europeans ruled more than 90% of the African continent.[11]

The Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-1885 was called with the overt purpose of managing the ongoing process of colonization in Africa so as to avoid the outbreak of armed conflict between rival colonial powers. Its outcome was the conclusion of a General Act ratified by all major colonial powers, including the United States (the US reserved the right to decline to accept the conclusions of the conference). Among other things, the General Act set out the conditions under which territory might be acquired on the coast of Africa; it internationalized two rivers (the Congo and the Niger); it orchestrated a new campaign to abolish the overland trade in slaves; and it declared as ‘neutral’ a vast swathe of Central Africa delimited as the ‘conventional basin of the Congo’. A side event was the recognition given to King Leopold’s fledgling Congo Free State that had somewhat mysteriously emerged out of the scientific and philanthropic activities of the Association internationale du Congo. [12] An important question to ponder on is Hannah Arendt’s 1951 postulate that European imperialism played a crucial role in the development of totalitarianism and associated genocides.[13] There is reliable information on the evils in the German South West Africa and other colonies such as British Natal to give an educated response.

The Germans raised their flag over Namibia in 1884. Settlers trickled in the following years. Some were encouraged to choose to go there over migrating to the United States. By 1903, the colony had four thousand seven hundred and sixty four Germans and was the highest populated Wihelmine overseas territory.[14] The following year the Herero rose against the Germans to fight against their undeserved captivity. It resulted in the 1904 Battle of Waterberg, where they happened to make their gravest miscalculation. The mistake was the hope that the Commanding officer, General Von Trotha would be willing to engage in peaceful land negotiations. They gathered around the plateau hoping to find an amicable solution to the fighting and were instead met with German machine guns and canons. The General then issued an explicit genocide program, saying “I will annihilate the rebelling tribes with rivers of blood and rivers of gold. Only after a complete uprooting will something new emerge.”[15] Samuel Kariko, one of the Herero people narrated the experience, “Our people had already been defeated in battle, and we had no more ammunition… we saw we were beaten and asked for peace, but the German General refused peace and said all should die. We then fled towards the Sandfeld of the Kalahari Desert. Those of our people who escaped the bullets and bayonets died miserably of hunger and thirst in the desert. A few thousand managed to turn back and sneak through the German lines to where there were water and roots and berries to live on.”[16] The powerful connection between this military annihilation and similar ones ordered by Nazi regimes is that the German governments in between do not follow the same genocidal rhetoric.

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The term Lebensraum was coined in 1897 by German geographer Friedrich Ratzel and continuously developed as a theory until his death in 1904. The theory was separated into three components. First, it described the geographic space necessary to sustain a volk. The second component advocated that a volk must expand its territory by some combination of migration, colonization and conquest as population increased or perish from lack of resources. Third, only a volk with a strong agricultural base would flourish.[17] Ratzel was of the belief that superior cultures destroy inferior cultures in battles for living space. That argument is very similar to Hitler’s thoughts when he wrote about Lebensraum in the 1920s and the actions he perpetuated after.[18]

Another key similarity of the regimes were the racial laws embedded into the system. Banning of racial mixing, Rassenmischung in the colony in 1905 brought about a movement in the motherland Germany to institute similar laws but such legislations were never passed. However the idea of racial purity, Rassenreinheit so widely preached by the Nazis can be closely linked to this. Hitler did argue in Mein Kampf that introducing African blood into the Aryan nation would deprive the white race of the basis for its autocratic existence by infecting it with inferior humanity. [19]

Vernichtungskrieg refers to a war of annihilation and that is exactly what both Hitler’s war in the east and the wars fought against the Herero and Nama were. There are four strikingly similar strategies adopted by both armies. First, both armies defined the conflicts as race wars, Rassenkampf. Second, the main aim was to physically destroy the enemy and create a tabula rasa. No prisoners were taken in a literal sense because civilians were systematically murdered. Lastly, the mass murders in both cases were rationalized as a means of public health.[20] Domestic pressure and protests led by key members of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany) such as August Bebel led to the Kaiser’s rescindment of the annihilation order.

This was not exactly a positive step as it only led to the development of new forms of inhumane treatment. Concentration camps or Konzentrationzlager a famed construct of Hitler’s Nazi Germany truly has its roots in German South West Africa. It is hard to fathom the point of such severe treatment, especially when the war had been clearly won and the natives had been fully displaced. Concentration camps were not invented by the Germans, they had been used by the British in the South African War and the Spaniards in Cuba.[21] The actual purpose of these camps was to temporarily house and sustain the displaced Herero people. Nazi camps Treblinka and Auschwitz take their inspiration from the death camp at Namibia’s Shark Island, Haifinschinsel being that their sole purpose was geared towards the destruction of human life. There was another variant of the camps geared towards obtaining maximum economic value from the prisoners under the harshest conditions.

The Long Depression was one of the major reasons for colonization and the migration into the African continent in the late 19th century. But why is it that even after economic and geographic authority had been established in the colonies, mass murders continued? Was this a result of the natives will to not go down without a fight or just the normal German military strategy?[22] Were the murders just another way of the Germans proving to themselves that they were the “superior race”?



[1] Babson, Roger. “The Recovery from the Great Panic of 1873,” The New York Times, April 9, 1911.

[2] Faulkner, Neil. “A Marxist History of the World part 61: The Long Depression, 1873 to 1896” February 6, 2012.

[3] Faulkner.

[4] Barreyre, Nicholas. “The Politics of Economic Crises: The Panic of 1873, the End of Reconstruction, and the Realignment of American Politics” Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, September 28, 2011.

[5] Barreyre.

[6] Nelson, Scott Reynolds. “The Real Great Depression,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 17, 2008.

[7] Faulkner.

[8] Barreyre.

[9] Faulkner.

[10] Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. “Bismarck’s Imperialism 1862-1890” page 137.

[11] David, Saul. “Slavery and the Scramble for Africa” BBC News. BBC, 17 February 2011. Web.

[12] Craven, Matthew. “Between law and history: the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 and the logic of free trade,”  London Review of International Law, September 2015 3: pages 31-59

[13] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York 1951).

[14] Palmer, Alison. Colonial Genocide (Adelaide 2000), 149.

[15] Bridgman, Jon. The Revolt of the Hereros (Berkeley, CA 1981), 111–12.

[16] British Blue Book Report on the Natives of South West Africa and Their Treatment by Germany. Rep. Windhuk, South Africa: Administer’s Office, 1918. Print.

[17] Smith, Woodruff. ‘Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum’, German Studies Review,

Vol. III, No. 1 (February 1980), 54.

[18] Madley, Benjamin. “From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe,” European History Quarterly, Volume 35, 2005, 429-464

[19] Quoted in Sabine Hake, ‘Mapping the Human Body’, in Friedrichsmeyer, Lennox and

Zantop, op. cit., 176.

[20] Madley.

[21] Kaminski, Andrzej J. “Konzentrationslager 1896 bis heute: eine Analyse “(Stuttgart 1982).

[22] Hull, Isabel. “Absolute Destruction, Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany” Cornell University Press, 2005.

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