The First German Genocide You Probably Never Heard About
General knowledge about genocides is written with the blood of white Europeans while efforts to exterminate black people, particularly in Africa, have historically gone largely under-reported.
One of many examples of historical racism was the German quashing of the so-called Hottentot Rebellion, the first genocide of the 20th century, between 1904 and 1907. From 50,000 to 65,000 members of the Herero tribe and 10,000 members of the Namaqua tribe were slaughtered through starvation, imprisonment, exile, and murder by German military forces in occupied German South West Africa, now modern-day Namibia.
The genocide was a staging ground for early, gruesome experiments in eugenics and was a blueprint for the death camps that would later be built and claim the lives of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany. After the genocide, German colonial leaders created an apartheid state in Southwest Africa, passing bans on “mixed-marriages” and constructing concentration camps, euphemistically known as “native settlements.” In another prototype for the Holocaust, all native peoples above the age of seven were required to wear a metal disc with a numbered identification.
The Herero and Namaqua genocide or Hottentot Rebellion has been recognized by the United Nations and by the Federal Republic of Germany. In May 2021, after five years of negotiations, the German government recognized the Hottentot Rebellion as a colonial genocide and set up a $1.3 billion compensation fund.
The uprising by the Herero and Namaqua was the largest genocide by the German colonizers in Africa but not the only one. The Maji Maji, an armed rebellion of Islamic and animist Africans rose up against German colonial rule in German East Africa, now Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique.
As in German South West Africa, Maji Maji was a reaction to German colonial policies to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export. The war lasted from 1905 to 1907, during which 75,000 to 300,000 died, overwhelmingly from famine.
German South West Africa was a colony of the German Empire from 1884 until 1915. It covered one and a half times the size of the mainland German Empire in Europe at the time. In 1902 the colony had 200,000 inhabitants, including mostly Germans but also Afrikaners and British.
As western imperialism spread to Africa in the 1880s, Germany reinforced its hold on several African colonies, including German Southwest Africa; German East Africa; Cameroon; and Togoland which is today split between Ghana and Togo.
After World War I and the defeat of Germany, German West Africa was taken over by the Union of South Africa which was part of the British Empire and was administered as South West Africa under a League of Nations mandate. It became independent as Namibia on March 21, 1990.
German imperialism in German South West Africa began in 1885 when the German Colonial Society for Southwest Africa was founded and was granted monopoly rights to exploit mineral deposits, including diamonds, gold, copper, platinum, and other minerals. The consortium was supported by German bankers such as Gerson von Bleichröder and Adolph von Hansemann; industrialists including Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck; and politicians, notably Frankfurt mayor Johannes von Miquel.
Bleichröder was a Jewish German banker with close ties to the Rothschild banking family, which represented the banking interests of the Austrian-controlled German Confederation in Europe. Hansemann was one of the richest men in the German Empire and had joined with Bleichröder to arrange financing for the Royal Prussian Army during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
Hansemann also funded efforts to establish German Samoa, the last German imperialist acquisition in the Pacific basin and now the independent state of Samoa. Hansemann and a syndicate of German bankers also established German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea.
Donnersmarck was a German nobleman, industrial magnate and one of the richest men of his time.
A year after the consortium was created, the legal system of the colony was passed, including a dual system of laws for Europeans and different laws for natives. Prior to colonization , several native groups lived freely in the area, including the Herero, the Nama, the Damara, the San, and the Ovambo. Under German rule, many of these native groups were used as slave labor, their land was confiscated and their cattle stolen.
As a result of the treatment of the indigenous people and seizure of native land, cattle and labor, tensions between the native population and the ruling Germans continued to rise.
In January 1904, the Hereros, led by Chief Samuel Maharero, carried out a large armed rebellion against the colonial rule, killing around 123 German soldiers. Over the following months, the Herero were slowly defeated by the more modern and well-equipped German forces.
The German government grew increasingly impatient with the fighting and in 1904, abandoned negotiations for a surrender and surrounded the Herero at the Battle of Waterberg, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 Herero warriors. Thousands of Herero men, women and children escaped to the Kalahari Desert but were pursued by the Germans. Many were shot to death or died from drinking water from poisoned wells, or from thirst and starvation in the desert. The German forces guarded every water source and were given orders to shoot any adult male Herero on sight. Only a few Herero managed to escape into neighboring British Bechuanaland.
German Gen. Lothar Von Trotha ordered that “the Herero people must leave this land. If they do not, I will force them to do so by using the great gun [artillery]. Within the German border every male Herero, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot to death. I will no longer receive women or children but will drive them back to their people or have them shot at.”
In 1904, popular opinion led the German government in Berlin to overturn Trotha’s execution order and commanded that the surviving Herero population be incarcerated in concentration camps, such as the Shark Island Concentration Camp, the first large-scale death camp. Arriving by cattle-car and then by sea, close to 1,800 Nama prisoners were imprisoned in September 1906, including Cornelius Frederiks, one of the major Nama military leaders. The camp offered poor hygiene, little food, forced labor and medical experiments and from 47 to 74 percent of the imprisoned Herero died.
In 1905, the Nama people in the south also rose up in revolution and those who were caught by the Germans were executed or incarcerated in the deadly concentration camps with the Herero.
Prisoners captured by the Germans were subjected to research by Dr. Eugen Fischer, later a prominent Nazi scientist, on the skulls of dead prisoners and on prisoners with scurvy. Captured women were forced to boil heads of their dead inmates and scrape remains of their skin and eyes with shards of glass, preparing them for examinations by German universities.
Fischer’s findings were basic to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which served to justify the Nazi Party’s belief in German racial superiority. Adolf Hitler read Fischer’s work while he was imprisoned in 1923 and he used Fischer’s eugenic conclusions to support a pure Aryan society in his manifesto, “Mein Kampf.”
The Herero leader, Maherero, is now considered a national hero in Namibia. Herero Day is also celebrated every Aug. 26 in Namibia as a gesture of resistance, unity and loyalty, as well as defiance against colonization, particularly that by the Germans.