The Nazi Holocaust, which killed around 11 million people (Gypsies, Slavs, Communists, Freemasons, homosexuals, dwarfs, Jews, etc.) during the Second World War, was not the first state-sanctioned genocide perpetrated by the German Reich.
Thirty years before Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, German soldiers slaughtered over 70,000 Herero, Khoekhoe and Nama tribe members in its South-West Africa colony (Namibia) from 1904–1908.
The genocide in Namibia (Deutsch-Südwestafrika) featured some astonishing similarities with the WWII tragedy: the application of pseudo-scientific theories of racial superiority; the formation of concentration camps (Shark Island); inmates were exploited like human guinea pigs in medical experiments by Dr. Bofinger; the need for “lebensraum” (living space) for the German people; demand for reparations by the survivors; and a long silence over German complicity in such Human Rights crimes.
Under the Second Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany expanded its colonial empire in Africa, including thousands of German farmers who settled in Namibia. In 1884, under petition from a merchant named Franz Adolf Lüderitz, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck seized all of South-West Africa. In 1894, to enforce German rule in the territory, imperial Schutztruppe soldiers arrived.
While much of the landscape comprised a grim desert, the presence of fertile plains attracted large numbers of German farmers who forcibly seized land from the native Africans. By 1903, the local Herero and Nama tribes rebelled against the German colonialist occupation. In response to the revolt, the Kaiser dispatched General Lothar von Trotha to Namibia with a grave warning to the African tribes: depart the country or suffer death.
“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I destroy the African tribes with streams of blood... Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain,” Lothar von Trotha declared. (Franz Ritter von Epp served in Namibia under von Trotha.)
The African survivors, when finally released from German detention, were subjected to a policy of dispossession, deportation, forced labor, racial segregation and discrimination in a system that in many ways anticipated Apartheid. Most Africans were confined to so-called native territories, which later under South African rule, post-1949, were turned into “homelands” (Bantustans).
Indeed, some historians have speculated that the German genocide in Namibia was a model used by Nazis in the Holocaust. Von Trotha’s threat to exterminate an entire people would be echoed a few decades later by Hitler. In the 1920s, Hitler read a tract titled The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene by a German professor named Eugen Fischer, who studied the black and mixed-race people (Basters) in the camps during the Namibian genocide. The tract supposedly emboldened Hitler’s already strange beliefs about racial supremacy and purity – and probably inspired him to plan the commission of a far greater genocidal campaign. Contrary to popular belief, Hitler was not a fan of Charles Darwin’s books.
Epilogue: In World War I (1914–18) the German defense forces in Südwestafrika were forced to capitulate on July 9, 1915, to South African forces. In 1919 South-West Africa was mandated by the League of Nations to South Africa under the Treaty of Versailles. South-West Africa remained under South African control until it attained independence in 1990 under the name of Namibia.
It was not until 2004 (a century after the genocide) that Germany formally apologized for the atrocity. Germany also agreed to provide Namibia with economic aid amounting to about $14-million annually (descendants of the victims demanded $4-billion in compensation). The memory of genocide remains relevant to ethnic identity in independent Namibia and to relations with Germany.
German legacy: The Lutheran Church is the largest religion in Namibia. Many German names, buildings, and businesses still exist in Namibia and about 30,000 people of German descent still live there. German is still widely spoken in Namibia, with the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation operating a German language radio station, while the daily newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung, founded in 1916, remains in publication.