It has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, the “forgotten genocide” and the genocide that was the precursor of the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Africans were killed between 1904 and 1908 by German soldiers in what is now Namibia, a vast, arid but resource-rich country northwest of South Africa.
German soldiers targeted people of two ethnic groups, the majority Herero and the smaller Nama tribes, because they had resisted land grabs by German settlers. Africans were shot, hanged, abandoned in the desert and died in concentration camps.
Last month the German government apologised for its role in the slaughter of Herero and Nama tribespeople more than a century ago and officially described the massacre as genocide for the first time, as it agreed to fund projects worth over 1 billion euros in Namibia.
Namibia’s President Hage Geingob welcomed the “historic” move but, Herero Paramount Chief Vekui Rukoro dismissed a deal between the two governments as an “insult” because it did not include payment of reparations.
“That’s a black cat in a bag instead of reparations for a crime against humanity,” Rukoro told Reuters.
“No self-respecting African country will accept such an insult in this age from so-called civilised European nation.”
The areas of German South West Africa (now Namibia) were formally colonised by Germany between 1884-90. The semi-arid territory was more than twice as large as Germany yet it had only a fraction of the population, approximately 250,000 people.
In contrast to Germany’s other African possessions, it offered little promise for large-scale mineral or agricultural extractions. Instead, South West Africa became Germany’s only real settler colony. By 1903, some 3,000 Germans had settled in the colony, primarily on the central high grounds.
The launch of this new settler society, albeit small, upset the socioeconomic balance of the territory and resulted in conflict. Apart from overarching anticolonial concerns, the primary points of friction were access to resources such as land, water and cattle.
The largest conflict involved the Herero people, a mainly pastoral community who over the preceding decades had adopted various traits of modernity such as the use of horses and guns.
The fighting began on 12 January 1904 in the small town of Okahandja, the seat of the Herero chieftaincy under paramount leader Samuel Maharero. It is still not clear which side fired the first shot, but by noon that day, the Herero had laid siege to the German fort.
In the following weeks, fighting rippled out across the central high grounds. Seeking to gain control of the situation, Maharero issued specific rules of engagement that precluded violence against women and children. Nevertheless, 123 settlers and soldiers were killed in these attacks, including at least four women.
Major Theodor Leutwein, military commander and governor of the colony favoured a negotiated settlement since the Herero were well armed and, moreover, significantly outnumbered the German colonial garrison.
He was, however, overruled by the General Staff in Berlin who demanded a military solution. In the meantime, on 13 April Leutwein’s troops were forced into an embarrassing retreat, and the governor was subsequently relieved of his command.
In his place Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha, a colonial veteran of the wars in German East Africa and of the Boxer Rebellion in China, was appointed.
In the early morning of 11 August 1904, having surrounded the Herero, von Trotha ordered his 1,500 troops to attack. Standing against an estimated 40,000 Herero, of whom only some 5,000 carried weapons, the Germans relied on the element of surprise as well their modern artillery.
Continuous shelling by the artillery sent Herero combatants into a desperate offensive, awaited by the German machine guns. By the late afternoon the Herero lay defeated.
However, a weak German flank to the southeast allowed the majority of the Herero nation to make a desperate escape into the Kalahari. In this exodus to British Bechuanaland, many thousands of men, women, and children eventually died of thirst.
In subsequent months, Trotha continued to pursue the Herero into the desert. Those who were captured or surrendered were often executed summarily.
By early October, however, Trotha was forced to abandon the pursuit due to exhaustion and lack of supplies. Instead, Trotha stationed patrols along the perimeter of the desert to prevent the Herero from returning to the German colony. The outline of this new policy, which was announced on 3 October at the waterhole of Ozomu Zovindimba, was dubbed the “extermination” order.
On 9 December 1904, the order was rescinded following intense lobbying by Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow. In its place a new policy was introduced. Based on the British example in Southern Africa of rounding up the enemy, civilians as well as soldiers, and confining them to camps, the Germans introduced a system of human enclosures dubbed konzentrationslager, a direct translation of the English term “concentration camp”.
These camps were set up in the largest towns where the need for labour was greatest. Over the next three years, Herero prisoners, mainly women and children, were rented out to local businesses or were forced to work on government infrastructure projects. The conditions of work were so harsh that more than half of all prisoners died within the first year.
In October 1904, the southern Nama communities had also risen up against German colonialism. Like the Herero, the Nama ended up in concentration camps.
It is estimated that 65.000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were killed by the Germans between 1904 and 1908.
Sadly, although Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, economic power is still largely in the hands of the German settler community. The bulk of the 1 billion euros recently pledged by the German government will go to fund infrastructure projects and healthcare. It is unlikely to trickle down to the Herero and Nama communities.
To ensure a successful outcome, it is necessary to examine the great harm inflicted by the genocide and colonialism in general by hearing directly from the individuals who were affected in order to establish a benchmark for reparations.