Decades before the Holocaust, the German Empire committed the 20th century's first genocide.
Once upon a time, German soldiers and settlers poured into a foreign country and seized the land for themselves. To make sure they could hold on to it, they destroyed local institutions and used existing divisions among the people to prevent organized resistance.
By force of arms, they transported ethnic Germans into the territory to extract resources and to rule over the land with a coarse and brutal efficiency. They built concentration camps and filled them to the brim with whole ethnic groups. Huge numbers of innocents died.
The damage from this genocide still lingers, and the families of survivors have sworn never to forget the German effort to destroy them as a people.
If you thought that description applied to Poland during World War II, you’re right. If you read it and thought of Namibia, the former colony of German Southwest Africa, you’re also right, and it’s likely you’re a historian who specializes in African studies, because the German reign of terror against the Herero and Nama people of Namibia hardly gets mentioned outside of scholarly literature.
Widely considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century, long denied and suppressed, and with endless bureaucratic paper chases to prevent a reckoning, the Herero genocide – and its modern legacy – deserves more attention than it’s received.
The Scramble for Africa
In 1815, as far as Europe was concerned, Africa was a dark continent. Except for Egypt and the Mediterranean coast, which had always been in contact with Europe, and a small Dutch colony in the south, Africa was a complete unknown.
By 1900, however, every inch of the continent, except for the American colony in Liberia and the free state of Abyssinia, was ruled from a European capital.
The late 19th century scramble for Africa saw all of the ambitious powers of Europe snatching as much land as possible for strategic advantage, mineral wealth, and living space. By the end of the century, Africa was a calico of overlapping authorities where arbitrary borders cut some native tribes in two, jammed others together, and created the conditions for endless conflict.
German South-West Africa was a patch of turf on the Atlantic coast between the British colony of South Africa and the Portuguese colony of Angola. The land was a mixed bag of open desert, forage grassland, and some arable farms. A dozen tribes of various sizes and practices occupied it.
In 1884, when the Germans took over, there were 100,000 or so Herero, followed by 20,000 or so Nama.
These people were herders and farmers. The Herero knew all about the outside world and freely traded with European businesses. At the opposite extreme were the San Bushmen, who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the Kalahari Desert. Into this crowded country came thousands of Germans, all hungry for land and looking to get rich from herding and ranching.
Treaties and Treachery
The Germans played their opening gambit in Namibia by the book: Find a local bigwig with dubious authority and negotiate a treaty with him for whatever land desired. That way, when the land’s rightful owners protest, the colonists can point to the treaty and fight to defend “their” land.
In Namibia, this game started in 1883, when German merchant Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz purchased a tract of land near the Angra Pequena Bay in what is today southern Namibia.
Two years later, German colonial governor Heinrich Ernst Göring (whose ninth child, future Nazi commander Hermann, would be born eight years later) signed a treaty establishing German protection over the area with a chief named Kamaherero of the large Herero nation.
The Germans had all they needed to seize land and start importing settlers. One Herero fought back with weapons acquired through trade with the outside world, forcing the German authorities to admit to the shakiness of their claims, and eventually reach a sort of compromise peace.
The deal the Germans and Herero reached in the 1880s was an odd duck among colonial regimes. Unlike the colonies of other European powers, where the newcomers took whatever they wanted from the indigenous populations, German settlers in Namibia often had to lease their ranch land from Herero landlords and trade on unfavorable terms with the second-largest tribe, the Nama.
To the whites, this was an untenable situation. The treaty was renounced in 1888, only to be reinstated in 1890, and then enforced in a haphazard and unreliable way throughout the German holdings. German policy toward the natives ranged from hostility for the established tribes to outright favoritism for those tribes’ enemies.
Thus, while it took seven Herero witnesses to equal the testimony of a single white in the German courts, members of smaller tribes such as the Ovambo got lucrative trade deals and jobs in the colonial government, which they used to extract bribes and other favors from their ancient rivals.