The Herero Genocide: Germany’s First Mass Murder

Published January 17, 2017
Updated October 7, 2019

Hunger for Land

Herero Genocide Grass Dunes

Wikimedia CommonsMuch of Namibia is a mix of red sand dunes and open grassland. In marginal places, it can be difficult for cattle to find forage.

All of this confusion regarding treaties and tribal alliances was deliberate, and it operated against the backdrop of the Germans’ insatiable hunger for land. Namibia had been identified as the one German colonial possession suitable for large-scale settlement, and the ranching these German cowboys were doing might have been the most land-intensive operation in the world.

Namibia has some good forage land, which the Herero and Nama had taken for themselves centuries before, but it also has a lot of marginal scrub where a herd of cattle has to move all day to get enough food. The Germans, tired of paying Africans for grazing rights in the scrub, started talking about native reserves and mass deportations.

Their anger came out in various ways. German cattle regularly crossed imaginary boundaries to graze on Herero land, and it wasn’t uncommon for ranchers to shoot lone Herero they caught in the open.

Herero and Nama women caught near German claims were frequently raped, and German magistrates got in the habit of turning a blind eye to crimes that German settlers committed against the natives. Germans imposed taxes on some tribes for land they had lived on time out of mind, and German slavers made raids into the interior for domestic and farm labor.

By 1900, the German resentment of the Herero was more than matched by native hatred of the interlopers. Both sides began to arm for war.

Revolt and Conquest

Survivors of the Herero Genocide

Wikimedia CommonsA group of Herero pose for a picture after trekking through the desert for an unknown time after the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904.

When the war came, it was brief and brutal.

In January 1904, a Herero leader named Samuel Maharero put together a 5,000-man army and raised an insurrection. His troops were armed with an eclectic mix of state-of-the-art rifles and ancient war clubs. They traveled with as many as 50,000 civilians, mostly families, and slowly reclaimed lands they had lost to the Germans.

There was very little fighting, since isolated German families had no hope of resisting thousands of Herero fighting men, and by the end of winter, the rebels had taken most of the land they wanted.

That’s when the German administration suddenly got serious and appointed Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha as governor. Von Trotha was a man with definite ideas about how to handle the Herero, and any other natives who seemed to be in the way of progress. In his own words:

“I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge.”

He wasn’t joking. In August, von Trotha’s force of around 1,500 men, backed up by 30 field howitzers and 14 machine guns, pulverized the Herero force in the Battle of Waterberg. The fighting itself wasn’t terribly hard or destructive, but the German General Staff-trained von Trotha managed to block in the Herero on three sides with only the open desert at their backs.

After the clash, tens of thousands of Herero civilians took the one escape route that the Germans had left open, only to find that their enemy had sealed all of the wells between Waterberg and the desert. The victorious Germans formed a human barrier along a 150-mile front and shot every single Herero who crawled back in search of water.

The Herero genocide was underway as tens of thousands of people died of thirst in the wilderness, versus approximately two-dozen German dead during the whole operation, including the battle itself. The Herero and Nama who hadn’t been involved may have thought that things would now return to normal, but von Trotha was only getting started.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.