We’re all familiar with Germany’s Holocaust of Jews and other undesirables in World War II; heck, the word Holocaust has become synonymous with that event. Not as known, though, was Germany’s “warm up” a few decades prior… practiced on native Africans at the height of European colonialism in the continent.
From Weird History:
Decades before the Holocaust, Germans carried out another genocide. But unlike the Holocaust and other genocides, some of which were turned into holidays, most people have never heard of the atrocities committed by the Germans in Namibia.
The German genocide in Africa targeted two African nations, the Herero and the Namaqua, both of whom resisted German colonial rule. German colonizers used brutal tactics, including poisoning drinking water, whipping children, and performing horrific medical experiments on prisoners.
The Herero and Namaqua genocides may be two of history’s lesser known genocides, but the atrocities committed by the Germans were comparable to those of the Holocaust. The Herero genocide timeline is incredibly important in understanding the Nama wars; after the Herero revolt, the Germans vowed to show no mercy, using the colonial rebellions to justify wiping out entire groups of people. And they nearly succeeded—the genocide decimated the Herero nation, leaving only 15,000 starving refugees after years of brutality.Decades Before The Holocaust, Germans Forced Africans Into Concentration Camps
In the 1880s, European nations descended on Africa in a scramble to carve up the continent into colonial possessions. The Race for Africa came at a high cost, especially in areas that resisted European rule. In German Southwest Africa, today known as Namibia, the Germans vowed to hold their territory by any means necessary, including exterminating entire nations of people.
After a revolt led by the Herero people, the German colonizers wiped out 80% of the Herero population, forcing thousands into concentration camps. General Von Trotha, who was sent to crush the rebellion, said, “Within the German borders every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or children. I shall drive them back to their people––otherwise I shall order shots to be fired at them.”At Concentration Camps, Prisoners Were Raped, Starved, And Tortured
The Germans committed several atrocities at the Shark Island concentration camp. The camp physician, Dr. Bofinger, decapitated 17 prisoners, including an infant. He weighed victims’ brains before shipping them to the University of Berlin. He injected prisoners with arsenic and opium to see what would happen, and then performed autopsies once they died. Prisoners warned that going to Dr. Bofinger was a guarantee that you “would not come out alive.”
The prisoners were raped and abused. An eyewitness saw Germans whipping a mother and her infant child. Only a small number of people survived Shark Island, and by the time they were freed, they were on the brink of starvation.The Germans Tainted Wells And Eliminated Children
The Germans wanted to crack down on their colonial subjects. After the Herero revolt, General von Trotha ordered, “The nation of the Herero should immediately leave the country, because they are no longer considered German citizens… I am not going to show mercy to anyone.”
He tainted watering holes so that the Herero who fled to the desert would die of thirst. His troops eradicated people on sight. And according to a 1918 report from an eyewitness, the German soldiers disposed of unarmed women and children.Nearly All The Prisoners At The Concentration Camp Passed
The Germans set up a concentration camp for the Herero and Namaqua people. It was located on Shark Island, a rocky strip in the Atlantic. For two years, imprisoned people were forced to labor under bleak conditions, and over 70% of prisoners died. One missionary who entered the camp said, “A woman who was so weak from illness that she could not stand crawled to some of the other prisoners to beg for water. The overseer fired five shots at her. Two shots hit her: one in the thigh, the other smashing her forearm.”
As many as 3,000 Herero skulls were shipped to Berlin so that German scientists could examine them for proof that Africans were inferior.The Germans Were Responding To A Minor Uprising Against Colonial Rule
The Germans claimed their extermination order was a reasonable response to the Herero uprising in 1904. A surprise Herero attack in January of 1904 killed just over 100 German farmers. The Herero chief, Samuel Maherero, ordered his followers to spare missionaries, women, and children. The revolt targeted German farmers who had seized Herero land as well as the Waterberg military station, where a number of German soldiers were killed.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who would lead the Germans into World War I a decade later, was enraged at the Herero revolt. He ordered his troops to suppress the rebellion. A few months later, General Lothar von Trotha arrived with 14,000 soldiers.German Propaganda Justified Their Actions By Claiming White Women Were In Danger
The Germans justified their genocidal tactics by claiming that the Africans were targeting helpless white women. Just as thousands of lynchings were carried out in America because white men claimed the misdeeds were necessary to protect white women, German propaganda declared that white women were in danger.
These claims were exaggerated. The revolt against the German occupation only saw a loss of three white women—the Herero fighters intentionally spared women and children, even offering them protection. Images of white women threatened by violent Africans were merely propaganda to convince Germans that their actions were justified.A German Army Chased The Herero Into The Desert
In August of 1904, just six months after the Herero revolt, a German army clashed with the Herero. The Africans, unable to match the military might of the German colonizers, fled into the Omaheke desert. The waterless wasteland couldn’t support the Herero, who expired from thirst and starvation.
By then, General von Trotha had issued his extermination order. He declared that the Herero would not be allowed to return to German Southwest Africa. Further, they were no longer subjects under German rule, and they would not be allowed to surrender.The Namaqua Chief Joined The Herero To Fight Against German Oppression
After von Trotha’s army chased the Herero into the desert, Hendrik Witboi, the chief of the Namaqua nation, joined the Herero in revolt. Although the Namaqua were historic enemies of the Herero, Witboi deplored Germany’s actions. The war between the Namaqua and the Germans raged for two years, but Witboi, in his 70s, fell in battle in 1905.
Witboi warned the Herero before the genocide, “You will eternally regret that you have given your land and your rule into the hands of white men.” Today, Witboi is featured on Namibia’s currency.The German General Ordered Every Man Eliminated
General Lothar von Trotha gave the extermination order on October 2, 1904: “Every Herero on German territory, with or without rifles, with or without cattle, will be shot. I’m not taking in any more women and children, drive them back to their people or have them shot.”
For the next three years, Herero and Namaqua men were eliminated on sight. Women and children were shipped off to concentration camps where they were forced to labor. They labor was utilized to build colonial projects like railways, docks, and buildings. A number of buildings still standing in Namibia today were constructed by these prisoners.It Was The First Mass Extermination Event Of The 20th Century
After the Holocaust, the United Nations dedicated itself to preventing these types of events. The 1985 Whitaker Report, the UN’s study on preventing and punishing this type of behavior, identified the German slaughter of the Hereros in 1904 as the first example of this kind of event of the twentieth century.
As the report explained, the extermination order came from General von Trotha, who ordered the African peace emissaries shot. “In all, three quarters of the Herero Africans were killed by the Germans then colonizing present-day Namibia,” decimating the Herero population, which once stood at 80,000. Afterward, only “15,000 starving refugees” remained.The Genocide Wasn’t The First Clash Between Germans And Namibians
Germans declared Southwest Africa a colonial territory in 1884. Their first move was to seize land from the local inhabitants. The Herero were a major target because they were more powerful than the Germans. Theodor Leutwein, the colonial governor, said, “the lands must obviously be transferred from the hands of the natives to those of the Whites. This is the goal of the colonization of the territory. Whites must occupy the lands. Therefore, the natives must leave and become servants or will have to go away.”
In 1897, a cattle plague struck the area, culling up to 90% of the Herero herds. With the Herero weakened, the Germans enforced their colonial agenda.This Proves That The Holocaust Was Not An Isolated Incident
The Germans believed that their harsh tactics were justified in order to maintain colonial control over Namibia. But their actions devastated the Herero and Namaqua societies. As many as 80,000 Herero were lost, and 10,000 Namaqua also lost their lives, which nearly annihilated both groups. As much as 80% of the entire Herero population was wiped out.
The loss of the Herero and Namaqua shares a number of characteristics with the Holocaust, from the attempt to exterminate an entire people to the concentration camps featuring forced labor, starvation, and medical experiments. The Holocaust was not an isolated incident––the Germans had practiced their tactics during the time of the Herero and Namaqua.
The history of European colonialism is frequently far from pretty, sadly.