The Second Reich’s Genocide

In the midst of a bitter war, the German government began to round up people of particular ethnicities which it considered to be subhuman enemies, gathered them into concentration camps, and worked them to death as slave labor in a deliberate policy of extermination and  genocide. But this was not the Third Reich in Europe in 1940. It was the Second Reich in Africa in 1904.

Captured and chained Herero prisoners                   
photo from WikiCommons

When the Industrial Revolution swept across Europe in the mid-19th century, all of the world powers (and any nation that aspired to be a world power) was pushed into a policy of military expansion in order to protect trade routes and obtain sources of raw materials abroad. It became known as the Age of Imperialism. 

One key area of focus was Africa, which was vast, inhabited by undeveloped Native tribes, and had huge untapped resources. European powers like England, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Portugal all found themselves conquering vast territories on the continent, which they then had to defend from each other. It was dubbed “The Scramble for Africa”.

By the 1880s the military and economic struggles over Africa were becoming burdensome for everyone, and a conference of world powers was called by Otto von Bismarck, Foreign Minister of the newly-unified Germany (ruled by the German Kaiser and known as the Second Reich), to meet in Berlin in 1884 and settle the Africa situation once and for all. Sitting around the conference table, without any representation or input from any Africans, the delegates carved up the continent between themselves, arbitrarily drawing boundaries for lands they had never seen and which bisected the traditional tribal territories of faraway people they didn’t care about. 

German politics was also being heavily influenced by an ideology known as Lebensraum (“living space”), championed by a geographer named Friederich Ratzel. Ratzel’s idea was that world powers in history, like Rome and Spain, tended to grow more prosperous as their territorial area expanded, and collapsed whenever they could no longer expand and began to contract. This of course has been the implicit ideology of every imperial power, but most empires attempted to justify their expansion with self-serving benevolent rationales like “bringing civilization to the savages”. Ratzel was one of the first to state the obvious out loud—empires were all about seizing power and wealth, nothing more.

Further, Ratzel’s ideology of Lebensraum became coupled to another ideology, that of Social Darwinism. A politically-motivated perversion of Charles Darwin’s scientific observations, Social Darwinism held simply that the strongest survive, the weakest die, and that White Europe was fated to be at the top of the world order because it was inherently superior to all the other races and cultures.

It would prove to be a toxic combination.

The recently-unified Germany was new to the imperial game, and they pressed their own colonial claims relentlessly in order to stay even with the other European powers, especially France and England. So at the Africa Conference the Germans were granted control of Kamerun (modern Cameroon), German Togoland (modern Togo), German East Africa (modern Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda), and German Southwest Africa (modern Namibia).

Bismarck’s focus quickly zeroed in on Southwest Africa (the area known today as Namibia). Inherently conservative and nationalist, Bismarck saw that this area, though mostly desert, had large tracts of land near the coast that were suited for farming, and he formulated a grand plan to relocate thousands of rural Germans (who were also politically conservative) and also large numbers of urban poor (who formed the political base for the Kaiser’s urban Socialist opponents) to Southwest Africa and transform it into another German province, ruled from Berlin. It would give Germany the Lebensraum that it needed to expand, and it would also get Bismarck’s political opponents as far away from power (literally) as possible. 

There was just one problem: Southwest Africa was already inhabited. 

For thousands of years this area of southern Africa had been the territory of the San, a hunter-gatherer people. In the early 1700s, however, a group of Bantu-speaking cattle-herders from the north, known as Herero, moved into the San territory. The San were driven to seek refuge in the hostile Kalahari Desert, while the Herero established pastoral villages. They were joined by another herding people called the Nama, who had been driven out of their own coastal lands in what is now South Africa by the Europeans.

Germany’s first settlement in Southwest Africa was the town of Luderitz, in 1883. The Germans negotiated an agreement with the Herero chieftain (signed by the German colonial governor Heinrich Goering) in which the Natives accepted the settlers from Germany in exchange for protection from hostile neighbors by the government in Berlin. After the 1884 Conference, more German settlers arrived, some 5,000 by 1890. A German Army Major named Theodor Leutwein became the new colonial governor.

German imperial rule was harsh. The native Herero and Nama were viewed by the authorities in Windhoek and in Berlin simply as subhumans. They were excluded from any political power, they had no rights as citizens or humans, and their land was systematically stolen. In 1903, a rebellion broke out among the Nama against German colonial rule, and the Herero quickly joined in.

The German response was brutal. Berlin sent a force of soldiers to Windhoek. Governor Leutwein attempted to negotiate a peace with the Herero, but political pressure from Bismarck forced him to take military action. In June 1904, General Lothar von Trotha arrived with another 10,000 troops. His orders were simple: smash the rebellion by exterminating the Herero. Two months later, von Trotha surrounded the main force of Herero at a place called Waterberg and crushed them. The remaining remnants of the rebellion fled into the Kalahari.

Von Trotha stationed a number of garrisons to prevent them from returning, and issued a proclamation which declared, “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 shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.” It became known as the Extermination Order. 

Governor Leutwein in turn objected to Berlin: “I do not concur with those fanatics who want to see the Herero destroyed altogether … I would consider such a move a grave mistake from an economic point of view.” A short time later, Berlin removed him from office, and Kaiser Wilhelm and the German General Staff sent a message to von Trotha supporting the “racial struggle” to “wipe out the entire nation or to drive them out of the country”. It was what we would call today “ethnic cleansing”.

The remaining Herero men, women and children were rounded up by the German colonial authorities and placed in barbed-wire “concentration camps”. The Nama, who had also participated in the rebellion, were targeted as well, and most of them were contained in a large camp offshore on Shark Island, in the port of Luderitz.

This tactic had already been developed by the British during the Boer War to separate guerrilla fighters from their civilian support networks, but the Germans turned their concentration camps to a different task. Most of the camps were located near shipping ports on the coast, and the inhabitants, including the children, were used as forced labor to load ships and unpack cargo. They were also rented out to local German businesses as a cheap labor source. 

In addition, the prisoners were utilized as unwilling subjects for medical studies and experiments, and inmates who caught various tropical diseases were either left untreated to observe the course of the illness, or used to test various experimental treatments. The colonial Germans also sent hundreds of body parts, including skulls, skeletons and preserved heads, back to Germany for use in medical schools, for anthropological studies, and as museum exhibits.

But the primary aim of the concentration camps was, simply, to kill off the remaining Herero and Nama. Food, shelter and clothing were minimal, and most of the prisoners died of disease, starvation, or overwork. Later estimates concluded that around 80% of the roughly 2,000 prisoners at Shark Island died in captivity, and at least 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero prisoners died. Estimates of total death range as high as 100,000.

It was the first European genocide of the 20th century, and, 30 years later, it served as a model for the Third Reich’s political extermination camps at Dachau and Buchenwald.

But the suffering of the Herero and Nama was not over yet. When the camps were finally closed in 1909, the few remaining survivors were forced to wear metal ID tags around their necks, and were treated as subhumans. They were forbidden from owning land or cattle and eeked out a living as virtual slave farm workers for white ranchers. In 1915, during the First World War, German Southwest Africa was invaded by the former British colony of South Africa, which was then granted a League of Nations Mandate over the territory. Southwest Africa would resist its occupation by the Johannesburg apartheid regime for decades, until finally winning independence in 1990, when it became the state of Namibia.

In 2021, Germany agreed to pay over one billion euros to Namibia for use in economic development and infrastructure, to make up for what it agreed was a “genocide”, but carefully avoided the words “reparations” or “compensation”, instead calling the payment a “gesture of reconciliation”. Meanwhile, inside Namibia, descendants of those Herero and Nama whose land was stolen during the war have called for their property to be returned to them, and have demanded that any payments from Germany to Namibia should go to the descendants of the victims.


2 thoughts on “The Second Reich’s Genocide”

  1. Visiting Namibia, one still sees a strong German cultural presence – Luderitz looks for all the world like a town in Bavaria or some place like that, and there are still many German-speaking people living there. As far as I know, there is no such presence in any of Germany’s other former colonies.

    I also get the impression that there is far more racial harmony in Namibia, as compared to South Africa, despite the fact that the Germans surely outdid the apartheid regime in repression.

  2. .

    “German colonial governor Heinrich Goering”

    Yes, the father of Hermann Goering.

    A fair number of German colonial officials and army officers in Southwest Africa went on to become prominent Nazis three decades later. Genocide was nothing new to them.

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