Recently on 27th January the Holocaust Memorial Day was held to register the liberation of Auschwitz. The Germans also participated in this commemoration. They were/are fully aware of what was done to the Jewish people in their names. But do they/we know about Namibia's Holocaust when it was a German colony?
Namibia before the Genocide
Along the coastline of Namibia runs the Namib desert, a 1,200 mile long strip of unwelcoming sand dunes and barren rock. Behind it is the central mountain plateau, and east of that the Kalahari desert. Namibia's scarcest commodity is water: this is a country of little rainfall, and the rivers don't always run. But the very sand of the Skeleton Coast is the dust of gemstones; uranium, tin and tungsten can be mined in the central Namib, and copper in the north; and in the south there are diamonds. Namibia also has gold, silver, lithium, and natural gas. For most of the region's history, only metal was of interest to the native tribes. These tribes lived and traded together more or less peacefully, each with their own particular way of living, wherever the land2 was fertile enough. The San were nomads, hunters and gatherers. The Damara hunted and worked copper. The Ovambogrew crops in the north, where there was more rain, but also worked in metal. The Nama and the Herero were livestock farmers, and they were the two main tribes in the 1840s when the Germans (first missionaries, then settlers, then soldiers) began arriving in South West Africa.
Before the Germans, only a few Europeans had visited it: explorers, traders and sailors. They opened up trade outlets for ivory and cattle; they also brought in firearms, with which they traded for Namib treasures. Later, big guns and European military systems were introduced. The20px tribes now settled their disputes with lethal violence: corruption of a peaceful culture was under way.
In the 1880s Germany made South West Africa their own colony, and settlers moved in, followed by a military governor who knew little about running a colony and nothing at all about Africa. Major Theodor Leutwein began by playing off the Nama and Herero tribes against each other. More and more white settlers arrived, pushing tribesmen off their cattle-grazing lands with bribes and unreliable deals. The Namib's diamonds were discovered, attracting yet more incomers with a lust for wealth.
The German Emperor replaced Major Leutwein with another commander, this time a man notorious for brutality who had already fiercely suppressed African resistance to German colonisation in East Africa. Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha said, 'I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge'. Von Trotha brought with him to German South West Africa 10,000 heavily-armed men and a plan for war.
Under his command, the German troops slowly drove the Herero warriors to a position where they could be hemmed in by attack on three sides. The fourth side offered escape; but only into the killing wastes of the Kalahari desert. The German soldiers were paid well to pursue the Herero into this treacherous wilderness. They were also ordered to poison the few water-holes there. Others set up guard posts along a 150-mile border: any Herero trying to get back was killed.
During the period of colonisation and oppression, many women were used as sex slaves. (This had not been von Trotha's intention. 'To receive women and children, most of them ill, is a serious danger to the German troops. And to feed them is an impossibility. I find it appropriate that the nation perishes instead of infecting our soldiers.') In the Herero work camps there were numerous children born to these abused women, and a man called Eugen Fischer, who was interested in genetics, came to the camps to study them; he carried out medical experiments on them as well. He decided that each mixed-race child was physically and mentally inferior to its German father (a conclusion for which there was and is no respectable scientific foundation whatever) and wrote a book promoting his ideas: 'The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene'. Adolf Hitler read it while he was in prison in 1923, and cited it in his own infamous pursuit of 'racial purity'.
The Nama suffered at the hands of the colonists too. After the defeat of the Herero the Nama also rebelled, but von Trotha and his troops quickly routed them. On April 22 1905 Lothar von Trotha sent his clear message to the Nama: they should surrender. 'The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in the German area will be shot, until all are exterminated.
After The Genocide
After the First World War, South West Africa was placed under the administration of South Africa. South Africa imposed its own system of apartheid (now banned in Namibia by law). In the late 1940s a guerrilla movement called SWAPO (South West African People's Organisation) was founded to fight for independence. In 1968 the United Nations recognized the name Namibia, and the country's right to independence, but it was another 20 years before South Africaagreed to withdraw and full independence was gained. By then the country was ravaged by war.
Today most of Namibia's 1.7m people are poor, living in crowded tribal areas while powerful and wealthy ranchers still own millions of acres seized by their predecessors over 100 years ago.
The 25,000 or so present-day rich German settlers are among those who deny that there was a genocide, fearing that reparation might mean losing their valuable land.
Remembering and forgetting
Recently on 27th January the Holocaust Memorial Day was held to register the liberation of Auschwitz. The Germans also participated in this commemoration. They were/are fully aware of what was done to the Jewish people in their names. Unfortunately around the same period “Het Parool”, an Amsterdam daily newspaper ran a story which stated that the Dutch government had informed the National institute of Dutch slavery and heritage (NiNsee) that the financing of the yearly 1st July commemoration of the abolishment of Dutch slavery for an amount of €50,000 will be terminated after 2016. Subsequently, after protest from various quarters, it was mentioned in the national media that the Dutch cabinet is reconsidering the matter and there is hope for continuation after 2017. Sure, there are many lining up to comment that those who want to commemorate that sordid but prosperous period in Dutch history, can do it and pay for it themselves. This is not a bad idea. However considering the on-level playing field of the last five hundred years of transatlantic slavery, colonization, capitalism and imperialism coupled to the past and present atrocities inherent to that systemic process, it is only fitting that the commemoration of Dutch slavery is an inclusive issue. An issue of remembrance paid for by the Dutch state, which was involved in the rape of Africa and her resources, in one form or the other, in the last five hundred years.
In his brilliant and well researched and analytic study, ‘How Europe undeveloped Africa’ the Caribbean scholar Walter Rodney makes explicitly clear that European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labour power could be exploited. ‘Indeed it would have been impossible to open the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth , had it not been for African labour’. This in its self goes a long way in clarifying the wealth of West European and North American countries. It also means that when one is confronted frequently in the media by vast amounts of Africans trying to reach Europe using on-sea worthy boats, etc one ought to see this as a consequence of the consistent appropriation of Africa’s capital. Questions which ought to be placed firmly on the refuge discourse agenda is why do they (the Africans) strive to come and why France policies in the so called Francophone Africa need to be looked at. Why is the central bank of these African countries located in Paris? The African ‘boat people’ seem to be following their national resources. Many years ago the other Africans were taken as captives and human resources from Africa. In Europe today many persons try to forget but the social memory of chattel slavery and colonial appropriation is a given. Walter Rodney also wrote in his above mentioned book ‘to be colonized is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense’. The article by Dr. Runoko Rashidi pertaining to the Germans in Namibia is just one of the many stories still to be told relating to five hundred years of the bleeding of Africa and the African diaspora.
Read the whole article on how colonization began in what is today Namibia here.
By Dr. Runoko Rashidi
Thanks to PPU and Akyeame Kwame for circulating and permission to republish.
Images: Filmagen (based on "Dune 7" by Damien du Toit) // "Ovahimba Mother & Child" by David Siu (Flickr/CC
More Main Stories /
Do you wish to write for Colors?