Herero and Namaqua Genocide

Herero and Namaqua Genocide

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide occurred in German South-West Africa (modern day Namibia) from 1904 until 1907, during the scramble for Africa. It is thought to be the first genocide of the 20th century. [cite book |title=The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings |last=Levi |first=Neil |authorlink= |coauthors=Rothberg, Michael |year=2003 |publisher=Rutgers University Press |location= |isbn=0813533538 |pages=465] On January 12 1904, the Herero people under Samuel Maharero rose in rebellion against German colonial rule. In August, German general Lothar von Trotha defeated the Herero in the Battle of Waterberg and drove them into the desert of Omaheke, where most of them died of thirst. In October, the Nama also took up arms against the Germans and were dealt with in a similar fashion. In total, between 24,000 and 65,000 Herero (all values are estimated as being 50% to 70% of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50% of the total Nama population) perished. Two characteristics of the genocide were death by starvation and the poisoning of wells used by the Herero and Nama populations that were trapped in the Namib Desert.

In 1985, the United Nations’ "Whitaker Report" recognized Germany’s attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of South-West Africa as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century. The German government apologised for the events in 2004.cite web
url =
title = Germany admits Namibia genocide
date = 2004-08-14
accessdate = 2008-04-23
publisher = BBC News
format = HTML


The Herero were originally a tribe of cattle herders living in a region of German South West Africa, presently modern Namibia. The area occupied by the Herero was known as Damaraland.

During the scramble for Africa, the British made it clear that they were not interested in the territory; so, in August 1884, it was declared a German protectorate and, at that time, the only overseas territory deemed suitable for white settlement that had been acquired by Germany. From the outset, there was resistance by the Khoikhoi to the German occupation, although a tenuous peace was worked out in 1894. In that year, Theodor Leutwein became governor of the territory and it underwent a period of rapid development, while Germany sent the "Schutztruppe", or imperial colonial troops, to pacify the region. [ “A bloody history: Namibia’s colonisation”] , BBC News, August 29, 2001]

White settlers were encouraged to settle on land taken from the natives, which caused a great deal of discontent. German colonial rule was far from egalitarian; the natives including the Herero were used as slave labourers, their lands were frequently seized and given to colonists, and resources, particularly diamond mines, were exploited by the Germans.


In 1903, some of the Nama Tribes rose in revolt under the leadership of Hendrik Witbooi, and about 60 German settlers were killed. Khoikhoi and Herero joined the Namas months later.

In January 1904, the Hereros revolted, led by Chief Samuel Maharero, and killed about 120 Germans, including women and children, and destroyed their farms. The rebels surrounded Okahandja and cut links to Windhoek, the colonial capital. Having few troops within the colony, Leutwein requested reinforcements and an experienced officer from the German capital, Berlin. [Clark, p. 604] Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha was appointed Commander in Chief of German South-West Africa on 3 May, arriving with his force of 14,000 troops on June 11.

The civilian Leutwein was subordinate to the Colonial Department of the Prussian Foreign Office, which reported to Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow. Trotha, on the other hand, reported to the military German General Staff, which was only subordinate to William II, German Emperor. Leutwein desired to defeat the most determined Herero rebels and negotiate a surrender with the remainder to achieve a political settlement. Trotha, however, wanted to crush native resistance.

The Genocide

Trotha's troops defeated 3,000–5,000 Herero combatants at the Battle of Waterberg on 11-12 August, but were unable to encircle and eliminate the military threat.Clark, p.605] The survivors retreated with their families towards Bechuanaland, after the British offered the Hereros asylum under the condition not to continue the revolt on British soil.

Some 24,000 Hereros managed to flee through a gap in the netting into the Kalahari Desert in the hope of reaching the British protectorate. German patrols later found skeletons around holes (25–50 feet deep) that were dug up in a vain attempt to find water. Maherero and 1,000 men crossed the Kalahari into Bechuanaland.

On 2 October, Trotha issued an appeal to the Hereros:

I, the great general of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people... All Hereros must leave this land... Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall no longer receive any women or children; I will drive them back to their people or have them fired upon. This is my decision for the Herero people. [ “Germany regrets Namibia ‘genocide’”] , BBC News, January 12, 2004]

Unable to achieve a conclusive victory through battle, Trotha ordered that captured Herero males were to be executed, while women and children were to be driven into the desert. Leutwein complained to Bülow about Trotha's actions, seeing the general's orders as ruining any chance of a settlement and intruding upon the civilian colonial jurisdiction. Having no authority over the military Trotha, the chancellor could only advise William II that Trotha's actions were "contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle, economically devastating and damaging to Germany's international reputation". The German Empire defended its actions on the world stage by saying that the Herero could not be protected under the Geneva Conventions defining human rights because Germany claimed the Herero were not true humans, but "subhumans".Fact|date=June 2008

After a political battle in Berlin between the civilian government and the military, William II countermanded Trotha's decree of 2 October on 8 December, but the massacres had already begun. When the order was lifted at the end of 1904, prisoners were herded into concentration camps and given as slave labourers to German businesses. Many prisoners died of overwork and malnutrition.

It took until 1908 to fully re-establish German authority over the territory. At the height of the campaign, some 19,000 German troops were involved. At about the same time, diamonds were discovered in the territory and this did much to boost its prosperity. However, it was short-lived. The German colony was taken over and occupied by the Union of South Africa in 1915, in one of the colonial campaigns of World War I. South Africa received a League of Nations Mandate over South-West Africa in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles.

Concentration Camps

Survivors, mostly women and children, were eventually put in concentration camps, such as that at Shark Island, similar to those used in British South Africa during the Second Boer War. The German authorities gave each Herero a number and meticulously recorded every death, whether in the camps or from forced labor, even including the name of each dead person in their reports. German enterprises were able to rent Hereros in order to use their manpower, and workers' deaths were permitted, and even reported to the German authorities. Forced labour, disease, and malnutrition killed an estimated 50–80% of the entire Herero population by 1908, when the camps were closed.An official report on the camps in 1908 described the mortality rate as 45.2% of all prisoners held in the five camps. The prisoners were fenced in, either by thorn-bush fences or by barbed wire and people were typically crammed into small areas. The Windhoek camp held about 5 000 prisoners of war in 1906. Food rations were minimal, consisting of a daily allowance of a handful of uncooked rice, some salt and water. Rice was an unfamiliar foodstuff to the Herero and Namaqua people, and the uncommon diet may have contributed the high death rate. Diseases in the camps were rampant and poorly controlled. A lack of medical attention, unhygienic living quarters, and lack of clothing as well as a high concentration of people in a small area contributed to the spread of diseases such as typhoid which then spread rapidly. Beatings and abuse were also part of life in the camps and the sjambok was often used to beat prisoners who were forced to work, a September 28 1905 article in the South African newspaper Cape Argus detailed some the abuse, with the heading: "In German S. W. Africa: Further Startling Allegations: Horrible Cruelty". In an interview with Percival Griffith, "an accountant of profession, who owing to hard times, took up on transport work at Angra Pequena [Lüderitz] ", related his experiences. "There are hundreds of them, mostly women and children and a few old men ... when they fall they are sjamboked by the soldiers in charge of the gang, with full force, until they get up ... On one occasion I saw a woman carrying a child of under a year old slung at her back, and with a heavy sack of grain on her head ... she fell. "The corporal sjamboked her for certainly more than four minutes and sjamboked the baby as well ... the woman struggled slowly to her feet, and went on with her load. She did not utter a sound the whole time, but the baby cried very hard." [ Prevent Genocide International] .]

During the war a number of people from the Cape (in modern day South Africa), strapped for money, sought employment as transport riders for German troops in Namibia. Upon their return to the Cape some of these people recounted their stories, including those of the imprisonment and genocide of the Herero and Namaqua people. Fred Cornell, a British aspirant diamond prospector, was in Lüderitz when the Shark Island camp was being used. Cornell wrote of the camp: "Cold - for the nights are often bitterly cold there - hunger, thirst, exposure, disease and madness claimed scores of victims every day, and cartloads of their bodies were every day carted over to the back beach, buried in a few inches of sand at low tide, and as the tide came in the bodies went out, food for the sharks."

The concentration camp on Shark Island, in the coastal town of Lüderitz, was the worst of the five Namibian camps. Lüderitz lies in southern Namibia, flanked by desert and ocean. In the harbour lies Shark Island, which then was connected to the mainland only by a small causeway. The island is now, as it was then, barren and characterised by solid rock carved into surreal formations by the hard ocean winds. The camp was placed on the far end of the relatively small island, where the prisoners would have suffered complete exposure to the strong winds that sweep Lüderitz for most of the year. The first prisoners to arrive were, according to a missionary called Kuhlman, 487 Herero ordered to work on the railway between Lüderitz and Kubub. In October 1905 Kuhlman reported the appalling conditions and high death rate among the Herero on the island. Throughout 1906 the island had a steady inflow of prisoners, with 1,790 Nama prisoners arriving on September 9 alone. In the annual report for Lüderitz in 1906, an unidentified clerk remarked that "the Angel of Death" had come to Shark Island. German Commander Von Estorff wrote in a report that approximately 1 700 prisoners had died by April 1907, 1 203 of them Nama. In December 1906, four months after their arrival, 291 Nama died (a rate of more than nine people a day). Missionary reports put the death rate at between 12 and 18 a day, as many as 80% of the prisoners sent to the Shark Island concentration camp never left the island.

Dutch historian Jan-Bart Gewald of the University of Cologne has written that the Germans set up special camps for their troops and that many children were born of German fathers and Herero mothers. After most Herero males had been killed, the surviving women were forced to serve as prostitutes for the Germans. [ [ Mail&Guardian: The tribe Germany wants to forget ] ] Trotha was opposed to contact between natives and settlers, believing that the insurrection was "the beginning of a racial struggle" and fearing that the colonists would be infected by native diseases.Clark, p. 606]

Recognition, denial and compensation

According to the 1985 United Nations’ "Whitaker Report", some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50% of the total Nama population) were killed between 1904 and 1907. Other estimates give a total of 100,000 killed. However, German author Walter Nuhn estimates that in 1904 only 40,000 Herero lived in German South-West Africa, and therefore only 24,000 could have been killed [Walter Nuhn: "Sturm über Südwest. Der Hereroaufstand von 1904." Bernhard & Graefe-Verlag, Koblenz 1989. ISBN 3-76375-852-6.] . Recent publications consider the total of 24,000-40,000 people killed to be the most reliable estimate.

The German administration never conducted a census before 1904. Only in 1905 did a counting take place which revealed that 25,000 Herero remained in German South-West Africa.Fact|date=August 2007

Many modern historians believe the Herero were the first ethnic group to be subjected to genocide in the 20th century.cite web
url =
title = Reparations for the Herero Genocide: Defining the limits of international litigation
author = Allan D. Cooper
work = Oxford Journals African Affairs
date = 2006-08-31
format = HTML
] Larissa Förster, a Namibia expert at the Museum for Ethnology in Cologne, explains, “It was clearly a command to eliminate people belonging to a specific ethnic group and only because they were part of this ethnic group.” [cite web
url =,1564,1084266,00.html
title = Remembering the Herero Rebellion
publisher = Deutsche Welle
date = 2004-11-01
format = HTML
] It has also been linked to later events in Nazi Germany. [cite web
url =
title = Imperialism and Genocide in Namibia
publisher = Socialist Action
year = 1999
month = 04
format = HTML
] Other researchers,Who|date=June 2008 accused by those who disagree with them of being historical revisionists, use the term "Herero Wars". While acknowledging the massacres, they deem the evidence insufficient to call it a genocide and reject comparisons to Auschwitz as sensationalism.Fact|date=December 2007

In 1998, German President Roman Herzog visited Namibia and met Herero leaders. Chief Munjuku Nguvauva demanded a public apology and compensation. Herzog expressed regret but stopped short of an apology. He also pointed out that reparations were out of the question.

On August 16, 2004, the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, officially apologised for the first time and expressed grief about the genocide committed by Germans, declaring, “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time.” In addition, she admitted that the massacres were equivalent to genocide, without explicitly mentioning the concentration camps and slavery that also existed, both of which were well documented by the Germans themselves. Furthermore, she ruled out paying a special compensation, declaring that the German government already paid a yearly sum of €11.5 million as development aid for Namibia.

The Hereros filed a lawsuit in the United States in 2001 demanding reparations from the German government and the Deutsche Bank, which financed the German government and companies in Southern Africa. [cite web
url =
title = German bank accused of genocide
publisher = BBC News
date = 2001-09-25
format = HTML

The descendants of Lothar von Trotha and the von Trotha family travelled to Omaruru in October 2007 by invitation of the royal Herero chiefs and publicly apologised for his actions. Wolf-Thilo von Trotha said, “We, the von Trotha family, are deeply ashamed of the terrible events that took place 100 years ago. Human rights were grossly abused that time.” [cite web
url =
title = German family’s Namibia apology
publisher = BBC News
date = 2007-10-07
format = HTML

Former Nambian ambassador to Germany, Peter Katjavivi demanded in August 2008 that the skulls of Herero and Nama prisoners of the 1904-08 uprising, which were taken to Germany for scientific research to "prove" the superiority of white Europeans over Africans, be returned to Namibia.

Katjavivi was reacting to a German television documentary, which reported that its investigators had found over 40 of these skulls at two German universities, among them probably the skull of a Nama chief who had died on Shark Island near Luederitz. []

Fictional representations

One chapter of Thomas Pynchon's novel "V." (1963) is about the Herero genocide. A group of characters of Herero descent are also present in his "Gravity's Rainbow" (1974), which hints more than once at the Herero Massacre.


A short documentary in production, "From Herero To Hitler: Planting the Seeds of a Future Genocide," will examine how events in German South-West Africa relate to the actions of Nazi Germany. [ [ Rosemarie Reed Productions, LLC - Films for Thought: From Herero to Hitler: Planting the Seeds of a Future Genocide ] ]

See also

* Genocides in history
* German war crimes


Bibliography and documentaries

* "Exterminate all the Brutes", Sven Lindqvist, London, 1996.
* "A Forgotten History-Concentration Camps were used by Germans in South West Africa", Casper W. Erichsen, in the "Mail and Guardian", Johannesburg, 17 August, 2001.
* "Genocide & The Second Reich", BBC Four, David Olusoga, October 2004
* German Federal Archives, Imperial Colonial Office, Vol. 2089, 7 (recto)
* "The Herero and Nama Genocides, 1904-1908", J.B. Gewald, in "Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity", New York, Macmillan Reference, 2004.
* "Herero Heroes: A Socio-Political History of the Herero of Namibia 1890 - 1923", J.B. Gewald, Oxford, Cape Town, Athens OH, 1999.
* "Let Us Die Fighting: the Struggle of the Herero and Nama against German Imperialism, 1884-1915", Horst Drechsler, London, 1980.
* "The Revolt of the Hereros", Jon M. Bridgman, "Perspectives on Southern Africa", Berkeley, University of California, 1981.A probable source for much of this information is Isabell Hull's Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). Parts of this entry are nearly word-for-word summaries of Hull's analysis.

Further reading

* [ Official German apologies] de icon
* [ The resistance struggle culminates in genocide: 1904-1906]
* [ The tribe Germany wants to forget, "Mail & Guardian", 13 March 1998]
* [ Genocide and the history of violent expansionism]
* [ Atrocities committed on the Herero people during the suppression of their uprising in German South West Africa 1904-1907]

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