When Germany Came to Africaby Edwin Black June 27, 2016
It is settled, everyday history that Nazi Germany aggressed against its neighbors in part because of a twisted concept known as Lebensraum — that is, the self-declared mandate to achieve “living space” for an overcrowded Germany. Lebensraum declared that the Third Reich was inherently entitled to supplant and destroy other nations to advance German notions of biological supremacy. This racist philosophy underpinned Germany’s invasion, subjugation, and rape of much of Eastern Europe. However, students of Lebensraum know it was not a Hitlerian concept. Rather, it was coined in the last gasp of the 19th century by German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, after Germany had suffered years of social upheaval and economic hardship through the mid to late 1800s.
In the Second Reich, rapid multimillion-person population loss and the tearfully destitute conditions propelling the outflow were devastating to the German national identity. A concept arose: Volk ohne Raum, that is, “a people without space.” As the father of German geopolitics, Ratzel, with his post-Darwinian notions of racial supremacy, insisted that colonizing land to create extra “living space” was the cure for Germany’s urban overcrowding. In those turn-of-the 20th-century days, a weakened Germany turned its focus from the Balkans and the Slavic realms to Africa. Indeed, Ratzel wrote that Africa was an ideal candidate for the push to achieve Lebensraum.
As other parts of white Europe also shifted focus to colonizing Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm began to fear Germany would be left out if it didn’t act fast. In November 1884, the country convened the Berlin Conference of leading European powers to cooperatively carve up the African continent. Out of that international conclave came an agreement, the Berlin Treaty, enacted “in the Name of G-d Almighty,” that would systemize an orderly territorial invasion by European powers, as well as river navigation, land use, and the other needed “rules for the future occupation of the coast of the African Continent.” As part of the treaty, European governments also agreed to interdict and suppress the Arab slave trade — a lofty moralistic ideal with a double edge. Stemming Arab slave exports also kept able-bodied Africans on the land and available to labor in abject, cruel, and slave-like conditions on colonial plantations.
Germany invaded four African territories – Togoland, the Cameroons, Tanganyika, and its main coastal presence in Southwest Africa now known as Namibia. It is there that German settlers established lucrative plantations by exploiting the labor of local Herero and Nama (also known as Hottentot) indigenous peoples. German banks and industrialists combined to provide needed economic support and investment. Berlin dispatched a small military contingent to protect white settlers as they confronted the lightly armed African natives considered subhuman in Germany’s twisted notion of racial hierarchy.
Once entrenched, the German minority established a culture of pure labor enslavement. Tribeswomen were subjected to incessant and often capricious rape – and not infrequently, their men were killed while attempting to defend them. Whites routinely stole the possessions of natives, such as cattle, and found ways to seize ancestral lands over trivialities. Confiscation was often facilitated by predatory European lending practices enforced at gunpoint by the German military.
In 1903, on the verge of utter dispossession, Nama warriors revolted against the 2,500-strong white community. Later, Herero fighters joined. Scores of German settlers were massacred in a sequence of surprise attacks.
The 700-plus Schutztruppe or “protection force” was overwhelmed. The colonial governor called for reinforcements.
In 1904, Berlin dispatched 14,000 soldiers to suppress the uprising. Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, Supreme Commander of German Southwest Africa, had learned from other European battles in Africa, such as Britain’s costly Boer War. Trotha was determined to quickly and completely exterminate the African natives, leaving the land free for fulfillment of the dream of Lebensraum. Armed with modern cannon and Gatling guns, Trotha’s troops surrounded the Africans on three sides. When Trotha wrote on October 2, 1904, “It is my intention to destroy the rebellious tribes with streams of blood and money,” his men used the German word “vernichtung,” which means extermination.
“I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros,” von Trotha wrote in official proclamation. “The Hereros are German subjects no longer. … The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). 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.”
Trotha’s command became known in official circles as a “vernichtungsbefehl,” that is, an “extermination order.”
Nearly surrounded, more than 3,000 Hereros were cut down by fusillades. But bullets and cannon were only the beginning. German guide Jan Cloete testified, “I was present when the Herero were defeated in a battle in the vicinity of Waterberg. After the battle, all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside … were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men was unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle.”
Von Trotha instructed his troops to fire over the heads of women, children, and weakened men, driving them east into the scorching dry Omaheke section of the Kalahari Desert. In anticipation of their flight, troops poisoned the wells or surrounded them with deadly forces. Starved of food or water, the desperate and weakened Herero wandered from watering hole to watering hole.
Thousands, in family groups, gradually fell dead, their rib cages bulging to the limits of their gaunt and emaciated skins. Many who did not die quickly enough were seized and then stacked by soldiers into human heaps atop makeshift pyres comprised of bush branches and limbs. The people mounds of vanquished Hereros, still barely alive and breathing, were set on fire. For many years, their murdered bodies littered the desert in nightmarish aggregations.
A deadly fate also awaited the Nama tribespeople. Von Trotha sent them a similar message: “The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in German territory will be shot, until all are exterminated.”
With the vast majority of the Africans murdered, Berlin rethought the extermination program. Now there were no local workers to exploit. At some point, the civilian Herero and Nama people and related clans that had initially escaped the fiery execution were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Those who didn’t die on the march were transported to concentration camps to serve in cruel bondage for great German industrial concerns, building roads, berms, and useful holes for the German infrastructure.
One of these camps was the notorious Shark Island, considered an “extermination by labor” camp where Nama and Herero civilians, including women and children, were knowingly and methodically worked to death. Investigators estimate the death rate at 90 percent.
One surviving family member of a chief later testified to a British commission, “I was sent to Shark Island by the Germans. We remained on the island one year. [Approximately] 3,500 Hottentots [Nama], and Kaffirs were sent to the island and [only] 193 returned — 3,307 died on the Island.”
Another member of the German settlement wrote, “During the worst period an average of 30 died daily … it was the way the system worked. General von Trotha publicly gave expression to this system of murder through work in an article he published. … ‘the destruction of all rebellious tribes is the aim of our efforts.’”
In 1911, after hostilities had ceased and the extermination policy was challenged in Berlin, an official German census counted an 80 percent reduction of all tribal groups, or about 92,000 dead since the initial extermination proclamation in 1904.
While the systemic slaughter of the Hereros, Nama and related African groups by the Germans of the Second Reich was hardly a secret, scholars still commonly say the Armenian genocide of 1914, perpetrated by the Turks, was the first genocide of the 20th century. In fact, history records the first deliberate effort to systemically exterminate an entire group was in Southwest Africa in 1904 through 1908 at the hands of Germans.