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Herero Prisoners of War in 1904

20th century’s first genocide

Namibia, then known as South-West Africa, became a German colony in 1884 under the rule of Otto von Bismarck and was lost to the British during the First World War.

In 1904 the Herero and Nama people launched a rebellion against German colonial rule, over the specific issue of land rights.

After around 150 Germans were killed in the uprising, Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha was appointed Supreme Commander of South-West Africa and landed with 14,000 reinforcement troops.

The fighting had subsided and the Herero and Nama people were ready to start negotiations.

But to von Trotha, the idea of negotiating went against German and Prussian honour and military tradition. He was determined to crush the rebellion fully.

After the Germans had defeated the Herero combatants at the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, any survivors were either brutally slaughtered or driven into the Kalahari Desert.

Von Trotha then built a 200 mile fence to seal off the desert and leave the Herero and Nama to die of thirst and starvation.

German attitudes at the time foreshadow those used by the Nazis to justify their ambitions for territorial expansion and the Holocaust, such as the crusade for so-called ‘Lebensraum’ – or living space.

Young soldier Franz von Epp wrote in a letter home: “This world is being redistributed. With time we will inevitably need more space and only by the sword will we be able to get it”.

Later on in his career, Epp became a senior Nazi and was appointed Reichskomissar for Bavaria.

European colonial rule during the period was replete with bloodshed and brutality, but what von Trotha did was unprecedented. He articulated and put to paper his intention to annihilate the Herero people.

When news of the atrocities reached Germany there was national outcry, but Kaiser Willhelm I refused to withdraw the Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order).

Only after two more months of hunting down and slaughtering them did von Trotha receive orders to accept the surrender of the Herero people.

Any survivors, most of them women and children, were herded into concentration camps for slave labour and medical experiments.

The genocide cost the lives of an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 people, or 80 percent of the Herero population.

 

The image is used under the Creative Commons – Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany

 

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