Imperialism and Genocide in Namibia

By TOM SANDERS

How did Adolph Hitler acquire many of his racist ideas? Strangely enough they came out of Africa in the form of a book written by Eugen Fischer, a prominent German scientist, who went to Namibia (South West Africa) in 1904 and made a study of the mixed ethnic children of German men and Herero women.

The resulting book, “The Principles of Human Heredity of Race Hygiene,” attempted to show that these children were mentally and physically inferior to German children. Hitler, while writing “Mein Kampf” in prison years later, read the book.

By the time Hitler came to power, Fischer was chancellor at the University of Berlin and taught select Nazi physicians in medical school. One of his pupils was the later notorious Josef Mengele, a doctor at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

This “scientific” racist study concerned the first genocide of the 20th century, that of the Herero people.

Jon M. Bridgeman, in his book “The Revolt of the Hereros” (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981), states: “From 1904 to 1907 the tribes in South West Africa, especially the Hereros, fought a heroic but futile war against their German masters. [That] for all practical purposes has … disappeared from history….

“But if … we look at these events through the eyes of the tribes that took part in them … then the war is not a mere incident but rather the greatest historical event which the tribes ever experienced. It was their Marathon, their Cannae, their Sedan, their Hiroshima….

“Against almost insuperable odds, the Hereros, and later the Hottentots, repeatedly defeated and humiliated German forces … [because] they were fighting for their land, for their gods, for their traditions, for their women….

“For three long years the Germans had to suffer almost continuous humiliation at the hands of what they regarded as inferior, half-naked black men.”

The German forces responded to the Hereros’ tactics much the same way that U.S. forces responded to the tactics of the Viet Cong in Vietnam; they repeated the same failed formulas over and over.

Then, when it became obvious to the Germans that they were losing the war, their response was the same as that of the United States in Vietnam, to kill everyone and destroy without pity and without concern for the costs of damage to the land or the cost in human life.

Traditional culture destroyed

The Hereros’ culture and language are closely related to the Bantu people who migrated into Namibia in about 1750.

Their language contains more than a thousand words for the colors and markings of the cattle they raised. Their diet consisted of sour milk mixed with blood drawn from the cattle and the wild fruits and berries that they gathered.

German Marxist writers, such as Heinrich Lath, at the time of the early German occupation wrote that the Hereros were emerging politically from a purely tribal state into nomadic early feudalism. They noted that the land was held communally.

The German occupiers early began the destruction of the traditional system.

Bridgeman notes: “After the uprising the Germans extinguished all the sacred fires and confiscated all the cattle, so that the whole traditional basis of Herero cooperative life, which was already beginning to decay by 1904, collapsed completely and the Hereros became hired herdsmen on white men’s ranches.”

Frantz Fanon wrote in his classic book, “The Wretched of the Earth” (Grove Press, New York, 1963), “For a colonized people the most essential value … is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and above all, dignity.

“But this dignity has nothing to do with the dignity of the human individual: for that human individual has never heard tell of it. All that the native has seen in his country is that they can freely arrest him, beat him, starve him: and no professor of ethics, no priest has ever come to be beaten in his place, nor to share their bread with him.”

These thoughts surely must have developed in the minds of Hendrik Witbooi, the main Hottentot leader, and Samuel Makarero, the Herero leader, when they realized that they were not enemies but that the Germans were their common enemy.

They then signed a peace treaty in November 1892, which ended the Fourth Herero War (1880-1892).

But the Germans resumed the war; they attacked the followers of Witbooi first at their camp at Harukranz and killed 150, which included 78 women and children. The German commander’s orders were to “annihilate the Witbooi tribe.”

However, events moved slowly due to over-confidence, exacerbated by the increasing racism on the part of the Germans-who normally referred to the Black Africans as “baboons” and treated them accordingly.

Samuel Makarero planned the first act of self-defense and in his general orders he forbade injuring women and children, Englishmen, Boers, and other neutral Africans. He also appealed for help to the other natives of Southern Africa, but without success.

On Jan. 12, 1904, the Hereros launched their attacks on almost every German farm, village, and fort in Hereroland and succeeded in destroying the majority of the farms.

In February and March, German reinforcements arrived, permitting them to oppose the army of poorly armed Hereros with 2500 crack troops. The Germans were armed with the Model 88 rifle, which in the hands of a good marksman could kill a man at ranges upto half a mile. They also had some light artillery and machine guns.

Th e Hereros were armed only with rifles and handguns, and some in their army had no guns at all. They surprised the Germans with their marksmanship and managed to maintain the initiative as well as determining where the battles, which the Hereros usually won, would be fought.

This remained true even after there were far more armed Germans than armed Hereros. The German high command was baffled by all this, so they replaced their commander with the ruthless Gen. Lothar von Trotha.

Driven into the desert

Von Trotha issued a proclamation on Oct. 2, 1904, in which he stated: “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 I will shoot them.”

At the battle of Waterbeg, Makarero made a terrible blunder. He gathered 25,000 of his people, including women and children (who always followed the army), in a sandy valley with steep bluffs on three sides. To the open lay a 200-mile waterless desert called the Omaheke sandveld.

Von Trotha was able to force the people into the desert, where he had poisoned the few water wells. His troops locked the Hereros in the desert, where they died by the thousands.

Thus, von Trotha’s tactics turned to genocide. He erected a 150-mile line of German guardposts, keeping the Hereros in the desert. Oral histories say men slit the throats of cattle to drink the blood. They suckled the breasts of new mothers.

Infants withered and died in days. Some Hereros cut open the bellies of the dead to drink the liquid from their stomachs. Men who escaped the desert were lynched KKK style. Women and children survivors had chains placed around their necks and were worked to death. Capitalism triumphed.

The rest of the world ignored what was happening to the Hereros, except for a handful of German socialists-such as August Bebel and Rosa Luxemburg. They spoke out in vain.

Bridgeman reports that “the German losses in South West Africa from January 1904 to March 1907 amounted to about 2500 men killed, wounded, and missing. … African losses cannot be determined with such precision.

“According to most experts, however, the Hereros numbered 80,000 at the time the rebellion began; in 1911 only 15,130 were still alive. … In 1904 there were believed to have been about 20,000 Hottentots in the colony; seven years later that number had been reduced to 9781.”

The Colonial Office issued strict orders in 1907 that no native could own land or cattle (the Ovambos were an exception), all males over 17 had to carry passes, and all natives were subject to forced labor.

In 1908 diamonds were discovered along the coast. As a result, by 1914 the white population had grown to 14,000. The few natives left were cowed creatures serving their white masters.

Just before President Clinton’s visit to Africa in 1998, Mberumba Kerina, a Herero and retired Namibian diplomat, stated, after an appeal was made for reparations from Germany, “The Germans repay the Jews because they’re white. They pat us on the head because we’re Black and African and don’t think we count so very much.”

German government officials denied that what was done at the time was genocide and refused reparations, even though it wouldn’t cost much since there are so few Hereros left.