The Herero and Nama Genocide – It was a genocide, not a ‘conflict’

Disclaimer: My resources are western-orientated. We don’t even own our history.

The first time I heard about the Herero and Nama genocide was during my teenage years. WIth my highschool acquaintances and friends, we were at the time engaging in deep conversations regarding many topics, including colonisation. We were puzzled on how so little German colonisation history is addressed and taught. Silence reigns and first in Germany. As I am living in Germany for four years right now, I can tell that shame and silence surround German colonial history, which ended up being erased from the public’s memory. 

Black History Month is not a dedicated month to Blackness pain only but it is important to remember such a horrifying historical event.

The Herero and Nama genocide taking gradually shape

The colonial project

German colonial domination and oppression exerted a hold, over a range of countries throughout the world from 1884 to 1919. Tormented by its inferiority complex to the other European powers, pretty established in their colonial role, Germany also wanted to own territories in the African continent. In 1884, Germany colonized a few African countries such as South West Africa, now known as Namibia. Tensions and rivalries between ethnics groups facilitated German domination. At the time, Herero and Nama belonged to the biggest ethnicities and some Hererro chiefs were looking to assert themselves on Nama chiefs. As a result, they allied with the Germans. On the other hand, Hendrik Witbooi, Nama’s chief, was forced to sign a treaty with the German treaty, after the Germans attacked one of his main villages, Hornkranz, killing 80 people.

Hendrik Witbooi

All forms of violence used to repress the Herero and Nama

The more white German settlers came to Southwest Africa, the more Natives were dispossessed of their lands. The goal was to establish Southwest Africa as a white-populated colony. In 1897, the first reserves confined the Nama. Besides the reserves, the situation worsened with rinderpest, striking the population and two-thirds of their herds. The repressive actions undertaken by the Germans went on with seizing lands, livestock and confining Herero in reserves.

Rape, killing, sacking, dispossessions of lands, rinderpest, reserves, caused anger among the locals. Therefore, the Herero people stood up and revolted in January 1904, under the leadership of their chief Samuel Maharero by sabotaging railway tracks and burning down farms. The uprising thus served as a legitimation for perpetrating genocide against Herero and Nama people. Colonial troops are sent and placed under the leadership of General Lothar von Trotha. He was chosen due to his cruel and inhuman methods, well appreciated by the imperial general staff. 

The only goal is exterminating Herero and Nama

The victory is not the goal but exterminating Herero and Nama, explicitly told by the General Lothar von Trotha in his extermination order (Vernichtungsbefehl), rewarding with 1000 marks for each person delivering a Herero and 5000 marks for the Herero chief, Samuel Maharero. The Herero and Nama people must leave or die. As everyone did not agree on his methods, he kept arguing and defending genocide, notably in his letter to the chief of staff of the imperial army: ‘The Herero nation was to be either exterminated or, in the event of military impossibility, expelled from the territory’.

The Herero and Nama, therefore, had no choice but to flee, and many passed through the Omaheke desert, where the main wells would be poisoned by the Germans.

Survivors were captured, locked up in concentration camps and enslaved. They were subjected to all forms of violence, rape, malnutrition, beaten to death, all forms of unimaginable and inhuman violence. The dead bodies of Herero and Nama served the purpose of ‘medical research’. In fact, according to a Cairn article, ‘Dr Carla Krieger Hinck referred, in her PhD thesis, to the sending of Herero skulls to the Universities of Breslau (Wroclaw) and Berlin. Many hanged bodies of Herero and Nama were also sent to Germany for dissection.’

enslaved prisoners nama and herero
Credit: AFP PHOTO/ HO/ NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF NAMIBIA

The dismantlement of the concentration camp in 1908 does not equate to freedom and human dignity for the Herero and Nama. ‘The Herero and Nama are split in various farms, wearing a metallic disc on their necks with their identification number. In the same year, ‘interracial marriages’ are banned or cancelled. The Germans involved are denied their civil rights.’ Regrettably, the number of victims of this genocide is unknown. An estimated 20,000 to 85,000 Herero and approximately 7,000 to 11,000 Nama were killed.  A genocide echoing the Shoah a few decades later. 

Apologies and reparations?

genocide nama and herero reparations

Like many colonisers countries, Germany had for long time amnesia, when it comes to its colonial past. Herero chief started to fight for reparations in the 1990s. A decade later, in 2001, a reparations complaint is filed. However, for a long time, the German government’s leaders remained hesitant to not rekindle the colonial past. Either apologies or compensations were not considered at all from the German side, until 2004, when they apologized for the first time. ‘We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time’ […] Everything I said was an apology from the German government, said in 2004, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, during the ceremonies of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Waterberg.

Namibia and Germany have been negotiating since 2015 and finding a middle ground is still difficult. Namibians indeed insist on the term ‘reparations’ whereas Germans prefer to talk about ‘reconciliation’. Then, not all descendants from the Herero and Nama genocide’s victims see themselves represented in the negotiations. The other point of disagreement is related to the compensations In summer 2020, the Namibian president, Hage Geingob, rejected a ten million euros offer of compensation from Germany, judging it inacceptable.

Negotiations must proceed, to ensure the genocide is remembered, taught in schools, and that the descendants of the victims and the Namibian people can find a glimmer of peace.

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Bibliography

Zeit Geschichte – Die Deutschen und Ihre Kolonien, das wilhelminische Weltreich 1884 bis 1918

Le génocide des Herero, symptôme d’un Sonderweg allemand? -Joël Kotek

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