Namibia – 1904-1908

Nombre de victimes : environ 74 000 morts

Qualification : Génocide reconnu, crime de guerre

Motif : race, couleur, origine ethnique

The actors

In the fourteenth century, the Herero from the East African Great Lakes settled in Namibia in south-western Africa along the Indian Ocean coastline. Along with the Nama, the San, Damara and Ovambo, they represented, in the 1840s, a population of approximately 200,000 people spread over a semi-desert territory of 500,000 km2.

In 1883, Adolf Lüderitz, a merchant from Bremen, Germany, purchased land from the Herero. Other German traders, settlers and missionaries followed suit and gradually came to occupy the entire coast of this rare African territory as yet unclaimed by any European power.

The following year, incredible diamond deposits were discovered in the Hereroland and German Chancellor Bismarck placed Namibia, renamed Deutsch-Südwest Afrika, “under the protection of the Reich”.

The causes

In 1903, there were 3700 German settlers and officials who were continually seeking new ways of expanding their cattle herds, agricultural developments and mining ventures.

Hoping for peaceful relations and greater wealth, the Herero chiefs began selling off their ancestral lands and water holes at a low price.

Over time, the colonial authorities implemented a policy that allowed them to confiscate property belonging to the Herero that hadn’t already succumbed to slavery (sexual, in the case of women).

Now deprived of all means of subsistence, without any defence against an arbitrary power and summary justice, the Herero had no other recourse except to revolt.

In January 1904, under the orders of their leader, Samuel Maherero, Herero warriors attacked the German outposts and farms. They massacred 123 merchants, settlers and soldiers, sparing missionaries, women and children.

This poorly organized uprising provided the Germans with the perfect pretext for ridding themselves of a population they already despised and which, above all, was a living embarrassment to them. This colonial crisis broke out during the same period the “socialist” ideology (Völkisch) was in full swing in Germany.

The crimes

The German Emperor Wilhelm II appointed General Lothar von Trotha to quash the rebellion in Namibia.

On August 11, 1904, an expeditionary force of 10,000 men went into battle on the Waterberg Plateau (Hamakari for the Herero). The death toll was 5000 to 6000 Herero warriors, along with 20,000 to 30,000 civilians, including women and children.

On October 2, Von Trotha issued an extermination order:

“I, the Great General of the German Soldiers, address this letter to the Herero people. The Herero are no longer considered German subjects. They have murdered, stolen, cut off ears, noses and other parts from wounded soldiers, and now refuse to fight on out of cow¬ardice.”

“I have this to say to them: Whoever turns over one of the captains to one of my garrisons as a prisoner will receive 1000 Marks and he who hands over Samuel Maharero will be entitled to a reward of 5000 Marks. All Herero must leave the country.”

Governor Von Leutwein tried in vain to intercede on behalf of the Herero: “We need the Herero as cattle breeders, though on a small scale, and especially as labourers. It will be quite sufficient if they are politically dead.”

With the support of Wilhelm II, who relieved Von Leutwein of duty, Von Trotha refused any compromises: “As I see it, the nation must be destroyed as such and, should this prove impossible to achieve by tactical moves, they will have to be forced out of the country […] I have given the order to execute the prisoners and drive the women and children into the desert.”

The Germans poisoned the wells on the outskirts of the Omaheke Desert (now Kalahari), while driving the survivors to this very area, which would prove fatal to 30,000 of them.

The official military chronicle of the time reported that “the ruthless desert blockades for months on end would bring the elimination phase to completion.” Around 10,000 people at the most managed to escape the massacres to either take refuge in the neighbouring British colonies, mainly in Botswana, or disappear into the bush.

At the end of 1904, Chancellor von Bülow, under the pressure of public opinion, parliamentary opposition and Christian missions, lifted the extermination order.

The Herero, mostly women, then surrendered to the authorities who immediately took them into custody, marked them with the letters GH (Gefangene Herero, “captured Herero”), and regrouped them into what the Germans were already calling concentration camps (Konzentrationslager).

Exhausted, abused or sick, almost a third of the prisoners died during the long marches to forced labour camps. During their first year of detention, half of the Herero survivors (7862 people) died on the site of a railway line. Deprivation, mistreatment and disease were the lot of the remaining Herero people, with the exception of the “comfort women” reserved for the colonial troops.

In 1907, the emperor put an end to the war and the following year, the camps were dismantled. But the now freed Herero were not allowed to return to their homeland. They were dispersed onto farms and required to wear metal identification tags around their necks.

In 1911, German colonial authorities estimated their population to be around 15,130 members.

During seven years of repression, about 64,000 Herero disappeared, which was nearly 80% of their population. General von Trotha achieved his goal of destroying the Herero nation.

But it didn’t stop there: this genocide claimed other victims as well. Faced with German threats to subject all Africans to the fate of the Herero, the Nama (called Hottentots by the Germans) also took up arms in 1904 and carried out guerrilla warfare beyond 1907. Half of them, approximately 10,000 people, survived but found themselves stripped of their cultural and economic rights.

Justice and memory

At the beginning of 2000, awe-inspiring fields of skeletons were uncovered by the winds in the Namibian desert, near Luderitz. Prior to this gruesome discovery, few people were aware of the existence of the Herero, a people whose history would now accord them the unenviable title of being the first population targeted for genocide in the twentieth century.

Despite the controversy about the ruling of genocide that divided the Federal Republic of Germany, Von Trotha’s threat to “kill all the Herero,” including women and children, on “German territory” can hardly be described as anything else except genocidal intent. Genocide was confirmed by the undeniably “rational” organization of the massacre, as evidenced by German military records.

Some descendants of the Herero settled in Botswana, but others remained in their homeland where they currently represent only 8% of the population.

During his visit to Namibia in 1998, the German president, Roman Herzog, expressed his remorse.

In 2004, at the ceremony to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the start of the genocide, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, in her capacity as Minister for Cooperation and Development, apologized to the Herero on behalf of Germany: “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time.”

The German government, however, refused the Herero the financial compensation they were demanding. The Herero had previously brought their case to the International Criminal Court and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2000. They felt they were entitled to the amount of two billion U.S. dollars in compensation. Germany opposed this on the grounds that the colonial crimes of the imperial period are not a “violation of international law”, since the laws on the protection of postcolonial rebels and civilians were not yet in force at the time of the Herero uprising in 1904.

The Herero have still not recovered the land of which they were dispossessed. As the main source of economic aid to Namibia, Germany has no plans to provide any additional financial other than increasing its economic funding to the country where there are still 25,000 germanophone descendants of settlers.

Every year since 1924, the Herero gather at Okahandja where, dressed in the military uniforms of the genocide period, they commemorate the Battle of Hamakari and honour their rebel leader, Samuel Maharero, who died in exile. They then travel to the German cemeteries, inviting their former persecutors to heal the past through dialogue and reparation.