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Herero Rising / Genocide

Widely considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century, long denied and suppressed, and with endless bureaucratic paper chases to prevent a reckoning, the Herero genocide – and its modern legacy – deserves more attention than it’s received. Heinrich Ernst Göring, father of leading Nazi Hermann Göring, was Namibia’s first German governor and set the stage for much of the conflict that would follow. A German Protectorate was formally declared August 16 (? 15) 1884. In 1885, German colonial governor Heinrich Ernst Göring (whose ninth child, future Nazi commander Hermann, would be born eight years later) signed a treaty establishing German protection over the area with a chief named Kamaherero of the large Herero nation.

The German Empire was the colonial power in what was then called German South West Africa from 1884 to 1915. During that time, its military forces brutally put down several rebellions, killing tens of thousands of people. German General Lothar von Trotha, who was sent to quell a Herero uprising in 1904, was particularly known for his extreme ruthlessness. Historians generally accept that up to 65,000 of roughly 80,000 Herero people living in the area at the time, and at least 10,000 of the roughly 20,000 Nama people, were killed.

A small native military force was first formed in 1887 to protect the gold workings of the German SouthWest African Colonial Society at the Pot and Anawood Mines. This force was disbanded soon afterwards during the first Herero rising of 1888, and was replaced by a small European force, which gradually grew in strength. At the time of the Herero rebellion (1904) this force was greatly increased, many British and Dutch from the Cape Colony serving in it. After the rising had been subdued, a considerable body of men, provided with artillery and machine guns, was maintained. Estimates as to its strength vary greatly, some putting it as high as 10,000.

The Hereros may be described as an intelligent, honest, and proud people, who have had nearly all the good crushed out of them by the German oppressor. Missionary Brincker described them as candid and sincere. Dr. Hahn said their chief characteristics are self-will, and proneness to fits of depression. Dr. Goering testified to their frugality and industry; von François (as may well be expected) describes them as crafty knaves. Pechual Losche said they are sincere, reliable, and trustworthy. Mr. Christopher James, the Mining Engineer, in his report of 1903 to the Otavi Mines, Ltd., said they are willing, good hearted, diligent, and quick of perception. When the Herero rebellion broke out, the Hereros under special orders from their chiefs spared the lives of all German women and children and all missionaries. Dr. Felix Meyer said, “ they were a proud, liberty-loving race, jealously guarding their independence, and with very strong family ties.”

These are the people who were mercilessly slaughtered by the German, von Trotha, and his Prussian soldiers in 1904–6. These are the human beings of whom von Trotha said, “let not man, woman, or child be spared-kill them all.” And 80 percent of them were actually so killed or died of thirst in the desert wastes whither they were driven by the merciless German soldiers.

After the original annexation in 1885, German occupation of Southwest Africa had been disturbed only by an insignificant Hottentot revolt, suppressed in 1894, and a few local risings. Von Leutwein, who governed the colony from 1894 to 1905, seems to have endeavoured to manage the native tribes with some regard to their own customs. On the other hand, suspicion was raised by the perpetual endeavours of German colonists to acquire possession of tribal lands, and to make it impossible for the pastoral population to graze their cattle over them. The most important of the tribes affected was the Herero, a numerous pastoral race, who depended entirely on their large herds of cattle. There was great friction between them and the colonists. They saw themselves deprived of the liberty which they had formerly enjoyed of wandering unrestrained over the whole country; and came to believe that all their rights would be forfeited, and that even if they kept their herds they would be confined to small reservations.

Other tribes also had been previously involved in risings. Among them were the Hottentots of the south, near the Orange River and Gibeon. The Witbooi tribe of Hottentots, under their old chief, Hendrik Witbooi, a man of great ability, had with difficulty been induced to submit in 1893, but had continued since that time to observe all their agreements. This quiet possession of a colony whose commercial value was slowly developing, was broken in October, 1903, by an insurrection among the Bondelzwart natives, in the extreme south of the German dominions. Colonel Theodor Leutwein, the German governor, in his effort to crush the rebellion as speedily as possible, practically stripped Damaraland, in the north, of troops, giving opportunity to the Herero natives for a revolt which had long been planned and prepared.

Its motive was chiefly impatience with German rule, the inevitable clash between the colonizing white man, driven out of Europe by economic necessity, and the native whom he seeks to displace. The wholesale and unblushing theft by the Germans of the cattle of the Hereros was one of the primary causes which led to the Herero rebellion of 1904. There were other causes, however, all arising out of German oppression and misrule, with what must for ever be one of the most shameful incidents in the history of German colonisation. This elementary cause for rebellion had been aggravated by abuses by the white traders, brutality of some of the officials, and encroachments on tribal lands.

The main outbreak took place in January 1904. By New Year's Day, 1904, Colonel Leutwein had suppressed the rising among the Bondelzwarts, but on the 12th day of January, the Hereros attacked the settlers in their country, by some accounts murdering the families and devastating the farms, all who could not escape being massacred. The chief made a proclamation declaring formal war against the Germans, adding an order that no Englishmen, Boers, Bastards, Berg-Damaras, or Hottentots were to be touched; and von Leutwein considers that the chief intended also to protect women and children. Many were, however, killed, as well as some Boers. The Hereros, mustering some 8,000 fighting men, of whom about 2,500 were armed with rifles, more or less antiquated, had swept over the German settlements, but while destroying buildings and driving off cattle-more than half their herds had passed into German hands through the operation of the credit system-had, they had by some accounts, according to their custom, spared German women and children, and, though they had but little reason to love them, German missionaries.

Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha was born in Magerburgon 3 July 1848. As the son of an aristocratic Prussian officer, he was groomed to excel at war. In 1886 he distinguished himself during the Seven Weeks War against Austria. In 1894, he was assigned to Tanzania, then known as German East Africa. In 1900 von Trotha was sent to China to suppress the Boxer rebellion.

To deal with the Herero, reinforcements had to be sent from Germany. On 11 June 1904, von Trotha arrived, and characteristically the Germans in the colony openly boasted that without distinction between friendly and hostile the natives were to be disarmed, their chiefs deposed, and their customs abolished. The effect of these boastings was to cause Hendrik Whitbooi' to withdraw his allegiance, throw in his lot with Marengo, and renew the Hottentot War. Concentrated at Windhuk, the forces of von Trotha were, in June, 1904, launched against the Hereros. In the face of modern rifles, machine-guns and artillery, the natives were helpless.

The German army, lacking the long experience of colonial warfare possessed by the British, and for centuries trained in the tradition of European warfare only, did not adapt itself well to the guerilla tactics of the Hereros. In August, von Trotha’s force of around 1,500 men, backed up by 30 field howitzers and 14 machine guns, pulverized the Herero force in the Battle of Waterberg. The fighting itself wasn’t terribly hard or destructive, but the German General Staff-trained von Trotha managed to block in the Herero on three sides with only the open desert at their backs.

In spite of a defeat in one pitched battle, the natives were able to terrorize the countryside until in October 1904, a rising of Hottentots occurred to encourage them further. The German policy of Schrecklichkeit (German "terror" or "frightfulness") now adopted. Trotha then issued the "Vernichtungsbefehl", or extermination order on 02 October 1904: "Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at." This simply provoked a third revolt, this time among Hottentot tribes hitherto quiet.

The Herero sued for peace, but the request was peremptorily refused. In place of peace, von Trotha issued to his troops the order that the Hereros were to be wiped out wherever found, old and young, male and female. This was in August 1904. Pursuant to the order, the German troops proceeded to hunt the fugitives out. Then began & succession of atrocities which has rarely had a parallel. Droves of little children clinging in terror to their mothers were day after day driven from place to place. The feeble, the old, and the exhausted, fallen out and left helpless by the side of the track, indicated by the prints of many feet, were by the Germans as they followed up butchered in cold blood. Women unable to rise were disembowelled where they lay. Often their infants, torn from their arms, were tossed upon the bayonets of the brutal soldiery before their eyes. In one instance at least, and the fact has been attested on oath, this was done in the presence of von Trotha and his Staff. The aged had their brains dashed out with the butt ends of rifles. Young girls were openly outraged, and then thrust through.

Ultimately two German columns were formed, one operating in the east towards the British frontier and the Kalahari Desert, whose object was to prevent the Hereros from crossing the border, and to head them northwards; the other column co-operating from the west. By these means the southern gathering of Hereros in the Oujati mountains was gradually driven north towards the Waterberg mountains, and the tribe was finally hemmed in. Brought to action at the foot of the steep rocky range, the whole body, men, women, and children, with their wagons and cattle, fled, after desperate fighting, westwards, pursued by the Germans.

It was not possible to follow them there before the rainy season. General von Trotha consequently modified his plan. He resolved to let the escaping Hereros perish in the desert from exhaustion. It was a conception contrary to that which, at the outbreak of the insurrection. This modification of the initial plan of campaign was due to the decision that it was much more important to subdue the Hereros than to save their cattle. From the day, moreover, when, half voluntarily half by force, they entered the desert, the cattle which remained to them were likely to be so few that the question of taking trouble to preserve them was no longer one for consideration. The greater part of the Herero perished miserably in the desert, though the leaders escaped into British territory, where they were disarmed and interned.

Samuel Kariko (son of Daniel Kariko, formerly Secretary to the Omaruru Chief) later stated: "A new General named von Trotha came, and he ordered that all Hereros were to be exterminated, regardless of age or sex. It was then that the wholesale slaughter of our people began. That was towards the end of 1904. Our people had already been defeated in battle, and we had no more ammunition. We saw we were beaten and asked for peace, but the German General refused peace and said all should die. We then fled towards the Sandfeld of the Kalahari Desert. Those of our people who escaped the bullets and bayonets died miserably of hunger and thirst in the desert."

Manuel Timbu (Cape Bastard), later a Court Interpreter in native languages at Omaruru, stated under oath : " General von Trotha issued orders to his troops that no quarter was to be given to the enemy. No prisoners were to be taken, but all, regardless of age or sex, were to be killed. General von Trotha said, “We must exterminate them, so that we won't be bothered with rebellions in the future.” It did not matter who they were. Some were peaceful people who had not gone into rebellion; others, such as old men and old women, had never left their homes; yet these were all shot."

Instead of trying to conciliate the natives and organize the country administratively through the tribal chiefs, Lieutenant General Trotha tried to “stamp out" the rebellion by frightfulness. He set a price on the heads of insurgent chiefs, and issued a proclamation menacing the natives with extermination if the insurrection continued. When this became known in Germany, a storm of indignation swept over the country, and Chancellor von Bülow was compelled to declare null and void the disgraceful proclamation. Von Trotha criticized the Chancellor's "weakness," and attributed the continued opposition of the Hereros to the repeal of his proclamation. But the mischief was done. It had now become a life and death struggle. In the spring of 1907, public outcry forced von Trotha’s recall. The war dragged on throughl 1907, when German success led to a reduction of forces in the colonies; and hostilities were finally concluded in 1908. After von Trotha's return to Germany, the Kaiser awarded him the decoration “Pour le Mérite."

The native population of the territory was so much reduced that the colonists afterwards had cause to lament the lack of labor. Von Leutwein, who was accused in Germany of having provoked the rebellion by his endeavour to govern the natives in too lenient a manner, was deprived of his military command in October 1904 (von Trotha taking his place), and in the following year was superseded in the Civil Government by von Lindequist.

The number of Hereros who were killed or died of thirst and starvation is uncertain, but has been estimated at about 60,000. By the end of 1905 the surviving Hereros had been reduced to pauperism and possessed nothing at all. As a result of the war, Professor Bonn told the Royal Colonial Institute in January 1914 that the Herero tribe and what remained of the Hottentots were practically exterminated. Their lands were confiscated, and partly settled by German farmers; but the immigration of white settlers was inadequate to take their place.

Germany on 28 May 2021 formally recognized as genocide the crimes committed by its colonial troops at the beginning of the 20th century against the Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. It was the first time that Berlin has recognized the attrocities committed, with the declaration coming after five years of negotiations. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) said in a statement that as a "gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering" Germany caused, it would set up a fund amounting to €1.1 billion (US $ 1.34 billion).

Affected communities would play a key role in deciding what the funds were used for, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, while legal claims for compensation would not be deducted from it. The aim of the negotiations that lasted more than half a decade was "to find a common path to genuine reconciliation in memory of the victims," Maas explained. This includes naming the events of the German colonial period in what is now Namibia and in particular the atrocities in the period from 1904 to 1908 "without sparing or glossing over." "We will now, also in an official capacity, call these events what they were from today's perspective — a genocide," Maas said. The foreign minister said that representative of the Herero and Nama communities were closely involved in the years-long negotiations with Namibia. "The acceptance on the part of Germany that a genocide was committed is the first step in the right direction," President Hage Geingob's spokesman Alfredo Hengari told AFP. Some representatives of the Herero and Nama peoples have voiced criticism of the agreement, saying that it was a PR stunt by Germany and a bid to defraud the Namibian government.

However, neither of the groups expressing objections — the Ovaherero Traditional Authority and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association — can be considered as representing all Herero and Nama groups. Members of both groups have demanded an official apology from Germany, as well as financial reparation. Germany's former development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, offered her country's first apology for the killings on a trip to Namibia in 2004, where she said the country's actions would be seen as genocidal in today's terms.

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Page last modified: 05-01-2022 15:43:11 ZULU