The first genocide of the 20th century took place in Namibia, Southern Africa and was perpetrated against the Herero people of Namibia. The perpetrators of this dreadful crime against humanity were the Germans who had colonized Namibia during the 19th century.
The Germans (along with several other European tribes) had appropriated African land during the infamous Scramble for Africa where several White men representing 14 countries spent three months (November 15, 1884 – February 26, 1885) carving up and laying claim to the African continent. Following the Scramble for Africa, White men, women and children moved onto African land as though it was their right.
Wholesale theft of African land was the order of the day. White people presumptuously took the best land (where they established farms or began mining for minerals) displacing the Africans who had lived there for generations. They stole African cattle, forced the Africans to work on “White owned” farms or in “White owned” mines and compelled them to pay taxes to European governing bodies established in each European-controlled African country.
The Germans who occupied Herero territory in what is now Namibia not only stole the land and cattle of the Herero but, as Herero leaders regularly complained, German men routinely raped Herero women and girls. In her 1994 book, “White Women and the dark continent: gender and sexuality in German colonial discourse from the sentimental novel to the fascist film”, Marcia Klotz writes: “Although records show that Herero leaders repeatedly complained that Germans were raping Herero women and girls with impunity, not a single case of rape came before the colonial courts before the uprising because the Germans looked upon such offenses as mere peccadilloes.”
Not only did the Germans in Namibia steal African land and cattle (the livelihood of the Africans) and rape African females, they also passed restrictive laws creating a dual system which relegated the Africans to second class citizenship in their own country. These laws were reinforced by the presence of large groups of German soldiers. The aim of these blood sucking colonizers was to dispossess the indigenous peoples of their land for the use of Germans as well as create a source of raw materials for a market of German industrial products.
On January 12, 1904, the Herero people, led by Chief Samuel Herero, rose up against German colonial rule. The vicious and inhumane German retaliation included torture of Herero men, women and children, their confinement in concentration camps and the use of Herero girls and women as sex workers for German soldiers.
German military leader, Lothar von Trotha, is considered the mastermind of the atrocities committed against the Herero people. Among the actions he directed was the massacre of the Herero by machine gun-wielding German soldiers, exiling the Herero people, forcing them into the desert and poisoning the few wells where they could have access to water thus causing most of them to die of thirst. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Herero were killed while about 15,000 escaped to live in neighbouring countries. Many of the Herero were used in inhumane experiments by German scientists during the four-year period, 1904-1908.
The Nama people also challenged the German theft of their land only to suffer a similar fate. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 Nama (50 per cent of the population) were massacred by the Germans. The genocide was characterized by widespread death by starvation and thirst.
In 1985, a Minority Rights Group published a report which included the following information: General von Trotha issued an extermination order; water-holes were poisoned and the African peace emissaries were shot. In all, three quarters of the Herero Africans were killed by the Germans then colonizing present-day Namibia, and the Hereros were reduced from 80,000 to some 15,000 starving refugees. See P. Fraenk, The Namibians (London, Minority Rights Group, 1985).
In 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the aftermath of the German’s vicious and inhumane attack on the Herero people as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of South-West Africa, and therefore one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century. Although the German government recognized this and apologized in 2004, it continues to resist paying financial compensation to the Herero people.
In October 2007 members of the von Trotha family travelled to Namibia where they apologized for the actions of their ancestor, Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the genocide of the Herero from 1904-1908. Wolf-Thilo von Trotha, speaking for the von Trotha descendants, said: “We, the von Trotha family, are deeply ashamed of the terrible events that took place 100 years ago. Human rights were grossly abused that time, we say sorry, since we bear the name of General Lothar von Trotha. We however do not only want to look back, but also look to the future.”
It is ironic that the von Trothas do not want to look back at the atrocities their ancestor perpetrated against the Herero since the Germans continue to benefit from their colonization of the African continent. The riches they extracted from the continent continue to grow and none of it has been returned.
Chief Maherero, descendant of the chief who led the uprising in 1904, used the occasion to draw attention to the unresolved Herero demand for reparations from the German government. He said: “We demand a dialogue with the present German government to obtain restorative justice.”
Another member of the von Trotha family, Ulrich von Trotha, who emphasized that his family was on a private visit, is reported to have said: “Our family cannot become involved in the demand for reparations from a government.”
On August 16, 2004, Germany offered its first formal apology for the colonial-era genocide in Namibia. Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, officially apologized for atrocities committed by the Germans. She admitted that the massacre was equivalent to genocide, without explicitly mentioning the concentration camps and slavery that also existed, both of which were well documented by the Germans. Wieczorek-Zeul ruled out paying reparations to the Herero people. She reiterated that the apology was for crimes committed by a previous government:
“Everything I said in my speech was an apology for crimes committed under German colonial rule.”
A group of Herero has filed a case against Germany in the United States demanding US$4 billion in compensation. Chief Riruako, through the Chief Hosea Kutako Foundation, recently filed a lawsuit against three German companies in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, asking for US$2 billion in reparations, asserting the companies were in a “brutal alliance” with imperial Germany in the Herero War.
As we enter 2012, the Herero have still not received reparations from the Germans for the 1904-1908 atrocities committed against them by the colonizing Germans.
By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)