It is a sad truth. Few know, let alone speak, of the mass murder and policies of extermination wrought upon by colonial Germany against the Herero and Nama people in German South West Africa — what is today Namibia. But in recent weeks, that “forgotten genocide” has received renewed attention as descendants of its victims seek compensation from Germany. While German political figures have accepted that the political violence waged against the Herero and Nama people constituted genocide and have apologized for it, the country, which ruled Namibia from 1884-1915, has steadfastly refused to pay individual reparations to the descendants of victims, arguing instead that it will to Namibia in the form of development aid.
While the notion that states have an obligation and responsibility to try to atone for past wrongs isn’t in itself particularly controversial, the issue of reparations remains a bit of a mind field. Should reparations be given to individuals, including those who haven’t suffered direct violence? Should it be given by governments that weren’t directly involved? Or should reparations be given collectively to communities? If so, in what form? What ‘amount’ of reparations is appropriate? Indeed, what counts as enough enough? Who gets to decide?
However one answers these difficult questions, Namibia’s push for reparations has increased public awareness of a much-neglected genocide. The lack of public knowledge of the the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples is particularly striking because, in many respects, it acted as a precursor to the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews during The Holocaust — the twentieth century’s darkest stain and most horrific act of mass murder.
In this excellent 2005 article on the subject, From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe, Benjamin Bradley describes how key concepts, methods, and tools, including the use of concentration camps (Konzentrationslager) were developed during colonial Germany’s genocide of the Herero and Nama. As Bradley observers, “[t]hese ideas and methods were communicated to Germany and future Nazi leaders through speeches, the press, and colonial literature.” Here are a few excerpts from his essay:
The German terms Lebensraum and Konzentrationslager, both widely known because of their use by the Nazis, were not coined by the Hitler regime. They were minted years earlier in reference to German South West Africa, now Namibia, during the first decade of the twentieth century, when Germans colonized the land and committed genocide against the local Herero and Nama peoples. Later use of these borrowed words suggests an important question: did Wilhelmine colonization and genocide in Namibia influence Nazi plans to conquer and settle Eastern Europe, enslave and murder millions of Slavs and exterminate Gypsies and Jews?
German South West Africa was colonial, but not typically so. Its violent subjugation had as much in common with the Holocaust as with other colonial mass murders and may be regarded as a transitional case between these two categories of violence. What distinguishes the German South West African genocide from most other colonial mass murders is the fact that the Germans in colonial Namibia articulated and implemented a policy of Vernichtung, or annihilation.
Wilhelmine rule in German South West Africa was not the sole inspiration for Nazi policies in Eastern Europe, but it contributed ideas, methods, and a lexicon that Nazi leaders borrowed and expanded. Language, literature, media, institu- tional memory, and individual experience all transmitted these concepts, methods and terms to the Nazis.
Historians regularly proclaim Hitler’s war in the East unprecedented in ferocity and scale. This is true. However, when one considers the genocidal wars fought against the Herero and Nama, four striking similarities suggest that these colonial campaigns incubated many elements of the Vernichtungskrieg later waged by Nazi forces. First, German military leaders defined both conflicts as Rassenkampf, or race war. Second, both armies articulated a Vernichtungskrieg strategy predicated on physically destroying the enemy. Third, as part of this strategy, German military leaders, in both wars, systematically murdered prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians. Finally, in each case, leaders employed the rhetoric of public health in attempts to rationalize mass murder. These ideas and methods were communicated to Germany and future Nazi leaders through speeches, the press, and colonial literature.
Nazis neither invented the concentration camp nor pioneered its use by Germans. The first German concentration camps were built in colonial Namibia and on 11 December 1904, Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp, was introduced into the German language. Chancellor von Bülow wrote the word in a letter commanding von Trotha to rescind the Annihilation Order and ‘establish Konzentrationslager for the temporary housing and sustenance of the Herero people’. Von Bülow likely borrowed the word and the institution from the British, who had incarcerated Boer men, women, and children in barbed wire compounds during the 1899–1902 South African War. The British in turn had made use of the concentration camp concept developed by Spaniards in Cuba.
The roots of Nazi ideas and policies range well beyond the German South West African experience. However, connections can be drawn from the colony to the Third Reich as one way of understanding the origins of Nazi imperialism and mass murder in Eastern Europe. German South West Africa should no longer be overlooked as an important antecedent to Nazi colonialism and genocide.
As scholars like Jens Meierhenrich have pointed out, we regularly neglect the development or “courses” that episodes of genocide take. We also ignore the antecedents that allow them to take the particular shape and design that they do. It may be shocking for many to learn that the means and methods of the Holocaust were practiced and refined in Namibia. But, if nothing else, the push for acknowledgement and reparations will hopefully encourage us to confront this shameful reality.