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German soldiers shooting Herero people in 1904

Herero and Namaqua Genocide: The Little-Known First Genocide of the Second Reich


When you hear the word genocide, your mind may immediately go to the Holocaust by the Nazis during the Second World War. Very few know that the first genocide of the 20th century that almost led to the extinction of two nations of Southwest Africa – Herero and Namaqua – and this one was also done by the Germans. But let’s take things from the beginning.

The Beginning

The German South-West Africa was a colony of the German Empire between 1884 and 1915. It included a land of 835,100 square kilometers (322,433.91 sq. miles), which was one and a half times the size of Germany.

In 1915, during the First World War, British and South African forces entered Germany Southwest Africa to conquer it. After the war, the area was commanded by the Union of South Africa (part of the British Empire) and was named Southwest Africa, after a directive by the Union of Nations. In 1990 it became an independent country and since then it is known today as Namibia.

Herero and Namaqua were nations of animal breeders. The German colonizers tried to modernize them by converting them to farmers and workers for their land and businesses. However, the most important issues that led the tribes to rebel against their German colonizers were the ownership rights and the way the Germans used them.

German Schutztruppe in combat with the Herero in a painting by Richard Knötel. (Public Domain)

Herero gave more than 1/4 of the 130,000 sq. km (50193.28 sq. miles) of land that belonged to them for the completion of the railway Otavi, which was built, according to the Germans, to help the ‘development’ of the area. However, in reality it was going to ignite the invasion of more colonizers that would exploit the land and the riches of the country, as well as the people.

According to the German historian Horst Drechsler, the Germans were planning – always with the purpose of ‘developing’ the country, the relocation of Herero to special designated areas (native reservations), confiscating their land without compensation, and using the people of Herero and Namaqua as workers on their own land. And this was because Germans considered that the land belonged to them. Many of the Herero people had, of course, already been used as workers/slaves at the businesses of the Germans. Horst Drechsler clearly clarifies the gap of rights between a European and African like this:

The German Colonial League, in matters of human rights and other legal topics, they had the opinion that 7 Africans are equivalent to one White person

So, in that way, each African could lose their fortune if one or more White persons claimed that it belonged to them. The Court would give the land to the White people.

The Genocide

On the 12th of January 1904, the Herero, with their leader Samuel Maharero, rebelled and attacked the Germans killing about 123-150 of them. During May of the same year, the German General Lothar von Trotha arrived with 14,000 soldiers and began attacks against the Herero and proceeded with slaughtering them and pushing them towards the desert of Omaheke, where most of the Hereros would eventually die from starvation and thirst.

It is also mentioned that the Germans poisoned or destroyed the few wells of the desert so that the genocide of the Herero would be certain. During October of 1904, the tribe of Namaqua also rebelled against the Germans, which led to a fate similar to that of Herero.

The order for the genocide was given by General Trotha, mentioning in it:

The nation of the Herero should immediately leave the country, because they are no longer considered German citizens. Whoever doesn’t obey and is found within the country, with our without a gun or an animal, they will be executed immediately. I am not going to show mercy to anyone. These are my commands and should be followed immediately ….

The orders of General Troth were for the Herero men to be executed on the spot, while the women and children were to be led to the desert to die slowly.

Surviving Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German South-West Africa (modern day Namibia). (Collection J.B. Gewald/ Courtesy of Vereinigte Evangelische Mission Archiv, Wuppertal.DR)

Shark Island Concentration Camp Horrors

According to many testimonies, about 80% of both ethnicities were killed. About 65,000 to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Namaqua died. Whoever survived (only 15,000 and mainly women and children with very few men), were gathered by the Germans and led to concentration camps (Shark Island Concentration Camp) where they were forced into hard labor without any payment, on the land and businesses of the Germans.

Their only “reward” was to receive some rice, and nothing else. Of course many died because of these atrocities, lack of vitamins, and exhaustive work. The Britons in 1918 announced in reports that at the concentration camps of the Germans, about 45-74% of the Herero and Namaqua died, and most of them were women and children.

Herero prisoners of war, around 1900. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2003-0005 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Of course the German conquerors didn’t restrict themselves only to that. For the German scientists, these tribes were a secure and safe way to do their anthropological and scientific studies. The German anthropologist Eugen Fischer visited the concentration camps to conduct ‘anthropological studies’ and ‘race experiments’. He took samples from Herero children (alive or dead) as well as children from mixed-race (children with a German father and Herero mother).

Zoologist Leopard Schultz was very enthusiastic that he could get fresh human organs from ‘fresh bodies’ and that the prisoners should be used for that purpose too – killing a prisoner so that he could get fresh organs.

To conclude the description of this horrific story, 300 skulls from the prisoners at the concentration camps were sent to Germany for further research and for other German scientists to prove the “superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the black race of Herero”. And they concluded that “Yes, the Arian German race is of course superior to the black race of the Herero”. It wasn’t long after that that the popularity of Hitler and his party climbed up the ladder.

Recognizing a Legacy of Sorrow

In 1985, the Whitaker Report of the United Nations classified this “slaughter as an effort to extinguish the nations of Herero and Namaqua and therefore the first genocide of the 20th century”. In 1998, the German president Roman Herzog visited Namibia and met the leaders of Herero. Their leader Munjuku Nguvauna demanded a public apology and compensation. Herzog expressed only his sorrow and the meeting finished without any word for compensations.

In 2004, Germany officially apologized for the atrocities that took place in Namibia, however they still refused to pay any compensation to the families of the victims.

In October 2011, the tribal leaders from Namibia went to Berlin in order to receive the skulls of 20 of their people that were murdered during the colonization of the 2nd Reich in their country. As was already mentioned, these skulls were used by German scientists to experiment and supposedly prove the superiority of the White Europeans to the Black Africans.

The delivery of the skulls to the Namibia authorities was a rare reminder of the past of Germany, which led to the violent repression of the rebellion of the Herero and Namaqua with the tragic results and methods that we see repeating about 40 years later. The skulls belonged to 16 men, 4 women, and 1 boy that lost their lives at the concentration camps.

Finally, on May 28, 2021, Germany officially acknowledged committing genocide during its colonial occupation of Namibia, and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced Germany will provide financial aid worth more than €1.1bn (£940m; $1.34bn). Mr. Maas said, “We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today's perspective: genocide.” According to BBC News, the money will “be paid out over 30 years through spending on infrastructure, healthcare and training programmes benefiting the impacted communities.”

However, Laidlaw Peringanda, a Herero activist and chairman of the Namibian Genocide Association, said he rejects this aid offer, “We're actually not accepting that offer because our people have lost lands, they have lost their culture and a lot of them have fled to Botswana, South Africa and some of them were taken to Togo and Cameroon.” Namibian lawmakers continue to debate the German compensation deal.

The first genocide of the 20th century by the 2nd Reich was repeated and expanded upon by the 3rd Reich during the 2nd World War. These moments are sad for humanity, and unfortunately they keep repeating again and again in different ways.

Top Image: German soldiers shooting Herero people in 1904. Detail from an image posted in ‘Le Petit Journal’ Feb. 24, 1904. Source: Public Domain

By Giannis Baltzois

Updated on September 24, 2021.


Natives of South-West Africa & their treatment by Germany

Herero and Namaqua Genocide

Greek Newspaper ‘TO BHMA’

The Times

Lekakis G. “Nazi, the barbarians of the 20 th century”, Publication ‘Kadmos’



Pete Wagner's picture

People don't change.  Look at Germans now, that was them back then too.  Same people, same mentality.  But ALSO look at the purveyors of anti-German propaganda now.  That was also them back then.  Same people.  And of course, we know who gets to write history.  NOT the losers of wars.  

...So, where’s the counter argument?

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Interesting how Germans were involved in various holocausts.  Maybe a character defect!?

From stardust I was born, to stardust I shall return

Giannis Baltzois's picture

Giannis Baltzois

Lieutenant General Giannis Baltzois was born in Arta in 1954. He studied at the Greek Military University in 1972 and graduated in 1976. He has served in many special positions such as:

- European Union observer during the war with... Read More

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