Germany’s Forgotten Genocide That Provided a Blueprint for the Nazis

When we think of Germany and genocide, we typically think of the Holocaust, wherein some 15 million Jews, Roma, homosexuals and others deemed “undesirable” by the Third Reich were systematically exterminated between 1941 and 1945. But policies of mass murder go back much further in German history than many dare admit. For some 30 years before the Nazis came to power, the Imperial German government of Kaiser Wilhelm II committed an atrocity in a remote corner of its empire which has come to be recognized as the 20th Century’s first genocide – and a blueprint for many crimes to come.

Having only been unified as a country in 1871, Germany was late to the game of imperial expansion. In 1884, the major imperial powers met in Berlin to carve up the continent of Africa. Germany did well in the negotiations, emerging from the conference with four new African colonies: Cameroon, incorporating parts of modern-day Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Nigeria; German East Africa or Tanganyika, incorporating parts of Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda; Togoland, incorporating parts of Togo and Ghana; and German Southwest Africa, in what is today Namibia. At its height, the German Empire also included a smattering of possessions in the Pacific, including New Guinea, Samoa, the Northern Solomon Islands, and a trading concession in Tsingtao, China.

The emergence of Germany as an imperial power coincided with the rise of two influential ideas. The first was the concept of lebensraum or “living space,” first posited in 1897 by Friedrich Ratzel, a geographer at the University of Leipzig. According to Ratzel, strong societies needed space into which to expand, otherwise they would become stagnant and enter an inexorable decline. This seemed to perfectly explain the state of late 19th-Century Germany, whose cities had become overcrowded and rife with poverty. In the 1870s alone some 1.25 million citizens had emigrated from Germany to America. In her new colonies Germany’s government saw the opportunity to create lebensraum for its surplus population and allow the nation to expand into a strong, globe-spanning empire. And the ideal place for such expansion was Southwest Africa, which was largely free of tropical diseases and had thousands of acres of prime cattle-grazing land.

But there was a problem: that land already belonged to the native tribes of the region, the mainly pastoral Herero and Nama. Since the colony’s founding in 1884, the colonists and the natives had lived in relative peace, a peace maintained via a combination of negotiation and treaties. This meant that German settlers effectively had to rent their land and cattle from the Herero and Nama, a reversal of the typical colonial relationship which resulted in only 4000 Germans choosing to settle in the colony by 1903. It was a state of affairs which quickly brought the Herero and Nama into conflict with the era’s second big idea: scientific racism, an anthropological movement which through various pseudoscientific means sought to prove that the non-white races were not only inherently inferior but a different species altogether, and thus like animals could be killed and exploited with impunity. Settlers arriving in Southwest Africa soon grew indignant at having to rent land from peoples they viewed as racially inferior, and began plotting to take that land for themselves. Abuse of the local population was widespread, and large numbers of Herero and Nama were denied wages, beaten, and raped by the colonists. Especially brutal were the colonial troops, or Schutztruppe, many of whom planned to settle themselves upon completing their military service.

But the Herero and Nama had an unexpected ally in the colony’s Governor, Theodor Leutwein, who preferred mutual respect, negotiation, and treaties over violence. Typical of Leutwein’s approach to governing was an incident in January 1903 when a German trader named Dietrich attempted to rape the wife of a Herero chief and ended up shooting her dead. During his murder trial in the capital of Windhoek, Dietrich denied having attempted rape and claimed to have awoken believing he was under attack and fired blindly into the darkness, accidentally killing the Chief’s wife. Dietrich was subsequently acquitted, the court ruling that he was suffering from ‘tropical fever’ and temporary insanity. Soon after, however, Governor Leutwein intervened and ordered Dietrich be tried again, and this time he was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned.

But even Leutwein would be powerless to stop the events which were about to unfold. In 1903 the Herero and Nama learned of a plan to build a railway line from the coastal town of Swakopmund into the interior, cutting their land in half. This would be accompanied by the establishment of native reserves, further reducing their territory – a quarter of which had already been ceded to the Germans by 1903. This, along with years of abuse and predatory money-lending practices by the colonists, lead Nama clans under Chief Hendrik Witbooi, to rise up in revolt in late 1903. When Governor Leutwein lead the Windhoek garrison south to deal with this and other minor rebellions, leaving the north almost undefended, the Herero saw their opportunity to rise up as well. In January 1904, several Herero clans under the leadership of Chief Samuel Maharero descended upon the town of Okahandja, killing around 150 German settlers and soldiers and seizing 25,000 head of cattle. Many of the Germans were killed in the traditional manner used to deal with cattle thieves, having their ears, noses, and lips cut off before their throats were slit.

Despite this, the majority of Herero clans remained peaceful and loyal to the German administration.On January 20, 1904, the German settlers of the northern town of Otjimbingwe were celebrating a wedding when a messenger arrived bringing news of the Herero uprising. The missionaries in the town met with local Herero chief Zacharias Zeraua, who assured them of his peaceful intentions and loyalty to Germany. But as the rebellion raged on, more and more Germans abandoned their farms and gathered in the town, where they began to fortify a set of farm buildings. On the evening of January 22, a garrison of troops arrived in the town and began setting up barbed wire and firing positions around the Herero church. Finally, on the morning of January 23, the troops opened fire, killing dozens of Herero men, women, and children as they gathered for their Sunday church service.

Governor Leutwein returned to the capital in early February and, desperate to avoid further bloodshed, sent a message to Chief Maharero calling for negotiations to end the fighting. But the die had already been cast. News of the Herero uprising reached Berlin in mid-January, causing outrage in the German Parliament. Under pressure from nationalist parties like the Pan-German League, Kaiser Wilhelm II dispatched General Lothar von Trotha, a veteran of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, and 14,000 troops to Southwest Africa. Von Trotha’s orders were not simply to put down the rebellion but to clear the colony of Herero and Nama entirely, freeing up the land for German settlers. As Lieutenant Franz Ritter von Epp, a soldier in the expeditionary force wrote, wrote in a letter home:

 “This world is being redistributed. With time, we will inevitably need more space, and only by the sword will we be able to get it. This is a matter for our generation, and for our existence.”

 Von Trotha arrived in Windhoek in June 1904 and immediately took over command from Leutwein. But by this time the fighting had long since ceased. Instead, the majority of the Herero had withdrawn as far away from German settlements as possible, gathering around the base of Waterberg mountain on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Here they awaited the arrival of German delegates and the start of negotiations. But none came. Instead, once von Trotha was certain he had achieved overwhelming military superiority, he and his troops marched south and on August 11, 1904 armed with modern riles, machine guns, and artillery, encircled and faced off against 4000 Herero warriors and their families in what became known as the Battle of Waterberg. But this was no ordinary colonial engagement. Von Trotha deliberately left a gap in his encirclement, forcing the surviving Herero to retreat eastward into the Kalahari desert. He then pursued them ever deeper into the wasteland, and when they had retreated beyond the last waterhole, built a 200-mile long chain of guard posts to seal them in. On October 2, von Trotha issued a declaration to the Herero people, the infamous “Extermination Order.” It was among the first official statements in history outlining a policy of deliberate genocide:

“I the great General of the German troops send this letter to the Herero people.

 The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other body parts of wounded soldiers, now out of captain will receive 1000 Mark, whoever delivers Samuel will receive 5000 Mark. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. 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.

 These are my words to the Herero people.

 The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.”

The trapped Herero attempted to cross the Kalahari desert and reach the safety of British Bechuanaland, but quickly began to die by the hundreds of hunger, dehydration and disease. Fewer than 1,000 reached their destination.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, the Kaiser found had misjudged the mood of the German people. News of the massacre at the Battle of Waterberg had caused a major scandal in the German press and government, with left-wing politicians like August Bebel decrying German policy in Southwest Africa as “not only barbaric, but bestial.” Under pressure from Parliament and Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, who described Von Trotha’s actions as “…contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle, economically devastating and damaging to Germany’s international reputation”, on December 9, 1904 Wilhelm rescinded the Extermination Order and ordered von Trotha to accept the Hereros’ surrender.

But the horror was not over for the Herero and Nama. In fact, the worst was yet to come. Von Trotha’s troops rounded up the some 13,000 remaining Herero, many of whom were near starvation, and told them  they had been pardoned by the Kaiser and would be allowed to return to their land. It was a lie. Instead, they were herded into some of the first examples of that peculiarly 20th-century construction: the concentration camp.

The Germans did not invent the concentration camp, similar structures having been used by the Spanish in Cuba and the British in South Africa during the Second Boer War. But the function of those camps had been to imprison and isolate guerrillas and freedom fighters, cutting them off from their support networks in the civilian population. The camps in Southwest Africa were closer in function to their more infamous descendants under the Third Reich, serving as vast reservoirs of expendable slave labour. Some 4000 Herero were held in the colony’s first concentration camp in Windhoek and used to construct the rapidly-expanding city’s infrastructure. A further 3000 were held at a camp in the coastal town of Swakopmund, where they were mainly employed in the loading and unloading of ships in the harbour. Soon the German government began renting out slaves to private companies for 10 Marks/month, while certain firms like the Voorman Shipping Line even ran their own private labour camps. This policy was endorsed by Governor Leutwein, who despite condemning Von Trotha’s military actions viewed the Herero and Nama’s value in largely economic terms:

“I do not concur with those fanatics who want to see the Herero destroyed altogether … I would consider such a move a grave mistake from an economic point of view. We need the Herero as cattle breeders … and especially as labourers.”

The conditions in the camps were atrocious, with minimal shelter or sanitary facilities. Hunger, disease, physical abuse, and rape were widespread. Many Herero, used to the hotter northern climate, were unable to cope with the bitterly cold South Atlantic winds in coastal towns like Swakopmund, and hundreds died of exposure. Conditions on work sites were often even worse. In January 1906 the Lenz Railway Company was issued 2,014 Herero slave labourers; after only six months, 1,350 had died. Indeed, it is estimated that during the construction of the Ludertitz-Aus railway line – the very railway which sparked the Nama uprising in 1903 – one worker died for every sleeper on the track. Death was so common that thousands of death certificates were issued with the cause of death pre-printed as “exhaustion following privation.”

But by far the worst of the camps was built on Shark Island, just outside the port city of Luderitz. While its inmates were used as slave labour as at other camps, the real purpose of the camp was the extermination of the Nama people. The prisoners were given almost no food, water, or shelter, and as they inevitably died of hunger, exposure, and disease their bodies were simply pushed into the ocean. Of the 1,732 survivors of the Nama uprising sent to the island in September 1906, 1,032 were dead within 7 months. In total some 3000 Nama would perish in Luderitz between 1906 and 1909. Today Shark Island is widely considered to be one of the first purpose-built death camps, setting the template for the likes of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The camp was also the site of medical experiments carried out by Dr. Eugen Fischer, a prominent anthropologist and eugenicist from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, who starting in 1906 collected the severed heads of 778 Shark Island inmates and shipped them back to Berlin, where they were used to advance theories of African racial inferiority.

The concentration camp system in German Southwest Africa was finally shut down in 1908, with the surviving Herero and Nama being sold off to farmers as slave labourers. The death toll was staggering. In 1904 there had been an estimated 80,000 Herero and 20,000 Nama living in the colony; by 1908 some 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama had been exterminated – 3/4 and 1/2 of the population, respectively. The genocide and the ideas which inspired it would lay the groundwork for future atrocities, with many of its architects and accomplices playing key roles in the Nazi policy of racially-motivated mass murder. For instance, the first Governor of Southwest Africa, Heinrich Göring, was the father of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s right-hand man and head of the German Luftwaffe. Franz Ritter von Epp, a Lieutenant in General von Trotha’s expeditionary force, would later become a General in the Freikorps, the right-wing paramilitary organization that eventually spawned the Nazi SA or Stormtroopers, and would serve as mentor to both SA leader Ernst Röhm and a young Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was greatly influenced by Friedrich Ratzel’s theory of lebensraum and the racial theories of Dr. Eugen Fischer, both of which would form the cornerstones of Nazi ideology. Fischer’s work would also be carried to its horrific conclusion by one of his protégés: Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s infamous “Angel of Death.”

Yet despite the unspeakable horror and suffering it inflicted, the 20th Century’s first genocide remains all but forgotten today. Most of the records of the German administration of Southwest Africa were destroyed in an air raid during WWII, and in the aftermath of that conflict many in the German government attempted to paint genocide as an aberration in German history unique to the Nazi regime. But this historical amnesia also extended to the former colony itself. In 1915, German Southwest Africa was invaded by the Union of South Africa, acting on behalf of the British Empire. South Africa administered the territory until 1990 when, following a 24-year civil war, the colony declared its independence as the Republic of Namibia. In the process, the memory of the Herero and Nama genocide appeared to fade from the public consciousness, and today there is little to indicate that the atrocity even occurred. No memorials or plaques mark the sites of massacres or concentration camps. A giant Herero and Nama mass grave on the outskirts of Swakopmund is  today used as an ATV park, while Shark Island, site of the world’s first death camp, serves as a municipal campsite. Indeed, the only memorials to the events of 1904-1909 are those to the fallen colonial troops set up by the German imperial government, including the controversial Reiterdenkmal equestrian statue in Windhoek.

But some progress has been made towards remembrance and reconciliation. In 1985 the United Nations’ Whitaker Report officially classified the Herero and Nama massacre as a genocide, while in 2001 the descendants of Herero and Nama killed and enslaved by the German colonial authorities launched a $4 billion lawsuit against the German government and several German firms who benefited from the genocide, including Deutche Bank. While the German courts rejected the suit, arguing that international rules governing the treatment of civilians in wartime did not exist at the time, in 2004 Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, travelled to Namibia and issued a formal apology on behalf of the German government, stating:

 “Today, I want to acknowledge the violence inflicted by the German colonist powers on your ancestors, particularly the Herero and the Nama. The atrocities, the murders, the crimes committed at the time are today termed genocide, and nowadays, a General von Trotha would be prosecuted and convicted, and rightly so. And so, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, that we share, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses and our guilt.”

Starting in October 2011, 34 of the estimated 300 Herero and Nama skulls stored in museums and universities in Germany were repatriated to Namibia for burial, while in 2013 the Reiterdenkmal statue in Windhoek was finally removed from public display. But these are only minor victories for the Herero and Nama, for while the German government promised to continue providing $14 million per year in economic aid to Namibia, it has ruled out the possibility of reparations for descendants of the murdered and the enslaved. Furthermore, the government has only recognized the military actions of General von Trotha as genocide, refusing to acknowledge the use of concentration camps from 1905-1908. Nor does the German apology address the fact that the vast majority of traditional Herero and Nama land seized in 1905 remains in the hands of some 4000 white farmers. For Namibia, the road to reconciliation with its brutal colonial past will likely continue to be a long and difficult one.

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Bonus Fact

If the name Tsingtao, the German imperial concession in China, sounds familiar, it may be because you have at one point enjoyed a Chinese beer of the same name. The Tsingtao Brewery was founded in 1903 by the Anglo-German Brewery Company Limited, who operated it until 1916. In that year the Japanese, who during the First World War fought on the side of the Allies, captured Tsingtao along with the rest of Imperial Germany’s Pacific colonies, forcing AGBC to sell the brewery to the Dai-Nippon Brewery, today known as the Sapporo Brewery. The Japanese operated the brewery for nearly 30 years until 1945 when, following the defeat of Japanese forces in the Second World War, the company passed into the hands of the Chinese Tsui family. Following the Revolution of 1949, the brewery changed hands once again, being nationalized by the Communist Party of China and run as a state enterprise for 40 years before finally being privatized in 1990. And that is why a Chinese brewery produces a German-style lager.

Expand for References

 Olusoga, David (Dir.) Namibia: Genocide and the Second Reich, BBC 2005,


German Minister Says Sorry for Genocide in Namibia, The Guardian, August 16, 2004,


German Official Says Namibia Herero Killings were ‘Genocide’ and Part of ‘Race War,’ International Business Times, September 7, 2015,


Silvester, Jeremy & Gewald, Jan-Bart, Words Cannot be Found: German Colonial Rule in Namibia, Brill, Boston, 2003,


Grobler, John, The Tribe Germany Wants to Forget,


Bartlett, Duncan, German Bank Accused of Genocide, BBC News, September 25, 2001,


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