The Suppression of the Herero and Nama Revolts by the Germans

The first German Genocide?

Seminar Paper, 2016

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Establishment of the protectorate German South-West Africa

3. Revolts and genocide (1904-1908)
a. Reasons for the starting of the revolts
b. The Herero-Revolts
c. Putting down the rebellion
d. Participation of the Nama
e. Further course of the conflict
f. After the war

4. Genocide?
a. Qualification
b. Legal affairs
c. Official reactions by Germany

5. Resume

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In German historical science, the colonial history of the country is still a peripheral area. Often this period is referred to as „history of european expansion“ or even „comparative oversea’s history“ (Brehl 2007: 20). Although German colonial efforts cannot be compared to the far-reaching activities of the British Empire, France, Portugal or Spain and although Germany started relatively late with its expansion, this doesn’t mean that Germany’s colonial period can be played down or be trivialized. In general, the European expansion of the 20th century was not aimed at exploring and friendly cohabitation with local peoples. The plan was rather to crowd them out, enslave them and force them to work for the benefits of the newcomers. According to this, the people in South-West Africa were treated until it amounted to what is referred to as the „first genocide of the 20th century“.

The arguments to justify the brutal warfare and following elimination of the Herero at that time are remarkable. How did it happen that the whole Herero population was chased into the desert and more than 40 000 people were killed or left to die? And 40 000 is still an generously estimated number, since the actual number of victims is not possible to determine anymore and estimations range in different sources (Brehl 2007:11). And even more how can this period be collectively forgotten in Germany and Europe? Only in the last few years, Germany started to work up it’s historical guilt and is working together with the Namibian government on an official apology (Der Spiegel 2016). In my paper I want to investigate the events of the Herero and Nama revolts of 1904 which lead to the outbreak of a colonial war, that lastet at least until 1907. Was it genocide? What qualifies it as such and why did it take Germany so long to recognize its colonial debt?

2. Establishment of the protectorate German South-West Africa

Under Reich Chancellor Bismarck, the aim of the German Empire regarding its colonies was at first only to constitute a protecting power. This approach was based on the expectation, that the clamorous colonial lobby, which was constituted as the „German Colonial Society“ in 1887, would stand up for the development of the new acquired regions. For this reason, the economic development and parts of the administration was transferred on terrain-, charter- and commercial companies, that were also left with establishing an infrastructure there. This was problematic since the interest of the German settlers in Africa was more on their personal profits than on a coordinated development of the „new“ territory. Without continuous investment by the state, it was hardly possibly to convert the colonies into prosperous economic territories or settlement areas. Besides this, they faced constant rebellious activities by the local indigenous people. The first steps in the colonies were therefore a „pacification“ of the territories, which most of the times was conducted violently and did not last permanently, as well as establishing medical care in order to make the stay of German settlers, soldiers and administrative corpse possible in the first place. While the construction of water supplies, ports, streets and railroads would have been pioneer work, they were considered as governmental duties by the settlers and colonial entrepreneurs. For this reason, German colonial politics already started with a misunderstanding between the public and the private initiative. The scene of the disputes was primarily the Reichstag, which was responsible for the colonial project and budget. Some parliamentarians were strictly against the imperialistic plan, others considered the colonial project too risky and costly, which in the first years of German colonial activity could not be denied (Van Laak 2005: 5).

Bismarck himself was not an enthusiast about colonialism, since he was too much a realist to consider colonies a easy and effective business. After the German-French war, which turned the balance of powers in Europe upside down, especially because of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, Bismarck declared the German Reich „saturated“. He wanted to conciliate the other powers and not interfere with them. He had no interest whatsoever to endanger his strategy because of colonial adventures, which in his point of view were neither useful nor achievable (Zimmerer 2015: 35). But despite all this, a german colonial empire was being established in the meantime. Bismarck himself had encouraged the partition of Africa between the European powers and in the context of the Africa-Conference in Berlin he initiated their legal validation. Even nowadays, Historians have not agreed about what actually caused his change of policy (Zimmer 2015: 38).

South-West Africa became the first German „protectorate“ in April 1884. At this point of time, the Barmen Rhine Mission, then under the direction of Friedrich Fabri, had already been stationed there for forty-two years. Besides this, the barely attractive region was only interesting for whalers and guano collectors. Since 1868 the Mission had from time to time asked the British and the German government for protection, due to riots and fights in Nama- and Hereroland. In the beginning, Fabri’s interest was only directed on a secure base at the Walvis Bay. Later it became more and more the idea of a formal colonial expansion by Germany (Gründer 2012: 85).

In an attempt of founding a new, active colonial organization, Fabri founded the „Westdeutschen Verein für Kolonisation und Export“ and brought his requests up to the Chancellor, who still wouldn’t listen to his ideas (Smith 1978: 21).

As mentioned above, Bismarck at first didn’t have the intention to acquire the region. The land should rather be made accessible to become a settlement area for German settlers and even more, serve as supplier of resources to the German industry.

In 1883, the German Tabacco merchant from Bremen Adolf E. Lüderitz, who had already been active in commerce with South-West Africa, purchased a piece of land (Gründer 2012: 85). In the beginning he requested protection for his territory from both the German and the British government. The British reacted quite restrained to his request but then made concessions to him with the promise that every intervention by others on this territory would be considers as an attack on the British Empire. In the meantime, Lüderitz expanded his possessions and acquired more and more territory. Because of this, the Germans could not longer accept the British attitude and was forced to act. On the 24th of April 1884, Lüderitz’ territory was officially put under protection of the German Empire and in October 1886, the whole possession was transmitted on the German Colonial Society for South-West Africa because of financial troubles of Lüderitz (Van Laak 2005: 4f). The Colonial Society had the right to administrate the whole territory, while the imperial government maintained the protecting power. For this purpose, the government sent Dr. Gustav Nachtigal and later, in 1885, Dr. Heinrich Goering as a Commissioner (Nuhn 1989: 30).

After the new Reich Chancellor Leo von Caprivi came into office, the colonial politics of Germany changed. Under the urging of the people interested in the colonies, Caprivi committed to the colonial project and to the „possession“ of South-West Africa. The former plans on abandoning the territories as worthless were given up and, in contrary, the project of a full and definite pacification of the colony, brought into focus. There already existed agreements with Portugal and England to clarify the question of the borders, but within these borders they had only partly concluded „protection treaties“ with the locals. Most of the Nama-tribes refused these kind of treaties, because they would cut off the means of existence since they were a tribe of semi-nomads. The last agreements with the Ovambo, the biggest ethnic group in the north of the country, could only be achieved in 1908. The balance of power would also be affected by the ongoing resistance of the chiefs of the different ethnic groups, which due to precolonial rivalries would not bother to unite to one single resistance movement. Quite the contrary was reality, because those intern conflicts and fights for power, especially between Herero and Nama, would help the Germans to establish their colonial rule and later strike down resistance in the colonial situation. For example, the Bantu speaking Herero pastoralists had accepted the protection treaty with the Germans especially because they saw them as a powerful confederate against the Nama. After their expectations were not met in the aftermath, they disappointedly recalled the treaty in 1888. Two years later, though, they got back under German „protection“. This was caused by the emerging threatening of the Herero group by the power plans of Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi (Gründer 2012: 121f).

3. Revolts and genocide (1904-1908)

a) Reasons for the starting of the revolts

With the increasing colonization of German South-West Africa, the first problems between german settlers and local population emerged. Most of the settlers were establishing themselves in the central parts of the protected area in Hereroland, were the climatic circumstances and the condition of soil and water were best. Since most of the settlers were not wealthy enough to buy cattle or property, they at first tried trading with the locals. Herero people did not own money either, so they often paid in kind, often in cattle. The settlers often tricked them into trading on basis of loans, which had exceptionally bad conditions for the Herero (Nuhn 1989: 33f).

A huge impact on the worsening of the general living conditions of the Herero and eventually on the starting of the revolts, had the Rinderpest, which broke out in 1987. Herero cattle herds were drastically decimated and thus changed the organization of Herero society dramatically (Gewald 1999: 110). Livestock possession was not only important for bare survival, but constituted the social position of pastoral people like the Herero. They expressed wealth and prestige and played a crucial role in the performance of rituals (Plein 1994: 107f). At the same time, the Germans had already taken precautional provisions and held vaccines ready, which put them in superior position over the Herero, who were desperate for food, vaccines and medicine (Gewald 1999: 110).

With the dying of cattle, the Herero society impoverished and became dependent on outside sources for food, employment and such. Apart from this, the Herero independence was indirectly threatened by veterinary assistance. The Germans tried to introduce a 20-km quarantine section on the northern and eastern borders of Hereroland. Under the pretext of helping with defeating the disease, the German colonial forces were given far-reaching authority to interfere in the affairs of Herero society. Without this immediate threat of their life basis, the Herero would never have willingly relinquished their fate to Germany (Gewald 1999:117). In order to stop the spreading of the disease, the Germans ordered the killing of all cattle herds that supposedly have been infected by it. Besides from incidents were Germans acted of their own accord in killing Herero cattle, there were cases were perfectly healthy cattle herds were killed. Young Herero men, who were to all intents and purposes too young to own cattle, were employed to fulfill these orders and were paid again in cattle (Gewald 1999: 113).

Besides this, a lot of Herero had to sell their land and a substantial number of them changed from pastoralists into proletarians. Within a few month, their whole society was turned upside down, from an independent autonomous whole, into dependent and splintered parts (Gewald 1999:133f).

In the end, between 50 and 80% of the vaccinated cattle of settlers and Herero survived. Cattle owners, who didn’t manage to access vaccines lost 95% of their herds. At the same time, especially the politically important central Hereroland was afflicted by a serious Malaria epidemic, with in some parts left only 8-10% of the population healthy. This again was followed by a plague of locusts and a period of drought (Gründer 2012: 126).

The increasing impoverishment and the destruction of the traditional economic way of life motivated the Herero chiefs, to send more and more of their tribesmen as wageworkers to the settlers, although in the beginning the Germans were dependent on their good will. Until the catastrophe in 1897, there was actually a quite equalized relationship settlers and chiefs and their relatives. Henceforward, the equilibrium began to totter. Mistreatment, violence and sexual assaults were committed more often without complaints by the locals. Various Herero groups started to migrate into British Bechuanaland Protectorate.

The process of the collapse of the chiefs’ power and the proceeding „proletarianization“ of their people went hand in hand with increasing legal uncertainty for the Africans. At the same time, racist ideologies became more and more popular and the settlers become politically more confident. Consistently they ignored the law and mistreated locals, while at the same time colonial justice only existed on one side. Gründer supposes that this disturbed equilibrium was the main reason for the revolting of the Herero. The exploitation and treacherous practices by German settlers and traders, of course played also a crucial part (Gründer 2012: 128f).

b) The Herero revolts

In the morning of the 12th of January 1904 the Herero started their revolt against the German ruling. They managed to surround a military station, destroy parts of the railway road between Swakopmund and Windhuk and interrupt the telegraph connection (Kämmerer/Föh 2004: 298). Gewald assumes that the fear and the distrust of the Germans towards the Herero people turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy (Gewald 1999: 142). First of all the Germans were, however, surprised by the attacks and were numerically short-handed. The Herero were the biggest ethnic group in South­West Africa at the time. Additionally, the Germans had shortly before concentrated the main part of their troops in the south of the protectorate, where they were busy fighting the revolt of the Bondelswarts, a Nama group. Also Governor Theodor Leutwein was there.

In the first phase of the fighting, 123 German casualties were counted, almost exclusively men (traders, settlers, soldiers) (Kämmerer/Föh 2004: 299). Until June of the year the Herero attacked the almost immobile and inexperienced troops with success. Not even the reinforcement of 800 soldiers sent from Germany could make a difference. In terms of their tactics and the knowledge of the terrain they were in an inferior position to the local and combat-ready Herero fighters. After a couple of small defeats and failures, Governor Leutwein decided to cancel the big operations in April. In the meantime, the Herero had withdrawn themselves to the north, in direction of the Waterberg (Gründer 2012: 130).

In this first phase of the war, the decisions were not made in the colony by Governor Leutwein, but in Berlin in the Reichstag. When the head of the „General Staff“, Alfred von Schlieffen, took over the military leadership, his task was not to handle a small revolt, but to conquer a colonial war. The suggestion of Governor Leutwein to negotiate with the Herero was refused by the government, who commanded a more offensive proceeding (Gewald 1999: 168ff). Probably because of this, Leutwein was blamed for the delayed defeat of the Herero. Apparently he was too soft for the General Staff and too open for negotiations, instead of taking drastic measures. He was laid-off and replaced by Lothar von Trotha, who became the new commander-in-chief of the protection troop in German South-West Africa. Although Governor Leutwein stayed in office until von Trotha’s arrival in May 1904, he was barred from making any military operations and decisions (Kämmerer/Föh 2004: 301).

General von Trotha was already experienced in colonial wars, he was the leader of the German troops during the Wahehe-Revolts in German East-Africa from 1896 to 1897. From 1900 to 1901 he participated as brigade commander in the suppressing of the Boxer Rebellion in Imperial China. Von Trotha was known for his brutal and relentless warfare. He had a completely different approach to continuing the war than Leutwein. Although Leutwein also aimed on ending the war as soon as possible, he tried to spill as little blood as possible on both sides of the conflict. He preferred to persuade the Herero with negotiation to give up the fight instead of strike them down in total elimination. Governor Leutwein’s reasoning was based on an economical point of view as he saw it the Herero as an important workforce for the protectorate. Von Trotha had no interest in them whatsoever. The only thing that counted for him was military elimination and unconditional capitulation of the enemy (Nuhn 1989: 201ff). With the arrival of Trotha, the second and bloody phase of the war was initiated.

c) Putting down the rebellion

On May 19th of 1904, state of war was declared for the whole protectorate, which gave the military absolute power of disposition. On the 30th of May, Leutwein urged the Herero one last time to capitulate. Unfortunately his effort was in vain (Kämmerer/Föh 2004: 301).

On the 11th of August it came down to the decisive battle at the Waterberg, where the Herero didn’t stand a chance against the German protection troops (Gründer 2012: 130). They seemed to be prepared for flight, which they managed to do in great numbers. However, most of them had to flee into the Kalahari-Desert (Omaheke), where they died due to drought or diseases. Von Trotha had cut access to water places and closed off other possible ways of return (Kämmerer/Föh 2004: 301).

A further radicalization of German warfare followed in autumn, when on October 2nd 1904, von Trotha issued his „extermination command“:

„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 body parts of wounded soldiers, now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people anyone who delivers a captain will receive 1000 Mark, whoever delivers Samuel [Maherero] 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“ (Gewald 1999:172f; quoted after: NNAW,

ZBU D 1 a Band 3-4, leaf 165, JBG’s translation)


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Suppression of the Herero and Nama Revolts by the Germans
The first German Genocide?
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ISBN (Book)
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Herero, Nama, Genozid, Deutschland, Namibia, Süd-West Afrika, Völkermord, Kolonialismus, Afrika, Wiedergutmachung, Aufarbeitung, 20. Jahrhundert, Krieg
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Sophia Barolo (Author), 2016, The Suppression of the Herero and Nama Revolts by the Germans, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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