The Herero war – the first genocide of the 20th century?

Bachelor Thesis, 2006

67 Pages, Grade: 1



Credits for Photographs and Maps




1 South West Africa Under German Rule
1.1 The Area of South West Africa Prior to German Colonization
1.2 “First a missionary, then a consul, and then com army.”
1.3 “However ruthless one’s colonial policy, it is necessary to give one’s actions a semblance of legality”
1.3.1 Divide et impera – Leutwein’s Policy and Native Uprisings
1.4 “White Man’s Burden”
1.5 “Colonisation is always inhumane”
1.5.1 “Leniency towards the natives is cruelty to the whites.”
1.5.2 “Prügelstrafe”
1.6 Silence Before the Storm
1.6.1 All-round Development of the Colony
1.6.2 Administrative Reorganisation
1.6.3 Mission Growth

2 The Herero War
2.1 Whose Fault is it?
2.2 Causes of the Uprising
2.2.1 German Abuse and Humiliation of Natives
2.2.2 Land Appropriation and the Question of Native Reservations Otavi Railway
2.2.3 Hereros’ Cattle
2.2.4 Credit System
2.3 Leutwein’s War
2.3.1 Number of Troops on Both Sides
2.3.2 Initial Stages of the War Maharero’s Proclamations
2.3.3 “the uprising must be smashed ruthlessly and a tabula rasa created.”
2.3.4 The end of Leutwein’s Independent Position
2.3.5 Change of Command
2.4 Von Trotha’s War
2.4.1 “Die Würfel waren gegen die Hereros gefallen”
2.4.2 Battle of Waterberg
2.4.3 Dying in the Sun
2.4.4 Extermination Order
2.4.5 The Last Power Struggle Between von Trotha and Leutwein
2.4.6 Change of German Policy The Nama Uprising
2.5 Von Trotha's Departure From the Theatre of War
2.6 “Sammellager”, Prisoner and Concentration Camps
2.7 “The old, the sick, the wounded were all slaughtered or burnt to death.” Clashes in the “Reichstag” About German Colonial Policies
2.8 Results of War
2.8.1 “The Hereros ceased to exist as a tribe.”
2.8.2 Consequences of the War for the Natives “Measures for control of the Natives” Ban on Mixed Marriages

3 Genocide
3.1 Problems with the Concept International Law at the Beginning of the 20th Century
3.1.1 “if this is awful, it must be a genocide”
3.2 Broad Definition by Charny
3.3 United Nations Definition
3.4 Narrow Definition by Fein
3.5 “For all their power, they could kill but not convince.”






Credits for Photographs and Maps

Numbers 1, 27, 29, 34 and 38 are from Bridgman, The Revolt of the Hereros; numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 18 and 31 from Calvert, South-west Africa during the German occupation 1884 – 1914; 8, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 33 from Leutwein, Elf Jahre Gouverneur in Deutsch-Südwestafrika; number 10 from Vedder, South West Africa in Early Times; 11 and 28 from Jacob, Deutsche Kolonialkunde, mit vielen Abbildungen, Tabellen, Statistiken, und einer Karte; 12 and 23 from Bley, Namibia under German rule; 13 from Historical Section of the Foreign Office, German African Possessions (late); 20 from Dove, Deutsch-S ü dwest-Afrika; 19 from Gewald, “We Thought we would be Free …” Socio-Cultural Aspects of Herero History in Namibia 1915 – 1940; 26, 30, 32 and 39 from Nuhn, Sturm ü ber S ü dwest. Der Hereroaufstand von 1904 – Ein d ü steres Kapitel der deutschen kolonialen Vergangenheit Namibias; 40 and 41 from Erichsen, Namibia ' s Island of Death;

The picture on the front-page is from Bridgman, The Revolt of the Hereros and it depicts a group of Hereros after their ordeal in the Omahake.


I would like to thank PD Dr. Boris Barth from the University of Constance for directing my attention to the issue of the Herero war; Harry Mokeba Ph.D. from Louisiana State University for his assistance and to Mjr. PhDr. Jiří Fidler from Charles University for consultations and comments regarding my thesis. Last but not least I want to thank Hannah Hall and Aleš Weiser for helping me with grammatical revision.


In June 2001 a reparations suit against Germany was filed at a United States court. The Herero, a native group of Namibia, sued the German government for 2 billion USD. The German state was accused of having, from the 1890 ' s “continuously violated the fundamental principles of international law in existence at the time by participating in the intentional extermination and destruction of the Herero tribe, enslaving them, and subjecting them to forced labour and torture”. [1] Earlier that year legal action against Deutsche Bank and two other German companies was taken by the Herero as well. The companies were accused of having formed “part of the German colonial enterprise that employed explicitly sanctioned extermination, the destruction of tribal social organisation, concentration camps, forced labour and medical experimentation to advance their common financial and political interests”. [2]


The 20th century is sometimes called the “centrury of genocide”. Never before have people been killing each other on such a scale, with so sophisticated methods and techniques, for so many reasons and seemingly without any scrupules or mercy. Untold masses of humans fell victims to these massacres.

Many people believed that the 21st century would be different - that it would be one without wars, atrocities or cruelty - as though one small move of the clock hand could change everything. People have always hoped that a turn of a century would be the true turning point. However, their hopes have more often been betrayed than not.

Early in 2003 a conflict began in the scorched and poor region of Darfur in Sudan. Rebel groups started attacking government targets. As a revenge “self-defence militias”, supported by the Sudanese government, began ethnic cleansing in the region; “slaughtering men, raping women and stealing whatever they can find.”[3] Some 200,000 Africans died as a result of the violence and almost 2,000,000 had to flee from their homes. The United States and a number of human rights organisations described the events in Sudan as genocide.

Almost exactly one hundred years earlier, at a place several thousand kilometers away, another conflict broke out. Although these two conflicts are separated by so many years and kilometers, they have a lot in common. We can only hope that the events in Darfur will not foreshadow the whole 21st century in the same way as the events, which began to unfold in South West Africa in 1904, foreshadowed the 20th.

The events of the Herero war.

In my thesis I will examine German colonial policies in South West Africa towards the natives from their first engagement in the area in 1883 up to the end of the Herero war in 1907. Further, I will try to establish if they were genocidal.

This is a theme hardly studied in the Czech Republic and as far as I am aware there is yet to be a serious attemtp by a Czech scholar to examine it. There were several foreign sholars who have dealt with policies towards the natives in German colonies. However, it is not to my knowledge that any of them tried to apply specific definitions of genocide on these policies, in order to find out if the measures used were genocidal. This is where my thesis should have a substantial added value – it will introduce a neglected topic into the Czech academic environment and it will explore and analyse it using methods not employed before.

For my research I have only used foreign sources. There is a relatively large number of books, studies, articles and documents on German colonialism in general as well as on German South West Africa in particular. However, the vast majority of them has been written by Germans or Europeans and reflects, therefore, necessarily their subjective attitudes, approaches and goals. The only documents written in the period of my interest by an African are the so called “Hendrik Witbooi Papers”. That is, obviously, not even nearly enough to obtain a better understanding of the African - or native if you want - perspective. In my case this should not constitute such of a problem, since my focus is on German policies, their attitudes towards and treatment of natives, not vice versa.

There are several important books I used, when writing my thesis, which are worth mentioning.

First of them is the, by now classical, study by Horst Drechsler “Let Us Die Fighting”. Even though it is influenced by the time it was written in and by the Marxist doctrines effective in Eastern Germany then, it is still hardly dispensable, mainly for its thorough research of German archives. Another essential account of the nature of German colonialism is given in Helmut Bley's Namibia under German rule.

Important role for information about South West Africa prior to colonization play publications of missionaries such as Heinrich Vedder's South West Africa in Early Times, or about missionaries, such as Nicole Glocke's Zur Geschichte der Rheinischen Missiongesellschaft in Deutsch-S ü dwestafrika. Theodor Leutwein's Elf Jahre Gouverneur in Deutsch-Südwestafrika offers a very special point of view, a number of information not to be found anywhere else and a detailed description of events preceding the Herero war.

Jan-Bart Gewald's Herero Heroes is focused on the history of the Herero between 1890 and 1939, and Müller's account Kolonien unter der Peitsche: eine Dokumentation, still remains important for its description of German treatment of the natives. Several books describe the course of combat of the Herero war itself, in quite a detailed way. These include for example: Walter Nuhn's Sturm ü ber S ü dwest, Jon Bridgman's The Revolt of the Hereros, or the memoirs of Ludwig von Estorff Wanderungen und K ä mpfe.

Last but not least the British Blue Book[4] in its reprint Words Cannot Be Found., by Jan-Bart Gewald and Jeremy Silvester must be mentioned. One has to be aware of the circumstances under which this book was published; nevertheless it still contains valuable information and important accounts of the natives.

My thesis is divided into three major parts. The first two describe and characterize the German policies towards the natives of South West Africa and their mutual relationship, prior to the Herero war and during it respectively. The third is concerned with definitions of genocide and relevance for its aplication on the Herero war.

In the first chapter I shortly portray South West Africa prior to European colonisation and then turn my attention to German - steady and gradual - conquest of the country. Special consideration is given to German perceptions of the natives, to their use of the natives for their own cause and to their treatment of the indigenous population. Finally the most important aspects of development of the colony under German rule are presented.

The next chapter of the thesis deals with the events of the Herero war. Analysis of the main causes of the uprising is followed by the description of the course of war. This one is purposefully not very detailed, and only events relevant for our cause are mentioned. Much more attention is given to German changing policies during the war and to the differing arguments behind these policies, with special focus on Lothar von Trotha's reasoning. The Nama uprising is mentioned briefly as well. At the end results of the war and its influence mainly on the native population are characterized.

I deal with the concept of genocide in the final part of this paper. I offer three different definitions and apply them one by one, on the events in Gernam South West Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. I analyze if any, some, or all definitions are valid and could be used to describe these events.

The crucial question of this thesis is whether German policies in South West Africa regarding the native population, especially the Herero could be described as genocidal.

In May 2006 American movie star Angelina Jolie decided to give birth to her daughter at the coastal resort of Walvis Bay in Namibia. Since then, the interest of foreigners and above all Americans in this country skyrocketed and the numbers of tourists increased multiple times. Special tours for visitors are now organized, where tourists can see all the places where the Hollywood star spend her time. They will probably visit some beaches, game resorts or camping areas and they will know that Angelina Jolie was there. What they will most likely not know is that a lot of these places were previously sites of concentration camps and battle grounds, where tens of thousands died. They will not know, because there has not been a single war memorial erected for the victims of the German colonial era.[5]

I am hopeful that my thesis will contribute to that we do not forget our history so quickly, because those who cannot remember the past…

1 South West Africa Under German Rule

1.1 The Area of South West Africa Prior to German Colonization

The territory of South West Africa (SWA) – present day Namibia – has always been one of the most inaccessible, sparsely inhabited and arid regions of Africa. Delimited with the Kalahari from the east and the Namib from the west, it had no fixed boundaries prior to European colonization. At that time the territory could be divided roughly into three parts – from north to south - Ovamboland, Hereroland (or Damaraland) and Namaland, with the majority population in these regions being the Ovambo, Herero and Nama nations[6].

Although the Ovambo was the biggest of the three tribes, this study will not deal with them in any detail, since they remained outside the sphere of German influence throughout the colonial era.

The central region covering about 350,000 km2 was populated by the Bantu speaking herdsmen of Herero[7], who migrated to SWA from the northeast most probably during the 17th and 18th centuries. Since there had never been a census prior to German colonization, it is very difficult to establish the exact number of Hereros living in the area at that time. Most estimates vary between 70,000 and 100,000 with about 80,000 being the most likely figure, most authors and experts agree on. It is important to note here that the whole life of Hereros revolved around cattle, which they considered sacred.[8].

The southern part of the country was inhabited by the Nama[9] tribe, which earlier sources and German colonizers almost invariably described by the derogatory term Hottentots. The estimates of their number at the end of the 19th century were somewhere in the region of 20,000.

Apart from the Ovambo, Herero and Nama which together formed the majority of SWA population, there were a few other tribes - the so-called Bastards (descendants of Boer men and Nama women), the Berg-Damara and the Bushmen (or San).

Leutwein’s[10] estimates of aboriginal population in 1892 are described in the following table:

Table 1 Population of Native Tribes in 1892

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Life in SWA prior to German colonization was far from ideal. It was certainly not the life of “peaceful, noble savages” in Rousseau’s sense, rather it was a state of Hobbe’s homo homini lupus, where life was mostly – to use Hobbes' words again - “brutal, nasty and short”. The tribes almost constantly led wars against each other, often in a very cruel manner[11]. Especially the Herero and Nama fought each other for supremacy for the most part of the 19th century. Three wars took place in the years between 1830 – 1842, 1846 – 1858 and 1863 – 1870. In August 1880 fighting started once again and lasted until November 1892, when a peace treaty was signed. Only then the natives realized that another and common enemy was emerging on the horizon – the Germans.

1.2 “First a missionary, then a consul, and then com army.”

Although the quote heading this section was borrowed from the Zuluchief Cetshawayo[12], a similar pattern of conquest can be identified in SWA. First Europeans to come to this land where “no palms, no woods, no trees, no shrubs: only stones, rocks and sand” were to be found and in which “everything looked so dead, so bleak, so deserted”[13] were indeed missionaries. The first, from the evangelic “Rheinische Missionargesellschaft”, came in 1842 and proceeded to establish the initial mission in Otjimbingwe in 1849.

More than forty years passed by before the missionaries were followed by merchants, who sought prosperity in this “no man’s land”. The pioneer among them was Adolf Lüderitz (1834 – 86) who closed two contracts with the native chief of the Bethanie people on 1st May and 25th August 1883. For 600 pounds sterling and 260 rifles he bought the area of Angra Pequeña and a twenty mile[14] wide strip of land between the 26° of south latitude and the river Orange respectively.

Lüderitz soon asked the German Reich for protection of his territory. It was granted by Bismarck in a telegram to the German Consul in Cape Town on 24th April 1884. On this day, German colonialism was born and Germany joined the “scramble for Africa”.

Because of insufficient monetary funds, Lüderitz was forced to sell his land to the “Deutsche Kolonialgesselschaft für Südwestafrika” in 1885. Since then, until 1889, German South West Africa (GSWA) was administered predominantly by merchants, in accordance with Bismarck’s idea that “In den Kolonien muss der Kaufmann vorangehen, der Soldat und die Verwaltung nachfolgen.”[15]

And indeed it was not long before the first soldiers came. In June 1889 21[16] of them arrived. Their number was rising steadily in the following years as the next table shows.

Table 2 Number of German Troops in GSWA up to 1902

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The scheme of something similar to the British “chartered companies” did not work quite well in GSWA Therefore, an Imperial Commissioner was appointed in 1889 to govern the colony, which was with its 835,100 km2 one and half times the size of the German Reich then.

1.3 “However ruthless one’s colonial policy, it is necessary to give one’s actions a semblance of legality”

In order to govern such a vast territory, it was first necessary to acquire some control over it. Therefore Germans concluded treaties of protection (“Schutzverträge”) with various tribes. In these “Schutzverträge” the tribal chiefs gave up part of their power and sovereignty in exchange for the promise of German protection.[18]

Native chiefs usually committed themselves and their tribes in the following ways:

1. To protect all citizens of the German Reich and their possessions.
2. To guarantee them the right and freedom to travel, settle down and trade in the native’s land.
3. Not to guarantee any rights and advantages to anyone of other than German citizenship and not to sell any land without the approval of the German government.
4. To acknowledge the jurisdiction of the German Kaiser in cases of a legal dispute between Germans and natives.
5. To contribute to the sustenance of peace in the protectorate and to accept the decision of the German government in the case of a dispute with other chiefs.
6. To recognize German laws passed for the protectorate.

German government on the other hand was bound by these treaties:

1. To protect the chief and his people.
2. To leave natives under their chief’s jurisdiction.
3. To make sure that white people respect the laws, local customs and traditions.

Germany concluded the protection treaties although it had virtually zero real power on the territory of SWA at that time. Drechsler correctly pointed out that “protection meant little more than the intention to keep other nations away from the country”[19]. Nevertheless most of the tribal chiefs signed the “Schutzverträge” till 1890, even if they often did not understand them completely[20]. As Leutwein admitted in his voluminous memoirs, the details of these treaties were not significant. The only substantial fact was that they were signed and the “semblance of legality” given. As long as German colonizers did not have much power, the treaties remained rather unimportant. However, as soon as the Germans gained power they used these treaties “ohne Rücksicht auf die Einzelheiten ihrer Festsetzungen”.[21]

1.3.1 Divide et impera – Leutwein’s Policy and Native Uprisings

The new Governor Leutwein (arrived in 1894) took the idea of treaties with natives to another level when he employed a divide et impera policy, trying to play the tribes against each other.

Starting in 1895, he made arrangements with the chiefs of the Herero, the Nama and others, in which they bound themselves inter alia to send native troops against all German enemies, both outside and inside the colony. This meant, above all, that whenever Germany faced any problems within the colony, they would not have to deal with them by using their military forces alone, but they could use native soldiers as well. Leutwein made thus – in his own words - the “native tribes serve our cause” and he held it for “more serviceable, to influence the natives to kill each other for us than to expect streams of blood and streams of money from the Old Fatherland for their suppression.”[22]

One could ask: what was the reason the native chiefs agreed to such arrangements? What did they get for it?

The answer is quite simple: money. The most powerful chiefs, including the Herero chief Samuel Maharero, were paid a yearly salary from the German budget. The usual amount of between 1,000 and 2,000 marks certainly helped to sweeten the pill and made it quite easy for the chiefs to overcome their partial loss of power. In this way almost decade long period of Herero collaboration with the Germans started.

For his money and constant supply of alcohol Samuel Maharero was willing to sell out his nation. As a sign of loyalty a German flag flew over his camp; and on several occasions he even asked the German forces to help him eliminate some of his Herero opponents. Leutwein was not mistaken when he appraised Maharero's behaviour as one, which “nahezu an Verrat an seinem eigenen Volke grenzte”[23].

Thanks to this policy Leutwein was easily able to subdue any native rebellions or unrests up to 1904. Native chiefs kept sending their forces all this time and helped him squash all native uprisings; sometimes even fighting against their relatives. Thus Africans were fighting Africans and helping the Germans to gain control over their territory in the process.

Table 3 Native Uprisings and Their Results in the Era Leutwein up to 1903[24][18]

1.4 “White Man’s Burden”

Germany, just as other European colonizing powers, felt the weight of this burden very intensely; and as a colonial “late comer” maybe even more than the others. The Germans unmistakably saw themselves and other whites too, as members of a higher race and supreme civilization, whose task or even duty was to bring the light of civilization into these “dark corners” of the world. The civilizing mission was perceived especially with regards to culture, traditions and religion. Its goal was to lift the African “Naturkinder”[25] morally and spiritually from their underdeveloped state, closer to the superior level of Europeans. The “amoral natives with immoral traditions”[26] were to be brought up like children by their strict, but fair European fathers. And it would not only be of advantage to the natives and the Germans, but in fact to “mankind in general”[27].

This paternalistic attitude was shared by German settlers, officials, soldiers and missionaries in GSWA and members of the German public in the Reich alike. Dr. Solf, the Secretary of the Colonial Office, expressed it most vividly in his speech before Parliament on 6th March 1913[28]: “Die Eingeborenen sind unwissend – sie müssen unterrichtet werden. Sie sind faul – sie müssen arbeiten lernen. Sie sind schmutzig – sie müssen gewaschen werden. Sie sind krank, mit allerlei Gebrechen – sie müssen geheilt werden. Sie sind wild, grausam und abergläubisch – sie müssen besänftigt und erleuchtet werden. Alles in allem, meine Herren: sie sind große Kinder, die der Erziehung und der Leitung bedürfen.“[29]

The stance of Germans towards natives was racist not only implicitly, but often quite explicitly as well. In the most extreme cases, African natives were not recognized as human beings[30]. Mostly thought, indigenous peoples were either perceived and described as animals such as “baboons”[31] or they were seen as higher beings and were allowed to “enter” the human race. If this was the case, then they were typically depicted as inferior and heathen savages with numerous negative characteristics usually ascribed to them, such as: lazy, insincere, cruel, profane, nasty etc.

With these attitudes it should not come as a surprise that the one thing, Germans were most afraid of, was miscegenation. The first reason was that it was considered as “scientificaly” proven, at that time, that children born from a mixed race relationship were more likely to inherit the native African characteristics, which were deemed negative, then those originating from the more “favourable” white gene pool. The second, that through these “ill effects of race mixing”, the white minority would not be able to maintain its race “clean” and keep itself in control over the coloured.

Because of the lack of white women in the colony the number of marriages between white men and native women as well as the number of their “Bastard” children was growing. In German eyes this was clearly not desirable and to ensure the future of the colony it was necessary to reverse this trend. Thus, to lower the “danger” of miscegenation, German women had to be brought in and encouraged to settle in the colony.[32]

1.5 “Colonisation is always inhumane”

The last section showed that African natives were sometimes perceived as animals. This section will demonstrate that they were often treated as such or even worse.[33]

1.5.1 “Leniency towards the natives is cruelty to the whites.”

Beside the protection treaties there were just three laws[35] regulating the relationships between the natives and the Germans before 1904. It can by no means be said that there was equality before the law in GSWA. In the vast majority of cases, the Germans or white population in general received a far better treatment than the natives. Sometimes aborigines were reduced to a state, where they were almost completely rightless. One of the most extreme examples was that during one period a testimony of 7 natives before court equalled the testimony of a single white person. Moreover, natives could hardly expect to receive fair treatment when all judges were German. Hanemann, a former district judge in Swakopmund, formulated his – and probably not only his – stance, when he wrote that “a single drop of white blood was just as precious to me as the life of one of our black fellow-citizen”.[36] Racial prejudice and hatred thus became part of the judicial system.[34]

As a result, natives received much harsher punishments for the same offences than the Europeans. This can be clearly seen on punishments for murder[37], which are documented in the following table.

Table 4 Whites and Natives Murdered Before 1903[38][34]

What we see in this table was well described by Governor Leutwein: “…a higher value was placed on the life of a white man than on that of a native.”[39] Punishment for the same offences depended much more on the colour of skin of both the victim and the criminal than on anything else. Not only have Europeans in the afore mentioned cases received much milder sentences, but none of them served the whole sentence. Furthermore, these were only cases brought before trial. The real number of natives killed by whites can hardly be estimated, but it was most probably much higher. For most of these offences no adequate penalty followed. The family of the deceased native usually received just a small payment or a few dozen goats.

1.5.2 “Prügelstrafe”

According to some of the German racist theories (see section 1.4) African natives were regarded as children or even animals. Animals can sometimes only be held in check with a lash in hand. And Germans certainly did not hesitate to use this lash.

Physical punishment of natives was seen as a very good upbringing measure. It was used from the very beginning of German colonial rule in Africa[40] right up to the end. To German colonial masters – merchants, officials, missionaries and settlers on the same level – “the lash appeared as a magic wand, which could fulfil all wishes”.[41]

Thus natives were physically punished for all possible offences, such as: “laziness”, “ongoing idleness”, “neglect of duty”, “disobedience”, “arrogance”, “runaway”, “milking strange goats”[42] etc. Typical punishment for these offences was 25 “shambock”[43] or “kiboko” lashes. So was for example the native Job Bantam sentenced to 3 months in prison and 50 shambock lashes for “milk theft”, or Hereros Barnabas Isaak und Salib both punished with 15 sticklashes for “beach pollution”.[44] In most similar cases, there was an evident discrepancy between the punishment awarded and the severity of the crime.

During the 1884 – 1896 period, there was no regulation of the “Prügelstrafe” and 100 lashes were often given as a minimum punishment. By the ordinance of 22nd May 1896 at least some guidelines for physical punishment were set. The maximum punishment was specified at 50 lashes (25 at a time) and the ordinance exempted women, Arabs and Indians from such a punishment. However, these changes did not make much difference for the natives, since the most common punishment – flogging of natives by their masters – remained unrestricted. Most of these floggings were not recorded and till 1907 colonists did not even have to examine the identity of the punished.

In 1906 there were new attempts to reduce lashing, which, however, failed miserably as the following statistics show:

Table 5 “Physical Punishments of the Natives”[45][34]

A very common German perception was that the natives had a different threshold of pain and should therefore survive lashing without any further consequences. It was argued, that even if such punishments seemed too violent or inhuman, it, in fact, did not hurt the natives much, because of their stronger and less sensitive skin. However, there were a number of cases when natives were seriously injured or even died after being lashed. In fact, every whipping could mean death for the punished. Such cases were not usually taken as maltreatment of natives but just as an accident. „Es war nur ein Neger“[46] was a sentence often heard in such cases.

Notwithstanding all the facts revealed in this section, it should not be concluded that all relationships between European citizens and natives were the same. There were some instances where European settlers lived in relative harmony and friendship with natives; where the settlers appreciated natives as proud, gifted or promising people. However, in general their relationship was tarnished mostly because of German approach, which could be defined with the words of one colonial officer: “Only with strict upbringing can we produce good material from these people”[47].

1.6 Silence Before the Storm

In order not to paint just a completely bleak picture of German colonization, it is worth to point out some of their successes in Africa.

When Germans first came to SWA it was: “a sun-drenched, drought-afflicted land enveloped by desert, with a non-existent transport network, highly restricted agricultural opportunities, unknown mineral resources…”[48] During the 20 years of their reign and especially during Leutwein's 10 years as a Governor, they were able to substantially change the land and move towards their goal of building a white settler colony.

1.6.1 All-round Development of the Colony

With support of the German government white settler population in GSWA was rising steadily. While there were just 310 Germans in 1891; in 1903 according to the population census, there were 4,640[49] settlers in the colony, living in a few cities and on more than 250 farms. Although still relatively small in numbers, in comparison to the natives, the Germans already owned the majority of land and cattle. Approximately 40% (276,450 km2) of the colony was in the hands of trading companies; some 20% (149,860 km2) in the hands of the government and the rest still belonged to the natives (287,567 km2).

If the white settler population grew significantly, then the growth in infrastructure must be labelled as massive. Farms, roads, bridges, dams, irrigation structures, schools, hospitals etc. were built in many parts of the colony. Modern techniques and means of transportation were introduced. In September 1897 work on the railway between the harbour Swakopmund and the capital Windhoek began, only to be finished in June 1902. Telegraph and heliograph connections were already completed one year earlier.

Furthermore, there were 34 post offices operating in 1903, busy to accept and expedite over one million letters and packages in 1903/1904.[50] The colonial newspaper Windhuker Anzeiger (later Deutsch Südwestafrikanische Zeitung) was published. In 1899 German system of weights and measures was introduced and from December 1899 Reich mark was to be used as the only legal currency.

Economy of the colony had been rising without interruption with the exception of the rind pest epidemic in 1897. Although trade deficits were still substantial, the trend of rising exports was clear as the following table shows.


[1] New African; 2001; Hereros Now Sue German Government

[2] New African; 2001; Hereros Now Sue German Government

[3] - Q&A: Sudan's Darfur conflict

[4] The Blue Book was published in November 1918, when South West Africa was occupied by the Union of South Africa. It is an account of German treatment of the native populations in the country. The Blue Book includes, among others, 75 witness accounts of German colonial practices. In Germany it was dismissed as “an English piece of war propaganda with no credibility whatsoever”. (Gewald, Silvester; 2003; xxi) Subsequently the Germans published their own so called White Book (The Treatment of Native and Other Populations in the Colonial Possessions of Germany and England: An Answer to the English Blue Book of August, 1918) as a reply, in which they, for a change, accused the British of ill-treatment of the natives. In 1926 white elites in both countries decided that in the interest of their future cooperation all copies of the Blue Book should be disposed of.

[5] Gewald, Silvester; 2003; xxxv

[6] Both the Herero and the Nama are often described interchangeably as nations or tribes. In my opinion, depending on ones perspective, both terms are acceptable. The Germans mostly referred to the native peoples as nations and to their leadership sometimes as government. Anderson; 2005; even argues that Hereroland could be recognized as a state entity.

[7] The Herero nation was not a homogenous group, but rather an agglomeration of several tribes, the most important of them being the Tjimba (West Herero) and the Mbandjeru (East Herero).

[8] For more about the Herero as well as Nama religion, customs and traditions see for example Schultz-Ewerth; 1930; 211 - 397.

[9] Sometimes Khoikhoi as well, which means “real people”. The Nama could be divided into two main groups – the Nama proper (consisting of: the Veldschoendragers, the Franzmanns, the Zwartboois, the so-called Red Nation, the Topnaars, the Zeib people and the Bondelswarts) and the Oorlam tribes (the Witboois, the Berseba community, the Khauas, the Bethanie people and the Afrikaaners)

[10] (Leutwein; 1906; 11) Theodor Leutwein (1849 – 1921) was in GSWA between 1894 and 1903, first as Landeshauptmann and later as Governor.

[11] Captured fighters were often mutilated, sometimes thrown to the dogs (Le Blanc; 2003; 116), or their body parts cooked (Schultz-Ewerth; 1930; 233).

[12] Quoted in Glocke; 1997; 334

[13] A German military officer recollecting the surprise when he first saw SWA, quoted in Bridgman; 1981; 8

[14] The contract, as though it should mark the whole future relationship between the natives and Germans, was either a random misunderstanding or a purposeful deception. It stated: “a strip 20 geographical miles wide”. One geographical mile is the equivalent of 7.4 km. However, the Bethanie people were not familiar with this term and presumed that the contract meant an English mile, which equals 1.5 km. Thus they were very surprised later on, when the found out, they had sold almost all of their land.

[15] Leutwein; 1906; 18

[16] Rather interestingly, because at this time there was no German harbour in operation in GSWA these soldiers had to land in the British harbour at Walvis Bay disguised as explorers.

[17] This table is based on information from: Drechsler; 1980, Leutwein; 1906 and Stoecker; 1986

[18] Leutwein quoted in Drechsler; 1980; 81

[19] Drechsler;1980; 38

[20] This could be documented for example by the fact that from 11 Herero chiefs only Samuel Maharero and two others could sign themselves, all others signed with a cross.

[21] Leutwein; 1906; 237

[22] Gewald, Silvester; 2003; 16

[23] Leutwein; 1906; 511

[24] According to: Drechsler; 1980, Leutwein; 1906; 300 and Bley;1996

[25] Schultz-Ewerth; 1930; 222

[26] Translated from Glocke; 1997; 115

[27] Words of Paul Rohrbach, the Commissioner for Settlement in GSWA. His whole statement read as follows: “By no argument in the world can it be shown that the preservation of any degree of national independence, national prosperity and political organization by the races of South West Africa would be of greater of even of equal advantage for the development of mankind in general or the German people in particular than that these races should be made serviceable in the enjoyment of their former territories by the white races.” (Mbuende; 1986; 51)

[28] Although the speech was made only in 1913, its message is valid for the whole period of German domination of SWA.

[29] Heyden, Zeller; 2002; 69

[30] This attitude was most blatantly expressed in a petition of 75 German settlers to the Colonial Department from 21st July 1900. “From time immemorial our natives have grown used to laziness, brutality and stupidity. The dirtier they are, the more they feel at ease. Any white man who has lived among natives finds it almost impossible to regard them as human beings at all in any European sense. They need centuries of training as human beings, with endless patience, strictness and justice...” (Bley; 1996; 97)

[31] A missionary named Elger observed “that the average German looks down upon the natives as being about on the same level as the higher primates”. (Madley; 2004; 169)

[32] In the years 1896 – 1902 the “Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft” imported 18 brides, 21 servant maids and 18 women relatives of the farmers, altogether 57 German women. Till 1907 the number increased to 501 women and until 1913 reached almost 1 500 (Heyden, Zeller; 2002; 53). Later in 1907 the “Deutschkolonialer Frauenbund” was established to promote the “Rassenbewustsein” of German women going to Africa and to prevent an increase of bastard children population.

[33] Leutwein quoted in Bley; 1996; 68

[34] Karl Dove, the Director of the land settlement in Windhoek, quoted in Soggot; 1986; 8.

[35] The most important and relevant in this context was “The law relating to jurisdiction for the purposes of punishments and disciplinary control”, dated 23rd April 1896.

[36] Bley; 1996; 141

[37] Only cases of murder are depicted in the table. However, similar discrepancies could be found by all crimes. For example no case of rape was ever brought before a court in GSWA prior to uprising, although rape of native women and girls was widespread.

[38] According to Leutwein; 1906; 431

[39] Gewald, Silvester; 2003; 94

[40] Cameroon was even known as the “Twentyfiveland (the land of twenty-five)” because 25 lashes were the usual amount given as punishment.

[41] Translated from Müller; 1962; 35

[42] Gewald, Silvester; 2003; 258

[43] Shambocks used is GSWA were usually heavy hippopotamus (or giraffe, rhinoceros) hide whips about 50 – 100 cm long and 1½ to 2 cm strong. Sometimes a wire was put into the shambock, which turned it into a true torture instrument. (Müller; 1962; 102)

[44] Müller; 1962; 90

[45] According to Müller; 1962

[46] Müller; 1962; 41

[47] Translated from Müller; 1962; 150

[48] Cocker; 1998; 290

[49] White population consisted of 3,391 men (622 married; 42 married with native women) and 1,249 women. Regarding the nationalities of the settlers the division was as follows: 2,998 Germans, 973 Cape Lander and Boers, 453 Englishmen, 40 Austrians, 35 Swedes and Norwegians, 29 Dutch, 19 Russians, 101 without citizenship. (Leutwein; 1906; 232)

[50] Leutwein; 1906; 235 - 236

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The Herero war – the first genocide of the 20th century?
Charles University in Prague
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Auszeichnung des Dekans der Fakultät der Sozialwissenschaften (Karlsuniversität Prag) für eine hervorragende Bachelor Thesis
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Martin Weiser (Author), 2006, The Herero war – the first genocide of the 20th century?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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