During the late 19th century, when territorial expansionism was at its height, the nations of Europe vied with each other in the ‘scramble for Africa’. Germany achieved a formidable presence in the ‘dark continent’ with ambitions founded on a garbled paternalistic philosophy of eugenics and racism, including notions of ‘survival of the fittest’.
In 1884 Germany occupied Damaraland in southwestern Africa, establishing the protectorate of Deutsch-Sudwestafrika. Great tracts of land and herds of cattle were expropriated from the nomadic Herero and Nama tribes of the region. With an ingrained sense of their own cultural and racial superiority, the Germans reduced these proud indigenous peoples to the status of laborers, imposing Christian beliefs and European dress with missionary zeal.
In January 1904, under the leadership of Samuel Maharero, the Herero finally erupted in a full-blown rebellion in which 120 German settlers were killed. Germany responded by sending in a 15,000-strong contingent of Schutztruppe colonial forces commanded by Lothar von Trotha. In August, at the Battle of Waterberg, he hemmed in the Herero rebels on three sides and pushed them back into the Omaheke desert, where thousands of them died of thirst. Trotha was utterly ruthless in his determination to finish the job; he had the Herero watering holes poisoned, positioned guardposts along 240 km (150 mi) of territory and gave an order that: ‘All Herero must leave the land … Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot’. He then rounded up any remaining Herero, included the Nama for good measure, and imprisoned them all in forced-labor camps. By 1908 up to 80 per cent of the Herero and 50 per cent of the Nama had been killed by a combination of overwork, starvation and disease.
Where: Namibia (known as South West Africa until 1990).
Death toll: Between 25,000 and 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were exterminated; the survivors of the concentration camps were sold to German farmers as slaves.
You should know: Responding to international criticism, Germany argued that its actions against the Herero were not in breach of the 1864 Geneva Convention of human rights because the tribesmen were not ‘human’ but ‘animal’. A thriving trade developed in native skulls and body parts; these were regularly shipped back to German museums and universities for anthropological research purposes, and geneticist Eugen Fischer even went to the Herero concentration camps to research his ‘race science’ – a eugenics theory that would later be invoked by Hitler to justify his attempted extermination of the Jewish race, in 1985, the UN declared Germany’s attempt to wipe out the Herero and Nama peoples as the first genocide of the 20th century.