It's generally said that the Armenian genocide was the first of the 20th century. But there was another even less known one that took place in what was called German Southwest Africa (Deutsch-südwestafrika) almost eleven years earlier.*

In 1894, the area (now the country of Namibia) became a protectorate of Germany. It was already home for over 200,000 people of related tribes. The main three were the Nama (also known as the Khoikhoin or Hottentot), the Herero, and Ovambo. The rest of the decade was spent working out deals and treaties with other countries to define its borders. It also, into the 90s, made treaties with the area tribes to expand its territory.

There was some trouble between the local tribes and the settlers who were moving in and pushing them away from the land upon where they lived and made their livelihood as cattle herders who supplemented with some agriculture. These uprisings were generally ended fairly quickly and the Germans made sure to play the tribes off each other, keeping them quarreling amongst themselves part of the time.

By May of 1888, the first contingent of soldiers (Schutztruppe) arrived there. The end of the decade brought mining as a concern with the discovery of semiprecious stones. The protectorate was declared a "Crown Colony" in 1890. Into that decade, settlers expanded their property and farms got larger. A peace treaty, signed in 1892, between two of the warring tribes (who decided the threat of German colonialism to be far greater than each other) brought an increase of soldiers to the region. Discovery of rich mineral deposits (copper; also lead, zinc, tin, silver, cobalt, arsenic, antimony, cadmium, germanium, gallium, iron, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, and vanadium, to a lesser degree) the following year brought the number of soldiers in the colony to 250. At the same time, more settlers are arriving.

The German penal code was brought to the colony as law in 1895. A code that was extend to the tribal members as well. Later that year, they announced "punitive measures" against tribal members who leave their "land" and cross the border onto settler land. Minor battles among other tribal groups continued to occur, occasionally bringing the Germans into it. Tensions between the Hereros and the colonials increased over the "border issue."

A widespread rinderpest (contagious bovine typhus) epidemic wiped out an estimated fifty percent of the Herero cattle in 1897. Followed by locusts and drought, the tribe was left hungry and poor and at the mercy of the colonists and traders, often needing to sign over land as payment. A typhus epidemic struck the area a year later. The decade ended with more soldiers, more colonists, and more traders arriving.

Prelude to genocide
Continued hardships due to the epidemics and the pressure to leave their homelands by the colonists was creating more than resentment among the various tribes, particularly the Herero. Unfair traders cheating them out of land or forcing them to give it up due to exorbitant prices for goods made things worse. Rapes, alcohol sales, arbitrary lynchings, death threats to the acting chief, and other abusive treatment also were widespread. Penalties were strongly racially biased. During the ten years (1894-1904) Major Theodor Leutwein was governor of the colony, there were six cases of whites murdered by blacks with 15 death penalties assigned and at the same time, five blacks murdered by whites only brought prison sentences of between three months and five and a half years.

The Hereros had had enough. On 12 January 1904, a rebellion was launched against the Germans. The men were informed not to harm Boers, the English, missionaries, or other tribes (this may have come after the war began). 123 people were killed (including 13 soldiers, seven Boers, and five women). The Hereros destroyed buildings and property and stole goods and cattle.

At the time, the Herero population was between 80,000-100,000, about 7,000-8,000 they could put into battle. About half had firearms (which had been monopolized and controlled by the Germans for several years), but ammunition was in short supply. The "army" also had the burden of moving around with their families and cattle, in tow. On the other hand, at the time of the initial attack, the Schutztruppe had only about 40 officers backed with 726 men (four companies of mounted infantry and one of artillery). They had reserves numbering about the same, plus some 400 settlers with no training.

The soldiers were also at the other end of the colony dealing with another small uprising and taken by surprise. At first, the Herero did quite well, continuing to destroy farms and property, ambushing the soldiers, and laying siege to a few towns. But soon the Germans got reinforcements and began to slowly turn the tide in their favor. Battles continued into February and March. Interestingly, on 23 February, Leutwein warned against extermination of the Herero. On the 17th of the next month, a member of the Reichstag condemned the war and demanded its termination (also refusing to fund it). He described it as a "justified liberation war."

In May, the Germans were nearly defeated and had to pull back until reinforced. On the home front (Germany), Leutwein was criticized for the move and the people seemed not to realize that the Herero was fighting for their land and lives and the hope to escape colonialism, not merely rebelling as earlier uprisings had been. The German press was stating that all tribal structure would be destroyed and the people disarmed. This included members of the Nama, which helped lead to their own revolt in August 1904. Also that month, many of the Herero moved to the area of the Waterberg mountains, waiting for the Germans to come. They numbered over 10,000, over half were fighting men.

In June, though Leutwein remained governor, General Lothar von Trotha arrived and took over military command. Reinforcements swelled his army to some 10,000 men and 32 artillery pieces. On 11 August, they advanced.

There were heavy losses on both sides, but the German artillery and superior firepower wore down the embattled Herero (who also took heavy losses among noncombatants). The tribe fled into the Omaheke desert (now called the Kalahari desert) where the Germans pursued them. Later, from an official report:

The bold enterprise shows up in the most brilliant light the ruthless energy of the German command in pursuing their beaten enemy. No pains, no sacrifices were spared in eliminating the last remnants of enemy resistance. Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one waterhole to the next, until finally he became victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.
So the Herero continued to flee ahead of the advancing Germans over a desert with little or no food and water. It wasn't long before the exhausted people began to die of thirst and starvation. There were reports of mothers dying of thirst still trying to breast-feed their dying babies. Meanwhile the Germans encircled them, blocking escape, and making hunting down the survivors much easier. So did poisoning some of the precious waterholes. Some who survived the ordeal escaped to Bechuanaland (at the time a British protectorate, now called Botswana). The pursuit wasn't ended by von Trotha until 3 September.

The tribe was overwhelmingly defeated. But he wasn't finished. Von Trotha issued a proclamation of his intentions for the Herero people who remained (as well as any who might wish to reestablish themselves in Southwest Africa):

The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and plundered.... Now, out of cowardice, they want to give up the fight.... The Herero nation must leave the country. If it will not do so I shall compel it by force. Inside German territory every Herero tribesman, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. No women and children will be allowed in the territory: they will be driven back to their people or fired on. These are the last words to the Herero nation from me, the great General of the mighty German Emperor.
The German government disagreed with the intended course of action, but he only slightly changed his orders to subject all parts of the nation to "stern treatment" as long as he is in command. He claimed that his knowledge of the "Negro" showed him that negotiations would be "quite pointless" and that they only respond to "brute force." He then ordered all recently captured warriors court-martialed and hanged, and the women and children driven back into the wilderness. In early November, a group of Herero was offered to come and surrender. Almost all 70 who showed up were killed.

Approximately 80% of the Herero tribe was wiped out during the short war. Of the 14,000 Germans who took part, only 1,500 died.

Chilling parallels
Far from over, the genocide continued. And continued in ways that are frighteningly reminiscent of later atrocities.

In December, the Emperor had von Trotha (with the help of the missions) begin to construct concentration camps for the survivors and large amount of prisoners taken. Already during the war, Hereros and other tribal peoples were put into work groups (slave labor) to help construct the railroad. A description of the conditions from a Herero headman:

We were not paid for our work.... I was a kind of foreman over the labourers. I had 528 people, all Hereros, in my work party. Of these 148 died while working on the line. The Herero women were compounded with the men. They were made to do manual labor as well.... They were compelled to cohabit with soldiers and with railway labourers. The fact a woman was married was no protection. Young girls were raped and very badly used. They were taken out of the compounds into the bush and there assaulted. I don't think any of them escaped this, except the older ones.
Into the 1905, Hereros were rounded up and imprisoned in the camps (some with the help of a missionary society). Just in January, as many as 20,000 of the survivors were taken.

Further, that year, German geneticist Eugen Fischer and others conducted "studies" that determined the inferiority of the African races and warned of any "race-mixing" between the colonists and the tribal peoples. He even wrote a book explaining his theories and the "evidence" he found there. In 1907, using surrendered Nama prisoners of war, he had three decapitated and used the photographs taken of them to provide "evidence" of German racial superiority. It shouldn't be hard to see how that line of thinking can play out.

Conditions in the camps were, as one would expect, terrible. Forced labor, disease, and more policies of "comfort women." The Herero "prisoners of war" (remember, a good proportion were women and children) were told that the current punishment and suffering was entirely their own fault. They were told that any still at large who came and surrendered would be guaranteed "fair treatment." This, of course, meant "cooperation with the system of forced labour the Germans had established at the heart of the camp system."

An eyewitness named Hugo Fraser describes a camp:

There must have been about 600 men, women and children prisoners. They were in an enclosure on the beach, fenced in with barbed wire. The women were made to do hard labour like the men. [describes the women having to pull carts of goods through the sand like "draught animals"] Many were half-starved and weak, and died of sheer exhaustion. those who did not work well were brutally flogged with sjamboks. I even saw women knocked down with pick handles.... I personally saw six women murdered by German soldiers. They were ripped open with bayonets.... I was there for six months, and the Hereros died daily in large numbers as a result of exhaustion, ill-treatment and exposure.
It is estimated that between 1905 and 1908 (when the camps are finally closed) at least 2,500 prisoners died. Since there seem to be no records, it is difficult to know for sure the toll on the Herero people that remained.

Fischer later became chancellor of the University of Berlin where he taught medicine. Josef Mengele was one of his students. (It may be too simplistic to suggest a cause-effect here but it seems impossible not to make a note of it.)

(Sources:, quotes taken from there;, a military gaming site, but a nicely researched article;;;

*This is not to make light of or dismiss the horrors of the Armenian genocide or any other, for that matter—making contests out of whose genocide is worse or more unique or that there can be only one holocaust is not only self-defeating and petty but insulting to the memories of all who died and/or suffered. Every genocide has matters about it that in some way makes it "worse" or "unique" to other ones on some level—but it is the all too sad and depressing similarities of such things that should be exposed and remembered in order to find ways to avoid such dark blots on the history of mankind.

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