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Research Paper: Applying and Evaluating ‘The Model’ in the Herero-German South-West Africa Case


Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeus, the German Commissioner for Reconstruction and Economic Cooperation, said these comments on August 14, 2004, in Omaha Kari, Namibia, as she publicly apologized for the horrors done a century ago by German imperial soldiers. The German government officially acknowledged the genocidal warfare carried out by the Schutztruppe in German South-West Africa, during which the German occupation army deliberately murdered people of Herero and Nama men, women, and children, allowed even more to die of thirst in the Omaheke desert, and murdered thousands more through deliberate neglect in concentration camps. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first and only confession by a high-ranking official of the administration of a former colonial state for colonial atrocities that refers to genocide as a justification. This admission of historical guilt and the use of the term genocide not only transformed the nature of memory in Germany but may also be seen as a watershed moment in the history of dealing with mass murders in the colonial setting.


As defined by the International Criminal Court, genocide is the purposeful death of a significant number of people, particularly those belonging to a specific ethnic group or nation. (From a dictionary) The Germans massacred the Herero, an indigenous African herders’ clan that lived in the Andes at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1600s, the Herero people migrated to Southwest Africa, where they settled in present-day Namibia. Later, there was a “race for Africa” throughout the nineteenth century, when European powers began conquering and imperializing African countries. As a result of the Berlin Conference, European countries joined together to partition Africa, awarding Germany a portion of Southwest Africa, home to the Herero ethnic group. Like the other European countries, Germany benefited from its African colonial possessions to raise its national renown. As the Germans advanced into Southwest Africa, they established their influence over the continent by seizing control of its economic and social life. As tensions between the Herero and the Germans grew, the Herero people rose in resistance. After this, the German soldiers invaded and massacred the Herero people. From an estimated 80,000 people in 1904, the Herero population plunged to a staggering 14,000 people by the end of the insurrection and genocide in 1911. (Perez No. 2) Several factors contributed to the Herero insurrection and genocide that happened between 1903 and 1908. These factors were German colonialism in Southwest Africa, racism towards the Herero people, and Germany’s use of the military to consolidate national authority.


Throughout history, the war has been referred to by a variety of names. To include both the Herero and the Nama, new post-colonial and post-independent perspectives demand that either the Herero or the Nama be named first. Or that we use the plural ‘wars’ to indicate that the fighting between the Herero and the German army and the conflict between the Nama and the German military is being referred to. I use the single form in the same way that one would use the phrase World War to refer to a succession of discrete yet inextricably intertwined wars in the past. But the Eurocentric terminology for rebellion, uprising, insurrection, and revolt must be finally and definitively retired from the lexicon. These serve to promote the colonial point of view. To criminalize the Africans’ struggle, the implicitly made — yet fundamental — premise underlying such labelling is to imply that German colonial control was legal and that Kaiser Wilhelm II was the rightful sovereign against whom the Herero illegitimately rose. As a result, the Herero are placed in the role of criminals and lawbreakers.

Even though this was and continues to be the colonialists’ point of view, it is not an unbiased one, and it is certainly not the point of view of the Herero and Nama people. Despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary, Herero and Nama leaders in the early days of colonization perceived the Germans as a partner and friends in their wars and struggles rather than as their sovereigns. The language we use moulds our vision, and by using phrases such as revolt, we can maintain the colonial notion that Europeans are the legitimate rulers of the globe. Therefore, the terms “rebellion” and “uprising” should be avoided, and the conflict should be referred to as what it was: war and genocide. The competition is generally seen as extending from 1904 to 1907 in much of the literature. As a result, I choose to take 1908 as the date of the war’s conclusion because it was then that the concentration camps were closed and the vast majority of captives were liberated. Some historians prefer 1962 as when the last Nama returned from exile in other colonies or at least the last of the survivors.

It is no coincidence that a German politician gave the first official apology for genocide in a former colony in a country that was once part of Germany. It would not have been possible to accept historical responsibility in such a grave matter because colonial mass atrocities had not been for the Holocaust and a specific German popular culture of Holocaust remembrance, resulting in a more distanced and critical relationship to the German national past as a whole. The instance of the Herero demonstrates that recognizing a colonial genocide – or any genocide, for that matter – does not automatically imply apologia for the Holocaust, nor does it minimize German guilt and blame for the Holocaust. Public admission that Nazi Germany existed before the Third Reich disproves the apologetic notion that Hitler and his racist Third Reich were just a “freak accident in German history.” If Hitler was just a detour from a more or less good trajectory, then these 12 ‘dark years’ may easily be erased from the annals of German nationalism.

Not least because of this, the argument regarding the Herero and Nama massacres has taken on more relevance, and as a consequence, Omaha Kari 2004 has been compared to Willy Brandt’s historic knee-bending ceremony in Warsaw, which was held in memory of the victims of German atrocities. Apart from that, Wieczorek-statement Zeul’s establishes a precedent with which future governments, descendants of previous victims, and descendants of offenders will have to grapple in the future. Not least because of this, the Herero case is being widely followed throughout the world. Furthermore, this example serves as a lens to see the numerous difficulties associated with investigating and writing about colonial atrocities. Analyzing the Herero and Nama genocides and the history of colonial genocide, in general, necessitates a consideration of the historiography of colonial genocide. Because I have been personally involved in the argument for more than a decade, this historiographical exercise proved to be a little problematic for me.

The Nama People in 1904

The rise of the Nama people in southern Namibia on October 4, 1904, was a watershed moment in the region’s history; This was most likely sparked by watching the Herero’s ignominious end in front of them. The numerous Nama factions avoided large-scale combat and held out for far more extended periods than the Hereto. General von Trotha replied by extending his genocidal repression policy to include this region, expressly invoking the HereTO experience in his declaration to the Nama. Larger Nama tribes surrendered after Hendrik Witbooi, an octogenarian, was killed in combat more than a year after the beginning of the uprising; nevertheless, smaller Nama groups continued to fight until as late as 1908. Those who surrendered to the Germans experienced a fate comparable to the Herero, who survived the war. All of these people were taken into custody and interned in detention camps. Regardless of the assurances made to Nama communities in an attempt to compel their surrender, the Nama were deported to concentration camps and recruited into forced labour in the camps. Located primarily on the two harbour cities of Swakopmund and Liideritz, in a chilly and damp climate, these concentration camps housed thousands of people.

Thousands of captives perished due to simple negligence or the effort of forced labour since they were unaccustomed to these surroundings. They were underfed, ill-dotted, and poorly furnished. Groups of Nama were moved to other German territories in Africa, including Togo and Cameroon, long after the war had been formally declared to be over. Many of these deportees perished before repatriating soon before the outbreak of World War I, which occurred in 1914. It is believed that less than 10,000 Nama survived the many types of harsh repression that took place in southern Namibia before the uprising out of a population of more than 20,000 before the rebellion. One of the most horrible aspects of this massive loss of human life is that the perpetrators appeared to take pleasure in the fact that their actions were publicized in such a way that it was almost enjoyable for them. Concentration camps were shown on picture postcards that were printed. Even if the name “Holocaust” did not have the same connotation as it did during the Nazi holocaust 40 years later, these postcards nonetheless demonstrate an abhorrent disdain for human suffering, which might be expressed as a welcome to one’s family and friends back home.

In the same way, colour illustrations of prisoners being hanged or depictions of forced labour in “native life” are presented as if they were a quasi-normal feature of the lives of “natives” – as if it were natural for Africans to be subjected to inhuman treatment and the regular application of brute force was natural for Africans to experience When it came to displaying the atrocities perpetrated, this public projection of atrocities did not shy away from depicting openly how specimens for the emerging racial science were procured: human skulls being stacked into boxes. The photograph was captioned to tell readers that the heads of Herero prisoners had been scrubbed off their flesh by Herero women using shattered glass, as seen in the illustration. It should be highlighted that such skulls constituted the foundation upon which specific academic careers in Germany were constructed. Racial science became a staple of Nazi ideology and discriminatory behavior as a result of this development. Furthermore, the first genocide of the twentieth century may be regarded as one of the most widely reported histories, regardless of the context. There were popular novels, remembrance books, and colonial propaganda literature, all of which celebrated the accomplishments of the German troops and were published in large numbers. While this account is very much in line with the sentiments expressed today in private documents from German soldiers involved in mass murder during World War II, the hardship valiantly endured and recounted in this manner included the difficult task of killing. Not only fighters but also older adults, women, children, and those unable to fight.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the experience of Namibia’s colonial slaughter finally found its way into Nazi ideology and propaganda. While the events of the colonial war were taking place, the incumbent Chancellor von BtiJow took advantage of the national hysteria that was being whipped up in Germany to engineer a grand political realignment (“BtiJow-Block”) and organize an election campaign, which is still known to history as HottentotElections.” By doing so, a centre-right majority was re-elected, ensuring the passage of the budgets necessary to continue the country’s ambition for international dominance. German exceptionalism is a third variant of the German uniqueness thesis, which is more descriptive and rhetorical than a time evolution argument. For centuries, Germany was regarded as departing from the norm or its more contemporary neighbours—from Rome in Tacitus’ time, from Britain in the 19th century, and under Presidents Bush; This is a common way to criticize political initiatives or opposition.


The German exceptionalism thesis has been widely discredited among theoretically oriented historians for, among other things, idealizing a British or western model of 19th-century development. German colonialism in Southwest Africa was more brutal and violent than modern British, French, Belgian, or U.S. colonialism. The reasons for this have partly to do with a colonial translation of the classic metropolitan tension between German middle classes and German aristocrats.


Dove, Karl (1896b): Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Ergebnisse einer wissenschaftliche Reise im südlichen Damaralande. Ergänzungsheft No. 120 zu “Petermanns Mitteilungen” Gotha.

Erffa, B. H. A., Frh. von (1905): Reise- und Kriegsbilder von Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika. Aus Briefen des am 9.April 1904 bei Onganjira gefallenen Dr. jur. Burkhart Freiherrn v. Erffa. Halle.

Furber, David Bruce (2004): “Thinking Like a Colonial State: Development for Exploitation and the Emergence of the Final Solution in the GovernmentGeneral.” Paper presented at the 14th international conference of Europeanists, Chicago, Ill.

Gewald, Jan-Bart (1998b): “Herero Annual Parades: Commemorating to Create,” in Behrend, Heike and Geide, (Ed.)Thomas Afrikaner schreiben zurück. Texte und Bilder afrikanischer Ethnographen, Köln:

Hahn, Carl Hugo (1985): Tagebücher 1837-1860 Diaries. A Missionary in Nama- and Damaraland. Part III: 1852-1855. Ed. Brigitte Lau. Windhoek.


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