The Forgotten First Genocide of the 20th Century

It's one of Germany's most horrific extermination campaigns, and chances are you've never heard of it.


*Trigger Warning: Post contains information relating to physical and sexual violence*

The forgotten Namibian holocaust of Herero and Nama ethnic group
"The Forgotten Genocide" by Raymond June licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The first holocaust


When you think “holocaust” what comes to mind? I’m willing to bet you instantly think of the Jewish concentration camps under the Hitler regime. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that holocaust was not the first one orchestrated by the German government.


In fact, the original holocaust, the one that occurred between 1904 and 1908 against the Herero and Nama people of present-day Namibia, formed the framework for what would later be carried out in Nazi Germany in the early 1940s. The methods employed in the two massacres were the same: mass exterminations, rape, stolen land and livelihoods, forced labour death camps, starvation, and racist medical experiments (in the Namibian case, women were forced to boil the decapitated heads of their people, remove the flesh, and the human skulls were then packed and sent off to museums and universities in Germany for "scientific" research).


Namibia, then called South-West Africa, was controlled by the Germans from 1884 to 1914 when it was then overtaken by the oppressive Apartheid government of South Africa for another 76 years before finally gaining independence in 1990. German colonizers seeking land for settlers targeted the Herero and the Nama ethnic group, the two most powerful land-owning groups in the country at the time, with the sole mandate to seize the land and assume control of livestock and resources. A general named Lothar Von Throta issued an extermination proclamation in 1904 stating that:


“The Herero are no longer German subjects. The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them.”

General lothar von throta and his colonizing crew
Lothar Von Throta with fellow colonizers. CC image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

When the Herero and Nama people rebelled against their German oppressors in an attempt to reclaim their land and dignity, the Germans slaughtered an estimated 20,000 Nama and 80,000 Hereros.


Hendrik Witbooi, a Nama chief and one of the revolutionary warriors killed in the genocide.
Hendrik Witbooi, a Nama chief and one of the revolutionary warriors killed in the genocide. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Those who managed to escape this initial slaughter were forced into exile in neighbouring countries or pushed into the Namib Desert where they died of starvation and dehydration. Survivors (mostly women and children) were herded onto Shark Island, the site of Germany's first death camp, where they were raped by German troops and eventually died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion.


According to historians, by the end of 1908:


"the genocide resulted in the annihilation of approximately 80 percent of the Herero people and 50 percent of the Nama people.”

With their human obstacles finally removed, the colonial administration was then free to parcel out the land and sell it to German settlers.


The double standard of genocide


There are three glaring differences between the two holocausts. The first is of course geographic; one was committed on African soil, the other in Europe.


The second is the disproportionate level of awareness around the two atrocities. While the Jewish holocaust has been the subject of widespread education campaigns and the horror of Hitler’s persecution is well-documented in movies, documentaries, literature, and school textbooks, the Namibian holocaust has more or less faded into the margins of history. I didn’t learn about the Namibian genocide until about a year ago when I came across a documentary on YouTube.


The third glaring difference between the two ethnic cleansing campaigns is that Germany has atoned for and offered reparations to the Jewish community but has yet to do the same for the Herero and Nama community.


The first step towards healing is to stop a bleed and the only way to stop a bleed is with acknowledgment of a wound. It has taken Germany 100 years to acknowledge an injury it inflicted.


For years, the German government declined to recognize the mass slaughter of Namibians as a genocide, because the term “genocide” wasn’t created until the mid 1900s after the Jewish Holocaust. But does a nameless crime make it any less a crime?


In comparison, Germany acknowledged the Jewish holocaust way sooner than it did the Namibian one which occurred decades earlier. In fact, discussions around Jewish reparations were underway five years after the Nazi holocaust. And since 1952, the German government has paid out over 80 billion dollars in reparations to Jews around the world, their spouses, and even allies (non-Jews who helped protect Jews). Just last year, the German government doled out another $662 million to help holocaust survivors through the pandemic.


The recompense extended to the Jewish community is justified. The issue is that the same recognition is not paid to a similar crime. There seems to be this idea (especially around discussions of slavery reparations in the U.S.) that because something happened “a long time ago” it can’t possibly have any bearing or impact on the present. There’s something inherently sadistic about telling a people who’ve persevered through unimaginable trauma to just “get over it.” Several studies have shown that trauma is transferrable; it lives in our blood and is passed down through generations.


The length of time between the Namibian holocaust and the Jewish one is about 30 years. That’s only one generation. And although more people died in the Jewish concentration camps, the Namibian massacre nearly wiped out the entire Herero and Nama population, and the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide is clear that a targeted mass extermination campaign is genocide, regardless of body count. The last thing we need is genocide geometry over the loss of life.


PR stunt or a road to amends?


Since 2015, the German government has been in negotiations with the Namibian government over how to address the genocide. Representatives from the Herero and Nama community have filed lawsuits against Germany for lack of progress in talks, which have been rejected by U.S. courts.


Last month, Germany formally apologized for the Namibian genocide and pledged a 1.3 billion-dollar commitment over 30 years to fund infrastructure projects in Namibia. Though the Namibian government welcomed the deal, some Herero and Nama leaders have expressed outrage over the move, calling it an “aid program” and yet another tactic to avoid paying reparations.


Several representatives from the Herero and Nama community also insist that Germany primarily negotiated with the Namibian government which is dominated by a different ethnic group that wasn’t affected by the genocide; the concern being that financial compensation would mostly go to communities that aren’t owed reparations. Some have suggested that Germany has continued dancing around reparations demands to avoid being held liable under the UN Genocide Convention and paying reparations could open the floodgates to financial claims from other former colonies.


The legacy of the past


Although the survivors of the Namibian holocaust have been laid to rest by now, the consequences of the colonial violence they endured persist in the present.


Today, around 70 percent of farmland in Namibia is owned and controlled by the minority white population of German descent, who make up only 7 percent of the population. Although the Namibian government has sought to redistribute stolen land, social equality is still closer to fantasy than reality.


The genocide also turned the two largest and most powerful self-sustaining ethnic groups in the country to the two smallest and most marginalized populations in Namibia today, steeped in poverty and deprived of basic social services. Many descendants of the genocide have also lost any sort of connection to their land, ancestors, culture, identity, and language.


After a century, Germany finally returned some stolen body parts of those killed in the genocide, but German museums still have tens of thousands of human remains of slaughtered Namibians on showcase. Not only is this incredibly dehumanizing and deeply insensitive, it’s also immensely exploitative because it means Germany still continues to profit from a people's pain and trauma.


The legacy of colonialism is enduring. For the indigenous people of Namibia, like most indigenous communities around the world who have never traditionally viewed land as something that can be owned or controlled and rather belongs to all – the effects of settler violence are still being felt today.