The Herero were originally a group of cattle herders living in the central-eastern region of German South West Africa, presently modern Namibia. The area occupied by the Herero was known as Damaraland. The Nama were pastorals and traders living to the South of the Herero.
In 1883, during the scramble for Africa, Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz purchased a stretch of coast near the Angra Pequena bay from the reigning chief. The terms of the purchase were fraudulent, but the German government nonetheless established a protectorate over it. At that time, it was the only overseas German territory deemed suitable for white settlement.
Chief of the neighbouring Herero, Kamaharero rose to power by uniting all the Herero. Faced with repeated attacks by the Khowesin, a subtribe of the Khoikhoi under Hendrik Witbooi, he signed a protection treaty on 21 October 1885 with Imperial Germany's colonial governor Heinrich Ernst Göring (father of Nazi Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring) but did not cede the land of the Herero. This treaty was renounced in 1888 due to lack of German support against Witbooi but it was reinstated in 1890.
The Herero leaders repeatedly complained about violation of this treaty, as Herero women and girls were raped by Germans, a crime that the German authorities were reluctant to punish.
In 1890 Kamaharero's son, Samuel, signed a great deal of land over to the Germans in return for helping him to ascend to the Ovaherero throne, and to subsequently be established as paramount chief. German involvement in tribal fighting ended in tenuous peace in 1894. In that year, Theodor Leutwein became governor of the territory, which underwent a period of rapid development, while the German government sent the Schutztruppe (imperial colonial troops) to pacify the region.
Under German colonial rule, natives were routinely used as slave labourers, and their lands were frequently confiscated and given to colonists, who were encouraged to settle on land taken from the natives; that land was stocked with cattle stolen from the Herero and Namas, causing a great deal of resentment. Over the next decade, the land and the cattle that were essential to Herero and Nama lifestyles passed into the hands of German settlers arriving in South West Africa.
In 1903, some of the Nama tribes rose in revolt under the leadership of Hendrik Witbooi. A number of factors led the Herero to join them in January 1904.
One of the major issues was land rights. The Herero had already ceded over a quarter of their 130,000 square kilometres (50,000 sq mi) to German colonists by 1903, before the Otavi railway line running from the African coast to inland German settlements was completed. Completion of this line would have made the German colonies much more accessible and would have ushered a new wave of Europeans into the area.
Historian Horst Drechsler states that there was discussion of the possibility of establishing and placing the Herero in native reserves and that this was further proof of the German colonists' sense of ownership over the land. Drechsler illustrates the gap between the rights of a European and an African; the German Colonial League held that, in regards to legal matters, the testimony of seven Africans was equivalent to that of a colonist. Bridgman writes about racial tensions underlying these developments; the average German colonist viewed native Africans as a lowly source of cheap labour, and others welcomed their extermination.
A new policy on debt collection, enforced in November 1903, also played a role in the uprising. For many years, the Herero population had fallen in the habit of borrowing money from colonist traders at extreme interest rates. For a long time, much of this debt went uncollected and accumulated, as most Herero had no means to pay. To correct this growing problem, Governor Leutwein decreed with good intentions that all debts not paid within the next year would be voided. In the absence of hard cash, traders often seized cattle, or whatever objects of value they could get their hands on, to recoup their loans as quickly as possible. This fostered a feeling of resentment towards the Germans on the part of the Herero people, which escalated to hopelessness when they saw that German officials were sympathetic to the traders who were about to lose what they were owed.
In 1903 the Herero learned of a plan to divide their territory with a railway line and set up reservations where they would be concentrated; this was also one of the reasons for the revolt.
The Herero judged the situation intolerable, and revolted in early 1904, killing between 123 and 150 Germans, including seven Boers and three women, in what Nils Ole Oermann calls a "desperate surprise attack".
The timing of their attack was carefully planned. After successfully asking a large Herero tribe to surrender their weapons, Governor Leutwein was convinced that they and the rest of the native population were essentially pacified and so withdrew half of the German troops stationed in his colony. Led by Chief Samuel Maharero, the Herero surrounded Okahandja and cut links to Windhoek, the colonial capital. Maharero then issued a manifesto in which he forbade his troops to kill any Englishmen, Boers, uninvolved tribes, women and children in general, or German missionaries.
Leutwein was forced to request reinforcements and an experienced officer from the German government in Berlin. Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha was appointed Supreme Commander (German: Oberbefehlshaber) of South West Africa on 3 May 1904, arriving with an expeditionary force of 14,000 troops on 11 June.
Leutwein was subordinate to the Colonial Department of the Prussian Foreign Office, which reported to Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow while General Trotha reported to the military German General Staff, which was only subordinate to Emperor Wilhelm II.
Leutwein wanted to defeat the most determined Herero rebels and negotiate a surrender with the remainder to achieve a political settlement. Trotha, however, planned to crush the native resistance through military force. He stated that:
My intimate knowledge of many central African tribes (Bantu and others) has everywhere convinced me of the necessity that the Negro does not respect treaties but only brute force.
General Trotha stated his proposed solution to end the resistance of the Herero people in a letter, before the Battle of Waterberg:
I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country ... This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of this nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.
Trotha's troops defeated 3,000–5,000 Herero combatants at the Battle of Waterberg on 11–12 August 1904 but were unable to encircle and annihilate the retreating survivors.
The pursuing German forces prevented groups of Herero from breaking from the main body of the fleeing force and pushed them further into the desert. As exhausted Herero fell to the ground, unable to go on, German soldiers acting on orders killed men, women, and children. Jan Cloete, acting as a guide for the Germans, witnessed the atrocities committed by the German troops and deposed the following statement:
I was present when the Herero were defeated in a battle in the vicinity of Waterberg. After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle.
A portion of the Herero escaped the Germans and went to the Omaheke Desert, hoping to reach British territory of Bechuanaland; fewer than 1,000 reached Bechuanaland, where they were granted asylum. To prevent them from returning, Trotha ordered the desert to be sealed off. German patrols later found skeletons around holes 13 metres (43 ft) deep that had been dug in a vain attempt to find water. Some sources also state that the German colonial army systematically poisoned desert water wells. Maherero and 500–1,500 men crossed the Kalahari into Bechuanaland where he was accepted as a vassal of the Batswana chief Sekgoma.
On 2 October, Trotha issued a warning to the Herero :
I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero. The Herero are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off the ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and now are too cowardly to want to fight any longer. I announce to the people that whoever hands me one of the chiefs shall receive 1,000 marks, and 5,000 marks for Samuel Maherero. The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the 'long tube' (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.
He further gave orders that:
This proclamation is to be read to the troops at roll-call, with the addition that the unit that catches a captain will also receive the appropriate reward, and that the shooting at women and children is to be understood as shooting above their heads, so as to force them to run [away]. I assume absolutely that this proclamation will result in taking no more male prisoners, but will not degenerate into atrocities against women and children. The latter will run away if one shoots at them a couple of times. The troops will remain conscious of the good reputation of the German soldier.
Trotha gave orders that captured Herero males were to be executed, while women and children were to be driven into the desert where their death from starvation and thirst was to be certain; Trotha argued that there was no need to make exceptions for Herero women and children, since these would "infect German troops with their diseases", the insurrection Trotha explained "is and remains the beginning of a racial struggle". Regardless, German soldiers regularly raped young Herero women before killing them or letting them die in the desert. After the war, Trotha argued that his orders were necessary, writing in 1909 that "If I had made the small water holes accessible to the womenfolk, I would run the risk of an African catastrophe comparable to the Battle of Beresonia."
The German general staff was aware of the atrocities that were taking place; its official publication, named Der Kampf, noted that:
This 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 water-hole to the next, until finally he became the victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke [desert] was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.
Alfred von Schlieffen (Chief of the Imperial German General Staff) approved of Trotha's intentions in terms of a "racial struggle" and the need to "wipe out the entire nation or to drive them out of the country", but had doubts about his strategy, preferring their surrender.
Governor Leutwein, later relieved of his duties, complained to Chancellor von Bülow about Trotha's actions, seeing the general's orders as intruding upon the civilian colonial jurisdiction and ruining any chance of a political settlement. According to Professor Mahmood Mamdani from Columbia University, opposition to the policy of annihilation was largely the consequence of the fact that colonial officials looked at the Herero people as a potential source of labour, and thus economically important. For instance, Governor Leutwein wrote that:
I do not concur with those fanatics who want to see the Herero destroyed altogether ... I would consider such a move a grave mistake from an economic point of view. We need the Herero as cattle breeders ... and especially as labourers.
Having no authority over the military, Chancellor Bülow could only advise Emperor Wilhelm II that Trotha's actions were "contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle, economically devastating and damaging to Germany's international reputation." Upon the arrival of new orders at the end of 1904, prisoners were herded into concentration camps, where they were given to private companies as slave labourers or exploited as human guinea pigs in medical experiments.
Survivors of the massacre, the majority of whom were women and children, were eventually put in places like Shark Island Concentration Camp, where the German authorities forced them to work as slave labour for German military and settlers. All prisoners were categorised into groups fit and unfit for work, and pre-printed death certificates indicating "death by exhaustion following privation" were issued. The British government published their well-known account of the German genocide of the Nama and Herero peoples in 1918.
Many Herero died later of disease, exhaustion, and malnutrition. Estimates of the mortality rate at the camps are between 45% and 74%.
Food in the camps was extremely scarce, consisting of rice with no additions. As the prisoners lacked pots and the rice they received was uncooked, it was indigestible; horses and oxen that died in the camp were later distributed to the inmates as food. Dysentery and lung diseases were common. Despite those conditions, the Herero were taken outside the camp every day for labour under harsh treatment by the German guards, while the sick were left without any medical assistance or nursing care.
Shootings, hangings, beatings, and other harsh treatment of the forced labourers (including use of sjamboks) were common. A 28 September 1905 article in the South African newspaper Cape Argus detailed some of the abuse with the heading: "In German S. W. Africa: Further Startling Allegations: Horrible Cruelty". In an interview with Percival Griffith, "an accountant of profession, who owing to hard times, took up on transport work at Angra Pequena, Lüderitz", related his experiences.
There are hundreds of them, mostly women and children and a few old men ... when they fall they are sjamboked by the soldiers in charge of the gang, with full force, until they get up ... On one occasion I saw a woman carrying a child of under a year old slung at her back, and with a heavy sack of grain on her head ... she fell. The corporal sjamboked her for certainly more than four minutes and sjamboked the baby as well ... the woman struggled slowly to her feet, and went on with her load. She did not utter a sound the whole time, but the baby cried very hard.
During the war, a number of people from the Cape (in modern-day South Africa) sought employment as transport riders for German troops in Namibia. Upon their return to the Cape, some of these people recounted their stories, including those of the imprisonment and genocide of the Herero and Nama people. Fred Cornell, a British aspirant diamond prospector, was in Lüderitz when the Shark Island concentration camp was being used. Cornell wrote of the camp:
Cold - for the nights are often bitterly cold there - hunger, thirst, exposure, disease and madness claimed scores of victims every day, and cartloads of their bodies were every day carted over to the back beach, buried in a few inches of sand at low tide, and as the tide came in the bodies went out, food for the sharks.
Shark Island was the worst of the German South West African camps. Lüderitz lies in southern Namibia, flanked by desert and ocean. In the harbour lies Shark Island, which then was connected to the mainland only by a small causeway. The island is now, as it was then, barren and characterised by solid rock carved into surreal formations by the hard ocean winds. The camp was placed on the far end of the relatively small island, where the prisoners would have suffered complete exposure to the strong winds that sweep Lüderitz for most of the year.
German Commander Von Estorff wrote in a report that approximately 1700 prisoners (including 1203 Nama) had died by April 1907. In December 1906, four months after their arrival, 291 Nama died (a rate of more than nine people per day). Missionary reports put the death rate at 12–18 per day; as many as 80% of the prisoners sent to Shark Island eventually died there.
There are accusations of Herero women being coerced into sex slavery as a means of survival.
Trotha was opposed to contact between natives and settlers, believing that the insurrection was "the beginning of a racial struggle" and fearing that the colonists would be infected by native diseases.
Benjamin Madley argues that although Shark Island is referred to as a concentration camp, it functioned as an extermination camp or death camp.
Prisoners were used for medical experiments and their illness or recoveries was used for research.
Experiments on live prisoners were made by Dr Bofinger, who injected Herero that were suffering from scurvy with various substances including arsenic and opium; afterwards he researched the effects of these substances via autopsy.
Experimentation with dead body parts of the prisoners was rife. Zoologist Leopard Schultze noted taking "body parts from fresh native corpses" for which was according to him a "welcome addition", and that he could use prisoners for that purpose.
An estimated 300 skulls were sent to Germany for experimentation, in part from concentration camp prisoners. In October 2011, after 3 years of talks, the first 20 of an estimated 300 skulls stored in the museum of the Charité were returned to Namibia for burial. In 2014, 14 additional skulls were repatriated by the University of Freiburg.
A census performed in 1905 revealed that 25,000 Herero remained in German South West Africa.
According to the Whitaker Report, the population of 80,000 Herero was reduced to 15,000 "starving refugees" between 1904 and 1907. In Colonial Genocide and Reparations Claims in the 21st Century: The Socio-Legal Context of Claims under International Law by the Herero against Germany for Genocide in Namibia by Jeremy Sarkin-Hughes, a number of 100,000 victims is given. German author Walter Nuhn states that in 1904 only 40,000 Herero lived in German South West Africa, and therefore "only 24,000" could have been killed.
Newspapers reported 65,000 victims when announcing that Germany recognized the genocide in 2004.
With the closure of concentration camps, all surviving Herero were distributed as labourers for settlers in the German colony. From that time on, all Herero over the age of seven were forced to wear a metal disc with their labour registration number, and banned from owning land or cattle, a necessity for pastoral society.
About 19,000 German troops were engaged in the conflict, of which 3,000 saw combat. The rest were used for upkeep and administration. The German losses were 676 soldiers killed in combat, 76 missing, and 689 dead from disease. The Reiterdenkmal (English: Equestrian Monument) in Windhoek was erected in 1912 to celebrate the victory and to remember the fallen Germans with no mention of the killed indigenous population. It remains a bone of contention in independent Namibia.
The campaign had cost Germany 600 million marks. The normal annual subsidy to the colony was 14.5 million marks. In 1908, diamonds were discovered in the territory, and this did much to boost its prosperity, though it was short-lived.
In 1915, at the start of World War I, the German colony was taken over and occupied in the South West Africa Campaign by the Union of South Africa, acting on behalf of the British Imperial Government. South Africa received a League of Nations Mandate over South West Africa in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1985, the United Nations' Whitaker Report classified the massacres as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of South West Africa, and therefore one of the earliest cases of genocide in the 20th century.
In 1998, German President Roman Herzog visited Namibia and met Herero leaders. Chief Munjuku Nguvauva demanded a public apology and compensation. Herzog expressed regret but stopped short of an apology. He pointed out that international law requiring reparation did not exist in 1907, but he undertook to take the Herero petition back to the German government.
The Herero filed a lawsuit in the United States in 2001 demanding reparations from the German government and Deutsche Bank, which financed the German government and companies in Southern Africa. With a complaint filed with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in January 2017, descendants of the Herero and Nama people sued Germany for damages in the United States. The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 U.S. law often invoked in human rights cases. Their proposed class-action lawsuit sought unspecified sums for thousands of descendants of the victims, for the "incalculable damages" that were caused.
On 16 August 2004, at the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide, a member of the German government, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany's Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation, officially apologised and expressed grief about the genocide, declaring in a speech that:
We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time.
She ruled out paying special compensations, but promised continued economic aid for Namibia which currently amounts to $14M a year.
The Trotha family travelled to Omaruru in October 2007 by invitation of the royal Herero chiefs and publicly apologised for the actions of their relative. Wolf-Thilo von Trotha said,
We, the von Trotha family, are deeply ashamed of the terrible events that took place 100 years ago. Human rights were grossly abused that time.
Peter Katjavivi, a former Namibian ambassador to Germany, demanded in August 2008 that the skulls of Herero and Nama prisoners of the 1904–08 uprising, which were taken to Germany for scientific research to "prove" the superiority of white Europeans over Africans, be returned to Namibia. Katjavivi was reacting to a German television documentary which reported that its investigators had found over 40 of these skulls at two German universities, among them probably the skull of a Nama chief who had died on Shark Island near Lüderitz. In September 2011 the skulls were returned to Namibia.A BBC Documentary Namibia - Genocide & the second reich explores the Herero/Nama genocide and the circumstances surrounding it.
In the documentary 100 Years of Silence on YouTube, filmmakers Halfdan Muurholm and Casper Erichsen portray a 23-year-old Herero woman, who is aware of the fact that her great-grandmother was raped by a German soldier. The documentary explores the past and the way Namibia deals with it now.
Mama Namibia, a historical novel by Mari Serebrov, provides two perspectives of the 1904 genocide in German South West Africa. The first is that of Jahohora, a 12-year-old Herero girl who survives on her own in the veld for two years after her family is killed by German soldiers. The second story in Mama Namibia is that of Kov, a Jewish doctor who volunteered to serve in the German military to prove his patriotism. As he witnesses the atrocities of the genocide, he rethinks his loyalty to the Fatherland.
Thomas Pynchon's novel V. (1963) had a chapter set in Shark Island Concentration Camp in 1904.
Jackie Sibblies Drury's play, We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, is about a group of actors developing a play about the Herero and Nama Genocide.
The Herero genocide has commanded the attention of historians who study complex issues of continuity between the Herero genocide and the Holocaust. It is argued that the Herero genocide set a precedent in Imperial Germany that would later be followed by Nazi Germany's establishment of death camps.
According to Benjamin Madley, the German experience in South West Africa was a crucial precursor to Nazi colonialism and genocide. He argues that personal connections, literature, and public debates served as conduits for communicating colonialist and genocidal ideas and methods from the colony to Germany. Tony Barta, an honorary research associate at La Trobe University, argues that the Herero genocide was an inspiration for Hitler in his war against the Jews.
According to Clarence Lusane, Eugen Fischer's medical experiments can be seen as a testing ground for later medical procedures used during the Nazi Holocaust. Fischer later became chancellor of the University of Berlin, where he taught medicine to Nazi physicians. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer was a student of Fischer, Verschuer himself had a prominent pupil, Josef Mengele. Franz Ritter von Epp, who was later responsible for the liquidation of virtually all Bavarian Jews and Roma as governor of Bavaria, took part in the Herero genocide as well.
Mahmood Mamdani argues that the links between the Holocaust and the Herero genocide are beyond the execution of an annihilation policy and the establishment of concentration camps and that there are ideological similarities in the conduct of both genocides. Focusing on a written statement by General Trotha translated as:
I destroy the African tribes with streams of blood ... Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain.
Mamdani takes note of the similarity between the aims of the General and the Nazis. According to Mamdani in both cases there was a Social Darwinist notion of "cleansing", after which "something new" would "emerge".