Most have never heard of the Namibian Genocide. That is no accident. For the past hundred years, Germany has refused to recognize that it even took place. But last week, the country officially acknowledged committing the genocide and announced its aid package of $1.34 billion for Namibia.
Between 1904 and 1907, the Herero and Nama people were systematically murdered by the Germans in Namibia in a genocide that resulted in over 80,000 deaths. This event would be the precursor to the Holocaust.
The concentration camps used in the genocide of the Herero were later used by the Third Reich in the Holocaust. This is one of the clearest ways that the events of the Herero genocide prefigure what happened in the Holocaust. During the Herero genocide, the Germans figured out what methods were most effective at systematically killing people. They were able to use the model of these concentration camps on Jews during WWII, shown by the fact that the Herero prisoners were given minimal rations, no medical treatment, forced into hard labor, and beaten daily; all tactics used in Holocaust concentration camps.
Colonial propaganda was also used to build popular support for the Herero genocide. There were novels and other forms of literature filled with heroic tales of the German soldiers that praised them for killing not only adversaries but unarmed women, children, and elderly as well. Propaganda is another key part of colonialism. It is how the leadership of the parent country keeps the support of the people for the country’s conquests. By spinning any and all of the country’s actions, regardless of how atrocious, into something positive, colonizers never have to worry about being held accountable or rebelled against by their own people. This allows them to commit deeds such as genocide, as shown through the Herero.
The propaganda present during the Herero genocide is also a hint of what’s to come during the Holocaust. Much of that propaganda fed into Nazi ideology. Precursors to the art and stories depicting Jews as animals and less than human can be found among the imagery produced about the Herero. Just as in colonialism, that message allowed Hitler to control public opinion and keep popular support for his genocide.
One account from a survivor tells of how men, women, and children were all rounded up and corralled into an enclosure before being burnt to death. Upon reading this, I was immediately reminded of the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne, a small town in Poland, during WWII. At that massacre, over 1000 innocent people were rounded up one night, forced into a barn, and set on fire. It is clear how the mentality that certain populations were not worth as much as others contributed to allowing people to commit these heinous acts.
With all these similarities, one might wonder at the stark differences in Germany’s treatment of both genocides. Germnay one of the leading countries in the world for addressing the history of the Holocaust. Yet, they did not even admit to the Namibian genocide taking place until last week.
I believe that race played a role in Germany’s response to the genocide in Namibia. Because of the mentality of white Europeans at the time that black people were less than and didn’t deserve human rights, as shown by the fact that they divided up Africa as if it was uninhabited at the Berlin Conference without any representatives from Africa there, I think the Germans didn’t consider the genocide of the Herero something that needed to be addressed. Colonialism such as was present at the Berlin Conference can have serious consequences.
However, at least one positive is that Germany has finally admitted the existence of the genocide and is beginning to take steps to make amends. Whether it is enough to make up for the destruction of the Herero and Nama people remains to be seen.