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German imperialism and the African Holocaust


German troops in combat with the Herero in a painting by Richard Knötel. wikipedia.org

Imperialism, or extending a country’s power through military force, drew enormous strength from Darwin’s theory of evolution.1 Many European powers feared losing out in the struggle for existence and earnestly sought to expand their living space by colonizing far and distant places that possessed a wealth of natural resources. One such power was Germany and one place where the natives were murdered and the land plundered was German colonial Africa.

Late-nineteenth-century Germans were influenced by a number of anthropological assumptions, two of which were: (1) White supremacy (on the evolutionary ladder whites were on top and blacks at the bottom), and (2) Ratzel’s Lebensraum theory, the idea that as groups migrate there is a “struggle for space”, which results in the extermination of inferior groups.2 Such a combination had disastrous consequences as Germany colonized parts of the African continent allocated to it at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85.

German South-West Africa

It was Fischer’s work that led to the victimization and sterilization of blacks (and other groups) in the Third Reich!

The first German Rhenish missionaries began working in Southern Africa in the late 1820s and experienced significant success in evangelizing and educating their converts.3 But toward the end of the 19th century, a new ‘gospel’ was increasingly introduced to Africa. Germans, many indoctrinated in Social Darwinian ideas, colonized South West Africa (Namibia today) in the 1880s. They generally regarded the Herero people as primitive and frequently referred to them as ‘subhuman’ and ‘baboons.’ According to one missionary living at that time:

“The real cause of bitterness among the Hereros toward the Germans is without question the fact that the average German looks down upon the natives as being about on the same level as the higher primates (‘baboon’ being their favorite term for the natives) and treats them like animals. The settler holds that the native has a right to exist only in so far as he is useful to the white man. It follows that the whites value their horses and even their oxen more than they value the natives.”4
wikipedia.org Hendrik-Witbooi
Hendrik Witbooi

Many Germans also perpetrated inhumane acts toward the Herero: they progressively seized their land and cattle,5 shot people for no reason at all,6 sexually abused and raped the women,7 and because of their interest in evolutionary theory and missing links they dug up the graves of the Herero’s ancestors and stole their skulls.8 Not surprisingly, localized reactions to this from the Herero led to efforts to drive the Germans out of their land.

Some historians consider that this provocation was contrived by the German authorities to give an excuse to ‘solve’ the problem of clearing land for German settlers. The leaders that emerged in this resistance against German imperialism were themselves devout, missionary-educated Christians—e.g. Samuel Maharero and Hendrik Witbooi. Their Christian values were often very much on display in their actions in the face of barbarous European actions.

wikipedia.org Lothar-von-Trotha
General Lothar von Trotha

Eventually, General Lothar von Trotha was sent to Namibia to quash the rebellion and utterly destroy the Herero. Von Trotha made it abundantly clear that the decision to exterminate was based on a Darwinian worldview, “I destroy the African tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain,”9 and in a local newspaper von Trotha made the following comment:

“At the outset, we cannot do without the natives [i.e., hard labor]. But they finally have to melt away. Where the climate allows the white man to work, philanthropic views cannot banish Darwin’s law ‘survival of the fittest.’”10

Von Trotha and his troops didn’t even spare the native women and children. The Germans’ most effective method of annihilation was forcing the Herero into the desert and polluting the wells, causing most to die of thirst. German colonial rule succeeded in annihilating 75% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama. Before the war the Herero were 80,000 strong, and after the war only 20,000 remained. The Nama people, a southern tribe that entered the war almost a year later due to similar circumstances, were reduced from 20,000 to 10,000.11 The remaining Herero, as well as the Nama, were sent to concentration camps (e.g. Shark Island) where many more died due to abuse and hard labor.12 The body parts of these dead prisoners were used in racial studies trying to prove the inferiority of blacks. Before the skulls were sent off and sold to German universities, the female prisoners did all the horrendous preparatory work:

“In Swakopmund, female prisoners were forced to boil the severed heads of concentration camp inmates and then scrape them to the bone with shards of glass. The result of their horrific labor is seen in this German postcard from GSWA. One shudders to think of the emotional impact it would have had on these women, who were forced to scrape severed heads clean of flesh, to remove brains, scalp and eyes that could easily have belonged to friends or family members.”13

Other racial studies performed in Namibia influenced racial policy in Germany for decades to come. Eugen Fischer, a geneticist and avid eugenicist,14 was sent to Namibia for one main purpose—to evaluate the physical characteristics and intelligence of several hundred inter-racial children15 and prove that inter-racial relations would be detrimental to European culture. It was Fischer’s work that led to the victimization and sterilization of blacks (and other groups) in the Third Reich!16,17,18

German South-East Africa

The German colony in Namibia was unique in that it was a settler colony. The other German colonies in East Africa (i.e., Tanzania), Togo, and Cameroon were not propitious for rearing German families and, therefore, served as plantations for German economic growth. The prime mover for Germany in East Africa in the 1880s was Carl Peters, a man whose thinking was shaped by Schopenhauer and Darwin. Peters was especially fond of Darwin and made repeated reference to him in his writings.19 Concerning the ‘struggle for existence’ and the implication of German expansion, Peters wrote:

“Steam and electricity have built colossal bridges over which men have been moved into immediate proximity to each other. The planet already looks too small against the background of the restless roving spirit which has totally inflamed the Germanic race … The struggle for existence is more passionate than ever.”20

In East Africa, Peters acquired land three times the size of Germany—and as was the case in Namibia, the African’s only purpose for existence was to serve the European, “The negro is a born slave who needs his despot as the opium smoker needs his pipe”.21 And fellow Germans were frequently asked by Peters, “Haven’t you shot a negro yet?”22 Peters had a reputation as a moral monster. Even the natives called him—“Mkono-wa-damu,” or “man-with-blood-stained-hands.”23 Peters was known for leaving a trail of destruction wherever he went. One Danish explorer, whose expedition followed the same path as one of Peter’s expeditions, wrote:

“On every side I came on traces of war. In the neighborhood of Obangi I found even villages that had been destroyed by fire, and everywhere skeletons of men, women, and children, those of women and children being especially numerous… It was almost impossible for me to procure the necessary rice for my people, for as soon as we approached the whole populace fled panic-stricken. The natives were terrified at my white face, for the last white man they had seen was Dr. Peters.”24

Despite his disregard for blacks, Peters possessed a harem of black women. In one case, there was suspicion that one of his women had sexual relations with a young native. Peters had the young man hung and the woman was flogged daily until her back looked like a piece of chopped meat. After a failed escape attempt the woman was hung as well.25 It was this incident that caused the German government to bring charges against Peters. One day after the hearing in the Reichstag, a German newspaper commented on the Peters affair:

http://www.klausdierks.com/Chronology/71.htm Cramer-maltreatment
“[Germany] has found its Menelik in a German—in a ‘truly Teutonic man,’ an enraged ‘Aryan,’ who wishes to destroy all Jews, but, for a lack of Jews over there in Africa, shoots Negroes dead like sparrows and hangs Negro girls for his own pleasure after they have satisfied his desires.”26

The only crime of which Peters was convicted was lying to his superiors. Consequently, he only lost his position in East Africa and his pension (which was later restored to him) and his actions were justified by the highest officials, such as General von Liebert, who wrote: “It was impossible in Africa to get on without cruelty.”27

The atrocities committed on the African people were done by men who believed in racial inequality and racial extermination.

Carl Peters and his cronies committed unspeakable crimes in East Africa; including excessive flogging, chain-gang torture, and punishment by iron-hat. Regarding the latter, “A band of iron was passed round his head, and tightened by means of a vice-like screw, so as to press more especially on his temples. The agony is unspeakable.”28 In 1888, Emil von Zelewski and his men ransacked the small town of Pangani having no regard for native life. They carried off men to do manual labour, raped the local women, and shot anyone who resisted their commands.29 When a complaint was later filed regarding the rape of the native women, the Germans supposedly responded, “That’s how things are done in Europe.”30

Needless to say, such atrocities contributed to a number of uprisings by the natives. The two most significant uprisings occurred in the South—the Wahehe Rebellion (1891–1898) and the Maji Maji Rebellion (1905–1907). The Wahehe fought a long and courageous war, but finally surrendered when the leader committed suicide to avoid capture.31 In the Maji Maji (i.e., sacred water), many native groups were duped by their religious leaders into believing that German bullets would turn into water. The Germans fought ruthlessly. They torched the natives’ villages and food supply, causing a severe famine in the land. It has been estimated that the number of deaths from the Maji Maji Rebellion and its aftermath was 250,000—300,000.32

German Togo and Cameroon

The Germans not only occupied Namibia and Tanzania, but also Togo and Cameroon. These countries on Africa’s west coast were extremely rich in natural resources—cocoa beans, cotton, rubber, oil palms, etc. The German colonies in these places consisted of plantations on which blacks were forced to do the manual labor. German atrocities in Togo and Cameroon were equal to, if not greater than, the atrocities the Germans inflicted on the natives in the other colonies.

In Cameroon, Hans Dominik and Jesko von Puttkamer were the moral equivalent of Carl Peters or Lothar von Trotha. Regarding the natives of Cameroon, Lieutenant Dominik said:

wikipedia.org Von-puttkamer-dominik

Jesko von Puttkamer and Hans Dominik (right)

They must know that I am their master and that I am stronger, and as long as they do not believe that, they must be made to feel it, and I mean severely and pitilessly, so that rebellion will pass by them for all time.33

It was Hans Dominik who led a team to massacre the adult population of natives near Nachtigal Falls simply because they refused German protection. The natives’ babies, fifty-two in number, were placed in baskets and thrown into the rapid waters of the Nachtigal.34 Dominik was also known for ordering his men to mutilate the dead bodies of natives, and in one case, mutilation was carried out on living men!35

Jesko von Puttkamer, one of the governors of the colony, was most responsible for this brutality in Cameroon. He described the Duala people of Cameroon as “the most lazy, false, and base rabble the sun ever shone upon, and it would certainly have been better if, during the conquest of the land in 1884, they had at least been kicked out of the country if not exterminated.”36

Under his governorship (1895–1906) the natives were also severely flogged, property was confiscated, villages were burned, natives were murdered, chiefs were imprisoned, and labor was forced and unpaid. These were some of the complaints of the native chiefs against Puttkamer. The German government, however, found such charges unworthy of investigation.37 It was only due to the efforts of a coalition of missionaries and large companies that Puttkamer was replaced as acting Governor.

The most horrific punishment the natives of Togo and Cameroon (as well as the other German colonies) endured was flogging. Flogging was so excessive that the German colonies were known by the other European colonists as “the flogging colonies” and “colonies of the twenty-five.”38 The brutality of flogging was explained in detail by a German deputy in 1906:

“The native, after having been completely stripped, is strapped across a block or a barrel that has been firmly fixed; his hands are bound in front, his feet behind, so that he cannot move; and he does not get a few blows with an ordinary stick held in one hand, but the strongest among the black soldiers has to wield a plaited rope or a correspondingly thick stick with both hands, and with all his strength, and that with such violence that each blow must whistle in the air. It has happened that if the blow does not whistle, it has to be repeated; and, if it does not do so, the Hausa gets it himself. It is self-evident that in the portion of the body thus struck, the blood congeals and causes swelling; and so it has happened that a man thus flogged has been ill or sickly for the rest of his life.”39

Such a tortuous punishment, often resulting in death, was inflicted on the natives regardless of gender or age. The crimes worthy of flogging included: perpetual laziness, failure to pay taxes, inability to supply an oxen under fair value price, protecting native women from the Germans, and offending a German officer. Even the chiefs in the Jaunde district of Cameroon were flogged if they couldn’t provide the Germans with decent carriers and after the flogging were expected to carry the loads themselves.40 In Namibia, the Herero were not only flogged on their backs, but also on their stomachs and between their legs; often resulting in crushed testicles, intestines torn out, and unborn babies ripped to pieces.41

As in the other German colonies, such a treatment of the natives led to a number of uprisings that were quashed due to the superior weaponry of the Europeans. The death toll of the natives in Cameroon alone from uprisings, disease, and plantation work was exceptionally high.42


The atrocities committed on the African people were done by men who believed in racial inequality and racial extermination. The Germans, as well as the other European powers, followed a blueprint laid out many decades earlier in Darwin’s writings. Similar atrocities were being perpetrated at this time in other parts of the ‘new world’; against aboriginal people in Australia and North America for instance. In South Africa, Cecil John Rhodes, was checked somewhat by the Christian sensibilities of a large European community in the Cape Colony. But without such restraint in what became Rhodesia, he perpetrated a massacre against the Ndebele people. Rhodes’ ideas and actions were described by GK Chesterton as the “dregs of Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant, but poisonous”.43

The scramble for Africa was an attempt at national expansion and to win out in the struggle for existence. Many years later a German political party would apply almost the very same methods and procedures in their quest for expansion. This time it wasn’t carried out on ‘inferior natives’, but on fellow Europeans whom the Nazis nevertheless regarded as Untermenschen (subhumans).44 Hitler and his party did not operate in a vacuum, but were in lockstep with a worldview conceived by Darwin, and procedures born in Africa.


The author wishes to thank CMI-South Africa’s Marc Ambler for his valuable contributions to this article.

Published: 28 November 2013

References and notes

  1. Himmelfarb, Gertrude, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, p. 416, 1959. Return to text.
  2. Weikart, Richard, Progress Through Racial Extermination, German Studies Review, 26, p. 278, 2003. Return to text.
  3. It is from the accounts of some of these missionaries that many of the later atrocities are known. Return to text.
  4. Bridgman, Jon M., The Revolt of the Hereros, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 62, 1981. Return to text.
  5. Drechsler, Horst, Let us die fighting, Zed Press, London, pp. 111–114, 119, 132, 1981. Return to text.
  6. Ref. 5, p. 143, “All our obedience and patience with the Germans is of little avail, for each day they shoot someone dead for no reason at all.” Return to text.
  7. Ref. 5, pp. 133–35. Return to text.
  8. Pool, G., Samuel Maharero, Gamsberg Macmillan, Windhoek, Namibia, p. 195, 1991. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 5, p. 154. Return to text.
  10. Scaller, Dominik J., The Genocide of the Herero and Nama in German South-West Africa, 1904–1907, Centuries of Genocide, Routledge, New York, p. 97, 2013. Return to text.
  11. Ref. 5, p. 214. Return to text.
  12. Ref. 5, pp. 211, 212. Return to text.
  13. Ericksen, Casper, The Angel of Death Has Descended Violently Among Them, African Studies Centre, Leiden, pp. 142, 143, 2005. Return to text.
  14. Eugenics, founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, applied Darwinian principles to human breeding by discouraging ‘inferior’ groups and individuals from contributing their genes to society—applied with ghastly consistency in Hitler’s Germany. Return to text.
  15. His work focused on the Baster community, a mixed blood group of people who left the Cape Colony and settled in Rehoboth, near Windhoek. A Christian culture, they rejected many of Fischer’s degrading ‘scientific’ investigations. Return to text.
  16. Haas, Francois, German Science and Black Racism—Roots of the Nazi Holocaust, The FASEB Journal, 22, p.334, Feb. 2008. Return to text.
  17. Madley, Benjamin, From Africa to Auschwitz, European History Quarterly, 35, pp. 453, 454, 2005. Return to text.
  18. Kestling, Robert W., Blacks Under the Swastika: A Research Note, The Journal of Negro History, 83, pp. 89, 90, Winter 1998. Return to text.
  19. Perras, Arne, Carl Peters and German Imperialism, 1856–918: A Political Biography, Clarendon Press, New York, p. 28, 2004. Return to text.
  20. Ref. 19, p. 28; see also Ref. 26, p. 70, “…the higher culture must eliminate the lower if it can’t incorporate it, in order to allow for the improvement of earthly humanity.” Return to text.
  21. Opitz, May, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, p. 26, 1992. Return to text.
  22. Ref. 19, p. 118. Return to text.
  23. Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa, 1876–1912, Random House, New York, p. 624, 1991. Return to text.
  24. Sellers, Edith, Dr. Carl Peters, Fortnightly Review, 67, p. 134, 1897. Return to text.
  25. Africanus, The Prussian Lash in Africa, Hodder and Stoughton, London, pp. 81, 82, 1918. Return to text.
  26. Davis, Christian S., Colonialism, Antisemitism, and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, p. 1, 2012. Return to text.
  27. Ref. 25, pp. 37, 83. Return to text.
  28. Weston, Frank, The Black Slaves of Prussia, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York and Boston, p. 8, 1918. Return to text.
  29. Glassman, Jonathon, Feasts and Riots: Revelry, Rebellion, and Popular Consciousness on the Swahili Coast, 1856–1888, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, pp. 217, 257, 1995. Return to text.
  30. Ref. 29 p. 217. Return to text.
  31. Redmayne, Alison, Mkwawa and the Hehe Wars, The Journal of African History, 9 (3), pp. 409–436, 1968. Return to text.
  32. Lliffe, John, A Modern History of Tanganyika, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 200, 1979. Return to text.
  33. Rothfels, Nigel, Savages and Beasts, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., p. 67, 2002. Return to text.
  34. Lewin, Evans, How Germany Treats the Native, Quarterly Review, 229, p. 377, April 1918. Return to text.
  35. Ref. 34, pp. 377, 378. Return to text.
  36. Rothfels, Nigel, Catching Animals, Animals in Human Histories, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, N.Y., p.225, 2002. Return to text.
  37. Puaux, Rene, The German Colonies: What is to Become of Them?, Wightman and Company, London, pp. 10,11, 1918. Return to text.
  38. Ref. 34, p. 388. Return to text.
  39. Ref. 34, p. 388. Return to text.
  40. Ref. 34, pp. 386, 387 Return to text.
  41. Edgerton, Robert B., Africa’s Armies: From Honor to Infamy, Westview Press, Boulder, Col., p.67, 2002. Return to text.
  42. Rudin, Harry R., Germans in the Cameroons 1884–1914, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 113, 114, 308–310, 327–330, 345–353, 1938. Return to text.
  43. As quoted in The Founder, Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power, Robert I. Rotberg, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 9. Return to text.
  44. A term used by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe the common man but applied by Hitler and the Nazis to non-Aryan people groups such as the Jews, Gypsies and Africans. Return to text.