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Namibian genocide—a precursor of the Holocaust

A Review of The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen
Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 2010

reviewed by Marc Ambler

of The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism

As one reads this fascinating book, one gets the sense that the major theme that develops was not what the writers intended. That theme is one of Social Darwinistic scientific racism put into horrifying practice in the German colony of South West Africa in the final decades of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Olusoga is an Anglo-Nigerian historian and BBC radio and television producer; and his co-author Erichsen, a Namibian (formerly South West Africa) double graduate and director of a Namibian HIV/AIDS NGO.

The book sets out to draw the many parallels between the extermination campaign against the Herero and Nama people of SWA by the German colonists, and the later horrors of Nazi Germany and its campaign of Rassenhygiene against Eastern Europeans, Jews, Gypsies and others they deemed ‘unfit’.1 The parallels provide compelling evidence that the Nazi genocide and the Holocaust against the Jews was not some strange aberration invented and perpetrated by Hitler’s National Socialists; it was the outcome and climax of a program of indoctrination of the German people in Social Darwinism begun in the second half of the 19th century.2 South West Africa became one of the first major laboratories where Darwinian theories of race supremacy were experimentally applied. Due to the relative isolation of the country, the fewer personalities directly involved and the lesser absolute numbers of lives lost in the campaign, these links are perhaps clearer to draw than those of WWII which was on a vastly larger and much more complex scale.

South West Africa became one of the first major laboratories where Darwinian theories of race supremacy were experimentally applied.

The writers compellingly lay out the direct links between the Herero and Nama genocide and WWII. Characters, strategies, philosophical justifications and even uniforms of those involved in the genocide show continuity with what followed under Nazi Germany on a far greater scale. In all of this, the writers repeatedly document its Social Darwinist underpinnings with their eugenicist and scientific racist offshoots. One senses (without judging the writers) that perhaps these links were unwelcome conclusions, even for the writers, but that they admirably follow the evidence where it leads. They frequently qualify the Darwinist connection with the words “distorted view of Social Darwinism” and the like (pp. 3, 74, 111, 294, 361 and elsewhere.). One wonders from whence a model of ‘undistorted Social Darwinism’ would come. What criteria can evolution provide to decide on what is morally appropriate and what is not in the practice of Darwinism? Only ‘survival’, and so if Hitler had won and the Aryan dream had become a reality, we would today likely be saying that the SWA genocide was right and admirable.

Their disclaimer is also discredited by the fact that Darwin himself foresaw the ‘extermination’ of the ‘lower races’ as they were increasingly confronted by the ‘higher’ European races.

Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha
Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha’s beliefs of racial superiority led him to contemptuously state: “I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge”. And “… I find it appropriate that the [Herero] nation perishes instead of infecting our soldiers”.

Germany’s embrace of Darwin’s theories on race and evolution (p. 74)3 was encouraged most notably by the numerous books on evolution by Ernst Haeckel (p. 75), many of which became popular best sellers. This took place as the country was also grappling with considerable political and social problems. Rapid urbanisation with its associated social problems in the cities led to the development of nationalistic groups such as the Pan Germanic League (p. 90) calling for Lebensraum—living space, a theory developed by Friedrich Ratzel in his book Politische Geographie in 1897. Ratzel was an enthusiastic colonialist who unashamedly promoted the creation of this living space for the German people by the extermination of colonised people with the ‘gun and the gallows’ (p. 110). His theories later had a profound influence on Hitler who read his works as well as those of Gobineau and (Darwin’s cousin and father of eugenics) Galton while in prison after the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. These Darwinist ideas, the philosophy of Nietzsche and the memoirs of Bismarck crystallized Hitler’s thinking in his book Mein Kampf. The writers assert that “at the core of the ideology outlined in Mein Kampf was Hitler’s dedication to the Social Darwinian notion of the struggle for existence” (p. 294).

These notions of racial supremacy were beginning to gain popular acceptance at the very time that Germany was entering their late but enthusiastic colonial race for Africa. In 1896 the Berlin Colonial Show was held. Its intended propaganda was firstly to show the German public the backward nature of the native populations of their colonies, and secondly to impress the natives with the technology and power of Germany, and therefore impossible to resist. Part of the show was a ‘human zoo’ which would be populated by individuals shipped from the colonies. They were to be exhibits in an event that “transplanted a piece of natural savagery and raw culture to the centre of a proud and glamorous metropolis, with its refined morals and fashion-conscious people” (p.92) as stated by an official report of the show. Unfortunately for the organizers, many of the participants refused to play along. Drawn from the elite of the Nama and Herero people, many of whom had converted to Christianity and adopted much of western culture, most of the Herero and all the Witbooi (Nama) men arrived in European-style military uniforms, and the women in elegant dresses. Some were very well educated. The nephew of the leader of the Witbooi Nama people, Petrus Jod, was typical of those that challenged the racial stereotypes they were expected to portray. He was a school teacher, spoke High Dutch and carried a Bible with him at all times. Many refused to go along with the charade, objecting particularly to wearing the primitive clothing expected by the German population.

This contradiction of popular mythology is a theme that occurs throughout the book. In the later campaign against the Nama and Herero by ‘Christian’ Europe, Western conventions relating to war were felt not to apply to the ‘savages’ (p.71). In contrast, the Nama and Herero repeatedly exhibited high moral standards in their conflict with the colonists, only attacking military targets and leaving civilians unharmed (pp. 76, 77, 128, 129, 176). In a letter responding to a threatening note from the German governor, the Nama leader, Hendrik Witbooi, indicative of his biblical worldview, wrote, “I have never met the Emperor (Kaiser) and therefore cannot have offended him by word or by deed. God has given us different realms on earth, and through that I know and believe that it is neither a sin nor a crime for me to want to remain the independent chief of my country and people. If you want to kill me for this without any fault of mine, there is no harm done, nor is it a disgrace: I shall die honestly for that which is my own” (p.81).

Herero women
The gaiety of this photo showing the colourful dresses and unusual headwear of today’s Herero women is in stark contrast to the torment their predecessors went through.

In the late 19th century, German colonists began to push the Herero and Nama people off their lands; sometimes by treaty, sometimes by force and mostly by guile. It is said that 64% of Hamburg trade with Africa at this time was paid for with alcohol. After a provoked minor uprising by the Herero in 1904, the Germans responded with ruthless cruelty. After some notable setbacks, German General Lothar von Trotha was sent to SWA. During the campaign he issued an instruction that all Herero men, woman and children found within the borders of the colony would be killed, the infamous Extermination Order (p. 152). Over the ensuing years, this instruction was ruthlessly carried out. Survivors of direct battles against the industrial weapons of Germany, like the Maxim gun, were forced into the western desert. There, wells were poisoned and Herero that came crawling out of the desert were bayoneted to death. Those that survived all this were captured and put into ‘concentration camps’ in places like Windhoek, Luderitz and Swakopmund. The writers show that the primary goal of these camps was not work but extermination. Forced labour for certain projects was a mere by-product; another horrifying portend of the death camps of Europe 40 years later. The camps were a systematic application of rape, abuse, malnutrition and sadistic cruelty while ridding the colony of its unwanted indigenous people. On one railway building project, 67.48% of the workers died (p. 205). The death rate in the Shark Island camp off Luderitz was 70% (p. 216). By 1909, only 10% of the Nama who had been imprisoned remained alive (p. 229). About 80% of the Herero nation were killed or forced out of the colony during the 5 year campaign (p. 230).

Unlike books like Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler, this work does not set out to expose the Darwinian roots of its subject matter. Nevertheless it repeatedly uncovers the Social Darwinist undercurrents that shifted old-fashioned paternalistic racism to the ‘biological racism’ of the early 20th century (p. 156). The writers plant the authority for this scientific racism firmly at the door of Charles Darwin and so ultimately it has the same effect as Weikart’s book. Race science raises its head in many ways in these pages. Early surreptitious exhumation of Herero skulls (p. 127) by colonists to send to Germany as scientific specimens gave way to almost industrial processing of human skulls and body parts in the concentration camps. The women in the camps were forced to boil the heads of dead prisoners, strip them of all flesh and then pack them into crates destined for German universities. Pseudo-scientific eugenic and phrenological measurements and observations were a constant theme (pp. 96, 127, 224). Among the emerging group of scientific elites who propagated these ideas was Eugen Fischer. He particularly focused on the notion that mixing of race groups lead to biological inferiority. He found the ideal subjects to test his theories in the Baster4 people in SWA. The mixed-race descendants of white men and Nama women, they had been forced out of the Cape by the Boers in 1869. They spoke only Afrikaans, were devoutly Christian and proudly held on to the names, morality and culture of the Boers. Fischer went to SWA in 1908 to study the Basters and proceeded to attempt degrading examinations on them. His attempts to examine them naked, including measurement of genitals, were rebuffed by the deeply religious Basters. He proceeded to undertake work characterized by “striking methodological lapses” (p. 248). In 1913, Fischer published The Rehoboth Bastards and the Bastardisation Problem in Man, still in print in 1961. He was a leading advocate of the German equivalent of ‘eugenics’,5 Rassenhygiene. The motivation behind much of this was “saving our wonderful German nation”, in the words of Fischer (p. 251). Josef Mengele, the infamous race scientist at Auschwitz, studied at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute which had been renamed the Eugen Fischer Institute (p. 310). The Director of the institute was a close associate of Fischer, and Mengele had been a student of his at Frankfurt University’s Third Reich Institute of Hereditary Biology and Race Hygiene (p. 309). There are many other connections highlighted in the book between the colonial race scientists and later Nazi race science.

While always dangerous to impose one’s current outlook on a historical situation, it is always disappointing to learn of the muted response to such barbarity by Christians who were more or less aware of what was going on. The writers acknowledge that old-fashioned colonialism consisted of the moral duty to spread the Gospel. In the second half of the 19th century, this increasingly came to be regarded as “unscientific, sentimental and inexcusably old-fashioned” (p. 104). Christian missionaries did try and highlight the plight of the Herero and Nama people during this terrible time, and to lessen their burden in some cases. One cannot help but feel, though, a terrible sadness that their response was not exponentially more outraged. But Christian missionaries were increasingly sidelined, and the book highlights instances of missionary resistance as well as collaboration with the horrors that unfolded (pp. 63, 197, 210, 218). Hitler later refused to allow missionaries to go to Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in case they interfered with his program of ethnic cleansing there (p. 337). One asks the question whether there are not things going on today that warrant the response from us that we believe Christians in other times should have had. The modern-day abortion genocide comes to mind.

The book exposes numerous individuals, features and ideologies of the Herero and Nama genocide, that signify a steady death march toward the barbarous climax of racial hatred and cruelty before and during WWII, three decades later. The father of Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s ablest and most ruthless administrators, was the first Governor of SWA. Franz von Epp, one of Hitler’s generals and coordinator of the Nazi African colonial campaign, was a Schutztruppe officer in SWA as were many of the leaders of the Nazi Brown Shirts. Even the Brown Shirt uniforms were colonial army surplus. Forced labour, numbered ID’s, use of prisoners for labour and pseudo-scientific research and the thinly veiled goal of annihilation all foreshadowed the Nazi death camps. As was the meticulous administration and documentation of genocide in the camps. Nazism was enthusiastically embraced in SWA with Hitler’s birthday still being celebrated by ‘Bush Nazis’ well into the 1990s (p. 351).

The book contains some harrowing pictures as well. Photos of mass hangings of Herero men, the packing of crates of skulls from the concentration camps destined for German universities, starving men, women and children in the camps and even a severed head preserved in alcohol by a camp physician. Many of these photos were sent as postcards by German troops back to Germany, as were pornographic pictures according to the writers. Perhaps the most harrowing pictures are aerial photographs of vast graveyards of thousands of unmarked little mounds in the desert on the outskirts of Swakopmund, one of the concentration camp towns and today a picturesque seaside resort. Outside Luderitz, winds have blown away the desert sand exposing the remains of victims of the Shark Island concentration camp.

This is the great post-war myth: The comforting fantasy that the Nazis were a new order of monsters and that their crimes were without precursor or precedent. They were not.

The book highlights the fact that the details of this genocide were well known and publicized at the end of WWI in order to demonize the defeated Germany. By contrast, at the Nuremberg trials, this grisly history that so poignantly pointed toward the coming Nazi cruelty, was almost totally ignored. This was possibly to protect the allies’ own activities in their colonies, or to hide the Social Darwinism, which many western countries openly supported in the first half of the 20th century, behind Hitler’s crimes. As the writers point out in their introduction, “This is the great post-war myth: The comforting fantasy that the Nazis were a new order of monsters and that their crimes were without precursor or precedent. They were not. Much of Nazi ideology and many of the crimes committed in its name were part of a longer trend in European history. Nazism was both a culmination and a distortion of decades of German and European history and philosophy. It was, in part, the final homecoming of theories and practices that Europeans had developed and perfected in far-flung corners of the world during the last phase of imperial conquest” (p. 3). And towards the end of the book: “But the Herero and Nama genocides, along with the Nazi vision of race war and settlement in Eastern Europe, can both be seen as aspects of a larger phenomenon: the emergence from Europe of a terrible strain of racial colonialism that viewed human history through the prism of a distorted form of Social Darwinism, and regarded the earth as a racial battlefield on which the ‘weak’ were destined to be vanquished” (p. 361).

In spite of the chilling subject matter, the book is an absorbing read. The writers bring to life their characters and the country itself. I have traveled to Namibia a few times. On my last trip, in a tiny town off the beaten track by the name of Warmbad, I came across a bust of Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi, the charismatic, educated and devoutly Christian Nama leader who became a feared thorn in Germany’s side. I look forward to my next trip to see some of the many landmarks this book has unearthed.

While the particularly ugly bathwater of racism has mercifully been substantially attenuated since the holocaust of WWII, the Darwinian ‘baby’ remains. It is linked closely to the modern-day abortion genocide. One wonders what future cruelty and horrors this dehumanizing belief system will yet vomit up? The most powerful antidote to this process is the biblical truth that all people are made in the image of God, our blood of great worth in the eyes of our Creator, and every drop shed to be accounted for before our Judge one day.

Published: 19 July 2011


  1. See also Ambler, M., Herero Genocide, Creation 27(3):52–55, 2002, creation.com/herero-genocide. Return to text.
  2. Weikart, R., From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2004. Return to text.
  3. A letter from Darwin acknowledges the enthusiastic reception his ideas were receiving in Germany. Return to text.
  4. A name they continue to hold to. Return to text.
  5. A pseudo-scientific discipline, the invention of Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin. Return to text.