The old saying “history repeats itself,” is one many are familiar with, but it can be difficult to rationalize until you have a good example.
In terms of genocide, it’s tough to comprehend how something so atrocious and anti-humane can reoccur so frequently, yet it seems a different group of people are targeted for mass-killing at almost any corner in world history.
I feel that most Americans would be quick to point to the Holocaust when the term “genocide” is brought up. Nazis from Germany were the perpetrators in that case, but could you name another genocide that the Germans took part in? There is at least one more, and it’s not taught in any school-issued history books I’ve encountered.
This one is the case of the Namaqua (Nama) and Herero people of German South-West Africa (current day Namibia) from approximately 1904 to 1907.
My objective is to argue, aided by photos, that the intervention by Europeans in German South-West Africa served as a trial-run mechanism that primed the ideology for the Holocaust.
The sets of corresponding pictures are quite similar and the parallels between the two cases are disturbing; the first is from the affairs in German SWA, and the second is one of the more recognizable photos from the Holocaust during World War II. Before I get into the specifics of how the genocides modeled by these pictures are connected on a micro level, it’s important to know a basic account about what happened in German SWA.
In the late 19th century, the Germans were in the process of expanding their empire, which included colonizing parts of Africa. The official occupation of Southwest Africa did not begin until 1884 when a German merchant fraudulently purchased some land from the Nama people, but there had been German missionaries in the area for some time before that. Over the next couple years, other Germans were able to pry plots of land from the natives.
Prior to the occupation, the Nama and Herero had been engaged in a drawn out power struggle to establish a single state. The Germans used this uneasy time to exploit the tribes. They advertised the area to be rich in gold and thus gained a foothold in the “land-grab” that ensued.
Meanwhile, the Nama and Herero people continued to skirmish for territorial domination. The Nama had, for the most part, ignored the German intervention, instead focusing on the Herero. Conversely, the Herero engaged in treaties with the Germans with expectations of protection from the Nama. Protection and aid never came.
A series of unfulfilled treaties and increasingly intrusive behavior followed over the next several years. Soon, a power shift created a hierarchy based on race, leaving the Africans disadvantaged. The tribes would lose their economic and political autonomy and work with whites on farms. The Herero were full of complaints that the Germans were flouting their customs and habits and raping their women and young girls. This led to a series of revolts led by the Herero people beginning in 1904. The Nama tribes, under similar treatment and now facing pressure to rebel, followed suit a few months later.
In August of 1904, German General Lothar von Trotha, who now felt he must respond to the uprisings, stated his intentions:
“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 nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.”
From there, there was no hope for the inferiorly equipped African natives. At the “Battle” of Waterberg in 1904, German troops surrounded Herero people. The ones that weren’t killed were only able to escape to the Kalahari, where the arid desert killed off the large majority of escapees. Others that were captured (mainly women and children) were put in concentration camps.
At the beginning of German-occupied SWA, there were an estimated 80,000 Herero and 20,000 Nama living within those boundaries.
In 1907, when the authorized extermination of natives was largely ceased, there were 15,000 Herero and less than 10,000 Nama remaining in German SWA. The period is classified as genocidal not only for the planned assaults on predetermined tribes, but also because of the resulting deaths that occurred in the desert. In addition, there have been reports of Germans poisoning the few water wells that existed in the desert in order to kill off any people that attempted to keep alive in the desert.
Considered the first genocide of the 20th century, the incident in German SWA is just one example of a series of assaults known as the “Scramble for Africa.” This was a period where established European imperialists all looked to exploit the country’s resources and people, largely due to technological imbalances.
Knowing a bit of this history, let’s re-examine these photos.
The group photo on the left is of Herero genocide survivors in 1904. This was taken after the group (one of the few) came out clean on the other side of the desert. The setting for this must have been a safe zone for Herero because tribesmen remaining in German SWA were put into camps or executed, though the exact location is unknown. If there were a quintessential picture for cruelty during the wars and genocides in Africa, this is it.
The other group picture on the right is of prisoners at a work camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp consisted of Jewish Polish, Russian and other inmates, including domestic criminals. This was considered one of the most inhumane Nazi-controlled camps of all due to the working and living conditions. The camp primarily forced prisoners to tunnel and mine through limestone, an exhausting and dangerous job. At the camp’s peak of brutality, there were up to 350 inmate deaths per day; the site’s crematorium was unable to keep pace with the fatality rate. This picture was taken in May of 1945 after Americans liberated the camp. I think it’s safe to assume that an American soldier from the US 80th Infantry Division took the picture.
The first thing that grabbed my attention about this picture is likely what most see: the physical appearance of the prisoners. Most notably, because (unlike the Herero picture) they are wearing shirts, are their legs. You can look at every detail of the legs and perhaps get a small glimpse of the kind of rations they were provided. The thighs are so thin, the knees are disproportioned and unstable and the calves are indistinguishable from the ankles. If you only looked at the legs and had no background of the people, you would guess that they are in their 80’s or 90’s.
I would like to back this photographer up to get a look at the landscape and camp. This was a mining camp and from what I gathered, the barracks that were designed to hold 100 men were housing up to 750 prisoners at a time. While the physical appearance is shown, it’s impossible to see the intangibles, the diseases, the injuries and scars, or anything like that. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It’s also probably a good thing that they are all wearing shirts because I don’t doubt that their upper bodies are as bad as or worse than those of the Herero.
The path across the desert is commonly referred to as the “Trail of Bones.” While that name is directed towards the death toll, it’s also quite indicative of the conditions fleers endured. This picture is the definition of a skeleton with skin on it. The fact that most of the Herero in the shot are standing on their feet is amazing. The people from the other picture were liberated, but I have no idea what the future holds for these Herero men and women. Honestly, the malnutrition looks like something that’s as close to incurable as you get; hopefully wherever this picture was taken offered some kind of accommodations following the struggle through the desert.
It is quite interesting to note that both of these photos were taken post-tragedy because it offers an opportunity to look at motives and possible emotions at the time of the shot. The Jewish concentration camp survivors are photographed standing in their Nazi-issued work “uniforms” after being liberated. What I think is interesting is wondering about the state of mind of these people at the time of the photograph. The Jews and Poles have just been freed and are standing in a line almost as if the photographer called out for them to gather around. Should they be happy? Do they smile? Was smiling for the camera even a standard for that time era and culture? I can’t help but point out a couple distinguishable characteristics that indicate happiness. Perhaps it was the timing, but I see about five or six (what I would call) smiles in the group. If this is true, think about this: after months or years of living in camp conditions, how can one find the strength to care or react at all to a photograph? Of course being freed from that treatment is something to be “happy” about, but at that exact moment, where can someone even begin to feel positive about anything? I’m not sure what to make of it, but it does contrast to the picture of the Herero.
The desert survivors all have the exact same look on their face: confusion. I think that’s an appropriate look considering the technology in Africa indicates that the majority of Herero people have never seen a camera before. This also suggests that it was another race of white people taking the picture. Maybe this particular group of Herero escaped to South Africa where there were English and Dutch colonists. I imagine there wasn’t much communication between the photographer and the group. Maybe the photographer had a difficult time communicating with the tribe trying to get them lined up and looking at the camera device they’ve never seen before. They are all looking into the lens, perplexed, while some of the Jews pay no attention to their photographer.
What I can conclude from both of these is that on the whole, I really don’t think they are at all concerned with the camera, in either photo. I think they’ve been so desensitized to everything that exists in a normal world. For years there wasn’t anything to expect from life other than forced work and torture. When someone shoves a camera in your face after all that, there isn’t a particular reaction that comes to mind.
Perhaps the most important part of these two pictures is the similarities. There are three big things I see in common here: genocide, concentration camps, and the presence of German power. The ribcage is perhaps the most gruesome symbol of camps and genocide. The two groups of prisoners have the same kind of hair. I know that in the Nazi prison camps they shaved them off in part to help control lice and other bacterial problems, but I can’t say the same for sure of the Herero. I think it’s just genetic and cultural to keep their hair short, as I’ve yet to come across a photo of a Herero with longer hair.
In the end, these are the kinds of bodies that are left behind if you are not of the elite race. If not for difference in physical characteristics of the two victim groups, they are mirror images of each other.
Yet to be talked about yet are the two gentlemen pictured underneath the groupsof prisoners, whose photos correspond to their respective genocides. The man pictured on the left is Heinrich Ernst Goering, German Imperial Commissioner to German Southwest Africa. He was one of the primary perpetrators of expansion and forceful entry into Africa.
There were several instances of Goering’s agenda to eliminate the natives from Southwest Africa. During his tenure as Commissioner, he did not succeed in imposing an immediate militant onslaught of Herero and Nama, but he was able to stoke the fire that provoked the uprisings. In 1885, the Herero signed a treaty with the Germans, drafted and supported by Goering, who promised protection from the Nama attacks. As mentioned earlier, their end of the bargain was not held up.
In 1887, Goering garnered public attention to the colony when he created a false claim that there were large deposits of gold. As the governing leader, Goering goal was to attract as many Europeans to settle the area and quickly transition the colony’s biological makeup. As a result, there were huge cultural gaps. Germans impeded indigenous lands, imposed alcohol on to the tribes, and were described as “taking liberties with the Herero women.”
Goering was also one of the first to suggest military involvement in German SWA. As settlers were slowly realizing the claims of gold were false, the German government has less reason to remain in the area. There was rapid emigration of former settlers who came for the mineral. Just as Goering had planned, the government faced a dilemma in its quest to further establish the colony: abandon or conquer it by force?
Goering demanded hundreds of men and artillery to be made available in SWA. After several proposals for military intervention were denied (again, this is before the revolts and genocide occurred), Goering fell on to his backup strategy: furthering the conflict between the Herero and Nama. Eventually, a small number of German soldiers were sent to the colony, which further provoked the tribes.
As you can see, much thought and work was put into this African colonial expansion. While Goering’s position as Commissioner ended in 1890, his aggressive and imperialistic tendencies laid the groundwork for the resulting wars, genocide and concentration camps.
As for the other picture, the man on the right is Hermann Goering, son of Heinrich. What’s most important is Hermann’s role as a Nazi officer during World War II. For this reason, perhaps he is more recognizable than the older Goering.
A quick account of Hermann will show that he could be considered the right hand man of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party’s fascist leader. This was the result of his military experience, loyalty to the Nazi Party, and of course, his anti-Semitic beliefs and actions. His official military rank during the war was Reichsmarschall, the highest rank of the armed forces at the time. He was tried at Nuremburg and held responsible for the Nuremburg Laws (which made Jewish people targets), though he profusely denied any anti-Semitic ideals throughout the trials. In short, Goering can be pointed out as a supporter and activist of the horrific treatment of Jews during World War II. If you can take everything you know about Hitler’s agenda and apply it to Hermann, son of Heinrich, you can get the gist
So the question is, was the most recognizable genocide in world history influenced, and even perhaps modeled, after the imperialistic maneuvers imposed by the Germans in German SWA? It’s foolish to believe that a single father-son relationship is responsible for such a sequence of events, but the power connection is there. It at minimum demonstrates that the German Reich had this “superior race” attitude for far longer than is commonly thought.
I’ll end with a quick summary of parallels to keep in mind when attempting to connect the two genocides.
The German government was successful in carrying out genocides in both the mainland and in colonies. They were about 40 years apart, yet they are identical in so many ways. The groups made inferior were put into camps, forced to work until their deaths. Perhaps the most staggering fact is the mentality that existed from that genocide in GSWA through to the Holocaust.
There was a geneticist named Eugen Fischer who came to GSWA during the genocide to study racial differences. He studied and tested the heads and other parts of dead Herero and Nama only to determine that the Africans were an inferior race. He studied children that were born of a German man and an African woman and found that these mixed-race children were biologically disadvantaged. His work was published and his findings spread. His research influenced many German laws including the banning of interracial marriage in all German colonies in 1912.
Studies done by Fischer and others not only influenced the Second Reich in Germany, but clearly carried over to the Third Reich the Nazi Party promoted so brutally. With the extermination of the Herero and Nama people carried out so efficiently in Africa, Hitler and the Nazi Party had to have looked to that genocide for reference and a model in which to carry out their own.
 “Herero Heroes: A Socio-Political History of the Herero of Namibia,” Jan-Bart Gewald, 1998, pg. 31
 “Let Us Die Fighting,” Horst Drechsler, London 1980, pg..18
 “Genocide in German South-West Africa,” Zimmerer and Zeller; Berlin 2003, pg. 25
 “Rethinking Resistance,” Brill Publishing; Leiden 2003, pg. 284
 “The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide,” David Olusogo, London 2010, pg. 53
 “Hermann Goring: Hitler Paladin or Puppet?,” Wolfgang Paul; London 1998, pg. 264
 “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” p. 420