While watching BBC’s documentary Namibia - Genocide and The Second Reich in class, I think for many students, including myself, there were several horrific and shocking moments when it truly struck that there was another, entire massive human atrocity, buried in history for all this time, which we (and, more disturbingly, the general public) had never even heard about. Though we would think genocide could never be brushed aside or overlooked, it seems that it happens more often than we’d like, due to the nationalist and white supremacist mentality present in colonization, which was so deeply integrated into society that this genocide was not viewed as a crime at all, by many people, for a long time. What is more, I think these assigned readings showed that these practices of denial, dehumanization, and complicity which we are so baffled and appalled by are still very much present in our modern-day society.
We learn about the Berlin Conference and the Scramble for Africa in history class, and maybe the following events in the Congo, or South Africa, or Egypt as well, but I think sometimes it’s difficult to see how all people in the African continent were facing invasions of white supremacy and colonization, regardless of whether they wound up colonized or not. There is just something so dangerous and perverse in the idea that white men were able to devalue and dismiss so easily the cultures and livelihoods of all African races, to make this executive decision not only behind closed doors, but actively, for years, even while living and interacting with these human beings. Colonization can so easily morph into genocide because it intrinsictly says that one people is superior to another, that whatever natives may be inhabiting a space prior were not humans valid enough to own that property. Moreover, as Reinhart Kössler and Henning Melber describe in “Toward a culture of memory for a memory culture today – a German perspective,” whenever there was any challenge or protest to colonial rule, it was seen as to be “disparaging national honour and grandeur.” This translates into a sort of mentality that we are not all equal humans, that there is an “us” vs. “them” and it is a right for white people to colonize, to wander and settle wherever they please, simply because they are white.
The colonization of Namibia shows how colonial rule can turn easily into genocide. In that situation, all native peoples were referred to as “Hottentots” and, as Clara Ng writes in “The 20th Century’s First Genocide: Not the Holocaust, but the Herero,” the “legal testimony of seven Africans was equivalent to that of one colonist.” The German settlers were dehumanizing the African peoples of Namibia as they forced a name onto all these people, regardless of what tribe they identify with, and placed a value on their words. In addition, Ng continues that “construction began on the Otavi railway line that cut through the Herero heartland and paved the way for further European settlement” — all to improve access to copper mines so that they may profit economically, and to upturn the homes and communities of the Herero and drive them away from their lands. This becomes more familiar when we hear how the Germans considered confining them to native reserves. All these actions facilitate the genocide of a people as it dehumanized and destabilized them; in addition, all these actions have been taken too by Americans, of which some forms still manifest in this very country today. For some time, we referred to all Indigenous peoples as “Indians,” a name that white colonizers used, instead by their native tribes, many of which we have erased. In addition, we drove them onto reservations, built pipelines on their lands, and profited from their resources. Regarding African Americans in our country, we established the Three-Fifths compromise to devalue their vote, have built highways through many of their neighborhoods and communities, and used police to track down enslaved peoples back to their plantations (as German police did to Africans in Namibia through their mandated Passmarkes) to prevent their mobility. I think these deliberate erasures (of people’s voices, agency, cultures) have led to the deliberate tortures and eradications we see in genocide.
These patterns of sujugation and genocide, however, did not just end in Namibia for the Germans — they continued in events of the Holocaust. What is incredibly disturbing to me is the point, which was emphasized in class, that they learned from their genocide in Namibia, that they found ways to make proceedings efficient for themselves, exemplified in how the Nazis never explicitly called for an official eradication of Jews, in contrast to the approach in Namibia. I had initially wondered whether, during Nazi Germany, memory still existed of the Herero and Nama genocide, or if the public had largely forgotten about it; with so many parallels, though, I think it was clear to orchestrators of the Holocaust how they could learn from the genocide in Namibia. For instance, the concept of Lebensraum, fueling the imperialist drives of the Second Reich, was utilized by the Third Reich as well and was paramount in heightening the sense of nationalism that would justify Nazi ideology. Eugenics, too, were such a prevalent tool to justify genocides in Namibia and Nazi Germany. Ng, in the same aforementioned article, wrote: “It was Eugen Fischer’s studies, for instance – based on his experiments on Herero and Nama prisoners – that grounded racist ideology in objective notions of science.” The 300 human skulls he studied, shipped from Namibia, were used to give authorities and officials “scientific” reasons to exterminate and segregation groups of people, contributing to this sexual anxiety of “purifying” the Aryan race, of protecting themselves against “less fit” races. His work, The Bastards of Rehoboth and the Problem of Miscegenation in Man, essentially could serve as propaganda for promoting the Nuremberg Laws that allowed legal discrimination against Jews.
Another significant cruelty the Nama, Herero, and Jewish populations all had to undergo was forced containment in concentration camps, designed in order to systematically exterminate their populations. A picture which really struck me in class was that of the crates of human skulls, their flesh and hair scraped off by Herero women with glass shards in these concentration camps. Although they might not have been physically harmed in that situation, I think it’s so demonstrative of the cruelty exhibited by German military officials. There is just such a lack of respect for the dead, for the survivors; it’s so barbaric to make them clean the bones of their own people, to make them hold human skulls in their hands and treat them without the dignity of such. In the concentration camps, for both cases, prisoners and their labor also were exploited for economic profit. In the same article I mentioned before, Ng writes that “Herero were forced into daily manual labor for private companies working on land leveling, harbor building, and railway construction projects.” What this also reminded me of was how we treat prisoners in America. German General Lothar von Trotha, in Namibia, proclaimed: “‘I annihilate the African tribes by floods of money and floods of blood,’” and while there are many ways to interpret this statement, I think of how private companies are entirely involved with enslaving populations, how, so long as money can flow from forced labor, the removal and extermination of human rights will continue. I think perhaps, in this way, one of my biggest takeaways from the Herero and Nama genocide is how similar some of our practices in the United States are to theirs, even a hundred years later.
Another big takeaway from learning about this genocide is the significance in media and international attention. It seemed that the Herero truly did not receive help or sympathy in the atrocities they suffered — postcards of them, used as propaganda, portrayed them as violent thieves, needing to be tamed by white colonists. When learning about how the Herero sought the British territory Bechuanland, I wondered why the British didn’t intervene when they knew of Herero refugees essentially coming into their colonies. With the Congo Rubber Atrocities, however, we saw that the British, and other actors of the international community, only intervened after seeing horrific photographs of Belgian practices under King Leopold II. I wonder why there wasn’t as much media coverage of this genocide, considering the amount of photos taken, sent as postcards to families, documenting the subjugation of the Herero peoples. It seems these photos and media mostly seemed to glorify the German soldiers, as Reinhart Kössler and Henning Melber wrote that an “official military account of the ‘Great General Staff’ in its concluding paragraphs summarised it as a major achievement of the war that the Herero nation was annihilated and had ceased to exist. It celebrated the prowess of the German troops.” There seems to be no record at all of how Africans suffered under colonization. In fact, when the international community did intervene with German colonization, stripping them of their African colonies after World War I, it seemed that there was little consideration for the native populations themselves; rather, they only intervened when German colonization was inconvenient and threatening for them. This still holds up today — we don’t intervene in genocides and other violations of human rights in a meaningful way, not when it doesn’t threaten us.
Finally, I think a significant point all of us were struck by when learning about this genocide was the lack of commemoration and apology towards the Herero and Nama peoples. In Kössler and Melber’s article, they wrote how the Holocaust seemed to be the “object of regular remembrance on the part of officialdom as well as civil society, bordering on a cult of mea culpa,” while the Namibian delegation, going to Germany for the repatriation of the skulls, were apparently “mistreated” by the German government. I wonder why there is such a staunch refusal to be apologetic for these atrocities in the case of the Herero and Nama genocide. The lack of compensation, or even care, both internationally and locally in Namibia, is completely unacceptable, and is likely why there is no memorial for the genocide, no markings at the concentration camps. Instead, as we read in another of Clara Ng’s articles, “Regarding Reconciliation: The Herero’s Long Quest for Justice,” there is even commemoration for the German soldiers and colonizers with the Marine Denkmal in Swakopmund. It is devastating that the monument is still standing, actively causing pain for and denying the voices of the Herero and Nama populations every day. In the words of the Back to Germany Activists organization, “‘As long as it still stands, Namibians will never get the true feeling of independence.’” I think there is such a great responsibility, now, to compensate and acknowledge the sufferings of the Namibians instead of uplifting the dehumanizations in their colonization, and to address such human rights violations present in our society today.