The first genocide of the 20th century

The language, methods, and scale of the Herero genocide remain shocking even in the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust.

One of 20 skulls of Ovaherero and Nama people returned to Namibia at a ceremony in Berlin in 2011 (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Media coverage has focused on the refusal of Turkey to acknowledge the genocide. It is indisputable Ottoman Turks carried out genocide against the Armenians in 1915. But the oft-repeated assertion that it was the first genocide of the 20th century is wrong: it was the attempted annihilation of the Herero by the Germans in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) from 1904 to 1907.

The language, methods, and scale of the Herero genocide remain shocking even in the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust. In their quest to occupy and exploit the territory of the pastoralist Herero, the German colonizers recruited a mercenary army led by Lt. Gen. Lothar von Trotha. The Vernichtungsbefehl (“Destruction Order”) he issued was terrifyingly clear: “Within the German borders, every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, shall be shot.”

The genocide culminated in the infamous “march into death” of Herero who were forced into the Omaheke Desert. The Germans sealed the perimeter with guard towers, poisoned water sources, and then bayoneted to death Herero who attempted to escape dehydration. An official history of the German General Staff compiled after the genocide rightly concluded: “The arid Omaheke was to complete what the German army had begun: the annihilation of the Herero people.” Those who survived the desert were sent to concentration camps where captured Herero soldiers, along with women and children, were forced to work. Women boiled and scraped the skin off the heads of Herero who had been killed. Those skulls were then shipped off to Germany for museum displays and eugenics research.

Recent articles highlight that Hitler, while planning the Final Solution, dismissively remarked “Who remembers the Armenian genocide?” Indeed, even less known was (and remains) the Herero genocide which has many parallels with the Holocaust: the destruction order, the concentration camps, the forced labor. The so-called scientific research by German geneticist Eugen Fischer, who argued that mixed-race children in South-West Africa were inferior to the offspring of German parents, was cited in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Up to 80% of the Herero died during the genocide. While a former official of the German government apologized for the genocide on its 100th anniversary in 2004, the Herero have never received reparations. Let us set the historical record straight: the first genocide of the 20th century was carried out by Europeans in Africa.

Further Reading

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The imperial forest

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The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

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Āfrīqāyī

It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.