THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazismby DAVID OLUSOGA and CASPER W. ERICHSEN
faber and faber, 2010, 394 pages, $45 (hb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Shark Island, just off the coast of Namibia, can lay claim, with three and a half thousand Africans systematically killed by German colonialists early last century, to being the birthplace of the modern death camp. This invention was to be massively expanded in scope by the inventors' Nazi successors three decades later. David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen, in The Kaiser's Holocaust, document this terrible lineage of racial genocide.
The indigenous people of south-west Africa felt the full force of German colonialism during the imperialist 'scramble for Africa' in the late nineteenth century. The successful German colonial movement was led by right wing nationalists who raised the cry of lebensraum (living space), supported by Germany's business class which reaped the super-profits to be had from a colonial trade based on cheap indigenous raw materials and captive export markets.
Using the familiar colonial tools of unfair treaties, 'divide and rule' exploitation of tribal differences, and enrichment of an indigenous elite, Germany secured the fourth-largest European empire in Africa. In German South-West Africa, however, much of this control was only nominal, with significant indigenous land ownership remaining intact.
Increasing the rate of the land grab, combined with the flourishing pseudo-science of racial 'social darwinism', meant doom for the indigenous tribes of the colony who were regarded by German colonialists as the 'weaker race' with no future.
First, the Herero tribe were targeted in a colonial war in 1903. The German military commander, General von Trotha, viewed the Herero as Unmenschen (non-humans), and his self-described policy of 'absolute terrorism' through artillery shells, the Maxim machine gun and a policy of taking no prisoners (women and children included) resulted in a slaughter of the 50,000 rebel Herero and the flight of the survivors into the Omakeke (Kalahari) desert. 'Cleansing Patrols' mopped up any surviving Herero by shooting on sight.
Opposition by socialist deputies in Germany's parliament, and internationally, to the Herero annihilation forced Berlin to refine its strategy through adoption of the Konzentrationslager (concentration camp). These had initially been pioneered by Britain in the Boer War but Berlin's innovation was to add 'extermination through labour' to the lexicon of barbarism.
Collected by the renamed 'Peace Patrols', or forced into the camps by hunger, no Herero prisoners survived more than ten months in the camps. Inadequately fed, housed in huts made of rags, abused, raped and overworked, they died in their thousands. The forced labour of the concentration camps was a "continuation of their extermination, by non-military means".
Whilst the Herero may have been considered good for slave labour, the other major tribe, the Nama, were not. The short-statured Nama were, "like the Aboriginals of Tasmania", a people whose labour was deemed to be of little value. After suppressing a guerilla uprising by one Nama clan, other clans were deceived into surrender by the promise of 'free settlements' only to be sent to the concentration camp at Shark Island where they died from malnutrition, beatings and exposure, with forced labour playing just a secondary role. Shark Island's focus was pure extermination.
Of 80,000 pre-war Herero, 80% had been killed or driven out of German South-West Africa by 1908 whilst a Nama population of 20,000 had been reduced to 13,000. Total extermination had not been achieved, not because of a change of heart but because of the logistical impossibility of total eradication "in a country of 82.4 million hectares, with inadequate maps, almost no roads, [and] pre-World War 1 military technology". The land robbery was complete, however, and 15,000 German settlers worked the surviving Herero as virtual slaves on land they once owned, whilst the Nama were confined to marginal reserves.
The fruits of Germany's ethnic cleansing were passed on to the British empire after World War 1 with South-West Africa becoming a British Protectorate administered by South Africa. With supreme hypocrisy, given its own record of colonial violence, London enthusiastically publicised Berlin's horrors in German South-West Africa for their propaganda value in supporting London's annexation of the former German colony, duly granted in the post-war Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
For the German right, including the Nazis, their longing for Berlin's lost colonies after Germany's expulsion from the club of colonial powers became a mobilising force. Nazi ideology, policies and personnel owed much to Germany's colonial record in Africa.
The right wing Freikorps paramilitary groups, which drowned in blood the German socialist revolution at the end of World War 1, contained many former colonial soldiers who subsequently joined the Nazi party, like General Franz von Epp, a veteran of the colonial genocides against the Herero and Nama, who recruited Hitler into the ultra-right-wing militia in 1922.
Heinrich Goring, father of Hitler's deputy, Hermann Goring, was the first Imperial Commissioner of German South-West Africa. Like his son, he was a committed imperialist, though his conscience-salving belief in the 'civilising mission' of imperialism was a notion that his exterminist son dispensed with.
The colonial ideology of 'living space' expanded its scope under the Nazis to encompass Poland and the Soviet Union whose Slavic people were viewed as 'white niggers' and Untermenschen (sub-humans), along with Jews, by the Nazis and their 'race scientists'. During the winter of 1941-42, 2.2 million Soviet prisoners of war were starved, frozen and beaten to death in vast open-air pens by their Nazi captors whilst a further 1.3 million died in Nazi captivity by war's end, a slaughter rate only modified by the Nazi regime's growing labour needs.
The transition from German colonialism in Africa to Nazism in Europe was united by the practice of racial genocide, with the concentration camp centre stage, all buttressed by a biological racism which explained "genocidal episodes as scientifically inevitable, even desirable".
Olusoga and Erichsen's book is history writing at its best - a compelling narrative fluently told, combining scholarly objectivity with moral outrage. Germany's colonial genocide in Namibia deserves to be forgotten no longer, its underpinning in racial prejudice the unsavoury link to later horrors of racial violence, and continuing race-based social injustices, which benefit only the rich and powerful.