2013 – World 1st 20th Century Genocide_1.1

Worlds 1st Genocide of the 20th Centuary by Germany in Namibia_1.1: 

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German Vernichtungsbefehl (“annihilation order”) against the Herero and Nama People: “Every Herero Will Be Shot”
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English: Surviving Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German South-West Africa (modern day Namibia). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The annihilation order against the Herero and Nama people was issued at the end of the war after the Germans defeated the Herero on October 2, 1904. The genocide order, Schiessbefehel, issued by Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha stated:

I, the great General of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people. The Herero people are no longer German subjects . . . The Herero people must leave the country. If the nation doesn’t do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at. [1]

Von Trotha’s proclamation affirmed policies of terrorism and force resulting in an almost extinction of the Herero people by way of starvation, concentration camps, and other genocidal tactics. Germany’s colonization of South West Africa, present day Namibia, ended in what many claim as the first genocide of the 20th century, killing tens of thousands of Herero people including men, women and children. This project seeks to discuss the way in which the German colonial forces committed genocide against the Herero and Nama people and the purpose of trade cards and other advertisements detailing accounts of Herero people, I will show the differences between what these portrayed and reality of how the Hereros were treated by the German settlers.


Dating back to April of 1884, Germany became a protectorate of the South-West African lands, the land would be known as the German South-West Africa (GSWA). Germany’s aim for GSWA was to build its reputation as a main political power in the world at the expense of the Herero people. The systematic establishment and construction of German rule began with the arrival of Theodor Leutwein. Theodor Leutwein was a colonial administrator of GSWA until 1904. His agenda was to push the German administration agenda and secure political power by way of ‘chieftain policies.’ These policies allowed for African leaders to remain in their positions and create working relationships with them that gained him support of the most important Herero and Nama leaders such Hendrik Witbooi and Samuel Maharero.

When German colonizers first came to settle on the lands of present day Namibia, the relations between the Herero and the Germans can be summed up as a tense situation. The increase of German settlers to the land caused increasing problems with the Herero and Nama population. One major principle that rose conflict was that White Germans were not subject to African law where they were taken to German courts. Capital crimes as defined in African laws such as rape and murder were hardly ever punished. On the other hand, all Africans were subjected to German laws.

The Attack:

Events beginning in the early months of 1904 transformed the relations between the Herero and Germans in German South West Africa. Murders and mutilation of hundreds of women, men, and children ignited the war. In the beginning attacks, the Herero, sparing women, children and missionaries, killed 123 Germans.  In this attack, the Hereros attacked those who raped their women and were not persecuted, and the Herero housekeepers killed their German employers while they were asleep. Chief Samuel Maharero ordered the Hereros that this war was only against the Germans, not all white, he did not want this to become a race war.

After a devastating defeat by the Herero people against Leutwein’s army, General von Trotha designated himself as the supreme commander. Under his orders, Herero workers were imprisoned and lynched even those who sided with Kaiser were attacked. Three gallows were constructed in Windhoek, which displayed captured Hereros hanging like a public spectacle, which were left for days to instill fear among the Hereros. The picture below depicts what is described of the gallows where Hereros hung with the German soldiers overseeing the process. The small print on the left corner reads “German So. W. Africa Hanging Party. 312 Negroes Hanged.” This photo of the lynching of Herero people was taken by White settlers, which showed the beaten bodies hanging from the gallows at Windhoek.

Hanging Party, GSWA
Source: http://www.sahistory.org.za/content/german-swa-hanging-312-negroes-original-caption-martin-plaut-collection


Scholar Jeremy Sarkin proposes two main reasons for the genocide and harsh treatment of the Hereros: punishment for rebelling against German rule during the uprising of 1904; secondly, the occupancy of the Herero’s land and possession of their cattle.[2]  Jurgen Zimmerer discusses the way in which it is erroneous to call the attack on the Germans by the Herero people as an ‘uprising’ or ‘rebellion’ because of the differences between perception of colonial powers: the land was in possession of the Herero people so it was theirs, and the European conferences that gave Germany the colonial power which complicated matters. [3]

‘Genocide ‘is never a sudden or unplanned act…It is a deliberate, pre-meditated and carefully orchestrated orgy of mass murder for political purposes…a well organised campaign of carnage…’[4]

The Herero people were in desperate situations, being driven out of their land to the Omaheke desert where they were left to perish. Many Herero cut the throats of their cattle in order to drink the blood, squeezing the last drops of dampness from the stomachs of the dying cattle. Many still died since these measures helped very little. It is the premeditated killings of women and children and deliberate extermination of the whole Nama and Herero people, which made this an act of genocide.

Under the rule of General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha, a veteran of the German army of 10 years, the annihilation order against the Hereros was declared. Lothar von Trotha was a commander in Germany East Africa during the Wahehe uprising between 1894 and 1897. His reputation was summed up in just a word: ruthlessness. Von Trotha stated:

I know enough tribes in Africa. They all have the same mentality insofar as they yield only to force. It was and remains my policy to apply this force by absolute terrorism and even cruelty. I shall destroy the rebellious tribes by shedding rivers of blood and money. Only then will it be possible to sow the seeds of something new that will endure.[4]

This statement was released in 1904. In 1905, von Trotha declared a state of martial law, making him the commander of the military and civil affairs. After an attempt of the Herero chiefs to negotiate peace, von Trotha dismissed it and in early August issued the ‘Directives for the Attack on the Hereros’.  On August 16th and 26th he ordered his troops to cut off waterholes and patrol along the Omaheke desert to prevent the Herero people from moving back to the colony. The main killer of the Hereros was through dehydration.

German Propaganda:

During the genocide of the Herero people, many trade cards and other advertisements were being promoted at the time. “Some scholars have pointed to a broad-based escalation of racist rhetoric and racism in German culture as a result of the Herero War. Others have argued that older discourses of race and colonialism structured the terms around which the conflict was discussed and debated.”[5] Trade cards (Sammelbilder) were popularized when given away with the purchase of commodities such as soup powder or chocolate which posed as propaganda for Germans, as many German people, specifically children collected them.[6] The majority of the trade cards displayed Herero women as lewd images and some even portrayed the Herero people as rebellious, and dangerous.  These trade cards attempted to legitimize the treatment that Hereros had to endure at the hand of the Germans in GSWA by showing the Herero people in a negative light. “On one hand, some visions of the uprising (as opposed to textual and rhetorical invocations of race in newspapers and parliamentary debates) were not merely illustrative devices but broadcast and sold as commodities in and of themselves.”[7] Ciarlo discusses the way in which criticisms broke out over how the Germans were handling the war in GSWA, bringing to light the colonial budget in order to attack the government’s actions.

The most widely circulated images were on collectible trading cards of companies such as Aecht Frank coffee, Erkel soap, Theodor Hildebrand cocoa, Walser & Schwarz, and Hartwig & Vogel’s chocolate. The card series began with scenes showing Hereros murdering and plundering, at times they showed the German women scared, implying the threat of sexual harassment.[8]

This image shown above is of typical trading cards, this one of some Herero men stealing cattle. The words on the postcard says ‘Herero uprising in German South Africa, by cattle consuming Hereros.’ Aecht Frank was a coffee producing company now owned by Nestle that was founded in Germany issued trade cards of the Herero uprising in GSWA.  While the Herero people are displayed in these actions, it was usually the Germans that stole cattle. Trade cards such as this one helped to insinuate the racial theories about Africans such as them being savages, dangerous and needing to be tamed. On the right of the trade card is a Herero woman creating pottery.

The trade card above displays a map of German South West Africa, and of a Herero woman, and children outside of Windhoek camp. Hartwig & Vogel’s Chocolate Company produced this trade card instead of Aecht Franck. This projection can be contrasted with an original photo of Windhoek, a concentration camp that Hereros were placed in after the war of 1904.

This is a photo of the concentration camp of Winhoek. It can be seen how this photo, and the German propaganda trade card contrasts. While the trade card seeks to imply that ordinary, peaceful things are going on in the German South West Africa, when in reality there is a stark difference. Herero people were being killed, starved and worked to death in concentration camps.

 The colonial war was always framed as a race war. This trade card displays the Herero people as rioting and rebelling against the German colonizers. This card depicts them as dangerous, showing the Herero looting a home of a German man, the house burning and a German dead in a pool of blood. The Herero are seen as carrying bundles of valuables, a visual proof of theft. The words on the card are translated from Google Translation as ‘The Herero riot in German South West Africa, looting Mr. Gamisch’s farm. This trade card can be interpreted as the Herero people are not only violent, but they need to be controlled. Cards such as these allowed for Germans to accept what Germany was doing to the Herero people in Africa, these types of depictions increased the thoughts of racial superiority of the German people over Africans.  According to this political propaganda, Germans needed protection from inferior animals. Trade cards such as these went mainstream in 1905. Throughout the German genocide of the Herero people, collections of trading cards and photographs were offered in order to not only portray the Herero people as savagery, but to also gain backing support from German citizens, especially those that disagreed with the colonizing of Africa.

The photo above shows the Hereros men with guns shooting at perhaps German men. This photo depicts how Germans attempted to depict the Herero people as dangerous. The bottle of the trade card,  translated through Google Translations, says the colonial struggle in South West African: Hereros in combat.

The war in South West Africa shifted the German consumer imagery in three ways: first, the acceleration of the tendency to deploy images of African natives in advertising, the Herero conflict became a modern media event which increased interests on both the advertiser and public’s side. Secondly, to attract purchasers advertisers and third, the African imagery came with a shift in pictorial styles used to illustrate African figures.[9] The trade cards were not only used to increase support of Germany’s colonialism in South West Africa, but to justify the brutal cruelty that Germans placed upon the Herero people. The images meant to imprint on the minds of children, who largely collected these trade cards, to increase German propaganda through false depictions.


The atrocities against the Herero and Nama people are what are considered the first genocide of the 20th century. 60,000 to 100,000 Herero and Nama people were exterminated from their lands in South West Africa, which constitutes to about 85% of their population. Germans not only exiled the Hereros from their land, but also poisoned the water wells, driving them to the Omaheke desert. Under the orders of General von Trotha, was the annihilation order against the Nama and Herero people issued.

During the time of casualties in GSWA, many German people collected trade cards depicting false realities of the Hereros in South West Africa. The usage of these cards was to increase German propaganda and increase the support of the treatment of the Hereros in GSWA.  In reality, the Herero and Nama people were executed in the most extreme ways, under the worst conditions. Although the policies to exterminate the Herero was impractically, both logical and militarily, the cruelty still burned in the eyes of von Trotha. Kaiser Wilhelm applauded von Trotha’s action and energy, as he wrote to the General:

“You have entirely fulfilled my expectations when I named you commander of the colonial troops, and I take pleasure in expressing, once again, my utter gratitude for your accomplishments so far.”[10]

The cruelty by the Germans in South West Africa under Kaiser Wilhelm, directed controlled by General von Trotha. These accounts of atrocities were written in the ‘Blue Book’, which documented the genocide to be used to prevent Germany from ever regaining control over its colonies. Later this book was destroyed, in the interests of white settlers, stating that it was a propaganda tactic, not to be used for reparations, but to be used to ensure that German would lose all of its colonies.

The Herero people demanded reparations of one billion dollars for their ancestor’s robbed land, possessions, and treatment. 100 years after the genocide, Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul visited Namibia in 2004, asking for forgiveness of the atrocities dating back to 1904. An apology was also issued in 2007 from von Trotha’s descendents, to Chief Alfons Maharero, the grandchild of Samuel Maharero for the atrocities that were inflicted upon the Herero people by von Trotha and his military. Although the Hereros were denied reparations for the ancestors, Germany has made strides in offering millions of euros to present-day Namibia through German development aid, but this act should not be mistaken with justice for the Herero people.[11] Justice is a hard topic when it comes to genocide, but it can never be justified. This paper intends to reveal this atrocity, not as a “forgotten” genocide, but as the first genocide of the 20th century that will never be forgotten.

The photo of von Trotha’s descendents walking with Herero officials at the apology in 2007. Source: http://www.altearmee.de/herero/index.htm.htm

[1] Lemarchand, René. (2011) Forgotten Genocides: Oblivion Denial, and Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Sarkin, Jeremy. (2010) Germany’s Genocide of the Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II, His General, His Settlers, His Soldiers. Cape Town, South Africa: UCT Press.

[3] Zimmerer, Jürgen. (2003) Genocide in German South-West Africa: The Colonial War of 1904-1908 and Its Aftermath. Monmouth, Wales: Merlin Press.

[4] S. Johnson. (2003) Peace without justice: Hegemonic instability or international criminal law? London: Ashgate Publishing, p. 200

[5] Erichsen, Casper and David Olusoga. (2010) The Kaiser’s Holocaust. London: Faber and Faber.

[6, 7, 8,9] Ciarlo, David. (2011) Advertising Empire: Race and War Visual Culture in Imperial Germany. London, England: Harvard University Press.

[10] Erichsen, Casper and David Olusoga. (2010) The Kaiser’s Holocaust. London: Faber and Faber.

[11] Jones, Adam. (2012) Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. London: Routledge.

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