Herero prisoners, 70% were worked to death constructing a railroad.

Update: Since the topic of this report is quite bleak, I thought I would balance this with a positive comment I received from Candacia Greeman, a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer in South Sudan:

I wanted to let you know that we successfully facilitated four (4) HROC workshops in Rumbek, South Sudan last year. We had a great response from the community and they have been asking for more workshops. One of the workshops was with our Loreto Peace Club members who were so impressed by the power that HROC has to drive real change in the community that they wanted to be able to share what they had learnt with women and children in the local community. They created ‘Listening Circles’ which use lessons learnt from the ‘loss, grief and mourning’ sections of HROC to help community members to learn how to heal from trauma. So far, more than 15 Listening Circles have been formed as an immediate response to traumatic events in the local community, such as death and incidents of intercommunal violence. They comprised groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants formed a circle or semi-circle and were guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes. The Listening Circles incorporated HROC exercises, touch and breathing exercises (from Capacitar) and modes of relating specific to the local community.


Let us use Jack Nusan Porter’s definition of genocide: “Genocide is the deliberate destruction, in whole or in part, by a government or its agents, of a racial, sexual, religious, tribal or political minority. It can involve not only mass murder, but also starvation, forced deportation, and political, economic and biological subjugation. Genocide involves three major components: ideology, technology, and bureaucracy/organization.” Originally I was going to cover eleven genocides:

  1. German: Herero/Nama in German South-West Africa
  2. German: Maji-Maji Rebellion in German East Africa
  3. Belgium: King Leopold’s rule in the Belgian Congo
  4. French: French Actions in its colony in the Congo
  5. British: Boer War against Afrikaners and Africans
  6. British: Conquest of Kenya
  7. United States: Colonial war in the Philippines: (Ok, the Philippines isn’t in Africa but I didn’t want Americans to think that they were “exceptional” as this war killed between 200,000 and 1.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation
  8. British: Mau-Mau Rebellion
  9. Nigeria: Biafra Civil War
  10. Burundi: 1972 Hutu Genocide
  11. Rwanda: 1994 Tutsi Genocide

These, of course, aren’t the only ones, but frankly these alone would be a whole book. I found that just covering the first one was more than enough material for this Report from Kenya.

 The European scramble for Africa officially began in 1884 with the Berlin Conference that began to divide up the continent among the major European powers. Although late to arrive on the African scene, the newly united Germany played a major role by securing a number of colonies. One of these was German South-West Africa (now Namibia) just north of South Africa. From 1904 to 1908 the Germans conducted a genocide against the Herero and Nama tribes. The reason this is in the news these days – perhaps with all the Trumpism you haven’t heard about this in the United States – on July 14 last year, Germany agreed to recognize as genocide the massacre of 110,000 Herero and Nama people by German troops between 1904 and 1908 including a landmark admission of historical guilt. Details for compensation have not yet been worked out.

When Herero and Nama pastoral people revolted against the then recent occupation of their lands by German settlers, the German colonial government responded with brutal force. When Lothar von Trotha was appointed Governor to contain the revolt, he officially proclaimed, “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”


Herero concentration camp.

The Germans quickly and easily defeated the Herero and Nama, but then they continued their onslaught against them. The Germans drove the defeated people into the Namid desert and anyone who tried to return because of hunger or dehydration was shot to death by the German soldiers. The few survivors were then herded into concentration camps where they were used as labor for German businesses. Many then died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion from overwork. After the end of the genocide, the 1911 census indicated only 15,000 Herero and 9,000 Nama remained alive – only 18% of the original population of these two tribes survived the genocide.

The genocide in German South-West Africa was a precursor, a dry run for the Holocaust. Some of it was direct. The most prominent person was Franz Ritter von Epp, a German soldier in the Herero genocide; and then, from 1933 to 1945, the Reichsstatthalter (governor) of Bavaria where he participated in the extermination of the Jewish and Roma populations there.

Eugen Fischer

German scientist Eugen Fischer came from Germany to the Herero concentration camps to conduct medical experiments. These included experiments in sterilization and the injection of smallpox, typhus, and tuberculosis pathogens into the prisoners. He also collected bones and skulls of the Herero which he sent back to Germany to be studied. In addition he also did “race” experiments on biracial people who had German fathers and African mothers. From this he developed and popularized the ideas of racial purity leading, in 1912, to the outlawing of interracial marriages and sexual relationships in all German colonies. His books on race theory influenced Hitler while he was in prison in 1924 and subsequently in 1935 the race purity restriction in the Nuremberg laws forbade marriage and sexual relations between German and Jews/Roma/Afro-Germans – notice the inclusion of half African/half Germans. There is more – Fischer trained Nazi doctors and one of his students was Josef Mengele, the anthropologist/doctor who performed the notorious genetic experiments on Jewish children at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In summary the Herero/Nama genocide was a precursor for the German Holocaust not only in the people involved and who they influenced but also in the construction of the racial purity doctrines that led to genocides in both places.


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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.


David Zarembka

Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC)

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