Annie Paul | The Herero Holocaust
Germany was sued in a New York Federal court on January 5, 2018, over what some claim was the 20th century's first case of genocide - the slaughter of members of the Herero and Nama groups in Namibia between 1904 and 1908. Sixty-five thousand Hereros and 10,000 Nama were murdered by imperial German troops after they rebelled against German rule and occupation of their land, now part of Namibia.
The lawsuit was initiated by descendants of these two groups who were excluded from talks held by Germany with Namibia regarding the genocide. Germany has publicly said any settlement will not include reparations directly to the descendants of victims, even if compensation is awarded to Namibia itself. The problem is that the Namibian government is not sufficiently representative of the minority indigenous communities in question and there is no guarantee that the proposed remuneration in the form of aid will reach the descendants of the Nama and Herero.
It would be similar to a hypothetical situation in which reparation for damages inflicted on the Rastafari community during the Coral Gardens rebellion were disbursed to all of Jamaica instead of the injured group. According to a Reuters article, the proposed class-action lawsuit seeks unspecified sums for thousands of descendants of the victims, for the "incalculable damages" that were caused.
The Herero were pastoral herdsmen and women who migrated from Eastern Africa to what is now Namibia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Nama came from South Africa in the early 19th century. Initially competitors, the two groups banded together in the late 19th century against an influx of German settlers who acquired land from the Herero in order to establish farms.
The territory became a German colony called German South West Africa (later under a provision of the League of Nations charter, the region came under the administration of the white South African government.) Apartheid was practised, with the Herero and Nama herded into smaller and smaller areas with little access to land and water.
According to a Wikipedia article, between 1893 and 1903, the Herero and Nama people's lands, as well as their cattle, were systematically appropriated by German colonists. In 1903, the Herero heard that in a further land grab, the Germans planned to place them on reservations. On January 12, 1904, Samuel Maharero, the supreme chief of the Herero, led his people in a large-scale uprising against the Germans.
The German government sent Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha to take over as colonial governor, "and with his arrival, the rhetoric of forceful negotiations gave way to the rhetoric of racial extermination". Von Trotha declared that "no war may be conducted humanely against non-humans", and issued an infamous order called the Vernichtungsbefehl - an extermination order.
"The Herero are no longer German subjects," read von Trotha's order. "The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse, I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won't accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them."
In the slaughter that followed, the Germans drove the Herero into the vast desert adjoining their territory, poisoning their water supplies and limiting access to water and food. Many were held in concentration camps where experiments were conducted on their bodies. German researchers treated Africans as fodder for scientific experiments. Papers published in German medical journals used skull measurements to justify calling Africans Untermenschen - subhumans.
Was all this an advance trial of the tactics Germans would unleash on Jews 40 years later? At any rate, of approximately 80,000 Herero who lived in German South West Africa at the beginning of Germany's colonial rule, only 15,000 were alive by 1908. A 1985 United Nations report has said the "massacre" of Hereros qualified as a genocide.
A recent New Yorker article documents the presence of the remains of eight Hereros at the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, and the attempts of Herero descendants to have these remains repatriated. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or nagpra, was passed requiring institutions to inventory and repatriate human remains, although nagpra applies only to museums that receive federal funding, and does not cover human remains taken from outside the United States.
Researchers at prominent museums such as the Smithsonian and the American Natural History Museum opposed the act, arguing that their museums owned the human remains. Those proposing the law had to invoke the precedence of human rights over property rights before the act began to gain traction!
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org tweet @anniepaul.