Genocide of the Herero

The Lives Less Publicized


Throughout history, states have gone to war when their interests demanded it.  Sometimes, this interest includes the decimation of another culture; done in the self interest of the aggressor.  Occasionally, this there is a racial, ethnic, or political motivator for such a callous slaughter.  Oftentimes, the occasion revolves around land and resources. War, for these reasons, has occurred since the dawn of humankind.  For all the instances of lost cultures that make it to the history books, there are many more lost to time.  These cultures, though their erasure is no less important than modern “genocides,” were also victims of another’s push for land, religion, or ethnic supremacy.  Genocide occurs practically the same now and for the same reasons, as it did one hundred years ago.  However, the difference is that the genocide of these pre-modern cultures had the misfortune of occurring in an era less globally publicized than the one in which we live; and this mass publicity is responsible for an avalanche of awareness over the rights and wrongs of warfare.

Genocide, for these historical reasons, took place in modern Namibia in 1904.  No longer willing to put up with tribal “encroachment,” Germans increased their military presence in the colony. After a Herero rebellion over the land issue[1], the German military commander, General von Trotha, ordered the Hereros to leave the country or be killed. As the Hereros scrambled across the Omaheke desert to escape to British Botswana, Trotha issued this ultimatum: “I, the great general of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people… All Hereros must leave this land… Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall no longer receive any women or children; I will drive them back to their people. I will shoot them. This is my decision for the Herero people.” Hereros who turned back; men and women, as well as children; were massacred by machine guns, or driven again into the desert, on the “trail of bones,” this time, to die. Between 35,000 and 105,000 people were estimated killed.  Those that lived were put into concentration camps, where “forced labor, disease and malnutrition took their toll.” Between 50 and 80 percent of the entire population would be wiped out.[2]

The governor of the colony, Major Theodor Leutwein, had concerns that the Herero would be exterminated, and the some in the Reichstag[3] thought the same as well, calling the initial Herero aggression a “justified liberation war.”  However, there was little understanding among the colonists that this was a war for land, not just a run-of-the-mill tribal rebellion.  The German press treated it as such and considered it a right and natural thing, naming military objectives of the destruction of tribal structure and the confiscation of weapons.  The Herero maintained their struggle for as long as they could, even getting the better of the German troops before von Trotha was assigned.  The change in power would create a different outcome besides liberation for the Herero people.  Under von Trotha, the German Army became “ruthless in pursuing their beaten enemy…no pains, no sacrifices were spared in eliminating the last remnants of enemy resistance. Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one waterhole to the next, until finally he became victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.”[4]             When the Germans weren’t hunting the Herero like wild game, they were poisoning wells; the most one could do was to make the perilous journey across the desert.  The lucky would make it to Botswana; the unlucky, if not killed by the bullet, would starve or die of thirst.

While the German government “disagreed with the intended course of action,” they still allowed von Trotha to continue, only forcing him to change his orders as to subject “all parts of the nation to ‘stern treatment.’”[5] He claimed that the knowledge he had learned in the field mad negotiations “pointless.” Later, when a group of Herero men were offered to come and surrender nearly all 70 who showed up were killed.  The genocide would continue in forced labor camps, were emaciated men were worked to death while women and children starved or faced disease, and oftentimes rape. Again, when surrendering, they were “guaranteed fair treatment,” yet in the camps, they were subjected to brutal treatment by the hands of their German overseers.  The Herero story even has its own mad geneticist, Eugen Fischer, who conducted research using prisoners of war, the results of which provided “evidence” of German racial superiority.[6]

The question is, with all the elements of genocide, why is this moment in history not as well known as Jewish Holocaust? Certainly, the number of overall Herero deaths is not nearly as dramatic.  Although people hear about genocide and genocides occurring and are even familiar with popular euphemisms to avoid issuance of the word, such as “ethnic cleansing,” the issue is still underreported.  Many times when genocidal acts are reported, as in the case of the Herero, the aggressor is portrayed as the victim, with little regard to the innocent civilians blanketed under the term ‘rebel.’  Had there Herero situation been brought into the hearts of the West, with bias put aside, the outcome may have been different.  This capability did not exist to the degree it does now, where people from around the globe can pick their pet cause to donate to.  Even still, today’s methods of addressing genocide are still met with similar arm-chair attitude as they were one hundred years ago.


Dr. Dierks, Klaus. “Namibia Library of Dr. Klaus Dierks.” (accessed 11 January 2010).

“Herero Genocide.” (11 January 2010).

Wozny, Peter. “Remembering the Herero Rebellion.” Deutsche Welle. 11 January 2004,1564,1084266,00.html  (accessed 11 January 2010).


[1] Wozny, Peter. “Remembering the Herero Rebellion.” Deutsche Welle. 11 January 2004,1564,1084266,00.html  (accessed 11 January 2010).

[2] Dr. Dierks, Klaus. “Namibia Library of Dr. Klaus Dierks.” (accessed 11 January 2010).

[3] Reichstag was the German Parliament until 1945.

[4] “Herero Genocide.” (11 January 2010).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


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