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How the Germans exterminated the Hereros. (History: Namibia).

In this FINAL instalment of The Blue Book on Namibia published in 1918 by the British government but destroyed in 1926, we look at how the Germans exterminated the Hereros. It is a harrowing tale.

Dr Karl Dove, the German, had written: "While however the single Herero cannot be regarded as a very brave person, he must not be looked upon as harmless. On the contrary, the chief danger from them is their numbers and these numbers are a standing menace to our safety."

Therefore, the [German] settler who helped to reduce the number of Hereros was performing a public service. There can be no doubt that during the period 1890-1904, very many Hereros were done to death in one way or another or died as the result of brutal floggings and ill-treatment.

Despite this, such murders were treated lightly; where possible they were hushed up entirely, and at worst the murderer in his own interests was advised, for fear of reprisals, to leave the country or go to another district.

In only four cases during the period 1890-1904 was a German murderer brought to trial, and then the imposition of anything like an adequate or commensurate penalty was unheard of. It was generally endeavoured by the German authorities to compound the offence by allowing the murderer to pay compensation in the shape of a few dozen goats to the relatives of the deceased. When Leutwein was relieved of the governorship, one of the charges levelled against him was that he had precipitated the rebellion of 1904 owing to his excessive leniency towards the natives.

It will be seen therefore that native murderers were invariably sentenced to death, while in the four cases actually tried, the highest penalty imposed on a white man was three years' imprisonment. Moreover, these white criminals never served their full term. "Surely," says Leutwein, "this goes to prove that a higher value was placed on the life of a white man than on that of a native."

The death of a native as the result of a severe thrashing was not regarded by the German courts as murder. Leutwein says the natives could nor understand such "subtle distinctions, to them murder and beating to death were one and the same thing". Germans who thrashed natives to such an extent as to render it necessary "to send them to hospital" were always allowed to escape with a fine.

"On the other hand," says Leutwein, "natives who assaulted white men were always punished by lashes and imprisonment in chains (kettenhaft)."

Ordinary flogging of natives by their masters (euphemistically termed "paternal chastisement") was permitted unrestrictedly, and, provided the native had nor "to go to hospital" as a result thereof, nothing was said about it. In October 1903, the chief of the Bondelswartz Hottentots, Willem Christian, was murdered by German soldiers at Warmbad. This resulted in the Bondelswartz rising. The spark once applied, it took little time for the conflagration to spread, and by January 1904 the entire Hereto tribe had risen against their German masters and was in the course of the year joined by the majority of the Hottentot races in the south.

Governor Leutwein was in the south dealing with the Hottentots when the news of the Hereto rising reached him. He was pained and astonished to learn that Samuel Maherero (the "paramount chief" created by the Germans) had forsaken Germany and her unlimited supplies of rum for the purpose of going into rebellion, and that not only was Samuel a rebel, but he was the leader, the life and soul of the movement. Leutwein immediately wrote an upbraiding letter to "my dear Samuel", asking for his reasons for this rash step. The letter was duly delivered by a missionary and through the same channel Leutwein received the following reply, dated 6th March 1904 (printed by Rohrbach at page 333 of his book, Deutsche Kolonial-Wirtschaft):

"To the Great Ambassador of the Kaiser:

Governor Leutwein:

"I have received your letter, and what you have written to me and my headman is well understood. I and my headman reply to you as follows:

I did not commence the war this year; it has been started by the white people; for as you know how many Hereros have been killed by white people, particularly traders, with rifles and in the prisons.

"And always when I brought these cases to Windhuk, the blood of the people was valued at no more than a few head of small stock, namely, from 50 to 15.

"The [German] traders increased the troubles also in this way that they voluntarily gave credit to my people. After having done so, they robbed us; they went so far as to pay themselves by, for instance, taking away by force two or three head of cattle to cover a debt of one pound sterling.

"It is these things which have caused war in the land... Eventually, Lieutenant N. began to treat me badly and to see a reason for killing me... He hid soldiers in boxes at the fort and sent for me so that he might shoot me. I did not go, I saw his intentions and I fled.

"Thereupon Lieutenant R. sent soldiers with rifles after me to shoot me. For these reasons, I became angry and said: "No, I must kill the white men, they themselves have said that I must die." This--that I must die--was told me by a white man named X.

I am the Chief, Samuel Maherero." (Note: the names are suppressed by the German printers of Rohrbach's book in which this letter is printed in full).

It was the desire of the Germans to precipitate a general rebellion. The extermination of the Hereros and the confiscation of the cattle and sheep they still possessed was their main objective. Of Governor Leutwein, whatever his faults may have been, let it be said that he personally was no party to this miserable plot.

The settlers had achieved their object. The Hereros were in open rebellion and it remained only to secure the spoils...

Leutwein says (in his book, page 467): "It seems to have been the definite intention of the Herero leaders to protect all women and children. When, in spite of this, some were murdered, this is to be ascribed to the fact that everywhere inhuman people are to be found who do nor confine themselves to such limits."

It has probably never occurred before in the native wars that a definite line was drawn between combatants and non-combatants, enemies and friends. It speaks volumes for the humane temperament and mildness of the Hereros. It cannot possibly have been on account of their barbarity that Germany exterminated the majority of this fine race.

There is something deeply pathetic in this picture of the desperate Herero warrior with his ancient rifle and half a dozen cartridges deciding to rise and defend his liberties against the might of the German Empire, and despite his worries and anxieties and the terrible future which faced him, passing resolutions and giving orders to ensure the safety of the women and children of his oppressors.

Can anyone allege that these poor mild-mannered creatures who had borne the German yoke for over 14 years had no justification for the step they took?

Is there anyone in the civilised world who can assert that Germany was justified when she allowed Von Trotha and his soldiers mercilessly to butcher and drive to their death 60,000 or more of these unfortunate people and to destroy every asset in the way of cattle, sheep, goats and other possessions?

It is now necessary, distasteful as the task may be, to disclose some of the ways and means by which Von Trotha carried out his "extermination policy".

As might have been expected, the Hereros, encumbered in their movements in the field by the presence of their women and children and their cattle and sheep, and poorly armed and organised, were, from the very outset, no match for the trained and disciplined soldiers of Germany who were poured into the country.

What could the Hereros do when faced with the modern rifle, the Maxim and the quick-firing Krupp gun?

By August 1904, the German troops had defeated the Hereros with great losses and had captured several thousands of prisoners. The rising was virtually over. Samuel Maherero and several leading chiefs gathered their cattle and sheep and made a wild dash through the Kalahari Desert with a view to seeking British protection.

The bulk of the Herero nation, however, clinging to their remaining cattle and small stock, had withdrawn into the mountains of the Waterberg and the bushveld north of Gobabis. Jr was about this time that Leutwein, having been declared too lenient, was superseded by General Von Trotha. This new commander was noted in Berlin for his merciless severity in dealing with natives. In the Chinese Boxer rebellion, he had carried our his Imperial master's instructions to the letter; and no more worthy son of Attila could have been selected for the work in hand.

He had just suppressed the Arab rebellion in German East Africa by bathing that country in the blood of thousands and thousands of its inhabitants, men, women and children; and his butchery there ended, he was ordered by Wilhelm II to proceed to German South-West Africa and deal with the rebel natives. Von Trotha was indifferent as to the means by which his objects should be attained. Treachery and breaches of faith were to him admissible. No doubt the reason and excuse advanced was as usual the inferior kulrur-position of the natives. Shortly after he took command, the Hereros were given to understand that reasonable terms of peace might be granted if their leaders came in and treated [signed a treaty]. The subtle German felt that it would be easier to dispose of the masses, once their best leaders were gone. In the meantime, Von Trotha was drawing his cordon of troops into position and preparing the final massacre. Having completed his plans, Von Trotha issued his notorious "Vernichtungs Befehi' (or exterm ination order) in terms of which no Herero--man, woman, child or suckling babe--was to receive mercy or quarter. 'Kill every one of them," said Von Trotha, "and take no prisoners. I wish to ensure that never again would there be a Herero rebellion." This order, be it remembered, was made against an already defeated people, ready to come in and surrender on any terms and entirely without ammunition or other means of waging war.

In his report to Berlin, Von Trotha said (see Rohrbach page 359):

"That the making of terms with the Hereros was impossible, seeing that their chiefs had nearly all fled, or through their misdeeds during the rebellion had rendered themselves so liable that the German Government could not treat with them.

"In addition to this, he regarded the acceptance of a more or less voluntary surrender as a possible means of building up the old tribal organisations again and, as such, it would be a great political mistake, which earlier or later would again cause bloodshed."

It is perfectly clear from this that Von Trotha definitely decided not to allow the Hereros to surrender, even though nearly all their chiefs had fled and he in cold blood decided to butcher this now disorganised, leaderless, and harmless tribe in order to ensure that there would be no trouble from the Hereros in the future.

When the spirit in which this order was conceived and given and carried out is understood, and when the real purport and object of the preliminary acts of treachery, whereby the chiefs and leaders were murdered, are borne in mind, it will be easier to understand that the following sad and terrible details as to how the extermination order was carried out are not figments of the imagination, but the sworn descriptions of eyewitnesses, and that the ghastly slaughter which took place was approved by Von Trotha and the master [King Wilhem II] whom he served.

In Peter Moor's Journey to South-West Africa (published by Gustav Frenssen), a disjointed narrative of happenings during the Herero rising as related by returned soldiers, little of the actual horrors and butcheries which took place is conveyed.

A German author writing for a German public would naturally take care to conceal the entirely barbaric side of the affair, lest it should shock those simple-minded people who really believed in the superior "kultur" of their race. There are, however, here and there little sidelights, little slips of the pen apparently, which, when read in conjunction with the evidence which follows, help to create a picture of merciless inhumanity and calculated ferocity which is well-nigh unbelievable. On their way to the battle front, the newly arrived soldiers of Von Trotha are discussing the causes of the rising with the old settlers, One of the older men, who had been long in the country, said:

"Children, how should it be otherwise. They were ranchmen and proprietors and we were there to make them landiess working men, and they rose up in revolt. This is their struggle for independence.

"The matter stood this way; there were missionaries here who said you are our dear brothers in the Lord and we want to bring you these benefits--namely, faith, love and hope. And there were soldiers, farmers and traders, and they said we want to rake your rattle and your land gradually away from you and make you slaves without legal rights. These two things didn't go side by side. Iris a ridiculous and crazy project. Either it is right to colonise, that is to deprive others of their rights, to rob and make slaves, or it is just and right to christianise, that is to proclaim and live up to brotherly love."

The following are statements by Hereros as to their treatment during the rising:

* Manuel Timbu (Cape Bastard), at present Court Interpreter in native languages at Omaruru, states under oath:

"I was sent to Okahandja and appointed groom to the German commander, General von Trotha. I had to look after his horses and to do odd jobs at his headquarters. We followed the retreating Hereros from Okahandja to Waterberg, and from there to the borders of the Kalahari Desert.

"When leaving Okahandja, Von Trotha issued an order to his troops that no quarter was to be given to the enemy. No prisoners were to be taken, but all, regardiess of age or sex, were to be killed. [He] said: 'We must exterminate them, so that we won't be bothered with rebellions in the future'.

"As a result of this order, the soldiers shot all natives we came across. It did not matter who they were. Some were peaceful people who had not gone into the rebellion; others, such as old men and women, had never left their homes; yet these were all shot. [Footnote: In this way, thousands of harmless and peaceful Berg-Damaras met the same fate as the Hereros].

"I often saw this done. Once while on the march near Hamakari beyond the Waterberg, we came to some waterholes. It was winter and very cold. We came on two very old Hereto women. They had made a small fire and were warming themselves. They had dropped back from the main body of Hereros owing to exhaustion. Von Trotha and his staff were present. A German soldier dismounted, walked up to the old women and shot them both as they lay there. Riding along we got to a veld, where we camped. While we wer there, a Herero woman caine walking up to us from the bush. I was the Herero interpreter. I was told to rake the woman to the General to see if she could give information as to the whereabouts of the enemy.

"I took her to Gen von Trotha; she was quite a young woman and looked tired and hungry Von Trotha asked her several questions; but she did not seem inclined to give information. Von Trotha then ordered that she should be taken aside and bayoneted.

"I took the woman away and a soldier came up with his bayonet in his hand. He offered it to me and said I had better stab the woman. I said I would never dream of doing such a thing, and asked why the poor woman could nor be allowed to live. The soldier laughed and said: 'If you wont do it, I will show you what a German soldier can do.'

"He took the woman aside a few paces and drove the bayonet through her body. He then withdrew the bayonet and brought it all dripping with blood and poked it under my nose in a jeering way, saying: 'You see, I have done it.' Officers and soldiers were standing around looking on, but no one interfered to save the woman. Her body was not buried, but, like all others they killed, simply allowed to lie and rot and be eaten by wild animals...

"On our return journey, we again haired at Hamakari. There, near a hut, we saw an old Herero woman of about 50 or 60 years digging in the ground for wild onions. Von Trotha and his staff were present. A soldier named Konig jumped off his horse and shot the woman through the forehead at point blank range. Before he shot her, he said: 'I am going to kill you.' She simply looked up and said: 'I thank you'. The next day we moved off again and came across another woman of about 30. She was also busy digging for wild onions and took no notice of us. A soldier named Schilling walked up behind her and shot her through the back.

"I was an eye-witness of everything I have related. In addition, I saw the bleeding bodies of hundreds of men, women and children, old and young, lying along the roads as we passed. They had all been killed by our advancing guards.

"I was for nearly two years with the German troops and always with General von Trotha. I know of no instance in which prisoners were spared."

*Jan Cloete (Bastard), of Omaruru, states under oath:

I was in Omaruru in 1904. I was commandeered by the Germans to act as a guide for them to the Waterberg district, as I knew the country well. I was with the 4th Field Company under Hauprmann Richardt. The commander of the troops was General von Trotha.

"I was present at Hamakari, near Waterberg, when the Hereros were defeated in a battle. After the battle, all men, women, and children, wounded and unwounded, who fell into the hands of the Germans were killed without mercy.

"The Germans then pursued the others, and all stragglers on the roadside and in the veld were shot down and bayoneted. The great majority of the Hereto men were unarmed and could make no fight. They were merely trying to get away with their cattle.

"Some distance beyond Hamakari, we camped at a waterhole. While there, a German soldier found a little Herein baby boy about nine months old lying in the bush. The child was crying. He brought it into the camp where I was.

"The soldiers formed a ring and started throwing the child to one another and catching it as if it were a ball. The child was terrified and hurt and was crying very much.

"After a time, they got tired of this and one of the soldiers fixed his bayonet on his rifle and said he would catch the baby. The child was tossed into the air towards him and as it fell, he caught it and transfixed the body with the bayonet.

"The child died in a few minutes and the incident was greeted with roars of laughter by the Germans, who seemed to think it was a great joke. I felt quite ill and turned away in disgust because, although I knew they had orders to kill all, I thought they would have pity on the child. I decided to go no further, as the horrible things I saw upset me, so I pretended that I was ill, and as the Captain got ill too and had to return, I was ordered to go back with him as guide. After I got home, I flatly refused to go out with the soldiers again.


In the Preface to the Blue Book, E.H.M. Gorges, the British administrator in Winduk, writing on 19 January 1918, added this comment: "To publish all the information that has been obtained would form too bulky a volume. The object of this report is to present the essential features only in an easily assimilable form. Enough is, I think, contained herein to leave no doubts as to the terrible courses pursued both by the German Colonial Administration, acting either under the orders or with the acquiescence of the Berlin Government, and by individual Germans settled or stationed in the country, or as to the deplorable plight the natives fell into under the brutalities and robberies to which they were systematically subjected.

"It will be found that for the native there was, in effect, during the first 17 years after the formal annexation of the country by Germany, no law, and that such protection as the law eventually provided was granted nor out of motives of humanity, but because it was at length recognised that the native was a useful asset in the country, and that, without his labour, cattle-ranching, for which large areas of the country are well suited, and diamond and copper mining, were impossible."

(New African note: This is our very FINAL instalment of the Blue Book. Readers wishing to get a copy of the reprint of the original hook, should contact: Dr. J. Silvester of the History Department of the University of Namibia at; or Dr Jan-Bart Gewald of the University of Leiden, The Netherlands at
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Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:May 1, 2003
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