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The Blue Book they didn't want us to read: How Britain, Germany and South Africa destroyed a damning book on German atrocities in Namibia.

In 1926, both the British and South African governments ordered the destruction of a 212-page "Blue Book" on the "first organised genocide of the 20th century" committed by the German colonial government in Namibia, for which the Herero people are now suing the German government and three German companies for $4 billion damages.

The British government had ordered the publication of the Blue Book in 1918. The expression "Blue Book" was used in those days to refer to any report published and distributed by the British parliament.

The full title of the Namibian "Blue Book" was: "Union of South Africa -- Report On The Natives Of South-West Africa And Their Treatment By Germany".

It was prepared by the South African Administrator's Office in Windhoek in January 1918, and published in the UK by the British government's official publisher, His Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO). Sold at the unit price of "2s 6d net", the Blue Book was presented to both Houses of Parliament in London "by command of His Majesty" in August 1918.

Yet, eight years later, in 1926, His Majesty's Government and its allies in South Africa were ordering the "total destruction" of the book. Germany was being rehabilitated after World War I by the Allies, and the Blue Book had become an "embarrassment" as it "painted the European in too poor light".

Some copies did survive though, and New African is happy to announce that we now have a copy. From next month, we are going to serialise it for the benefit of all.

But for now, as a taster, we publish below excerpts from Jeremy Silvester's excellent paper (published two years ago) about the background to the compilation and destruction of the Blue Book.

Silvester, from the History Department of the University of Namibia, tided his paper: "The Politics of Reconciliation: Destroying the Blue Book". It is a veritable eye-opener.

"The Blue Book drew heavily on statements from 47 different witnesses to produce a stinging criticism of the German colonial period in Namibia. However, within a decade, orders were issued for every copy of this indictment of German colonialism to be destroyed.

The destruction, in 1926, was carried out as an act of post-War reconciliation as efforts were made to integrate the German-speaking white population of Namibia within a new South African-sponsored colonial project.

Major Thomas Leslie O'Reilly was appointed as the military magistrate for Omaruru on 22 August 1916. O'Reilly would be the primary compiler of the Blue Book, which had been drafted by the end of 1917.

The first image that confronts the reader and which sets the tone for the rest of the book is one of six dead Namibians hanging from a makeshift gallows with a number of apparently disinterested German soldiers standing around.

The 212-page final report that follows is divided into two sections. The first 150 pages contained 15 chapters written by O'Reilly, entitled "Natives and German Administration", whilst the second section (49 pages) with the heading "Natives and the Criminal Law" was the responsibility of Mr A. J, Waters, who had served as the crown prosecutor for Namibia from October 1915.

The final pages of the Blue Book reproduce (as appendices) three more sets of documents. The first is a short "medical report on German methods of punishment" (accompanied by 11 more photographs of various types of chains, prisoners in chains and a final pair of images of five more Namibians hanging from trees).

The next two appendices contain documents written in German - the first, a letter sent by the German governor to his district officers, and the next letters sent by German officials based at Luderitzbucht which complain about the ill-treatment of the local black population by the white residents of the town and surrounding district.

The central role played by O'Reilly in gathering the evidence contained in the Blue Book can be seen in the fact that many of the witnesses he prominently quoted were living in the Omaruru District.

In his role as military magistrate, O'Reilly had a close and, some would argue, "sympathetic" relationship with local Herero leaders, such as Daniel Kariko.

It seems likely that the entire report was compiled in less than 12 months as the initial imperial initiative for such a document seems only to have been undertaken in March 1917 - whilst the final addition to the report - a preface by E.H.M. Gorges, the first South African administrator of the [South West Africa] 'Protectorate' is dated 18 January 1918.

O'Reilly served, from 1916, as a member of the Special Criminal Court that acted as the highest court in the territory during the period of martial law (19 15-1920), and it is noticeable that the second section of the Blue Book consists largely of commentary on cases heard by this court (with the addition of material on a few "high profile" cases from the German period).

Eighty-five of the cases referred to by Waters in the second half of the Blue Book were heard by the Special Criminal Court on which O'Reilly sat as a member.

O'Reilly seems to have retired and left South West Africa shortly after completing his work on the Blue Book. The last trace in his personal file in the archives listed him as living at 4 St Qunitons Road, Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa.

The genocide debate

After Namibia's independence, the Blue Book became the focus of academic discussion. The hidden text emerged from the shadows of the archives.

It was attacked in an article (titled Uncertain Certainties: The Herero War of 1904) published in 1995 by the late Brigitte Lau in which she challenged the argument contained in Let Us Die Fighting, the 1980 work of Horst Dreschler, that the Germans had pursued a policy of 'genocide' against the Herero people. Lau described this argument as 'inappropriate' and 'inaccurate'.

Dreschler had argued that the Blue Book had not only been destroyed by the South African colonial administration in 1926, but has also, subsequently, been 'systematically ignored by German authors'. He suggested that this was because it provided 'a fairly accurate picture' of events as they took place during the 1904-1908 War [during which over 65,000 Hereros were wiped out].

Dreschler acknowledged that there were some weaknesses in the text: 'The introductory chapters contain a number of factual errors. Moreover, the general tone of the work betrays a tendency to idealise British colonial policy.' However, he obviously considered the Blue Book to be an important primary source of evidence.

Lau, on the other hand, took a far more hostile view of the Blue Book, describing it as an English anti-German propaganda publication. She asserted that it was purely 'war propaganda' with 'no credibility whatsoever'.

Furthermore, she claimed that 'its further distribution was proscribed by embarrassed Union [of South Africa] officials in 1926', ignoring the evidence that the destruction of the book owed far more to the dynamics of local and international politics at the time.

Lau's article generated an extensive 'genocide debate' in which a number of academics challenged her criticism of Dreschler and, by implication, the 'credibility' of the Blue Book.

In the key chapter on 'The Herero Uprising', Dreschler provides 140 endnotes giving the sources of his evidence and, whilst many of these endnotes contain more than one reference, only three cite the Blue Book.

In the most direct response to Lau's criticisms, Jan Bart Gewald (in his 1996 PhD thesis, Towards Redemption: A sociopolitical history of the Herero of Namibia between 1890 and 1923), has gone so far as to argue that: 'The bulk of evidence contained in the Blue Book is little more than the literal translation of German texts published at the time which were the findings of a German commission of inquiry into the effects of corporal punishment.

Book still unknown

It seems incredible that, given its centrality to a crucial period of Namibian history, the Blue Book still remains largely unknown in Namibia. In contrast, there has been a stream of local publications that reprint accounts of the [1904-1908] War written by German participants.

The writers of the Blue Book emphasised the extent to which they had gathered oral testimony from Namibian survivors of the 1904-1908 War and explicitly argued that 'the following sad and terrible details...are not figments of the imagination, but sworn descriptions of eye-witnesses'.

Furthermore, O'Reilly claims that the narratives were collected as 'voluntary statements made on oath by surviving chiefs, headmen, an prominent leaders of the aboriginal tribes'.

Yet, the oral testimony of the Namibian witnesses to the War remains 'forgotten' whilst the written accounts of the German forces continue to be repeatedly reproduced.

German official response

In 1919, the year after the publication of the Blue Book, the German Colonial Office published at official response (titled, The Treatment of Native and other Populations in the Colonial Possessions of Germany and England: An Answer to the English Blue Book of August 1918), and criticised the dependence placed by the compilers of the Blue Book 'for the greater part' on 'the sworn testimony of the natives themselves, poor, primitive creatures who have no conception of the nature of an oath' (1919: p57).

The Germans argued that 'an uneducated black' would have no concept of the difference between fact and fiction. Thus, the 51 witnesses are recast as the artful weavers of fanciful stories.

"Those who are familiar with African psychology," the German counter-report went on, 'know how the natives love to indulge their fancies with sanguinary atrocity stories and how they invent these in the most senseless fashion, even where there is not the slightest foundation for their imaginings' (1919: p73).

The counter-report claimed that when 'natives' are called to the witness stand, 'an unbridled phantasm usually distotts their vision of reality, transforms it in their memory and permits it to become manifest in their evidence' (1919: p138).

In contrast to this loud orchestra of allegedly false accusation, a significant part of the German defence rested on the claim that German soldiers actually 'refraincd from carrying out the command of the German general, Von Trotha [to 'exterminate' the Herein]', but, unfortunately for the German Colonial Office, the soldiers did this 'silently' (1919: p70).

The Colonial Office drew particular attention to what it considered as one of its two strongest arguments against the reliability of the Blue Book -- the fact that 'apparently only a few white witnesses were examined (l9l9: p71).

Rather than attempt to analyse and criticise the contents of the statements as a criterion for judging the reliability and credibility of the book, the German Colonial Office focuses on the issue of the colour of those making the statements used in the Blue Book.

According to the Colonial Office, the testimony provided in the Blue Book should not be taken seriously, because 'only a single white man' is quoted.

The final nail in the coffin of the reliability of the Blue Book, according to the German Colonial Office, is that the single white man quoted by the British, can, in fact, be revealed to be 'not a European but a so-called Cape Boy, that is a South African with coloured blood' (19l9: p74).

In the absence of supposedly reliable 'white history', the British authors of the Blue Book are accused of making the mistake of presuming that their 'native' informants are 'honest', when 'the plain fact', according to the Germans, was that 'the natives are lying' (1919: p71).

German criticisms

The second main thrust of the German criticisms of the Blue Book was that it was only created as an effective tool for use by the British delegation to the negotiations that led to the end of World War I.

The British agenda, according to the Germans, was to discredit Germany as a colonial power in order to ensure that the former German colonies would be swallowed by the British Empire.

In the words of the German Colonial Office, the Blue Book was thus, "a hideous travesty of truth, a grotesque caricature cunningly and with malice aforethought constructed to justify the moralising of greed when bent upon alienating the property of others' (19l9: p57).

It is clear that the evidence contained in the Blue Book played a significant role during the discussions at Versailles about the future of the German colonies.

The former governor of German East Africa, Heinrich Schnee, was a particularly strong proponent of this argument, claiming that the basis for the commissioning of the Blue Book was laid following the formation of a 'special commission' in March 1917 charged with preparing material to be used by the British delegation to the Versailles peace conference.

Schnee argues in his book, German Colonialism: Past and Future, published in 1926, that 'it was this commission that mobilised the attacks against the German colonial administration (Schnee 1926: p67).

In an earlier pamphlet entitled How German Colonies Were Seized, Schnee made this allegation that the Blue Book was simply a ploy by an imperial rival with greater passion:

'...When the Versailles Treaty was forced upon Germany, the alleged maladministration of her colonies was used as a pretext wherewith to quieten the scruples of those who had been assured, and who still believed, that England did not go to war for the acquisition of more territory.

Schnee further argues that the British prime minister, Lloyd George, on 14 January 1919 explicitly used the example of Namibia during the Versailles negotiations to argue that Germany was unworthy of being a colonial power, because 'in South West Africa they had deliberately pursued a policy of extermination' (Schnee: p53).

The war of words

Jan-Bart Gewald refers to two significant pieces of correspondence in which E.H.M. Gorges, the administrator of South West Africa, reports to the South African prime minister, Jan Smuts, who played a leading role in the establishment of the mandate system.

In June 1918, (shortly before the Blue Book was presented to the British parliament in August), Gorges informed Smuts that he had written to all the military magistrates in Namibia and urged them 'to do their utmost to suppress any attempts of the ill-treatment of the natives [by the South Africans], pointing out that a clean record in this matter was essential if we wanted to use the German maltreatment of the natives as a reason for keeping this country' (Gewald 1996: p343).

Later, in an official report written shortly after the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, Gorges noted that:

'Great use was made in Paris of the Blue Book compiled here under my directions, dealing with the ill-treatment of the Hereros and other tribes of this country by the Germans; and the solemn declaration was made that the care of these hapless and undeveloped peoples is to be one of the primary duties of the League of Nations, and that the custody and tutelage of these peoples is to be given to a state which has shown that it can exercise a conscience in the matter (Gewald 1996 p303).

It is clear that the Blue Book was indeed an instrument deployed in the argument used to prevent Germany from any hope of retaining its African empire as part of the peace settlement.

However, the recognition of this fact does nothing in itself to discredit the actual contents of the Blue Book, but does perhaps explain why so much of the German arguments against the Blue Book were actually preoccupied with criticising Britain's own colonial human rights record.

In fact, the terms in which the discourse of the propaganda war was waged over the 'colonial question' is important, as it explains why it was so easy for the British to agree to the removal of the Blue Book from the library shelves of the world less than a decade after its original damning conclusions had been published.

The discussion of 'German colonial guilt' was always presented by British propaganda writers within a wider framework in which the morality and, indeed, desirability of colonialism by Western powers was assumed.

Evans Lewin was the most prolific of the British propagandists to write on the theme of German colonialism from his desk in the library of the (British) Royal Colonial Institute.

In a pamphlet published in 1915, (titled, The Germans and Africa: Their Aims on the Dark Continent and How they Acquired their African Colonies), Lewin argues that there is a racial explanation for the 'success' of British colonialism and the 'failure' of German colonialism. His opinion is that:

'Britons, unlike Germans, have generally possessed the faculty of correctly gauging native feeling and have thus been able to appreciate the force of native sentiment.

'Germans, on the other hand, lacking the subtler psychological characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon, have failed miserably whenever they have been brought into contact with a native sentiment which they have not been able to understand' (1915:p112).

In another publication in 1918, (German Rule in Africa), the same year as the publication of the Blue Book, Lewin clearly stated his belief that there were 'subject races' who were 'the world's children' (1918: p45).

'...The natives of Africa,' he argued, 'whether they are regarded as economic assets or as human beings, are in reality children, with certain vices of their own, but in their raw state uncontaminated with the more hideous vices introduced by a corrupt and sensual civilisation. They may be moulded like clay in the hands of the potter' (1918:p45).

The extent to which this depiction of the local population was shared by the colonial powers is perhaps best exemplified by Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations itself, which defined the people of some former German colonies, such as Namibia, as 'peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world' (UNIN 1987: p311).

In this context, the German Colonial Office was able to present the Blue Book as 'a great wrong' not just against Germany but 'against the white race as a whole' (1919: p146).

The book must go

The destruction of the Blue Book cannot be simply dismissed as the actions of 'embarrassed' South African officials, but must be viewed within the context of the forms of international and mote parochial 'reconciliation' that were raking place in the mid-1920s.

Internationally, British support for the destruction of the Blue Book should be seen as linked to moves to incorporate Germany into the League of Nations.

Inside Namibia, the campaign for the book's destruction can be viewed as a consequence of an effort to build unity within the multi-lingual white settler community.

In his 1926 book, Heinrich Schnee, the former German governor of East Africa, argued that the 'fiction of colonial guilt' should be rescinded. He wrote:

'We Germans owe it to ourselves and to our children, we owe it to our position amongst the nations, that these reflections upon our honour should be rebutted before the world. We also owe it to the future of our race, in order that the way may be cleared for the return of Germany to the ranks of the colonising nations (Schnee 1926: p50)

Thus, in 1926, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations and granted a permanent seat on the 'League Council' (a privilege that might be compared to the permanent membership of the UN Security Council today).

Whilst efforts were being made to promote a policy of 'international reconciliation' through the League of Nations, a form of 'national reconciliation' was also being advocated inside Namibia itself.

The South African occupation had been accompanied by concerns about the presence of a significant and potentially hostile local population. The black population made it apparent that they held high expectations of recovering their land and property lost under German rule, while the German settlers were still clearly hostile to the South African take-over of Namibia in 1915.

The South Africans, therefore, pursued a strategy of encouraging rapid white settlement in Namibia, and the development of internal political structures to help forge greater unity amongst the white settler community.

The year 1926 saw the first election campaign in Namibia since the South African takeover -- under a franchise that was limited to white males.

In a campaign speech made at Keetman-shoop, Mr Jooste, the local chairperson of the National Parry argued strongly for: 'The cooperation of all sections of the community--the farmers must work together whether they were German, Dutch or English'.

The extent to which this process of 'reconciliation' had progressed was most apparent in the speech by the new administrator, Mr Werth, when he arrived in Namibia during the election campaign. According to the Windhoek Advertiser of 20 March 1926, Werth argued that:

'He was aware that South West Africa wanted settlers, and the first duty of the administration was to get sufficient people into the country... Knowing that Afrikaners were excellent settlers, he would try to get as many people from the Union [of South Africa] as possible. On the other hand, he would welcome immigrants from North Europe, history having proved that the best colonists came from that part of Europe.'

In other words, German settlers were now being implicitly encouraged, once again, to immigrate to Namibia. The claim made in the Blue Book that the 'German emigrant' had proved himself to be utterly incapable and unsuitable' as a colonist was forgotten.

Indeed, a totally contrary argument was now presented-'history' had 'proved' that Germans were actually 'the best colonists'. The local press now called for 'local patriotism'. The 'South Wester' was to be born from the ashes of the Blue Book.

The final nail

In July 1926, the Legislative Assembly voted that German should become the 'third official language' in Namibia--a decision that explains why many information boards (that were erected be ore independence in 1990) can still be found that bear text written in Afrikaans, English and German.

Less than a week later, in August, Mr Stauch (inscribed in the history books because of his association with the discovery of the first diamond in Namibia in 1908), proposed a resolution 'regarding the destruction of the Blue Book'.

He argued that the book should simply be regarded as an 'instrument of war', and should, therefore, be destroyed as part of the post-War peacemaking process.

Stauch made the position of the German-speaking members of the Legislative Assembly clear. To them, the Blue Book was 'one of the most serious obstacles to mutual trust and cooperation in this country'.

Stauch said: 'The Germans were ready and anxious to co-operate in the building up of South West Africa, [but] they could not do so fully until the stigma imposed by the Blue Book had been removed from their name.' He felt that the Blue Book besmirched the 'honour of Germany'.

The leader of the Union Parry in the Legislative Assembly, D.W. Ballot, pledged his support, arguing that the subject of the war was a sensitive and 'delicate' one.

Whilst stating that he would not 'criticise the contents of the book or its compilers', Ballot argued that its destruction would be 'an act of justice' to the German-speaking community of Namibia.

'Few civilised races,' Mr Ballot said, 'could look back over their colonial history without regrets in regard to some of the incidents that have darkened their past.' His argument was, therefore, not that the Blue Book was inaccurate, but that it was hypocritical.

Thus on 29 July 1926, the resolution to destroy the book was passed 'unanimously' by all 18 members of the Legislative Assembly.

An editorial in The Windhoek Advertiser on 31 July 1926 mused on the significance of the total support given to the resolution by the Assembly. 'In effect,' the paper said, 'the House of Assembly has resolved that the matter shall be forgotten'.

The resolution not only called for the Blue Book to be impounded and all copies destroyed, but also demanded that the British and South African governments 'expunge' all references to the Blue Book contained in 'official records'.

Perhaps this explains why inquiries have uncovered no trace of relevant papers in the British archives, and why Major O'Reilly's two boxes of research material seem to have disappeared.


Roger Smith has argued that 'memory requires renewal'. There have to he 'reminders' that call attention to the past: public commemorations, a literature or art that can summon the past into the present'.

In Namibia, there are no public commemorations of the calamitous events of the 1904-1908 War. No national monuments recall the names of any of the Herero or Nama people who were the main victims of the War, or mark the sites of the prison camps where thousands died.

In contrast, the names of every German fatality from the War is listed on plagues that line the wall of the church that straddles the routes to State House and Parliament.

The War is not represented in popular art forms, and the published literature remains limited to the repetitive reprinting of contemporary German accounts of the War.

Namibia provides a prime example of 'dissonant heritage' with an apparent reluctance on the part of heritage agencies to attempt the 'very difficult challenge of memorialising the atrocity as an instrument of reconciliation between the descendants of the perpetrators and victims'.

Yet the country's president, Sam Nujoma, argued in his introduction to Horst Dreschler's account of the 1904-1908 War that: 'Society is only fully intelligible when it is studied in terms of its history and of the economic, social, political and spiritual factors which helped to form it' (Nujoma 1980:pvii).

If the historians' vision of a post-authoritarian democracy embraces a 'new, shared and ceaselessly debated memory of the past', then the silenced voices of the Blue Book must be heard again.

(Well, New African, through our forthcoming serialisation, will give the "silenced voices" of the Blue Book the opportunity to he "heard again " So, book your copies in advance).
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Publication:New African
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Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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