German responsibility for the Herero genocide should be the beginning of many imperial reckonings
Germany accepting historical and moral responsibility for the genocide a century ago of the Herero people in present-day Namibia should just be the beginning for all ex-colonial powers to recognise genocides across the five continents.
As far as I know, the TV channels in UK did not broadcast this news. Most of the tabloids and the broadsheets ignored it except for the Guardian. The BBC news website reported it. Only Al-Jazeera English TV gave coverage to the story but it does not have a large audience.
Most people rely on TV for their news. They are blissfully unaware of the Herero genocide, one of the first genocides of the twentieth century. School history books and teachers would not have covered such genocides. They are erased from history. The only genocide that is widely known is the Holocaust.
This comes at a time when there are calls for imperial reckoning. There is agitation for removal of statues of slave traders and colonisers from public spaces. European museums are under pressure to repatriate objects looted during violent imperial expeditions. Calls for formal apologies for past racist violence are getting louder. There are demands for including imperial history and the roots of racism in the school curriculum.
News reports barely cover the context of the events and set it in a wider historical framework. One of the best jargon-free introductions to this is Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All The Brutes. In this short, extraordinary book, Lindqvist weaves a narrative of his Saharan travel with historical reflections drawing on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, scientific theories, social debates and literary worksto tell a gruesome story of imperialism and racism over two centuries.
European world expansion, accompanied by a shameless defence of extermination and white supremacy, created a political climate, psychology and violence that led to a series of genocides which began to be regarded as the inevitable by-product of progress and modernity. This culminated in the most horrendous of all, the Holocaust.
The Heart of Darkness was written during the patriotic delirium after Kitchener’s return in 1898. He had defeated the mighty Mahdist army using a whole new arsenal – gunboats, automatic weapons, repeater rifles and dum-dum bullets at Omdurman. The entire Sudanese army was annihilated without once having got their British lines within a gunshot. Within five hours, eleven thousand Sudanese were killed and the sixteen thousand wounded were left to die. The British lost only forty-eight men. It was a sweet revenge for Gordon’s defeat and death in 1885. Churchill was present and he rejoiced with champagne on the Nile.
The weapons race among European nations had produced a technical superiority that enabled the annihilation of any conceivable opponent from other continents. The tools of imperialism – the ship’s cannons firing on ports of continents, the river streamer carrying Europeans and arms deep into the heart of continents and railways to ease the plundering of continents were put to full effect. Within decades, the ‘gods of arms’ had conquered another third of the world. Many Europeans took this military superiority as intellectual and even biological superiority.
During the nineteenth century, religious explanations for the extermination of indigenous people, often thought of as divine intervention, were replaced by biological ones. Both Charles Darwin and William Wallace, co-founders of the theory of natural selection, came to view the extermination of indigenous people as the result of natural selection, just as the weeds of Europe overran North America or the European rat exterminated native New Zealand rats. In his The Descent of Man, Darwin devoted a section on the extermination of the races of man. The extermination of the Tasmanians by white settlers within a short period was emblematic.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s main character Marlow tells the story of his journey up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, a highly successful ivory trader. He witnesses the violence that is inflicted on the African people who are exploited relentlessly. When he reaches Kurtz’s trading station he finds posts with severed human heads on them. Kurtz had ruled with extreme terror to obtain ivory from the interior with the help of an African tribe that worshipped him as their god.
In 1891, King Leopold II of Belgium issued a decree which gave a monopoly to his representatives to obtain rubber and ivory, with the natives compelled to provide forced labour without payment. Those who refused had their villages burnt down, their children murdered and their hands cut off to set an example. When this was exposed by credible witnesses, King Leopold succeeded in London in suppressing this story as Queen Victoria was preparing for the imperial jubilee. The great powers condoned the genocide in Congo for they had been complicit in similar acts elsewhere.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Germany had no colonies. Scholars like Theodore Waitz and George Garland were able look at extermination more critically than other Europeans and saw through the naturalistic constructs. Europeans grabbed native lands and resources through land clearances, displacing the natives and privatising the commons. The rapacity of white settlers destroyed everything the native thought, believed and felt. Although physical force was the most tangible factor in extermination, the use of ‘cultural violence’ was equally efficacious.
Germany, with its unification under Bismarck and a massive leap in industrial advance in the late nineteenth century, was a major European power that did not have colonies and coveted a colonial empire. The Berlin conference of 1884 kicked off the so called ‘scramble’ for Africa. Germany embarked on the conquest of South-West Africa (now Namibia), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania), German Kamerun (now Cameroon and a part of Nigeria) and German Togoland (now Togo and eastern part of Ghana).
It was in South-West Africa that Germans demonstrated that they too had mastered the art of hastening the extermination of indigenous ‘inferior’ people, an art long practised by the British and other Europeans. German anthropologists had changed their tune and justified the annihilation of indigenous people.
Mimicking the North American example, the indigenous Herero people were banished to reserves. Their grazing lands and cattle were seized and handed to German settlers and colonial companies. The Herero leader, Maherero, wanted to avoid war and over two decades signed treaties with the German colonial government ceding large areas of land. The Germans just ignored the treaties as ‘superior races’ were wont to do. When German encroachments persisted, the Hereros rebelled.
In October 1904, General von Trotha issued orders for the Herero people to be exterminated. The German borders were a free fire zone where every Herero with or without weapons was to be shot. Most of the Hereros were driven out to the desert and the border was sealed off. Almost the entire people, about eighty thousand, died in the desert, lacking water and food. German patrols found skeletons around dry hollows dug by the Hereros in vain attempt to find water. The few thousand that were left were rounded up and sentenced to hard labour in German concentration camps, which were just death camps.
This is the horror for which Germany has accepted historical and moral responsibility. After years of negotiations with the Namibian government, Germany will fund 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) of reconstruction and development projects in Namibia to directly benefit the genocide-affected communities.
Herero paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro dismissed a deal agreed by the two governments as “an insult” because it did not include payment of reparations. It is indefensible for Angela Merkel’s government to offer the funds as gesture of reconciliation and avoid legally binding reparations.
Imperial nostalgia is still prevalent in the UK more than any other ex-colonial power. A 2020 poll showed that 32 percent of the people were proud of the British Empire while only 19 percent believed that it was something to be ashamed of. This is indicative of the most successful brainwashing for centuries.
But Britain has many skeletons in the proverbial cupboard across the world. Its colonisation of North America, Australia and New Zealand with Anglo-Saxon settlers was the biggest land grab in world history and it was based on extermination of the natives. Its colonisation across the Third World was based on exploitation, and violence when there was resistance.
It is more than just the infamies of slavery and slave trade. It is more than toppling of nefarious statues. The The Late Victorian Holocausts in India, the plundering and burning to the ground of Benin City, and Kenya’s gulags are just some of the many examples. All this has been erased from history and concealed from people for a long time through the inculcation of patriotism.
We have before us a huge educational and political task to reclaim the savage, hidden history of Imperial Britain and reproduce it in our school textbooks, libraries, museums, public squares and universities.
Image: Shark Island, Lüderitz, Namibia was the home of the Shark Island Concentration Camp between 1905 and April 1907, as part of the Herero and Namaqua genocide of 1904–1908. Author: Johan Jönsson (Julle), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
First published by Labour Hub 7 June 2021