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At long last- recognition of the genocide in German Southwest Africa

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 31 May 2021

Almost ten years ago I wrote a book (Border Conflicts in a German African Colony…) in which I highlighted the shattering events of the Herero and Nama uprisings against the German Colonial power in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia.

The uprisings lasted from 1903 until 1908 and were responsible for more than 80,000 deaths. In a little over four years the Herero population was reduced from approximately 80,000 to 15,000 and the Nama population from about 20,000 to a little over 9,000 during a savage war.

For the Herero the battle at Waterberg and the ensuing flight of thousands into the Omaheke Desert followed by the German search and destroy policy throughout Hereroland were disasters almost beyond comprehension and resulted in thousands of deaths.


There was nothing organized about this Herero flight it was simply a matter of panic and survival. It was a true death march led by Herero women and their children with the Germans in hot pursuit. The Herero found no water or food as the German troops systematically poisoned all water holes and closed all escape routes.

Finally, the Germans sent patrols to kill survivors and thousands were simply slaughtered day after day. It was a true death march in Namibian history.

A handful of Herero managed to reach the sanctuary of British Walfish Bay and at Rietfontein. Many simply resembled skeletons with hollow eyes, powerless and hopeless, afflicted by numerous diseases and died in droves.  Thousands perished and those who tried to surrender were either killed or forced back into the desert. Those who finally managed to surrender, many women and children, were loaded onto cattle carts and transported to concentration and work camps.

In May 1905 the Germans commenced a widespread Cleansing and Collection system throughout Herero villages and land, capturing women and children, indiscriminately killing in the process. The Germans established a network internment and concentration camps run by the military as well as a series of railway construction camps and other work camps.

Over the next two years more than 20,000 were taken prisoner and placed in such camps. These camps housed many of the Herero and Nama people by 1907. By 1906 more than 18,000 Herero were located in such camps many of whom were employed as slave labour.  

Shark Island at Luderitz was the most infamous and most feared of such camps. Located on a barren exposed outcrop of rock, the camp was subject to freezing gale force winds and bitterly cold nights. Many of the Herero and Nama had never before experienced such conditions.


Most prisoners were huddled together under poorly erected shelters and tents. Conditions in the camp were horrendous including rape, beatings, malnutrition, pneumonia and influenza as well as dysentery, scurvy as well as sexually transmitted disease. In addition, regular medical experiments were carried out by the camp doctors. It was quite possibly the world’s first death camp.

Many of those who died in the camp had their heads and parts of their body removed, cleansed and washed by Herero and Nama women before being sent to Germany as part of research into the differences between the so-callednatural races and the advanced races of Western Europe.

To the Germans all this was an Endlosung or final solution. It was a clear act of genocide and an attempt to destroy an indigenous nation. In 2017 I wrote a piece for On Line Opinion stating at long last the German Government seemed poised to acknowledge the war and aftermath as a terrible example of genocide. After well over 100 years, it seemed that at long last the Herero and Nama people could present their case to an international court seeking to make widely known the violation of human rights and genocide that took place was officially acknowledged and that compensation would be paid.

As recent articles in The Economist and BBC now claim that Germany is now apologizing for the crimes it committed and at long last admitting to a policy of genocide. Recently Germany’s Foreign Minister stated that as a “gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering “Germany caused it would set up a fund of Euro 1.1 billion allowing the affected Namibian communities to decide how the funds were used.

Nothing, however, is that simple and today the Herero and Nama people in Namibia remain somewhat isolated in a country where the government structure is dominated by the Ovambo who were largely unaffected by the war in 1903-08. Many Herero and Nama now claim that they will not accept this German resolution unless they have some part in how the funds might be used.

The Herero and Nama uprisings against the Germans that took place between 1903 and 1908 were arguably the most shattering event in Namibian history. By 1908 only a small proportion of the pre 1904 Herero and Nama population still survived and both people had been forcibly transformed from independent self-governing cattle-herding people into a subservient indentured labour and servant class. It was something that would haunt Namibia for generations to come.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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