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When colonial Germany committed genocide in Namibia

Cai Nebe
April 1, 2024

Between 1904 and 1908, Germany's colonial forces reacted to a rebellion by Ovaherero and Nama people in Namibia with brutal violence and prison camps. The trauma and political repercussion remain unresolved.

German troops prepare for war in this archive photograph
German Schutztruppe soldiers prepare war against the Ovaherero in 1904. The conflict would later morph into the first genocide of the 20th centuryImage: picture alliance/dpa/F. Rohrmann

How did Ovaherero and Germans come into contact?

After the borders of German South West Africa were established in 1890, German authorities promoted the area as a settler colony, as opposed to other German possessions in Africa. Settlers began arriving in desert coastal towns like Lüderitz and Swakopmund and trekked inland. Colonial authorities deemed the land suitable for stock farming, and very soon German settlers encountered Nama people — and the Ovaherero.  

How were relations initially?

At first, relations between German and Herero people were relatively cordial, with Hereros converting to Christianity, and accepting the German presence. They also signed protection treaties with colonists to support them against raiding from rival Nama groups. 

In reality there was raiding on both sides. Nama and Ovaherero tribes signed protection treaties with Germany and both societies lost influence, cattle and land to the colonists. 

Treaty between Germany's Theodor Leutwein and Samuel Maharero in Namibia in 1895.
German officers had cordial relations with Herero leaders. This 1895 picture shows German commander Theodor Leutwein signing a protection treaty with Herero leader Samuel MahereroImage: akg-images/picture alliance

What factors caused the conflict?

In 1897 a Rinderpest epidemic decimated livestock, which was crucial to Herero wealth and society. And by 1903, just under 5,000 Germans lived in colonies but needed extensive land to farm due to the arid to semi-arid climate.

Colonial authorities recognized this and employed various tactics to dispossess the Ovaherero of their land and cattle, even if it meant violating treaties.

Racism, unequal application of the law to indigenous and German settlers, and maltreatment of Herero and Nama people on German-owned land caused tensions to rise further. A light sentence handed down to a settler who had raped and murdered a Ovaherero leader's daughter symbolized this maltreatment. 

In early 1904, Ovaherero warriors killed over 100 German settlers. The rebellion — or as Ovaherero leaders saw it, a military action to reclaim control — sent shockwaves all the way to Berlin. 

Street Debate: The price of the genocide in Namibia

What was the turning point?

General Lothar von Trotha took over as Commander in South West Africa in mid-1904, and thousands of German soldiers, or Schutztruppe, poured into the colony. Von Trotha did not want to simply defeat the Ovaherero. In his own words, he sought to annihilate them. His well-armed soldiers quickly surrounded Ovaherero warriors at Waterberg and broke their ability to fight back.

At what point did the conflict morph into genocide?

The extermination order decreed that any Ovaherero found in German territory would be killed. The Ovaherero were chased into the barren Omaheke, a vast desert that expands into Botswana with very few water points. Others were captured and brought as prisoners to German controlled towns, where many worked in slave-like conditions. 

Exact figures are uncertain, but it's estimated that up to 80,000 Ovaherero men, women and children — 75% of the population at the time — died.

The Ovaherero people perished due to thirst and starvation as well as exposure and overwork at the cold, barren, coastal prison camps at Swakopmund and Lüderitz.

Another 10,000 Nama also died during colonial rule, when a seperate but related rebellion was crushed. For comparison, German forces suffered fewer than 1,000 fatalities.

Why is the conflict and ensuing genocide still in the news today?

Herero and Nama people were scattered across southern Africa, and those that remained in the German colony were forced to seek labor on German-owned towns and land. Conquered lands transformed into "legitimate" titles and were handed over or sold cheaply to settlers and colonial soldiers. More than 100 years later, much of that land is still in German-Namibian hands. 

A bilateral joint declaration, which had been on the table since 2021, saw Germany promise €1.1 billion ($1.16 billion) to the Namibia government over 30 years.

Protesters in Windhoek, Namibia, march against genocide negotiations
Herero and Nama communities rejected the settlement the Namibian government reached with Germany regarding aid money to be sent as compensation for Germany's colonial era crimesImage: Sakeus Iikela/DW

Has Germany paid reparations?

No. While Germany formally apologized for committing a crime that would from today's perspective be considered a genocide, it does not recognize the events of 1904-1908 as a genocide in a legal sense, which means Germany is not obliged to pay reparations. 

How have Nama and Ovaherero leaders responded? 

They say they were never consulted, nor directly involved in the negotiations, as the agreement was between Germany and the Namibian government, not the affected groups. In January 2023, lawyers for Nama and Ovaherero communities argued for the German-Namibian joint declaration to be declared invalid for contravening various articles of the Namibian constitution.

How German colonization of Namibia resulted in genocide

Shadows of German Colonialism is produced by DW, Germany's international broadcaster with funding from the German Foreign Office (AA). Consulting was provided by Lily Mafela, Kwame Osei Kwarteng and Reginald Kirey.

Edited by: Keith Walker