In A Nutshell
Between 1904 and 1907, the German army conspired to commit genocide against the Herero and Nama people of present-day Namibia, as punishment for their revolt against German colonial rule. Anywhere from 24,000 to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama died, mostly as a result of dehydration or starvation.
The Whole Bushel
In 1883, in the midst of the European colonization of Africa, otherwise known as the “Scramble for Africa,” Germany purchased land in present-day Namibia from the Nama tribe and designated it a German protectorate in 1884. For years, they took natives as slave laborers, stole land and animals, and routinely raped and murdered as they pleased, ignoring the complaints lodged against them by the Nama and Herero people. In 1903, the Nama people—joined by the Herero in 1904—revolted attempting to regain the lost land that had been settled by German colonists. (The natives were also heavily in debt to the Germans, mostly because their land and ways of earning money were stolen.)
Between 120 and 150 Germans were killed in early 1904, prompting the German governor in the area, Theodor Leutwein, to send for help from Berlin. They sent Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha and 14,000 troops, who arrived in June 1904. Leutwein wanted to find a peaceful solution to the rebellion, reserving military force to defeat only the most die-hard natives. Trotha did not agree with his assessment. The Lieutenant-General had a very low view of the Nama and Herero people, one which many others shared. (He was quoted: “My intimate knowledge of many central African tribes has everywhere convinced me of the necessity that the Negro does not respect treaties but only brute force.”)
In the first major battle of the rebellion, the Battle of Waterberg, between 3,000 and 5,000 of the Herero were killed, with the bulk of the natives escaping to the Omaheke Desert. (They were expecting peace negotiations from the Germans and had brought their families with them, totaling around 60,000 people.) Even though only 26 soldiers had died in battle, Trotha still felt the battle was a failure because most of the natives escaped. It was after this “defeat” that he issued his extermination order to shoot any Herero found in the area. Trotha also declared the methods he wanted his army to use: The males would all be executed, and the women and children would be driven into the desert, where starvation or dehydration was all but assured. (His reasoning: “I find it appropriate that the nation perishes instead of infecting our soldiers.”)
This method lasted until the end of 1904, when new orders were sent from Berlin, mostly due to the tireless efforts of former Governor Leutwein. But the natives were still not treated as humans; they were herded into concentration camps, including the infamous extermination camp on Shark Island, where nearly all them were killed. (Many of the skulls of the deceased were sent to Eugen Fischer, who studied them in an effort to show they were of an inferior race.) Many of those sent to the concentration camps (as high as 80 percent in some cases) died there, usually as a result of malnutrition or disease, although many were murdered as well. The camps stayed open until 1907 and were said to be a great influence, especially in regards to the medical experiments performed there, on the Nazi’s concentration camps during World War II. In total, anywhere from 24,000 to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama died as a result of the German occupation. It wasn’t until 1985 that it was recognized by the United Nations as genocide.