on 1 January 2013
I am not a historian, but I like to try and understand why things happen. For years I have had and heard discussions about Nazism and how the persecution of entire races could actually come about, indeed, be rationally argued for by intelligent, educated people. I found this book made the connections with Germany's colonial past that helped it all make sense. Transport what the Germans did in Namibia to Europe and scale up the Nazi's technological and organisational ability to make it happen and the holocaust makes a chillingly inevitable sequel to what took place in a faraway corner of the world. It's all here. This book deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible.
on 2 January 2011
Olusoga and Erichsen's book is really in two parts. The first tells the story of German colonialism in South West Africa, showing how German policy towards the native Herero and Nama peoples developed into one of genocide. In chapters that are crucial reading to all who seek to understand the motives behind 19th century colonialism and imperialism the authors show how a philosophy of white racial supremacy emerged out of the ideas of Charles Darwin and was put into practice. Survival of the fittest becomes justification for white dominance over "inferior" indigenous peoples and genocide an acceptable option. This process is shown though as not just a German process and the German experience is placed in a global context: with British colonists in Tasmania, the US frontier wars, the Argentine wars of the desert all showing the same features.
In the German genocide against Herero and Nama we read of extermination orders, forced labour and concentration camps designed to kill off indigenous peoples who were articulate, politically able and well resourced, but ultimately doomed as the Kaiser's troops introduce a policy of "absolute terror and cruelty... by shedding rivers of blood and money" (General von Trotha) in which the missionary churches were actively complicit.
This alone is a story that needs telling widely, but the second part of the work shows the significance of this colonial experience for future nazism. The colonies first Governor was the father of Hermann Göring, the uniform of the SA was that of the Wilhelm II's brown shirted colonial army. More significantly, the colonial period saw the emergence of the pseudo science of eugenics and the legal framework to protect the purity of German settlers from racial contamination. Terms appear that are to be more infamously used later: Rassenschande (Racial shame), Rassenreinheit (Racial purity). Interracial marriage is made illegal. This was all to make the colony racially safe for emigration for a Volk that needed Lebensraum (living space) to expand into and escape population pressure at home. In the final chapters Olusoga and Erichsen skillfully show how these ideas survive the collapse of 1918 and become a core element of the politics of the right. Hitler uses his Landsberg imprisonment to read much of the work on race that emerged out of the Wilhelmine colonial experience. After 1933 races considered impure, German Jews and Gypsies, are subjected to the treatment first employed in South West Africa: Nuremberg Laws to end racial mixing; control and internment in concentration camps, forced labour, extermination. One chilling story is that of the 400 "Rhineland Bastards", children fathered by French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland after 1918. By 1937 all are sterilised.
There is a final twist in the argument. Hitler's war, it is argued, was ultimately one for colonial Lebensraum in the east. The German treatment of the eastern populations and Red Army was different to the western conflict as Hitler considered the eastern peoples to be similar to uncivilised indigenous colonial peoples. Fighting was more brutal, civilians were treated with even less regard. Necessary he believed to ensure Lebensaum and civilisation. The nazis compared this push East to how Wilhelm's troops had fought the Herero, or the British the Sudanese & Tasmanians, the US the Native Indians, or the Argentines with the tribes of the south.
Thought provoking, this is an important, thorough and well written work. It ranks with Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" as an indictment of European colonialism but develops its arguments beyond normally considered confines to place the events of a short-lived German colony in a far wider context.
on 30 August 2010
This devastating and hugely important book deserves to be in every public and university library. It describes the first major genocide of the twentieth century, a precursor of the Armenian genocide and the Jewish Holocaust which until now has been known only to scholars and a few people with a particular interest.
It is well-written and reads easily, but the events described beggar imagination. Unfortunately the behaviour described is of a kind the human race remains vulnerable to, so the importance of the book goes enormously beyond the destruction of the Herero and Nama peoples of German South West Africa (now Namibia) in a few years from 1904.
The proofreaders have failed to spot a few obvious misspellings and minor errors, but my main suggestion for a second edition is to insert a few decent maps.
Up to page 264 I would rate this as an outstanding work of colonial history, certainly the best work since Hochschild's, 'King Leopold's Ghost' of 1998. Written in a lucid and straightforward style, I did not have to re-read a single sentence, this book relates the history of colonisation of German South West Africa, a country now known since 1990 as Namibia. This fine work is based on much original research and most of its history will be quite unknown to modern readers. It charts the settlement of German farmers onto the fertile plains of this geographically difficult country, bounded by the Namib desert to the west and the Kalahari (Omaheke) desert to the east. Unlike many other African countries subject to colonisation by Europeans, the indigenous people of South West Africa, largely the Herero and Nama, were literate, knowledgeable about world events and armed with modern rifles. They could appreciate immediately the consequences of Western immigration into their country and resisted this from the beginning, resorting to armed conflict when their views were ignored. The settlers retaliated and, backed by the armed forces of the Imperial German Colonial Office of 1905, set about a war of annihilation of the Herero. This was then followed by attempts to imprison and destroy the Nama people through the use of concentration camps. The authors present compelling and detailed evidence for their retelling of this history and provide enthralling studies of all the main protagonists, immigrant German militarists and indigenous peoples alike.
It is in the subsequent four chapters beyond page 264, and for a further 80 pages, that the book lurches off into a different tack. Here the authors describe in the same forensic detail the role of the former colonial senior soldiers, or 'Schutztrupper', in the formation of Freikorps in post World War I Germany and the transfer of colonial and racial attitudes from South West Africa to the Nazi Party and their application to Eastern Europe. Again this is very well written and researched but simply jars somewhat with the previous and largely complete history of colonial South West Africa. This represents a swerve in the narrative flow. However, despite this faulty construction I still rate this as an extremely important and well presented work that should certainly be read by anyone interested in the colonial history of Africa.
on 7 November 2011
The pre WWI history of the German colonisation of Southwest Africa (current Namibia) is interesting and not dealt with in modern texts, although the authors state that there is ample contemporary documentation that was instrumental in relieving Germany of her colonies in the 1918 Versailles settlements. That many of the colonists should have lived through to the Nazi era is no surprise, but the link between colonial policies and personalities, a significant component of the book seem tenuous and contrived: the authors' statement of the facts is impeccable, and they acknowledge that many repatriated colonists were not in fact supporters of the Nazis. However the selection of material for the book, and the overall layout seems to imply that attitudes and experiences gained in the colonies were central to the development of Nazi race policies and the conduct of WWII.
The book reads well as a narrative and some of the 'forgotten' facts, such as the role of the deranged Kaiser Wilhelm II in genocidal policies in Africa makes fascinating reading. However I was left disappointed by the lack of focus on Africa and the fate of the displaced tribes, and the undue attention given to subsequent Nazi history which really seems to have little orno part in this tale.
I absolutely loved this book, although love is perhaps a strange word to describe a book that deals with a forgotten genocide. The authors, with their description of the senseless slaughter of the Herero and Nama peoples, finally draw the worlds attention to one of the worst atrocities of colonialism. This book moved me so much that I have come to change my mind, where the subject of reparations for the Herero/Nama are concerned. Given the abuses they suffered I feel they are surely due some recompense from the current German government. Although the book concentrates on the Herero, it also delves into the wider aspects of white racial superiority theories that dominated polite society back in the late 1890s/early 20th century, thus lending itself easy to the book's subtitle of 'the roots of Nazism'. My wife, who happens to be Nigerian, has been telling me this line of thinking for years, so it was interesting for me to read it in a book. In short, I recommend this masterpiece for any who share love, compassion and empathy for those around us, whatever their ethnic origin. A worthy memorial for a forgotten crime against humanity. If you like this I also advise readers to read: Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany
on 3 June 2012
In places it could do with a good edit, but the subject is compelling and it presents this relatively little known part of history in a way that lets you relate strongly to the victims; so much so I occasionally had to put the book down to allow myself time to recover. It really is a subject we all should understand better
on 2 April 2015
Why has there been such massive silence for more than a century about this holocaust. Germany, oh Germany!! Of what else, in terms of savagery are you capable? This is so shockingly unbelievable; so sinister, evil and uncivilised. And we still dwell in a world with such monstrous devils masquerading as humanity, and with the effrontery to be dictating to others standards of conduct and behaviour.
Although I have read the book twice I am still phased. I am really struggling to believe this. No wonder there is such connivance at silence.
Germany, of a later generation we may be, but we now know to look at you in a different light and to pass this knowledge on to our progeny.
It may have happened a long time ago, but you repeated it. A rather revealing reflection of your mindset.
This book is an excellent narrative account of little known genocide of the indigenous peoples by German colonists from 1904 to 1907 in what was then South West Africa and is now modern day Namibia.
About two thirds of the book is devoted to tracing the development of the colony and the subsequent war of extermination. This is the strongest part of the book. It shows us how the colony was acquired, almost as an afterthought, initiated by adventurers and freelance empire builders, and in the face of Chancellor Bismarck's reluctance. Here the colonists encountered natives politically sophisticated and well versed in European ways and European weapons, formidable opponents to the colonial enterprise that the new colonial administration decided to wipe out. The book makes clear that the Berlin knew about the genocide but did little or nothing to hold the local administration from carrying it out.
The last third part of the book traces what the authors consider are the continuities between the genocide of the 1900s and the Nazi race genocides in World War Two. This part is weaker and suffers from the problem historians have when sourcing the historical antecedents of Nazism, namely the syncretism of Nazi ideology. According to your political preference, you can blame Nazism on communism, capitalism, Darwinism, atheism, Christianity or whatever ism you do not like and wish to impugn with the ultimate political stigma.
One can join the dots between the two genocides of 1904-07 and 1941-45 but this approach has its weaknesses for the reasons mentioned above. How so? Because the links are suggestive rather than conclusive. Yes parallels can be found and a pattern discerned - medical experiments conducted on the victims, death camps, crimes justified by an ideology of racial supremacy - but the discontinuities strike one, too. The Kaiser's armies occupied Eastern Europe in World War One but the occupation, though brutal, didn't feature the sort of deliberate, indiscriminate mass murder the Nazis committed nearly a quarter of century later, or even the massive violence the Kaiser's men had inflicted in South West Africa merely a decade before. One thing does not necessarily lead to another.
To be fair to the authors, such links that do seem to exist are not pushed too far. Overall, this is a very good narrative account of a little-known crime. Few English-speaking tourists who visit Namibia know anything about it. But the Namibian desert is giving up the bones of the dead. If you come across them, and you want to know what their story is, then this book tells it. It is long overdue.
on 8 May 2011
This is an eye-opener into the mechanics of colonialism and taking over land from indigenous people. The history of Germany's genocide in Namibia is grippingly written - some nights I could not put it down.
It is a critical write-up of German colonialism and lebensraum, the idea that lesser races would give way to superior races that underpinned so much of colonialism - not just German. It is amazing how much social Darwinism and eugenics was accepted worldwide, perhaps they fit with some human instincts, and were featured in legal systems and other social structures worldwide.
The logical result for the German occupiers was deathcamps and forced labour and there seemed to be no room for humanity any more, I wonder how Christian hearts got so hardened. When I enjoy beautiful, peaceful Namibia next time I will know about the suffering brought even to this desert and savannah.
The genocide and deathcamps resurfaced on a much bigger scale in the holocaust in Eastern Europe. The last chapter is fascinating, about the rewriting of history when it came to post WWII, expunged from the official histories of Namibia and downplayed at Nuremberg because it might undermine colonial policy at a time when great powers needed them.
If you want to learn a lot more about human nature and empire, as well as an excitingly and vividly written view of African history - read this.