Global Mappings

Herero and Nama Rebellions, 1904-1907

Article #619

A prelude to the modern holocaust?

Michael G Hanchard, Article Author

The Herero and Nama Revolts of German South West Africa (now Namibia) between 1904 and 1908 were a popular response to the German colonization and occupation of the region which began in 1894. The Herero people are actually composed of several Bantu speaking peoples of central highlands and are also referred to as the Ovaherero. Scholars dispute whether the revolts, also known as the Herero-German War and the Nama-German war, were the result of a premeditated uprising initiated by the Herero. Faced with continued encroachment upon their land, agriculture and way of life despite several treaties signed by German colonizers and Herero chiefs, several Herero chiefs organized in revolt on January 1, 1904. Over 100 German settlers and soldiers were killed in the uprising, and ultimately took control of Hereroland, located in the north-central region of the colony.

The repression of the revolts by combined forces of the German colonial administration and German army provided a brutal foreshadowing of subsequent German colonization efforts in Africa as well as the implementation of racist ideologies and pseudo-scientific research which would resurface in Germany itself under the policies of the Third Reich. The Herero were joined by the Nama, a less populous group which resided in the central and south regions of the colony, in October 1904. Over the course of the three years it took to quell the rebellion, 60,000 Herero people were killed in the fighting with the German troops, roughly 80% of the Herero population. The Nama people lost approximately 35-50% of their population in fighting with the German army. In the aftermath of the wars, Herero men, women, and children were subjected to various forms of murder, torture and rape. Lynching was often used to murder Herero men. The defeated survivors from both groups (15,000 Herero, 2,200 Nama) were placed in concentration camps. In the camps they were forced to undertake physical labor under harsh conditions. Many Herero women were raped and forced to perform sexual services for German soldiers, which led to a high incidence of syphillus, gonnorhea and other sexually transmitted diseases in the camps.

Moreover, camp prisoners were transformed into human subjects for various laboratory experiments designed to confirm the racial inferiority of black peoples. These experiments were overseen by Dr.Eugen Fischer who became the senior geneticist of the Nazi regime. Ironically, German scientists were not the first to use the Herero people as the empirical basis for pseudo-scientific racial theory. Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and renowned theorist of eugenics, developed his first eugenicist formulations after undertaking an expedition with English-speaking tourists through Southwestern Africa in 1850. In several important respects, German policies of repression of the revolt were prototypical of the policies imposed upon racial "inferiors" during World War II. Fischer used the findings from these experiments as the basis for arguing the genetic dangers to the German race via miscegenation (race-mixing, or mis-mating) between German men and African women. In 1905, the government of South West Africa forbade marriage between Africans and Europeans and declared prior marriages between the two races dissolved.

Rudolph Goering, the governor general of German South West Africa at the time, was the father of Herman Goering, Hitler's second-in-command under the Third Reich. General Lothar von Trotha, head of the colonial military army in East Africa, sucessfully argued that the Herero people had to be destroyed as a nation, and advocated the murder of women and children. After their surrender,all cattle and land were expropriated from the Herero. Scholars such as Helmut Bley and Jan-Smart Gewald suggest that the Herero society was effectively destroyed as a result of this brutal campaign by the Germans, although the Herero peoples would successfully reconstruct their lives and communities after 1908. British novelist Thomas Pynchon's novel depicts the murder of and experimentation on the Herero and Nama peoples in his novel Gravity's Rainbow.

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Chief Hendrik Witbooi (1840-1905); leader of Nama revolt.
Image from "A History of Resistance in Namibia", by Peter H. Katjavivi.


Connections to other articles

The Years 1900-1929

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Chief Samuel Maharero (1854-1923); leader of Herero revolt.
Image from "A History of Resistance in Namibia", by Peter H. Katjavivi.

Bibliographic Sources

South-West Africa under German Rule, 1894-1914, Bley, Helmut, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 24492
Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon, Thomas, Viking Press (New York), 1973
Herero Heroes, Gewald, Jan-Bart, James Currey(Oxford);David Philip (Cape Town); Ohio University Press (Athens, Ohio), 34745

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