The Disputed History Of The 1904 Genocide

Jeremy Silvester, Werner Hillebrecht & Casper Erichsen

The battle of Hamakari Of August 11, 1904 is popularly remembered as a key point in a German policy of genocide against the Herero.
The Herero had concentrated at waterholes near the Waterberg plateau, but, after their defeat in battle, were driven into the barren Omaheke to the east.
It is commonly held that thousands of Herero and their livestock perished in the desert and that General von Trotha ordered his troops to prevent their return and ensure the total destruction of the Herero nation.
Recently an article appeared in the Windhoek Observer, which dealt with a recent MA Thesis by Klaus Lorenz at the University of Hamburg. What has made this thesis particularly interesting is its supposed claim that German troops were without blame in what has become known as the Herero genocide of 1904. This is not an altogether new argument. The same point was championed by the late Brigitte Lau whose controversial 1989 article Uncertain Certainties essentially argued along the same lines.
Today there almost seems to be a consensus that the genocide really did happen. The questions do not so much focus on what happened but rather on how and why it did. Recently, however, there has been an upsurge in what can be labelled right-wing or apologetic history, spearheaded by the German based Traditionsverband (Society For Preservation Of Tradition). The recent republication of Brigitte Lau's article in German suggests that a campaign is underway to discredit the allegations that Genocide was attempted in Namibia. But why this sudden reinvention of Lau's largely discredited arguments? The reasons might be quite straightforward. Is it, for example, incidental that such claims appear in the build-up to the centenary of the war (2004), which will be marked by a number of conferences and commemorations? Or at the same time that Herero leaders are involved in a high profile campaign for reparations?
The arguments presented by Klaus Lorenz were described in the Windhoek Observer as new. They are not. Rather they are symptomatic of the combined efforts of apologist and revisionist historians to 'refute' current beliefs about the Genocide. As Lorenz's arguments relate to a wider historical revision of the events of 1904, they require thorough scrutiny.
In the article in the Windhoek Observer the well-established genocide theory was allegedly discredited by four points.
Firstly, it was argued that more Herero survived the war than is commonly believed. The point was based on undisclosed documentation giving a population of 6 000 Herero in British Bechuanaland, now Botswana, in the year 1930. This group of people were equated to the survivors of the flight across the Omaheke following the battle at the Waterberg August 11, 1904. The logic being that if 6 000 survived then talk of a Herero genocide is vastly exaggerated. This argument is vague for a number of reasons.
In Dr Jan Bart Gewald's 1999 PhD thesis we learn that long before the 1904 war begun a significant number of Herero were living in Botswana, separated from other Herero only by artificial colonial borders. Another early migration of Herero to Bechuanaland was a result of the 1896 German persecution of the Ovambanderu, following succession disputes in the Herero paramount chieftaincy. So, it is an established fact that Herero were living in Botswana before the flight across the Omaheke in 1904. As for the survivors of the battle at Hamakari, the German authorities themselves estimated the number of Herero who escaped to Botswana at about 1 500. This figure was not, as indicated in the Observer article, based on a belief that most Herero perished in the Omaheke, but rather on a physical count conducted by a German officer, Hauptmann Streitwolf, who travelled to Botswana in August 1905 to recruit labour. The statistic cited by Lorenz is dated 1930, and it is also possible that people would have migrated to Botswana in the 26 years that separate the statistic given and the actual event.
Furthermore, it seems irrelevant whether or not 6 000 Herero survived the 'trail of bones' through the Omaheke. An estimate that at least 50 000 people were concentrated at the Waterberg before the battle of Hamakari is provided in the official German history of the war. A survival rate of even 6 000 out of 
50 000 hardly proves that the Herero genocide did not take place.
Klaus Lorenz also cites 'new evidence' to make his second point but simply revives a tired debate. It is argued that the German troops were themselves too exhausted to immediately pursue the Herero, implying that the Herero died, not due to German military strategy, but at their own hands. This argument misses the mark. It was not the alleged pursuit that was seen as the foundation of the genocide theory, rather it was the official decree to take no prisoners that was given to German soldiers after Hamakari. This is commonly known as the Vernichtunghesbefehl (Extermination Order) which clearly stated that all Herero, whether women, men or children, would be shot at if caught on German territory. The order was seen as too extreme by the colonial government and was later revoked. To replace it was an equally sinister modus operandi of imprisoning captured Herero in Concentration camps where most would eventually perish.
As Lorenz points out, it did take time for the German troops to recuperate from battle, but the fact remains that pursuit did take place. In the diaries of Unteroffizier Emil Molzahn, who accompanied Lieutenant-General Von Trotha on one such pursuit, it is noted with contempt that prisoners taken on 26 September at the waterhole of Owisombo-Owidimbo where summarily executed: ''Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war were hung by the neck. Since that day I would often see Herero swaying from the branch of a tree''. It has furthermore been pointed out by a UNISA historian, Tilman Diedering, that hot pursuit was in fact not necessary as German troops simply occupied the waterholes, denying the Herero access to water and preventing them from returning.
Lorenz's third point is not devoid of truth, but again over-contrived. In short, the claim is that the Herero moved eastwards to Waterberg, because of drought and as part of a preconceived plan to move to Botswana - reiterating that the German military were not at fault in the gruesome Omaheke exodus. Once again reference is made to 'new evidence' from British colonial archives. But the fact that the Herero leadership sought to avoid the total destruction of the Herero nation, in the shape of an escape plan, does not disclaim German genocidal intent. It would it be naive to assume that the Herero were incapable of making strategic plans or were unaware of the likely consequence of war against the German empire. The famous letter written by Samuel Maharero to Hendrik Witbooi shortly after the outbreak of war in which he argued ''Let us die fighting'' clearly demonstrated his awareness that the odds of Herero victory, or even survival, against the German forces, were minimal.
Indeed, two of Samuel Maharero's own sons had spent a year in Germany and would have been well aware of the scale of Germany's military resources. In this context the attempt of the Herero leadership to secure a last option 'escape route' is not surprising but logical.
Lorenz's fourth and final point stated that the German military strategy at Hamakari was fundamentally flawed, leaving a ''weak spot'' in their positions. This ''weak spot'' was utilised by the Herero, slipping out of the German grip. Revisionist historians have long supported this somewhat dated theory. Only through Horst Drechsler's 1966 work was another scenario suggested, whereby Von Trotha conspicuously and with severe cynicism, left a weak spot in his encirclement, indirectly forcing the defeated Herero into the Omaheke, saving costly bullets. Drechsler's argument is, perhaps, little over extended here. Surely, Von Trotha would have preferred a resounding military victory on the battlefield, resulting in the total defeat, death or capture, of the Herero. However, it is clear that German planners were aware that a forced mass migration into the Omaheke would have similar devastating consequences. This is substantiated by a quote from the German battle plan that: ''if the Herero were to break through, such an outcome of the battle could only be even more desirable in the eyes of the German Command because the enemy would then seal his own fate, being doomed to die of thirst in the arid sandveld''.
Historical debate is always healthy. Was the decimation of the Herero between 1904 and 1908 a result of a deliberate attempt to wipe out an entire nation? As the centenary of the war approaches there are in fact many questions that still seek answers. These questions, though, do not only relate to German guilt or innocence in relation to their treatment of the Herero as Lorenz and Lau's apologetic writings imply.

Related: Herero festival in Okahandja, Its Past on Its Sleeve, Concentration camps


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