Death camps, mass executions, starvation and eugenics are all part of the lexicon of horror sadly associated with Germany’s past. But few know they date back to German colonial rule in Namibia, some 40 years prior to Auschwitz. Nagging evidence has recently resurfaced in Berlin: piles of skulls in the cellars of Charité, 20 of which were returned home.
On a Friday in late September, a small gathering met in a lecture hall at Charité to assist in the handover of 20 skulls – two displayed in glass cases, the rest stored in cardboard boxes – to a delegation of 55 Namibian dignitaries. The skulls once belonged to living, breathing human beings: 15 men, four women and a boy, all members of the Herero and Nama people.
They were just a few of the approximately 75,000 victims of Germany’s first systematic attempt at mass extermination through executions, internment and starvation between 1904 and 1908 in German South West Africa (modern-day Namibia).
We took the opportunity to interview one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on the issue, the historian Jan Bart Gewald, whose prolific academic research on Africa helped break the silence about Germany’s first genocide.
What do we know about these skulls?
The skulls, nine Herero and 11 Nama, belong to people who were killed by the Germans some 100 years ago, and not just killed in war, but in genocide. It wasn’t just that soldiers were taking body parts as personal souvenirs. No, people working in academic institutions at the time put in requests for body parts and skulls with the military authorities in Namibia or German South West Africa.
These Preparaten were then collected and sent back to Germany. At the time they wanted to prove racial differences and so they wanted body parts that were indicative of racial difference. For example, they would look at the voice box or the muscles of the jaw and the skull, which were supposedly different in various peoples.
Retrospectively it sounds shocking, but weren’t such anatomical/anthropological studies en vogue all over Europe at the time?
Surely in Germany, but also in Austria and across the German-speaking academic world. But it would not surprise me if you were to come across something similar in France or Britain.
Did scientists back then realise where the skulls and body parts were coming from?
I have looked at works based on skulls and other body parts. PhDs that were completed between 1913 and 1914. There you see that the people’s age and sex was known to the researchers at the time. And the age and sex of the body parts often did not fit the profile of soldiers or warriors.
Most belonged to women and children. One of the studies I looked at was concerned with the reproductive organs of women and supposed differences between Herero and Nama.
Would it be a biased, retrospective view of history to point out that Hitler was inspired by the eugenicist views of the physician Eugen Fischer, famous for his research in German South West Africa?
We know that Eugen Fischer was in Namibia. We know that he collected material. We also know that he did research on a population group in Namibia, a group now known as the ‘Rehoboth Basters’, a population group that lived around Windhoek. Eugen Fischer’s issue was that the worst of a race comes to the fore when races mix. These were ideas that were floating around at the time...
...and Hitler read and loved his work, and he taught Joseph Mengele and joined the Nazi party.
That’s not surprising at all. People mustn’t forget that after World War I, after Germany lost its empire, these people came back home. There was a particular political party that said, “If you join us, we will recreate these colonies.” So, I’m not surprised at all that there was a person called Eugen Fischer who was in Namibia who then became a Nazi and supported Nazi racial theory.
To what extent was the war of extermination waged by the Germans different to what other powers did in their colonies?
What happened in Namibia was different in the sense that a whole group of people were killed purely on the basis of their descent and the tribes to which they were assigned by the Germans. There were horrendous wars waged by the British in Sudan, at the Battle of Omdurman for instance, with death tolls that were absolutely frightening.
The British and the French could certainly be as racist as the Germans were at the time, but once they had defeated the people they were fighting against, they did not desire their complete extermination.
And that is what is different about Namibia, where under Lothar von Trotha, the German military commander at the time, there was a conscious attempt to exterminate the Herero and the Nama. The idea was: defeat the military opponent and then kill them by driving them into the desert or putting them into camps.
Von Trotha famously gave a Vernichtungsbefehl, or annihilation order. Was that really something unique at the time?
It was unique to the extent that even the social democrats in the Reichstag were deeply shocked by this. The commander said that all Herero with or without guns would be driven out of the country or be killed. That was extraordinary, even for Germany at the time.
They put the survivors in concentration camps. Again, how unique was this? Weren’t the British the first to use concentration camps?
In the Boer War, the British established concentration camps for Boer women and children and for Africans who fought on the sides of the Boers. Masses of people died in these camps, but the goal was not the destruction of these people as a people. In German South West Africa, there were different kinds of Konzentrationslager (KZ).
There were labour camps, for instance in Swakopmund, from which German companies were granted labour by the military. And there were KZs that were clearly places where people just went to die. Shark Island, near Lüderitz, was one of these camps and it can only be described as a death camp, and I am fully aware of the implications of what I am saying.
Another contentious point: from where did the orders originate? Von Trotha was considered a bloodthirsty commander. But to what extent was he executing a foreign policy devised at the top, by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself?
I’m of the opinion that von Trotha was the result of the policies instituted by the Kaiser. Kaiser Wilhelm II has a lot to answer for, particularly with regard to his role in the expansion of the German Empire and a very specific understanding of what that empire should be like.
Von Trotha was responsible for the famous ‘Hunnenrede’ – in which he said, “Let the name Germany be known in China in such a way that a Chinese will never again dare even to look askance at a German.”
Von Trotha was also active in suppressing the Hehe resistance in German East Africa some 10 years before, and for all of these actions, von Trotha was consistently rewarded by the German government, by the Kaiser, in other words.
There was much in common between the death camps in Namibia and those that came later: they were hidden from sight, victims were brought there by cattle cars.
The KZs in all the towns and villages in Namibia were well known to everybody. On the maps and in the photographs you can see them. These things were not hidden. The KZ in Windhoek was right next to the Alte Feste fortress in the centre. Shark Island is right in the centre of the Lüderitz harbour. You can’t miss it.
Later it was all forgotten, whitewashed, and the Germans presented South West Africa as a nice little paradise. For almost 90 years no one talked about it.
I grew up in Namibia and did my secondary schooling in Windhoek. I didn’t even know about any of this stuff until I started doing my PhD in 1991.
How did you become aware of it?
Well, the Herero people knew about it the whole time. Most of my thesis is based on interviews I did with Herero people. They would tell me, “Well, where the railway station is now in Windhoek, that was where one of the camps was, and this is what happened in the camps.” And a lot of stuff was published in reports immediately after World War I that dealt explicitly with what happened in the camps. Then it was conveniently forgotten.
Until recently there was a campsite where the Shark Island extermination camp was. Is that still the case?
That’s right. Or people used to drive their dune buggies around the mass graves near Swakopmund – people didn’t know what they were, at least most white people. Since 2000 it’s been changing quite rapidly because of the immensity of what happened.
Why is Germany so reluctant to acknowledge this genocide? They have acknowledged the massacres, but not the genocide as a state policy and have never made a clear official apology. Why?
We had the personal apology of the minister of economic development and cooperation in 2004. She said she was sorry for what happened, but a formal acknowledgement from the German government that it was genocide isn’t forthcoming.
I don’t think it will come. It’s a little bit like during the Clinton administration in Rwanda, when an email went around saying, “Don’t mention the ‘G-word’.” Because once you admit it was genocide, there is the whole issue of reparations – to whom do you pay these reparations and so on.
The other issue is that Germany has had extremely strong bilateral ties with the Namibian government since independence. That has enormous benefits for Namibia as a whole but not necessarily for the two population groups that suffered the most.
I think the immensity of the issue has not been fully clear to consecutive German governments, who have been prepared to say, “We had colonies and we did terrible things in those colonies.” But to admit that what they did was genocide would be a major step.
But 100 years later, isn’t it time for Germany to set the record straight?
I personally feel that these people who represent the German government don’t realise what actually happened and what it actually means to the current situation in Namibia.
Currently the Herero and Nama live in areas of Namibia they were driven into, literally, by the German military presence at the time. Central Namibia is empty and currently home to massive game and cattle farms owned predominantly by white settlers because of the genocide that took place in 1904. When Cornelia
Pieper (FDP; assistant to foreign minister Guido Westerwelle) was at Charité – I read her speech – she probably thought, well there was a lot of killing there, and I’ve got to get rid of this is some sort of diplomatic way.
But these little diplomatic faux pas are absurd. She actually left before the end of the ceremony, angering the Namibian delegates and sparking a mini press scandal!
She did. Another diplomatic faux pas, which I find a little striking, is that there were these 20 skulls that were going back and they put two skulls on display. And I think to myself, why the fuck are these skulls on display? Who put those skulls inglass boxes? I wouldn’t want my great grandfather’s skull put on display in a ceremony to supposedly give these skulls back again.
It just seems to show the general lack of understanding or respect.
That’s one way of looking at it. The Namibian government sent their minister for youth, sport and culture there – not exactly the most powerful ministerial position – and then they are surprised when they don’t get official recognition in Germany.
Frau Merkel and her colleagues have other priorities than something that happened 100 years ago in Namibia.
The Herero and Nama populations are small minorities in today’s Namibia. So even for the Namibian government, this might not be the number one priority?
I think I would agree with that. Certainly for some members of the Namibian government, it would be a very import important issue. But for a large section of the present government, the issue is to present national unity and good bilateral relations with Germany.
The Holocaust is commonly presented as an isolated episode, a parenthesis in German history, which is a way for Germans to not identify, as a nation, with the perpetrators– insane anti-semitic leaders who crept out of nowhere. Recognition of the Namibian genocide as a precedent would change that.
What you are saying is a historical minefield. If you say the Holocaust was not unique, you are demeaning what happened in the Holocaust. I would never seek to demean what happened in the Holocaust whatsoever. But I do believe that mass killings and genocide were taking place in the world beforehand. And the Holocaust is not a culmination, but one in a series of these events through time, and two of these events in German history were the Herero and Nama genocides.