Africa’s holocaust

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 14, 2024

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIn 1985 I interviewed the president of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) Sam Nujoma when he visited the United Nations Decolonisation Committee to plead for his country’s independence (West Africa, present-day Namibia). Namibia was a German colony from the 1880s to the First World War when South African troops occupied its territory.

From 1904 to 1908, the Germans waged a war that exterminated over 100,000 Africans from the Herero and Nama ethnic groups. It was deemed the first holocaust of the 20th century. In 1920, the League of Nations allowed South Africa to administer the territory.

After the UN was established in 1945, it called on states administering mandated territories to place them under the UN International Trusteeship System. South Africa refused to leave and tried to annex the colony “to exploit its people and resources and to extend the racist policy of apartheid into the territory” (“Decolonisation, UN Department of Political Affairs”, 1986.)

Twenty years later, the UN created a council to run Namibia. South Africa prevented the council from entering Namibia as it continued illegal rule of the country. Both the United States and the United Kingdom supported the right of South Africa’s apartheid regime to run the country. They vetoed any UN resolution that was designed to free Namibia.

Major Ludwig von Estorff provided a first-hand description of Germany’s policy of annihilation. He was the commander of one of the cavalry units that pursued the Herero into the sandveld of the Omaheke desert after the Battle of Ohamakari in August 1904. The Omaheke is one of the 14 regions in Namibia.

He wrote: “I followed their tracks, which led me to a number of wells where I beheld terrible scenes. All around them lay heaps of cattle that had died of thirst, having reached the wells with their last remaining strength, but not being able to drink in time. The Herero continued to flee before us into the sandveld. The terrible spectacle was repeated over and over again.”

Juergen Zimmerer, a professor of global history at the University of Hamburg, wrote about the Herero-Nama genocide in From Windhoek to Auschwitz? He clarified Estorff’s eyewitness account: “When he [Estorff] wrote about cattle succumbing to thirst, he was writing in code: what he meant were dying human beings, men and women, children and old people…

“Thousands of Herero died in the cruellest manner imaginable in the desert. They cut the throats of their cattle to quench their thirst with the blood and tried to squeeze the last drops of liquid out of the contents of their livestock’s stomach.”

The Germans have sought to eliminate this genocidal act from their national memory; a kind of colonial amnesia, as it were. Israel, however, continues to use the German Holocaust against them to justify its genocidal behaviour against the Palestinians. There is no way one can disconnect the rise of antisemitism from what Israel is doing to the Palestinians in the Gaza and West Bank.

Zimmerer noted that the Holocaust (against the Jews) “is something singular because of the antisemitism, and antisemitism is specific in a way, because it is an ideology of inferiority: Germans felt inferior to the Jews. Whereas colonial racism [which took place in Namibia] is a racism of superiority”. (The Berliner, December 3, 2020.) In other words, the Germans felt they were superior to the Africans.

Zimmerer also called upon the German parliament to “immediately recognise the genocide in Namibia and for the chancellor to issue an apology. That is what you do. If you accept guilt and responsibility, then you apologise”. More important, when you accept responsibility for your crimes, you seek to repair the damage that you did to the aggrieved community.

Last Tuesday, US President Joseph Biden condemned what he considered a “furious surge of antisemitism” in the United States since Hamas attacked Israel and Israel’s mass killing of Palestinians (about 35,000, mostly children and women at the time of writing). It would have been nice if Biden knew about Germany’s attack on women and children in Namibia between 1904 and 1908.

At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Day of Remembrance, Biden announced: “This ancient hatred of Jews didn’t begin with the Holocaust. It didn’t end with the Holocaust either…I understand people have strong beliefs and deep convictions about the world, but there is no place on any American campus in America, any place in America for antisemitism or hate speech or threats of violence of any kind.” (The New York Times, May 8.)

Those who speak of the Jewish Holocaust should recognise the trauma that undergirds the consciousness of African Americans who remember what happened in Namibia between 1904 and 1908.

Isn’t it time that the world understand that Africans also underwent genocide?

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