Tuesday, October 02, 2007

October 2

(In the original post, I forgot to credit Timothy Abbott at Walking the Berkshires for directing me to this story.)

In the late 19th century, European powers -- having evacuated millions of African bodies during four centuries of the slave trade -- dismembered the sub-Saharan landscape, claiming nearly every square acre of the continent while wiping out millions more in brutal colonial wars. Unwilling to concede their homelands, African peoples rose up from time to time, struggling in vain to halt the viral spread of European power.

One such uprising took place during the first decade of the 20th century in German South West Africa -- modern Namibia -- where the Herero, Nama and Khoikhoi among others amassed and carried out violent assaults against German farmers, who tilled what used to be their soil. The most ferocious of these campaigns began in May 1904, when Herero fighters killed hundreds German colonists and absconded with 25,000 head of cattle. German reprisals, though costly, succeeded over the next five months in driving the Herero into the Omaheke desert, where they eventually died by the tens of thousands of thirst. Although a great many refugees managed to reach British territory, where they were promised shelter and protection, nearly 80 percent of the Herero -- roughly 65,000 people -- perished as German soldiers surrounded the desert, poisoned its waterholes and hunted survivors for bounty.

On October 2, 1904, General Lothar von Trotha issued an infamous Schrecklichkeit Befehl -- “extermination order” -- that forecast the total elimination of the Herero.
I, the great General of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero people. Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and plundered, have cut off the ears, noses and other body parts from wounded soldiers, and now out of cowardice they refuse to fight . . . . The Herero people must leave this land. If they do not, I will force them to do so by using the great gun. Within the German border every male Herero, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot to death. I will no longer receive women or children but will drive them back to their people or have them shot. These are my words to the Herero people.
The General explained two days later to the German Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen that “the Negro” would only respond to “naked force” and that “the nation as such must be annihilated.” Von Schlieffen, while voicing his approval of von Trotha’s “intention,” worried that the campaign was impractical unless he moderated his policy of shooting everyone.

Although von Trotha’s order was rescinded by the Kaiser in December 1904, German colonial policy was unrelenting toward the Herero; survivors were herded into concentration camps, with women and children auctioned off as laborers to the highest bidder.

It would perhaps have been small comfort to the Herero to know that within a decade, European imperial violence would turn inward, producing in the mud of Western Europe one of the great, prolonged slaughters of human history.

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