Germans in Southwest Africa: A History of Colonization & Genocide

Germans in Southwest Africa: A History of Colonization & Genocide

Sep 19, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
german colonization southwest africa
A monument in Windhoek memorializing the genocide of the Herero and Nama people, via Hamilton Wende / Al Jazeera


The independent nation of Namibia lies on the west coast of Africa, with Angola to the north, Botswana to the east, South Africa to the south, and the dangerous, icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is an arid nation, almost completely covered by the Namib desert — the oldest desert in the world. Over a century ago, this bleak landscape and the people who lived there were part of German colonial Africa and were victims of colonial exploits at the hands of their overlords. This is the story of German South West Africa, the wealth it created, and the horror of the genocide that happened there.


German Colonial Presence in Africa: Missionaries and Merchants

The town of Lüderitz was the first permanent settlement by the Germans and was named after its founder, Adolf Lüderitz, via Got2globe


The first Germans to settle in South West Africa did not come as conquerors but as proselytizers. The British had been attempting to convert the local people as early as 1805 when the London Missionary Society established a presence in Blyde Verwacht, but their attempts to convert the Nama people met with very little success. In 1840, the mission was transferred to the German Rhenish Missionary Society. Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt and Carl Hugo Hahn, who both arrived in 1842, were prominent figures in this society, and under their guidance, many churches were built in the area. The mission’s presence began to have a significant effect on the culture of the local African residents.


Forty years later, the German merchant Adolf Lüderitz established a settlement named after himself on the coast in the southwest of the territory. He placed the settlement under the protection of the German Empire in order to dissuade encroachment from other colonial powers. Issues of land ownership by European powers were resolved after the Berlin Conference held from 1884 to 1885 ratified which European powers could claim land in Africa. The continent was carved up, and South West Africa was given to Germany.


In April of 1885, The Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwest-Afrika (DKGSWA), a colonial society, was formed to oversee German interests in their newly acquired territory. In the surrounding areas, mineral deposits were plentiful and provided significant profits for the privately-owned companies that operated there. Gold, copper, and platinum were the major resources, and later in 1908, diamonds were discovered, triggering an influx of prospectors.


A map of German South West Africa from 1905 showing land divisions and mining rights, via the Library of Congress

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In May 1885, Heinrich Ernst Göring (father of Hermann Göring) was appointed commissioner of German South West Africa. He established his administration at Otjimbingwe in the center of South West Africa. In the following year, different laws were constituted for Europeans and natives, creating a divide that would add fuel to worsening relations between the two peoples.


There was also growing unrest and distrust as many people migrated to the British enclave of Walvis Bay. It was clear that South West Africa would need a significant amount of militarization, and in 1888, the first group of colonial protectorate troops, known as Schutztruppen, arrived.


Despite the growing tensions, the colony saw significant growth. In 1890, the colony acquired the Caprivi Strip, a panhandle that gave the territory access to the Zambezi River and, thus, trade with the interior. In exchange, the Germans gave up their interest in Zanzibar to the British.


Two years later, cooperation between the governments of Germany, Britain, and the Cape Colony led to the creation of the South West Africa Company Ltd (SWAC), which was tasked with raising capital for the effective exploitation of South West Africa’s vast mineral wealth.


The Road to Genocide

An illustration of German troops slaughtering Herero rebels, via Deutsche Welle


Before South West Africa was even officially declared a German crown colony, the local people resented German occupation. The first uprising of the Nama people began in 1893 and was led by Henry Witbooi.


The neighboring Herero people also issued complaints against German rule. Broken treaties and the frequent rape of Herero girls by German settlers led to a complete breakdown of cordial relations. The latter crime usually went unpunished as German prosecutors did not see it as important enough to demand their attention. German ranchers engaged in the practice of Verkafferung – the taking of native women as concubines. Many women were taken willingly or by force.


The actions in German South West Africa were, by far, the worst in German colonial Africa. The native peoples had to deal with Germans seizing their land and breaking down their societal structures. German settlers were even encouraged to enslave native people as they were seen as subhuman. The colonial government intended to restrict the various local people to reservations. Naturally, these activities and policies created a pretext for violent rebellion. This pretext was furthered by the attempted rape and the murder of a Herero chieftain’s wife by a German settler.


In the early 1900s, revolts became a frequent occurrence, with many casualties on both sides. A significant event happened in 1904 when the Herero launched a surprise attack, killing up to 150 German settlers and seven Boers.


The attacks embarrassed and angered the Germans, and a widespread conservative element within German society called for the total eradication of the Herero people. When the subject was debated in the Reichstag, a Social Democrat mentioned that the Herero people were human beings with immortal souls. His words were met with howls of derisive laughter.


Kaiser Wilhelm II was enraged by the actions of the Herero people. He held strong beliefs of racial superiority and was very supportive of the actions that the Germans would subsequently visit upon the territory’s native population.


War in German Colonial Africa

Herero men in chains, from Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo, via The Guardian


On June 11, 1904, Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha arrived in South West Africa in command of an expeditionary force of 10,000 German soldiers. The Herero had struck communication lines, led small raids against colonial interests, and achieved some measure of success.


And so when the German authorities contacted them, wishing to talk, the Herero believed that the Imperial forces were interested in peace negotiations. Thousands of Herero soldiers and their families gathered at the Waterberg Plateau in expectation of a truce. Instead, they were massacred. Those who escaped the battle were followed and gunned down, while others died of thirst, starvation, and disease while trekking through the desert.



General Lothar von Trotha, who ordered the brutal suppression of the Herero uprising, from picture-alliance / dpa / EW, via Deutschlandfunk Kultur


After the Battle of Waterberg, the Germans were far from finished with the Herero people. Patrols were sent out. Wells were poisoned. And the Herero people were systematically killed or rounded up and sent to private camps where they were used for slave labor and as test subjects for medical experiments.


Five concentration camps were set up, the most notorious being Shark Island Concentration Camp off the coast near Lüderitz. Tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people were herded into the camps, where food was so scarce that many starved to death. Rations consisted of uncooked rice, and the food was indigestible without pots to prepare it. Dysentery became a major issue, furthering the death rate. Beatings and executions were meted out in cavalier fashion.


On Shark Island, the camp was a barren stretch of land on the island’s west side, exposed to the howling wind and all the elements. The conditions were so bad that around 80% of all the prisoners there perished.


Survivors of the Herero genocide, via Smithsonian Magazine


After the camps were closed, the surviving Herero and Nama people were sent to work for German settlers. They were forced to wear metal discs around their necks with their labor registration number for identification.


It took over one hundred years for Germany to recognize the atrocities it committed. In 2021, after five years of negotiations, The German government officially recognized the events as a genocide and agreed to pay €1.1 billion in aid to the communities affected. The agreement is still contentious, however, as it took place between the Namibian and German governments with no representation of the Herero and Nama people. Laidlaw Peringanda of the Namibian Genocide Association has insisted that the German government buy back the land owned by the descendants of German settlers and return it to the Herero and Nama peoples.


The total number of deaths from the genocide is unknown but falls between the regions of 34,000 and 110,000, with a figure of 65,000 generally accepted.


After the Genocide

The ghost town of Kolmanskop, founded in 1908 to support diamond-mining operations, now reclaimed by the shifting sands of the Namib, via Stars Insider


After dealing with the uprisings, the Germans went about their business as usual. Mining operations continued, and settlers made use of the land. In 1908, diamonds were discovered, which proved lucrative for a short while. The German government did not have much time to enjoy the profits of this new discovery. In 1914, the First World War broke out, and South West Africa was immediately invaded and occupied by the Union of South Africa, which fought on the side of Britain and its allies.


After the war, the territory became a South African mandate and was subject to apartheid laws until South West Africa gained independence in 1990 and changed its name to Namibia.


One of the approximately 500 shipwrecks dotted along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, via Travelnetbook


Namibia’s history as part of German colonial Africa is still immediately recognizable. Many places throughout the country bear German names and architecture, while Lutheranism is the predominant Christian denomination. The German language is learned as a second and third language across the country, and some publications and broadcasts exist in German.


Around 30,000 Germans live in Namibia today, and while the past cannot be forgotten, the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims have learned to live in relative peace.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.