Germany's untold genocides in Africa
Updated: Feb 9
Germany is often known for her atrocities in Europe during WW2, but few know of the carnage and genocides it committed in Africa, 30 years before the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
Germany's first major genocide took place in Africa, in her colonies in Namibia and Tanzania. In Namibia the German colonizers wiped out around 100,000 people, using proto Nazi methods.
The Herero and Nama Genocide was a campaign of racial extermination and is considered to have been the first genocide of the 20th century, and the precursor to Nazi Germany's future crimes. While the final number of deaths was far less than the victims of the Nazi war machine, the genocide in Namibia featured some startling similarities with the WWII tragedy: the justification of the destruction of a whole group of people based on the German "racial superiority" over them, formation of concentration camps and using them to kill, torture and perform medical experiments on their inmates, and the need for of the German nation for “lebensraum” (living space) for the German people. While Germany’s colonial record in Namibia was already barbarous and savage even by European colonial empire standards, it was in Tanzania where their inhumane extreme tactics led to the highest fatalities.
Namibian prisoners. In Tanzania the number of people genocided by the Germans would be three times higher. An estimated 250,000–300,000 people, mostly civilians, women and children were starved to death by German troops after their tribes rose in revolt against the German colonial oppression.In fact, the Germans were so “efficient” in their genocidal campaign in Tanzania that the total African population in the region decreased by as much as three quarters. The leader of the anti German rebellion was Kinjeketile Ngwale, who claimed to be a spirit medium. He defied the German colonialists in Tanganyika, unified the various tribes, unleashed an uprising and gave the people with 'sacred water' which they believed would keep them from harm. The uprising was launched because for years the German colonists had treated the local population as slaves, subjecting them to forced labor, torture and dehumanizing behavior. Another reason was that Germany forced the indigenous population to grow cotton for export, which saw all the proceeds going to the German coffers and hampered their abilities to grow food for basic sustenance. The German colonists at that time believed the all black Africans to be a “subhuman” race of people, which should not be treated in a civilized way. Finally the African native population felt that enough was enough and in 1905 launched the “Maji Maji” (named after their magic water bottles they wore into battle) Rebellion.
Maji Maji warriors.
This uprising was one of the most effective against German colonization recorded; it lasted roughly two years and spanned an estimated 9,500 square miles. General Gustav Adolf von Götzen was the governor of the German East Africa colony at that time. His solution to the uprising was very simple, he would wipe out the tribes who rose against the German empire. In 1905, one of the leaders of German troops in the colony, Captain Wangenheim, wrote to von Götzen, "Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean." Von Götzen agreed, and began planning how he would starve not just the rebels, but also their families to death.
General Gustav Adolf von Götzen
To counter the Maji Maji rebellion, the German colonial army practiced extreme warfare reserved for “wild people and barbarians” . The German army starved their opponents to death, destroying fields, homes and livestock even as their guns outmatched the spear-wielding African soldiers on the battlefield. Once German troops cleared a battlefield, searched the town for food and materials they could use or sell, as well surviving victims to make into slaves, they would burn the land then salt it. Burning the land took down all standing structures, singed any crops or plants growing, including any humans left behind, and salting the earth made it extremely difficult to cure the land for future generations to harvest. Only once total “capitulation” was secured, and most of the population was wiped out did colonial officials begin to pass out any rations of grain to the starving local population. Some historians consider the Maji Maji rebellion as the first African nationalist stand against colonialism, as various tribes came together to fight the German army. The methods of “total war” and collective genocide against civilian populations which the Germans employed against the African tribe people in both Tanzania and Namibia, would be later employed in WW2, against European populations in eastern Europe and Russia whom the Germans also considered to be “subhumans”.
Bibliography: “The Scramble for Africa”, Thomas Pakenham. “Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany”, Isabel V. Hull. “Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War”, James Giblin and Jamie Monson.