1904: Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war

Add comment September 26th, 2014 Headsman

“Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war were hung by the neck. Since that day, I would often see Herero swaying from the branch of a tree.”

-Diary of German soldier Emil Malzahn, writing of prisoners captured and summarily executed 26 September 1904 at the waterhole of Owisombo-Owidimbo during the Herero genocide

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1904: Herero prisoners, at the command of Lothar von Trotha

6 comments October 3rd, 2013 Headsman

My initial plan for the operation, which I always adhered to, was to encircle the masses of Hereros at Waterberg, and to annihilate these masses with a simultaneous blow, then to establish various stations to hunt down and disarm the splinter groups who escaped, later to lay hands on the captains by putting prize money on their heads and finally to sentence them to death.

-German General Lothar von Trotha (pdf source)

On this date in 1904, von Trotha did a little of that executing bit, further to doing a whole lot of genocide. It was the very day after von Trotha’s Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order, against the Herero people.

We give the narrative here to Jan-Bart Gewald’s “Colonization, Genocide and Resurgence: The Herero of Namibia 1890-1933”, from a collection of papers at a German symposium. Gewald’s complete text is available in scanned pdf form here.

Gewald:


Pocketed by the desert and the German patrols the Herero chiefs and their followers congregated along the Eiseb river. Around the first of October 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, who was actively taking part in the pursuit, and his retinue had reached the waterhole Osombo-Windimbe. During the afternoon of the following day, Sunday 2 October 1904, after the holding of a field service, General von Trotha, addressed his officers. In his address Trotha declared that the war against the Herero would be continued in all earnestness, and read out the following proclamation:

I the great General of the German troops send this letter to the Herero people.

The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other bodyparts of wounded soldiers, now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people anyone who delivers a captain will receive 1000 Mark, whoever delivers Samuel will receive 5000 Mark. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. Within the German borders everyHerero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.* These are my words to the Herero people.

The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.

At dawn the following morning, Herero prisoners, who had been sentenced to death by a field court-martial, were hung in the presence of about 30 Herero prisoners, women and children amongst them. After the hanging, Trotha’s proclamation was read out to the prisoners in Otjiherero. Printed copies of the text in Otjiherero were distributed amongst the Herero prisoners. The prisoners were then turned loose and driven out into the Omaheke. [i.e., the western Kalahari desert -ed.]


In a letter the next day, Oct. 4, to the general staff, von Trotha reported on his order the day’s executions, in the context of a detailed tactical and philosophical justification of destroying the entire Herero nation. It’s quoted at length in Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany:

For me, it is merely a question of how to end the war with the Herero. My opinion is completely opposite to that of the governor and some “old Africans.” They have wanted to negotiate for a long time and describe the Herero nation as a necessary labor force for the future use of the colony. I am of an entirely different opinion. I believe that the nation mustbe destroyed as such, or since this was not possible using tactical blows, it must be expelled from the land operatively …

Because I neither can treat with these people, nor do I want to, without the express direction of His Majesty, a certain rigorous treatment of all parts of the nation is absolutely necessary, a treatment that I have for the present taken and executed on my own responsibility, and from which, as long as I have command, I shall not detour without a direct order. My detailed knowledge of many Central African tribes, Bantu and others, has taught me the convincing certainty that Negroes never submit to a contract but only to raw force. Yesterday before my departure, I had the warriors who were captured in the last several days [and who were] condemned by court-martial, hanged, and I have chased all the women and children who had gathered here back into the desert, taking with them the proclamation to the Herero people. This proclamation (enclosed), which will unavoidably bcome known, will be attacked … accepting women and children, who are mostly ill, is an eminent danger to the troops, and taking care of them is impossible. Therefore, I think it better that the nation perish rather than infect our troops and affect our water and food. In addition, the Herero would interpret any kindness on my side as weakness.They must now die in the desert or try to cross the Bechuanaland border. This uprising is and remains he beginning of a race war, which I already predicted in 1897 in my reports to the chancellor on East Africa … Whether this uprising was caused by poor treatment [of the Africans] remains irrelevant to its suppression.


It should be added that this explicitly genocidal policy was neither unique to German colonies, nor, as von Trotha himself notes, uncontested within Germany itself.

German Christian missionaries logged a piteous catalog of horrors, “skeletons with hollow eyes, powerless and hopeless,” and their reports of same to their home offices led to church pressure to brake the atrocities.

Gewald also quotes one of von Trotha’s subalterns, undisguisedly revolted at what he was involved in.

Cattle which had died of thirst lay scattered around the wells. These cattle had reached the wells but there had not been enough time to water them. The Herero led ahead of us into the Sandveld. Again and again this terrible scene kept repeating itself … the water became ever sparser, and wells evermore rare. They fled from one well to the next and lost virtually all their cattle and a large number of their people. The people shrunk into small remnants who continually fell into our hands, sections of the people escaped now and later throug the Sandveld into English territory. It was a policy which was equally gruesome as senseless, to hammer the people so much, we could have still saved many of them and their rich herds, if we had pardoned and taken them up again, they had been punished enough. I suggested this to General von Trotha but he wanted their total extermination.

Technically, complete destruction of the Herero was reversed as German policy a few months after von Trotha began implementing it, and the general himself recalled from South West Africa before the end of 1905 — leaving only a “softer” genocide of disease-ridden concentration camps through 1908. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, it’s thought that well over half the Herero population died during this period.

Yet neither was von Trotha a lone butcher. Diary entries of settlers and regular soldiers well before the extermination order record many instances (pdf) of the most cavalier slaying of Herero prisoners and noncombatants, abuses which continued long after von Trotha’s departure.

It’s difficult not to see in the racial ideology and the eliminationist military doctrine prefiguring (pdf) later and better-publicized brutalities. Indeed, even some of the personnel are the same:

  • Hermann Goering‘s father Heinrich was Germany’s first Reichskommissar in South West Africa, plopping his home down right on a Herero burial site.
  • Eugen Fischer, a eugenicist who availed the Namibian concentration camps’ ready supply of subjects to produce career-making research that would influence German race law and make Fischer a big brain in Nazi intellectual circles
  • Franz Ritter von Epp, one of von Trotha’s officers, formed in the aftermath of World War I one of the far-right Freikorps paramilitaries, with many subsequently-influential Nazis among its membership, including Ernst Roehm (who may have cribbed the SA “brown shirt” look from colonial Schutztruppe khakis) and Adolf Hitler himself

* He meant, shooting over their heads to run them off. “I assume absolutely that this proclamation will result in taking no more male prisoners, but will not degenerate into atrocities against women and children,” Lothar explained. “The latter will run away if one shoots at them a couple of times. The troops will remain conscious of the good reputation of the German soldier.”

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1904: Mart Vowell, aged Civil War veteran

22 comments June 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1904, a 61-year-old veteran of the U.S. Civil War was hanged for murder at Paragould, Ark.

“Hanging Day 1904”: this is apparently a photo either from Vowell’s execution, or the July 9, 1904 hanging at Paragould of Nathan H. Brewer

Mart Vowell, the hanged man, was anomalously the former city marshall of Rector, Arkansas — and his victim the town troublemaker, whom Vowell had previously arrested.

(Vowell fought in the Confederate army under Nathan Bedford Forrest. If it’s the same Mart Vowell described in this Reconstruction-era report, he apparently stuck around in Tennessee after the fighting stop and followed Forrest into the Ku Klux Klan.)

Even the grand jury summoned to indict the killer had to be dismissed after repeatedly returning only second-degree charges.

This case cries out for primary research beyond the scope of this blog’s daily deadlines further to the motivations of the characters involved, but the bottom line is that Vowell hanged before a highly sympathetic crowd — calling “Good-bye, Mart!” as he “died game” — in Paragould, Ark.

Arkansas Governor Jeff(erson) Davis — named after, but not related to, the Confederate president* — was himself hanged in effigy the next day for his refusal to spare Vowell in the face of thousands of petitioners. Davis being an open advocate of lynching (“without apology to any tribunal on the face of the earth”) we suppose the populist governor could hardly have been sore about a little mannequin, however “carefully prepared.”

* Given the famous characters evoked by name, we need to note that our day’s principal, Mart, was actually named Martin Van Buren Powell, which would presumably make him a namesake of abolitionist former U.S. President Martin Van Buren.

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1904: Zenon Champoux, French degenerate

Add comment May 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1904, the state of Washington carried out its first execution under the auspices of a new law requiring that hangings be held in that state’s penitentiary in Walla Walla.*

Its subject was French-Canadian laborer Zenon Champoux, and his crime was as flamboyant as his moniker: publicly planting a knife in the forehead of a dance hall girl who did not return his affections.

The first man executed under the auspices of the Evergreen State, we admit, is a milestone that’s a bit on the smaller side.

But we think his name stands out admirably in the annals, especially paired with a characterization like the Seattle Star gave him: French degenerate.

“Zenon Champoux, French Degenerate” — it’s the scoundrel who’s rogering your girl, or else the branding on his designer condoms. On this date in 1904, it was just the guy at the end of his rope.

* Previously, hangings had been conducted by counties, in public. Laws removing them to the auspices of the state and behind the walls of a prison were in vogue at the time.

Washington went on to abolish the death penalty in 1913, only to reinstate it again in 1919.

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1904: Heinrich, a Herero

1 comment August 2nd, 2009 Headsman

The Times of London reported thus, on Aug. 30, 1904:

GERMAN SOUTH-WEST AFRICA.

(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)

BERLIN, AUG. 29.

It is intended to hold Courts-martial in German South-West Africa for the trial of natives who have been implicated in the massacre of German colonists or who have rendered assistance to the insurgents. The first of these trials resulted in the condemnation of a Herero named Heinrich, alias Egbert, who had been concerned in the murder of a German farmer, and who had also acted as a spy in the interest of the rebels. Heinrich, who is described as “a schoolmaster and Evangelist,” was sentenced to death, and, according to intelligence just received, was hanged at Swakopmund on August 2. This case will produce a painful impression in German missionary circles, which have lately been in bad odour with the Government owing to the criticisms they had passed upon the conduct of some of the whites.

This “Heinrich” was thereby the first judicial execution for the January 1904 Herero raid that touched off the Herero genocide. Germany would secure the military scene just nine days later by routing Herero warriors at the Battle of Waterberg … and then proceed to drive almost the whole of the Herero nation into the deserts on pain of instant execution. (Jolly postcards were made of such scenes.)

Estimated body count: tens of thousands. Germans feel just awful about it.

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