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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.”
On this date in 1905, in the midst of Germany’s genocidal destruction of the Herero people in its Southwest Africa colony (present-day Namibia), the Otjosazu chief Sacharias Kamaituara Kukuri was hanged in Windhoek.
Our man’s execution occurred at the moment of a policy pivot: after the horrific extermination policy initially practiced by General Lothar von Trotha, Germany’s Herero policy was “moderating”. Von Trotha’s extermination order had been officially reversed by Berlin; by November of 1905, the murderous general would be recalled to Germany. Instead, they’d be collecting the Herero into concentration camps.
It was into the Windhoek camp that Kukuri arrived as the wounded prisoner of a German ambush.
The concentration camp under the walls of Windhoek’s Alte Feste (Old Fort). Today, the fort is a museum … and the camp, forgotten, is the grounds of a high school. (Source)
Of course, it goes without saying that, even if state policy no longer aimed officially at racial annihilation, the system of concentration camps continued the de facto genocide: the systematic destruction of Herero life in order to incorporate the population as a subject proletariat (enlightened self-interest — the colony’s “economic future would be completely destroyed by the extermination of the indispensable labor power” — is what finally trumped von Trotha). At the same time, camps structured a punitive neglect of Herero living conditions, a years-long “period of suffering” in which Herero died of overwork, malnutrition, disease and neglect as surety against any future resistance. Courts-martial of fighting-age men alleged to have had some hand in resisting by arms the German onslaught completed the salutary lesson.
Missionary sources provide us with eyewitness accounts of conditions in the camps. Missionaries stationed in the Herero Konzentrationslager reported to their superiors in Germany on the extensive and unchecked rape, beatings and execution of surrendered Herero by German soldiers. Missionary Kuhlmann spoke of the delight of settler women witnessing the drawn-out public hangings of captured Herero in Windhoek. At one such hanging, a drooling Herero fighting for his life was berated” ‘You swine, wipe your muzzle’. (pdf source)
Kukuri fell into this last category.
His fate is especially poignant for us (and, convenient to date) thanks to the memoirs of Friedrich Meier, one of the many German Christian missionaries who had poured into Namibia ever since it became a German colony. As Meier’s account of swapping Biblical allusions with Kukuri in the shadow of the latter’s gallows underscores, these missionaries had achieved some inroads.
I did not see the slightest trace of fear on him, instead it was as if he were going to a wedding. ‘Muhonge’, he said at one stage, ‘oami otja Elias mohamakuao na je otjinga me keende kejuru metemba,’ i.e. ‘Muhonge, like Elias, I too travel to heaven in a waggon.’
Having arrived at the execution site, I noticed how he kept looking at the gallows, at which preparations were still taking place. I feared for his tranquility and asked him to stop looking at it. ‘Muhonge,’ he said to me, ‘I hear everything, why should I not look at it? For is it not “my wood” [my cross]?’
Possibly he noticed that I was worried about him. Anyway when I was finished he said, ‘It would appear that you still fear that I am afraid, but have I not told you: “When a father calls his child, does that child then fear to go to him?” Give my wife, who is in Okahandja, my greetings and tell her that I have died in the faith of the lord Jesus, so too tell my children if you should ever see them.’ I asked him again to be infatuated with the lord Jesus. ‘Lord Jesus, you help me,’ with this, after he had given me his hand, he climbed up the ladder. Soon the noose was laid around his neck. And then — never will I forget that moment — the unheard-of happened, as he fell the noose slipped and the wretch fell to the ground. He lost consciousness for a moment, so too, the observers were dumbstruck. Today I still see how his eyes sought me out. Soon, however, two soldiers were there, they lifted him up, and then a little to the side, on orders of the major who led the proceedings, he was shot.
His memory as an emblem of Herero dignity under persecution also remains in present-day Namibia.
Anette Hoffmann (in “The Merits and Predicaments of Opacity: Poetic Strategies of Evasion and Resistance” for the fall 2007 Research in African Literatures) relates a later “praise poem” for 1959 Herero martyrs, whose allusion to the hanged chief (as “Hauzeo”) emphasizes his agency, rather than his victimhood.
For he as the son of the chief Kukuri and must die since Samuel Maherero had escaped to Botswana. They said that if they kill him, then that could serve as a symbol that they had exterminated the sovereignity of the Herero … he was taken to a tree near the White’s cemetery in Otjomuise, which is still here today. I can show you his grave. He is still there until now, near the railway line to Aris … when he was taken to the tree, the tree of Hauzeu, as you hear about it, it was said: now you will be hanged to die. Heavily wounded as he was, he had a rope around his neck and was hanged. However, his weight broke the rope. Then the Germans said he was innocent and had to be released. But he himself insisted to be hanged again … [he said] “I have come to see the children of Tjamuaha’s house, those left in the camps of enslavement: to see them with my own eyes … this is why I have come: take me up the tree.” They did and he died. He lies at Hauzeu’s tree. He had given himself to be hanged.
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.)