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

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.


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.”

On this day..

6 thoughts on “1904: Herero prisoners, at the command of Lothar von Trotha

  1. Steve… killed innocent people??? Those german devils invaded Namibia as colonizers! You gonna have to come harder than that Steve. Of course the Herero and Nama killed the invading german devils. Were they not supposed to resist such devilishment that the germans were bringing to their homeland and ancestry territory?

    I’m sure you would agree, that anyone invading germany would meet the same fate, so do not use your weak tricknology to spin the issue here. No Afrikan people requested germany to come to their land, or to send invaders and colonizers. The demonic, xenophobic and ever-curious mlungu germans stumbled upon Afrika with the sole intention of exploitation, to rape the land and the people. Of course the people of Namibia were victims!

    You are failing to cite the fact that the germans were only in Namibia as barbaric invaders, and murderous savage conquerers, bent on enslaving, oppressing, subjugating, pillaging, raping, torturing and murdering… You know, the things white folk do best. 🙂 It’s funny to hear you defend the germans after what you see the pictures above in this article. Moreover it give’s me a hearty laugh that you are empathizing with germany despite their historical track-record of wanton brutality and sheer blood-lust.

    You do know where the word “berserk” came from right? Let me help you out, it came from the Old Norse word “berserkr” meaning to to murder with a sense of sexual pleasure, to feel orgasmic in the act of killing (of which the germans are famous for…both, killing, and sexual deviancy). 😉

    You can’t even be taken seriously for that shallow, unintelligent, and illogical comment. Only a devil would say something like you did.

    P.S. Just like the Herero and Nama, the so-called “Mau Mau” were victims of european devilisment as well. The Kikuyu were merely defending their women, children and land just as any european would do if their country was to be invaded. The Kenyan Land and Freedom Army (so-called “Mau Mau”) were justified in their self-defense against the british devils and invaders.

    The same can be said in reverse Stever… If it’s not “The Savage Mau Mau” it’s the “Corrupt Afrikans”. Bring that tricknology somewhere else, that weak white magick doesn’t work here. Abibifahodie.

  2. The people of Namibia would have you believe the Herero were victims.. Like the Mau Mau who are trying to sue the British. Yet the Herero killed innocent men, women and children. Like the Mau Mau in Kenya. Yet you never hear this, do you? If it`s not “The Evil Germans,” it`s the Imperialist British.”

  3. Hello, JCF…

    Again, for me, it has nothing to do with revenge. It has to do with justice and doing what is right. 🙂

  4. …put to death only after all those others w/ murderous intentions—which, in that case, would start w/ me, and immediately proceed to you, dear Kevin. ;-/

    Wanting to kill, in revenge for killing, is a very human tendency. The point of a well-lived human life, Kevin, is to OVERCOME such tendencies. The goal is forgiveness—of everyone, including ourselves (but ourselves only lastly). My prayers for you as you (and I) work on that.

  5. Well, JCF, I must say I’m proud of you (LOL!)! Now, if we can just get you to agree that Lothar needs to be put to death, you’ll really make me smile, LOL!

  6. If I believed in Hell, and had any say its residents, Lothar von Trotha would burning in it!

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