The 1904-1907 German-Namibian War

The three years of fighting between the German colonial forces and various Namibian tribes ended with victory for the Germans and the consolidation of their colonial rule over Namibia. Thousands of Namibians died either as a result of the fighting or in the aftermath and the effect that this had was to put a stop to organized resistance to outside rule. The trauma of defeat and dislocation meant that 50-odd years were to pass before the emergence of the independence movements in the late 1950s.

The war began following a revolt of the Bondelswarts Namas in the extreme south of the country at the end of 1903. The majority of German soldiers were sent to the south to quell the uprising and in January 1904 Samuel Maherero, under intense pressure from other Herero leaders and fearing for his own position as paramount Herero leader, gave the order to the Herero nation to rise up against the German presence in Namibia. At the same time he also appealed to Hendrik Witbooi and other Namibian leaders to follow suit.

During the first months of the uprising the Herero were successful in capturing or isolating German fortified positions, however, following the appointment of
Lothar von Trotha
as German military commander, the Herero were gradually forced to retreat from around Okahandja and other strongholds in central Namibia. They made a final stand at the waterholes at Hamakari by the Waterberg Plateau south of Otjiwarongo in August of 1904. The German plan was to encircle the assembled Herero, defeat them, capture their leaders and pursue any splinter groups which might have escaped. The Herero objective was to hold onto the waterholes, for without these they and their cattle would either die or be obliged to surrender.

The German troops attacked the Herero forces on 11 August with the battle continuing on a number of fronts all day. By nightfall no clear picture had yet emerged, however, the following day it became apparent that although the Herero had not been defeated, their resistance was broken and Samuel Maherero and the entire Herero nation fled into the Omaheke sandveld in eastern Namibia en route for Botswana. Stories from those who eventually arrived in Betchuanaland (Botswana) tell horrific stories of men, women and children struggling through the desert, gradually dying of thirst.

A section of the German forces initially gave chase but by 14 August they had returned to the battle site, both soldiers and horses suffering from exhaustion, hunger and thirst. The chase was once again taken up on 16 August but finally abandoned at the end of September as it was impossible to provision both troops and horses in the inhospitable sandveld.

On 2 October Von Trotha issued a proclamation ordering all Herero-speaking people to leave German Southwest Africa or face extermination, and then turned his attention to subduing uprisings in the south of the country. Just over a month later, Von Trotha received orders from Berlin to spare all Herero except the leaders and those 'guilty'. Following the retreat of the Herero, three more years of sporadic resistance to German rule took place in the centre and south of Namibia as the Nama-speaking people continued the revolt.

Much has been written on the German-Namibian War, specifically of the deliberate intention of the German colonial administration to 'exterminate' the Herero nation. Until recently it was widely accepted that the Herero nation was reduced from a population of 60,000-80,000 people before the war, to between 16,000 and 18,000 people after the war. Similarly, the generally accepted view is that the population of the Nama-speaking peoples was also reduced by 35-50% to around 10,000 people.

It is impossible to obtain accurate figures to either confirm or refute the allegations of genocide. Nevertheless, some recent research, especially by the late Brigitte Lau, former head of the National Archives, challenges a number of popular conceptions of the war. In particular questions have now been raised on how the numbers were calculated and on the capacity of the German forces to actually set about the deliberate process of genocide.

The only figures available were based on missionary reports in the 1870s, but the missionaries only worked in a relatively small area of Hereroland. Furthermore, any accurate estimate of the numbers of Herero would have been near impossible, as the Herero were scattered across the veld. In addition, the effects of the rinderpest epidemic of 1897 and the fever epidemic of 1898 were also not taken into account. The suggestion is therefore that there were far fewer Herero than was originally believed.

As far as the capacity of German military to wipe out the Herero is concerned, medical records of the time show that the average military presence during the war was 11,000 men. Of these an average of 57% per year were sick from the effects of lack of water and sanitation, typhoid fever, malaria, jaundice and chronic dysentery. This information suggests that the German military presence was simply not capable of a concerted attempt to commit genocide - even if that had been the intention.

There is no question, however, that following the war both Herero and Nama prisoners of war died in concentration camps; there were executions of captured leaders and many survivors were forced into labour - working on the railroads and in the mines. By the end of the war, the German colonial administration was firmly in control of Namibia from the Tsumeb-Grootfontein area in the north down to the Orange River in the south. In 2004 Germany offered a formal apology for colonial-era killings of tens of thousands of ethnic Hereros, but ruled out compensation for victims' descendants.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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