Gruesomeness is my policy

Richard J. Evans

  • German Colonialism: A Short History by Sebastian Conrad
    Cambridge, 233 pp, £17.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 107 40047 4

Dotted around the world, there are still a few reminders of the fact that, between the 1880s and the First World War, Germany, like other major European powers, possessed an overseas colonial empire. If you go to Windhoek in Namibia, you can still pick up a copy of the Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper which caters for the remaining German-speaking residents of the town. If you fancy a trip to the Namibian seaside you can go to the coastal town of Lüderitz, passing ruined railway stations with their names still in Gothic letters, and spend time in Walfisch Bay enjoying the surf and keeping an eye out for penguins. In Tanzania, you can stay in the lakeside town of Wiedhafen. If you’re a businessman wanting to bulk buy palm oil in Cameroon, the Woermann plantations are still the place to go. In eastern Ghana, German-style buildings that once belonged to the colony of Togo are now advertised as tourist attractions.

Similarly, in the Pacific you can sail round the Bismarck Archipelago and visit Ritter Island (though there’s not much left: a volcanic eruption blew most of it to bits in 1888). Further east, if you visit a bookshop in Samoa you can pick up the works of the leading local poet, Momoe von Reiche. In Chinese restaurants almost anywhere in the world you can order a German-style Tsingtao beer, first produced in China in 1903 by the Germania brewery in the German-run town of the same name (now transliterated as Qingdao). In Qingdao itself, you may come across the imposing Romanesque-revival edifice of St Michael’s Cathedral, which looks as if it belongs in a city somewhere in north Germany a century or so ago, as, in a sense, it does.

All in all, it’s not much compared to the extensive remains, physical, cultural and political, left by larger and longer-lasting European overseas empires, which together covered most of the world’s land surface at one time or another. The German empire lasted a mere three decades and was broken up at the end of the First World War, its constituent parts redistributed among Britain, France, Belgium, Australia and South Africa. Small in surface area compared to the British, ephemeral in duration, the former empire still attracted attention in the interwar years, when colonial propagandists lobbied to get it back, but even the Nazis paid it little serious attention, preferring to go for conquests in Europe instead, at least to begin with.

For many years, such historical writing as there was on the subject – the work of the Anglo-German economic historian William Otto Henderson was the outstanding instance – tended to focus on refuting the allegations of violence and brutality that had led to the empire’s dismantling and redistribution at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. By the 1960s these arguments were no longer very relevant. However, the situation was transformed by the work of Helmut Bley, who in South-West Africa under German Rule 1894-1914 (1968) reconstructed the horrifying story of the German war against the Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia in 1904-7.

The story told by Bley isn’t complicated. The mounting pace of land seizures by the colonial government in the early 1900s led to attacks on German farmers, resulting in around 150 settler deaths and the dispatch of 14,000 troops from Berlin under General Lothar von Trotha, a hardline Prussian army officer with previous colonial experience. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘that African tribes yield only to violence. To exercise this violence with crass terrorism and even with gruesomeness was and is my policy.’ After defeating a Herero force at Waterberg, he announced that any Herero ‘found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle’ would be executed. Herero cattle-herders caught in the action were killed on the spot; women and children were driven into the desert and left to starve. The chief of the General Staff in Berlin, Alfred von Schlieffen, in thrall, like all Prussian officers, to the supposedly Clausewitzian doctrine that the aim of a war must be the total annihilation of the enemy force, praised Trotha’s campaign as ‘brilliant’, especially his use of the desert to complete what the General Staff’s official publication, Der Kampf, called, approvingly, ‘the extermination of the Herero nation’.

But voices were raised in criticism too; Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow described the action disapprovingly as un-Christian and warned it would damage Germany’s reputation abroad. Social Democratic and Catholic Centre Party politicians were outspoken in their condemnation. The civilian governor of the colony, Theodor Leutwein, elbowed aside by the military because of his policy of compromise with the Herero, protested about the action to Bülow and declared the extermination a ‘grave mistake’. He was dismissed for his pains, but his view that the Herero should instead be recruited as labourers won sufficient adherents to bring about the arrest of the remainder of the tribe, mostly women and children, along with the members of the Nama, and their incarceration in ‘concentration camps’ (the first official German use of the term).

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