100 Years of Silence: Dress rehearsal for the Holocaust

by Maskil on October 14, 2008

“100 Years of Silence” was recently screened on The History Channel in South Africa. This documentary is concerned with the Herero and Nama uprisings and subsequent massacres by German forces in South West Africa (SWA) during the period 1904-8.

Does this have any significance for Israel and the Jewish people?

I had heard this episode described as the first genocide of the 20th Century, but the parallels are far more disturbing than this plain categorisation would indicate. When looked at more closely, it comes across as not “just” an attempted genocide in its own right, but also as a chilling dress rehearsal for the Holocaust in Europe less than forty years later. Consider the following:

  • The air was thick with theories of race struggle and racial superiority, and terms such as sub-human and master race.
  • The genocide was preceded by the issue of a formal Extermination Order against the Herero from the German commander, Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha. The choice was to leave German (SWA) territory entirely or face certain death.
  • Military and para-military formations (Schutztruppe) were used against unarmed men, women and children, over and above (usually indistinguishable from) the actual military campaign itself.
  • In the case of the Herero, something in the order of 80% of their entire population was exterminated. For the Nama, this figure seems to have been around 50%.
  • At the conclusion of the military campaign, survivors were herded into concentration camps, where terminal slave labour, malnutrition and deliberate starvation accounted for many more.
  • Camp inmates were numbered, and meticulous records were kept of deaths.
  • Grisly trophies such as skulls were taken and shipped back to Germany, for “scientific purposes”, mainly concerned with race theories.
  • The concentration camps were visited by their own version of the Angel of Death, in the form of Eugen Fischer, who carried out “medical experiments” on inmates, and wrote a book with the title “The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene”. This book later influenced the development of Adolf Hitler’s theories on race.
  • Some of the Nazi officials involved in the Holocaust were actually the offspring of German authorities responsible for the Herero genocide! (I haven’t been able to verify this assertion.)

While the episode is formally recognised as an incident of genocide and Germany has accepted responsibility for the events, it appears that no formal apology has ever been issued, nor have any financial reparations ever been made (although Namibia does receive aid from Germany).

It appears that justice truly is indivisible. The Herero genocide becomes another “if only” of history; perhaps if the civilised world (and we ourselves) had reacted strongly enough to this practice run, our own (immeasurably larger) Holocaust might have been avoided.

While I can’t recommend “100 Years of Silence” as a documentary, it did give me food for thought. (I found it to be too anecdotal, with too many interview snippets and other “docu-drama” characteristics, and too little in the way of background, narrative and archive material.)

Those from South African who watched the documentary might have noticed that some of the Herero veterans shown in documentary proudly sported the Pro Patria Medal, awarded to those who took part in the so-called “Border War” (counter-insurgency operations in South West Africa 1966-89) and for campaigns in Angola (1975-76 and 1987-88). The same decoration was also given to National Servicemen from South Africa (I was one) who served in SWA/Namibia during this period.

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  • Jacob Elijah

    hi maskil, you know this is something that has long fascinated me.i wish there were more people (especially jewish people) aware of this – because it seems as if “jewish holocaust” and “black holocaust(s)” are viewed as somehow “competing” narratives and mutually exclusive when in fact when viewed in light of such information links between them become more apparent. namely, the fact that the perpetrators in each case were motivated by similar notions of European “imperial” or “colonial” racialism. Paul Gilroy makes interesting observations about the Herrero genocide and the Holocaust in “between camps”. apparently the “brown shirts” of the SA were leftover surplus from the colonial administration of SWA.

  • Jacob Elijah

    hi maskil, you know this is something that has long fascinated me.i wish there were more people (especially jewish people) aware of this – because it seems as if “jewish holocaust” and “black holocaust(s)” are viewed as somehow “competing” narratives and mutually exclusive when in fact when viewed in light of such information links between them become more apparent. namely, the fact that the perpetrators in each case were motivated by similar notions of European “imperial” or “colonial” racialism. Paul Gilroy makes interesting observations about the Herrero genocide and the Holocaust in “between camps”. apparently the “brown shirts” of the SA were leftover surplus from the colonial administration of SWA.

  • Maskil

    Hi Jacob Elijah,

    Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the interesting comments. Although I’ve had a lifelong interest in the history of South West Africa (now Namibia), and was aware that there had been a “Herero uprising”, I wasn’t aware of the details (or the parallels with the Holocaust) until watching the documentary (and carrying out subsequent research).

    I found your note regarding “the “brown shirts” of the SA [that] were leftover surplus from the colonial administration of SWA” fascinating. Another chilling association between these two incidents of genocide, both perpetrated by Germany (and its collaborators), more than a generation apart.

    (Another personal note: My Zaide (paternal grandfather) took part in the campaign in which South Africa liberated (no irony intended) South West Africa from Germany, while my mother was born in SWA; Grampa was “on the footplate” (an engine driver) with the SA Railways, at that time stationed in the mandated territory.)

    I had a quick look at your blog AFRICA.SHALOM http://africashalom.blogspot.com/. You should keep it updated. I see that you were on the point of making Aliyah; Yishar Koach! Please post an update in this regard.

    You’re originally from Zimbabwe? I had relatives in Zim (then Rhodesia), now living in England; we often stayed with them in Bulawayo when I was a child.

  • Maskil

    Hi Jacob Elijah,Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the interesting comments. Although I’ve had a lifelong interest in the history of South West Africa (now Namibia), and was aware that there had been a “Herero uprising”, I wasn’t aware of the details (or the parallels with the Holocaust) until watching the documentary (and carrying out subsequent research).I found your note regarding “the “brown shirts” of the SA [that] were leftover surplus from the colonial administration of SWA” fascinating. Another chilling association between these two incidents of genocide, both perpetrated by Germany (and its collaborators), more than a generation apart.(Another personal note: My Zaide (paternal grandfather) took part in the campaign in which South Africa liberated (no irony intended) South West Africa from Germany, while my mother was born in SWA; Grampa was “on the footplate” (an engine driver) with the SA Railways, at that time stationed in the mandated territory.)I had a quick look at your blog AFRICA.SHALOM http://africashalom.blogspot.com/. You should keep it updated. I see that you were on the point of making Aliyah; Yishar Koach! Please post an update in this regard.You’re originally from Zimbabwe? I had relatives in Zim (then Rhodesia), now living in England; we often stayed with them in Bulawayo when I was a child.

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