100 Years of Silence: Dress rehearsal for the Holocaust

by Maskil on 14 Oct 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.

Previous post:

Next post: