Roots of the Holocaust: Drawing a Line from Africa to Auschwitz
Irish Times | July 31, 2010
“… In their new book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen offer a passionately narrated account of the gruesome events that occurred in German South-West Africa between 1904 and 1907. More controversially, perhaps, the authors argue that Trotha’s vengeful destruction of the Herero and Nama peoples was a precursor of the Holocaust. According to Olugosa and Erichsen, the idea of carving out a “living space” for Germany’s surplus population and the concept of concentration camps originated in German South-West Africa; and the Nazis adopted racist practices and methods of extermination that were first tested in the colonial realm. …”
HISTORY: The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism, By David Olusoga and Casper W Erichsen, Faber and Faber, 379pp. £20
IN AUGUST 2004, the German Minister for Development Aid, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, travelled to Namibia to apologise on behalf of the German government for a genocidal massacre that had been committed 100 years earlier.
The Shark Island concentration camp: “In total, up to 75,000 men and women, roughly half of the Herero and Nama populations, perished in what some historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. … “
Following the 1904 Herero uprising against colonial rule in what was then German South-West Africa, the local military commander, General Lothar von Trotha, defeated the rebellious Herero in the Battle of Waterberg and forced the several thousand survivors into the desert of Omaheke, where most of them died of starvation or thirst. A few months later, a second indigenous people, the Nama, suffered a similar fate. Over the following three years, “suspicious” Herero and Nama were interned in a concentration camp on Shark Island, where conscious neglect led to horrific death figures among the inmates. In total, up to 75,000 men and women, roughly half of the Herero and Nama populations, perished in what some historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century.
In their new book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen offer a passionately narrated account of the gruesome events that occurred in German South-West Africa between 1904 and 1907. More controversially, perhaps, the authors argue that Trotha’s vengeful destruction of the Herero and Nama peoples was a precursor of the Holocaust. According to Olugosa and Erichsen, the idea of carving out a “living space” for Germany’s surplus population and the concept of concentration camps originated in German South-West Africa; and the Nazis adopted racist practices and methods of extermination that were first tested in the colonial realm.
General Lothar von Trotha, who ordered the extermination of the Herero nation; a group of Herero men are hanged for their resistance to the German regime. Photographs courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia
Although the authors fail to mention this, the idea of connections between European colonialism and Nazism is anything but new. It was first formulated in the immediate aftermath of the second World War when the African American intellectual WEB Du Bois argued in The World and Africa that “there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women or ghastly blasphemy of children – which the Christian civilisation of Europe had not long been practicing against coloured folks in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Superior Race born to rule the world”.
A few years later Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism, offered an even more insightful interpretation of the morally corrupting effects of imperialism on Europe. According to Arendt, Europe’s colonial realm served as a laboratory for racial doctrines and practices that were subsequently re-imported back into Europe.
In recent years, historians on both sides of the Atlantic have rediscovered these important arguments and engaged in a controversy about the allegedly genocidal nature of Western colonialism and its connections with the mass violence unleashed by Nazi Germany. Convinced that the once dominant idea of the Holocaust’s singularity has too long overshadowed “lesser”, “marginal” or “incomplete” genocides in various colonial contexts – from Australia and Africa to Asia and South America – several historians have recently suggested that the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Germans was the culmination point of a long tradition of racially motivated systematic mass killings that originated in the colonies of European imperial powers.
Olusoga’s and Erichsen’s book, by contrast, focuses narrowly on German atrocities in Namibia. A more comparative analysis, pointing to 19th-century French Algeria, the US-controlled Philippines or Spanish Cuba, would have revealed that none of Imperial Germany’s violent colonial practices were new or unusual. Punitive measures against rebellious indigenous populations were common practice in the colonial realm and the Spanish used concentration camps in Cuba long before the Germans introduced them in South-West Africa. A narrow focus on German colonial practices elides the important question as to why those Western states with the longest and ultimately most violent colonial record – France, Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands – never resorted to genocidal violence at home and why they remained democracies throughout the 20th century. If a direct line of continuity exists between colonial violence and the Holocaust, why did it happen in Germany, the only major European power with an empire that barely lasted three decades?
A second weakness of the book’s key argument lies in the lack of proof for personal linkages between the atrocities of 1904 and the Holocaust. Olusoga and Erichsen try to bridge the gap between 1904 and 1941 by pointing to knowledge transfers from one generation to the next, arguing that Hermann Göring became a proponent of German expansionism through his father, the first Reich Commissioner of German South-West Africa (1885-91). Yet Göring was only born in 1893, at a time when his family no longer lived in Africa, having left more than 10 years before the murderous events occurred in Namibia. The vast biographical literature on Göring has identified various turning points in, and influences on, his life, but the Herero uprising is certainly not one of them.
Olusoga and Erichsen also refer to the case of Franz Xaver Ritter von Epp, a former colonial officer, Freikorps leader, and subsequent director of the Third Reich’s Colonial Office, as a prominent example of personal continuities between Africa and the Third Reich. Yet Epp had no influence on the extermination policies of the Third Reich whatsoever and was increasingly marginalised in Nazi policy-making, a process that culminated in the closure of the German Colonial Office in 1943.
In search of the roots of Nazi eastward expansionism and the Holocaust, it may prove more fruitful to consider whether inner -European decolonisation processes – the dissolution of the Habsburg Empires in 1918 or the simultaneous forced cessation of German territories to Poland and Lithuania – were more important in stimulating Nazi “re-colonisation” fantasies than the distant memories of a short-lived German colonial empire in Africa.
An interpretation along these lines may be less provocative and sensational than the conceptualisation of the Nazi war of extermination as the culmination point of a genocidal path that originated in Africa and ended in Auschwitz. However, such an interpretation would have one important advantage: the advantage of being empirically sound.
Robert Gerwarth is director of UCD’s Centre for War Studies; ucd.ie/warstudies.ie