Monday, 21 May 2012

Book Review - The Kaiser's Holocaust : Germany's forgotten genocide and the colonial roots of Nazism

The Kaiser's Holocaust : Germany's forgotten genocide and the colonial roots of Nazism, by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen

London; Faber and Faber, 2010                                                         ISBN 9780571231416 

Goring, Von Epp, Von Schiefflin, Leibensraum, Konzentrationslager - just a few names and words that pop up through this book that show the links between Germany's short-lived African empire and what was meant to be the thousand year empire of Hitler and the Nazis.

Germany came late to the scramble for Africa, and South-West Africa (current-day Namibia) was to be their South Africa, a place where Germans could settle, farm, and create a little Germany on the shores of another continent, much as the British and French had managed in their various colonial outposts.

Millions of Germans had emigrated to the USA in the 1800s, to escape the misery of overcrowded cities, and many Germans, up to and including the Kaiser thought that this great movement of people could be diverted to German colonies, where the Empire would gain from the pioneering spirit of these people, rather than have them assimilate to the US, where their German heritage quickly disappeared.

Olusoga and Erichsen begin this book by describing the coastline of Namibia - and what a forbidding place it is - the Skeleton Coast, a place of shipwreck and disaster, flanked by the coruscating dunes of the Namib desert. In what was typical in the Victorian era, some speculators set up a settlement at Luderitz, and basically through blackmail and trickery got the German government to support the venture with money and troops. The first unsuccessful governor of the territory was Herman Goring's father, who was relieved of the duty after failing to cope with the native peoples, the Herero and the Nama. Meanwhile, Wilhelm II, a vain and ridiculous man in many ways, was deeply concerned that his Reich was small potatoes in the scramble for Africa. He decided to get serious, and installed General Von Trotha, a veteran of previous African adventures, as the military governor of German South-West Africa. Von Trotha had definite views on how to deal with the natives - enslave and exterminate them. He had met with success in other parts of Africa, but the Nama and Herero had long exposure to the Boers of South Africa, and had incorporated some of the Boer culture into their own lives - including fine horse and rifle-manship. Von Trotha's Schutztruppe was ill-equipped and ill-led, and at first made little headway against the skilled warriors of the Herero, who did not allow themselves to be drawn into a set-piece battle. Battle did come to them eventually, when Von Trotha surrounded the main Herero force at the Battle of Waterberg, which was actually a massacre - the largest contingent to be killed was that of Herero women and children. The remainder of the Herero were hounded into the desert, to be picked off one-by-one. The remaining Herero were placed in concentration camps, the most notorious of which, at Shark Island at Luderitz, became the final resting place of more than 3,000, who were worked and starved to death. A further unknown number died building railways, in what became a dedicated project to wipe out a people, and claim their land.

This is all documented here in detail, along with the grubby manoeuvres at the Versailles conference where Britain and France used the Herero massacre to claim the former German colonies as their own - South Africa became the controller of South-West Africa, and soon began to obscure the early history of the colony, to placate the German settlers, and to allow their own racial fantasies to be acted upon.

The last section of the book details the connexions of many of the early Nazis to the colonial project, whether former members of the Shcutztruppe such as Von Epp, or racial scientists such as Eugen Fischer, who was a guiding light of the bizarre racial theories of the Nazis. While Olusoga and Erichsen make the case that many of the racial laws were based on the experience of the Herero in South-West Africa, I think they fail to make their case that the German project of empire in Eastern Europe had much basis in the earlier African activities, beyond lip-service.

As an overview of what has become a forgotten episode of history, and one that rings through the ages down to today, this book is well worth a read.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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