In 2004, the German government finally acknowledged that the slaughter, a century earlier, of the Herero and Nama people in colonial Namibia was genocide. Not everyone, however, agrees.
Over the last several years, The New York Times (NYT) has, in my opinion, been home to some of the most problematic, at times racist, coverage of African affairs. Its op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has misleadingly reported on the Darfur crisis since its inception, most egregiously characterising it as a race war between “Arabs” and “Black Africans”, while studiously avoiding the complex set of root causes at the heart of this deadly conflict. Rather than enlightening his readership, his columns have simply played into the politics of fear and anti-Arabism that dominate America’s post 9/11 worldview. When post-electoral violence rocked Kenya at the end of 2007 and into early 2008, The New York Times’ reporter Jeffrey Gettleman opted to evade the historical, political, and socioeconomic causes of the violence in favour of explaining it as the result of an “atavistic vein of tribal tension”. For the sake of brevity, I will stop there, but you get the point.
In fact, reading about Africa in the NYT and elsewhere in the Western press often reminds me of how I watched horror films as a child: through my fingers so that I could quickly cover my eyes when I wanted to avoid the sight of something disturbing. Let your guard down, and you might go to bed with nightmares. That is exactly what happened to me on 15 June 2008 after reading a feature article on Namibia — past and present — in the NYT travel section. What disturbed me, however, wasn’t what the article said, for I was already familiar with the subject, it was what it didn’t say. The widely-published author and veteran foreign correspondent, Joshua Hammer, embarked on a five-day, 2,000 mile overland trip through Namibia to, in his words, “retrace the steps of the German colonisers and to conjure up a vanished era of adventure and brutal conquest”. He accomplished his goal, rightly telling his readers that Germany’s conquest of Namibia was “one of the bloodiest chapters of Germany’s pre-Holocaust history”.
Indeed, he went on to describe how “in August 1904, four columns of German troops surrounded about 80,000 Herero men, women and children in a field at the foot of Waterberg [a massive plateau] called Hamakari. Thousands died under a machine-gun and artillery attack; the survivors fled east into the desert, pursued relentlessly by the Germans; most died of thirst. A few thousand survivors were dispatched to slave labour camps in Swakopmund and on Shark Island.”
“Brutal conquest” is putting it lightly: try GENOCIDE. This was not, however, to be the case. Having succinctly laid out the evidence, Hammer turned his back on history by refusing to call these heinous events genocide in favour of describing them as a “tragedy”. I was beyond livid by the time I finished reading Hammer’s “Living Reminders of Africa’s Colonial Past in Namibia.” The title, itself, ironically invoked the very thing that enabled Hammer’s wilful omission: Africa’s colonial past is indeed alive. How else can we explain his refusal to call the murder of approximately 80% of the Herero and over 50% of the Nama people genocide?
The very premise of colonialism was that Africans (as well as other colonised peoples) were not equal to Europeans – they were racially inferior beings who had to be lifted to a higher plane of existence, but for whom equality with Europeans, if at all possible, was a distant reality. This colonial mentality continues to stamp its imprint on how many in the West view Africans and appears present in Hammer’s refusal to name the slaughter of the Herero and Nama genocide. As the anger towards this insult added to injury welled up inside me, I sat down to write yet another letter to the editor of the NYT. Constrained by their impossibly short 150-word limit, I managed to state my case as follows:
“To the Editor:
“Joshua Hammer ends his article on Namibia (‘’Living Reminders of Africa’s Colonial Past,’ June 15), past and present, by noting that the ‘Waterberg tragedy remains a source of bitter controversy. The debate pits historians who see the carnage as foreshadowing the Holocaust against those who regard it as no different from Britain’s tribal wars in South Africa and Rhodesia’.As a historian of Africa, I am compelled to state unequivocally that what Mr. Hammer calls a ‘tragedy’ is the 20th century’s first genocide. In October of 1904 a German general, Lothar von Trotha, issued the following extermination order (Vernichtungsbefehl): ‘... every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or children. I shall drive them back to their people — otherwise I shall order shots to be fired at them.’ “More than 80% of the Herero and over 50% of the neighbouring Nama people were killed during the genocide, which also included working captured Herero and Nama people to death inside concentration camps that provided forced labour to German businesses. Speaking in Namibia in 2004, Germany’s development aid minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, declared, ‘The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.’ If Germany can admit that what happened was genocide, so should Joshua Hammer.”
I was astonished when, a few days later, my phone rang and it was the NYT calling to say they wanted to publish the letter. I was even more taken aback when they called the following day to say that Mr Hammer had objected to its publication and until the matter could be resolved the letter would be put on hold. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from the editor explaining that Hammer was anxious to clarify his points given that he was in the midst of writing a book on the subject. His rationale was appended to the email. Taking advantage of an error on my part in which I originally stated that von Trotha’s extermination order was issued in the summer of 1904, rather than October, Hammer sought to delegitimise my entire argument as follows:
“The infamous ‘genocide order’ written by Von Trotha was handed down in October 1904, not the summer, as stated in the letter. That’s important because by this time most of the Hereros had long since fled into the desert, beyond reach of German troops, so the ‘order’ was more for public consumption than real policy. This probably sounds like nitpicking, but it gets to the heart of the argument: there’s no evidence to support the notion that this was a pre-planned policy to exterminate an entire people, the common definition of ‘genocide’. That’s not to say there are not a lot of people who feel the way Ms Ray does, but I was also careful in the article to avoid reflexive labelling. And it’s certainly not to say it was anything other than a terrible tragedy.”
In my response to the NYT, I noted that while Hammer contends that by October “most of the Hereros had long since fled into the desert beyond the reach of German troops”, he failed to acknowledge that as the Herero fled they weren’t just “pursued relentlessly by the Germans”, they were intentionally driven into the driest areas of the desert by von Trotha’s troops in order to cordon them off precisely in the places that they would starve/dehydrate to death in. To ensure this outcome, Trotha’s troops poisoned the few existing water holes in the area. All of this certainly strikes me as premeditated. After this was accomplished, the extermination order was issued which essentially enforced the mandatory killing of any Hereros who were not already trapped and dying in the desert, or those who attempted to leave the desert to save their lives. Moreover, those who didn’t perish in the desert were later rounded up and placed in concentration camps where they were so egregiously deprived of basic care, including nutrition and medical care, as well as forced to work in such deplorable conditions that the vast majority of those in the camps died.
Thus the genocide manifested itself in a number of different forms — the “extermination order” was the most public and directly articulated part of it, but by no means its only manifestation. Nor was it its deadliest manifestation. Indeed the worst of the genocide had already occurred before the extermination order was issued, but it also continued in the camps after the order was nullified following public outcry in Germany. Von Trotha’s infamous order, however, embodies the very thing that Hammer denies: the existence of a “pre-planned policy to exterminate an entire people”. No wonder he never mentioned it in his article. There are plenty of respected historians (of both African and German history) who have already established that genocide took place in Namibia. In addition to most scholars, the German government now acknowledges it. So too does the United Nation’s Whitaker Report on Genocide. In other words, this is not a fringe or radical interpretation of history. Yet, there are still some, like Hammer, who argue that what happened to the Herero and Nama was not genocide.
In the end, the NYT published my letter, although it altered the final sentence to read, “If Germany can admit that what happened was genocide, so should The New York Times”. Perhaps this was their concession to Hammer. Needless to say I eagerly await his forthcoming book on Namibia. All of us should be ready to read, engage and respond to Hammer in the event that he continues to claim that the Herero and Nama genocide was nothing “other than a terrible tragedy.” Fortunately, New African readers may not have to wait for the release of his book to debate this matter with him. I have invited him to write a rebuttal to this month’s column, and he appears receptive to the idea. Stay tuned.