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Review: The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism

David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen's new history explores the Herero genocide as a precursor to Nazi racial policy.
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Speaking in Okokarara on the centenary of the 1904 Herero uprising, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s minister for aid and development, apologised on behalf of her country for the killing of some 65,000 Hereros in the wake of an uprising.

In a decidedly clipped tone, she said that "the atrocities committed at that time would have been termed Genocide", before going on to clarify - just in case the audience had missed it - that "everything I have said was an apology from the German government". In the same breath she also ruled out any measure of financial compensation from her government, promising a range of vague aid measures for Namibia in their place.

All the same, the admission brought a relatively unknown and especially shameful episode of the colonisation of Africa into the spotlight again. Germany’s African empire lasted just over thirty years, and, in terms of territory, can seem insignificant when put alongside the swathes of land Belgium, Britain, Portugal and France claimed as their own.

Yet Germany’s colonial administration was responsible for the attempted and almost successful extermination of the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia, then known as German South-West Africa. Reacting to an increasingly repressive colonial administration, the Herero and Nama rose up against Germany in 1904. General Lothar von Trotha lead the brutal response, launching a concerted campaign to wipe out the Herero. It is believed that the genocide claimed as many as 65,000 victims between 1904 and 1907. Many Herero and Nama met their end in the concentration camps dotted around Windhoek and Lüderitz, inspired by Britain’s example in the Boer war.

Several accounts of the genocide have been written before in English but in The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism, David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen examine the implications of the genocide in the years after the end of Germany’s African empire. Olusoga and Erichsen give a readable and highly informative account of the establishment of the German colony in Namibia, the development of the colonial administration and the growing tension between the Herero and the newly arrived German settlers, soldiers and bureaucrats. The Herero and Nama uprisings are explained with a wealth of archive material, including the diaries, letters and memoirs of the key protagonists casting new light on this particularly tragic episode of Southwest Africa’s history.

However, what really marks The Kaiser’s Holocaust, apart from other accounts of the genocide, is the way the Olusoga and Erichsen look beyond Africa to the consequences of the attempted extermination of the Herero. Although Portugal, Britain, France and Belgium all built colonial administrations on an inherent belief of their own racial superiority, Germany’s colonial experience was to have particularly murderous consequences twenty years after it came to an abrupt end. At a first glance, it seems like it might seem a stretch to suggest that Imperial Germany’s policies in Namibia, terrible as they were, were directly at the root of the Holocaust, the industrialised murder of 6 million people based on warped ideas about racial purity. Yet Olusoga and Erichsen put together a compelling case, tracing the careers of many senior Nazi officials back to the colonial administration before the First World War.

Key to this is Eugen Fischer, a eugenicist who gained infamy as one of the racial ideologues of the holocaust. Fischer penned a number of volumes on the pseudo-science of racial purity that the Nazis used to justify their racial policies in the 1930s. Crucially, he cut his teeth as a researcher in German Southwest Africa, dedicating himself to the study - meant in the loosest possible sense of the word - of the racial characteristics of the Nama and Herero. After the genocide and before the beginning of the First World War, Fischer set to work studying the Baster people, who were of mixed Nama and Boer descent, and pioneered his theories on Rassenmischung (race-mixing) and Rassenreinheit (racial purity).

In 1913, he published his study of the Baster, imaginatively entitled The Rehoboth Bastards and the Bastardisation Problem in Man. This went on to become a cornerstone text of the burgeoning eugenics movement in Weimar Germany and served to inspire those who went on to justify and codify the Nazi race laws.

Not only this, but Olusoga and Erichsen also reveal the extent to which this thinking permeated the colonial administration’s thinking. In 1905, South-West Africa’s deputy governor banned mixed-race marriages out of concern for ‘racial purity’. This was the first in a series of decrees passed by subsequent governors that disenfranchised and broke up mixed-race families. Although these laws were officially done away with at the end of the German empire in 1918, they were dusted off again by Nazi officials in 1935 when they came to form the Third Reich’s racial laws at Nuremberg.

However, the authors do tend to stretch belief a little on occasions, for instance, when they suggest the fact that the Brownshirts wore surplus uniforms from the colonial regiments is hard evidence of the links between Nazism and German colonialism. Or where they point to the number of veterans of the colonial armies who played key roles in Hitler’s government; in some cases there are clear links, but surely a far greater number of veterans of the Western Front played more important roles in the apparatus of the Nazi state?

Still, The Kaiser’s Holocaust is an engaging  and important book.  In their introduction, David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen write that "Namibia is seen as a quaint backwater, a relic of Germany’s short-lived foray into colonialism, and a microcosm of late nineteenth-century Germany that has somehow survived into the twenty-first". In their clear and impeccably researched account of the Herero and Nama genocides, they reveal that Namibia’s dark colonial history is doubly tragic; the episode almost resulted in the annihilation of two of Namibia’s indigenous peoples, but it also propagated a virulently racist mentality that was to lay the foundations for the Holocaust.

The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism, by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen is published in paperback by Faber and Faber on 4th August, £9.99

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