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Saturday, 23 June 2012


Review of The Kaiser’s Holocaust, by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen (published in 2010 by Faber & Faber in London.)

One of the great stumbling blocks during the lengthy, eight year process leading up to the Union of South Africa in 1910 was whether or not to give non-Europeans the right to vote, or any political rights at all. In 1909, JBM Hertzog, whilst discussing the draft constitution of the proposed union in the Transvaal Parliament, is recorded as having said that, “the native was undeniably a human being, but he was not yet entitled to political rights because he was still a child, ‘in matters of civilisation … thousands of years behind the whites.’”.  Earlier on in that debate, Abraham Fischer had questioned, “whether the people of South Africa had done any act of injustice to the natives”, before adding that, “…the overriding law was ‘the law of self-preservation’” For, he said, “The black man’s rights were not the rights of the white man, who had no intention of acknowledging that they were such now.” (All of these quotes come from The Unification of South Africa 1902-1910, by LM Thompson, published 1960 in Oxford). At least, the most ardent opponents of giving black people the franchise in South Africa recognised that the Africans were human, and were willing to discuss whether they had any rights to self-representation.

This was definitely not the case across the border in German South West Africa (‘SWA’, now ‘Namibia’), as is eloquently described in The Kaiser’s Holocaust, a book written by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen.

JC Smuts, in his 1952 biography of his father Jan Christian Smuts (South Africa’s Prime Minister from 1939 to 1948), summarises the history of German SWA succinctly: “The German flag was hoisted on the 6th August, 1884, at Lüderitzbucht… Nine years later a ruthless series of wars began which went on till 1908. The German ideal of colonisation was the same as in the old Americas - extermination. Thereafter there was no Red Indian problem. In South-West Africa Germany determined there would be no Herero problem…

The Kaiser’s Holocaust describes how, to quote Smuts, the Germans ‘determined there would be no Herero problem’ in SWA, and shows effectively how the genocide of the Herero and many of the Nama people can be considered to have been a prototype for the Holocaust orchestrated by the Germans during the Second World War in their quest for Lebensraum and racial purity.  This alone would have made me want to read the book, but I had an additional personal interest in the subject matter.

Newspapers across South Africa noted the discovery of alluvial diamonds in SWA in 1908. In November of that year, The Cape Mercury, published in King Williams Town, carried a detailed report about the extremely rich alluvial diamond field discovered in the immediate vicinity of Lüderitzbucht. The diamonds were easily accessible, lying just beneath the surface of the dust on the floor of the desert. The writer of the article expressed surprise that this remarkable discovery had not been made earlier, as, “… it is understood that during the recent struggle between the German Troops and the Hereros, detachments of troops camped in the immediate vicinity, if not even upon the actual ground where the stones are now being picked…”. It is this ‘struggle’ against the Hereros and also against the other ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ inhabitants of SWA, which is described in detail by Olusoga and Erichsen. This ‘struggle’ that began as an attempt to suppress native attacks on the recently arrived German settlers rapidly deteriorated into blatant genocide.

On the 28th December, 1908, a writer in the Mercury wrote: “Attention is directed to the advertisement appearing in another column regarding the prospectus of the Kolmans-Kop Diamond Mines Ltd., near Lüderitzbucht, German South West Africa … One of the directors is Mr Franz Ginsberg, MLA”. Mr Ginsberg, Member of Parliament for King Williams Town, was one of my ancestors. As I read The Kaiser’s Holocaust, I wondered how much my ancestor knew about what had been going on in SWA until a few months before he trod the diamond-bearing sands near Lüderitzbucht (upon which the Imperial German Army had camped whilst executing their ‘struggle’), and what he thought about it.

The ‘struggle’ alluded to above began in earnest 1904, when the Hereros, fed up with the unfriendly activities and false promises of the recently arrived colonists from Europe, began their attacks on the Germans. At first, they were very successful, but later when Germany sent out reinforcements, their defeat became inevitable. The arrival of General Lothar Von Trotha (1848-1920) in SWA marked the beginning of the ruthless destruction of the Hereros. Von Trotha wrote of the situation in SWA in 1904, “I know enough tribes in Africa. They all have the same mentality insofar as they yield only to force. It was and remains my policy by absolute terrorism and even cruelty I shall destroy the rebellious tribes by shedding rivers of blood and money.” And he did, even employing ‘Cleansing Patrols’ to kill any natives who had managed to escape his murderous forces. This was a forerunner of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’, such as disfigured the Balkans not so long ago.

Many Africans, who were not killed immediately, were herded together and imprisoned in concentration camps (such as were pioneered by the Spanish in Cuba in the late1890s, and used with devastating effect by the British during the 2nd Boer War of 1899-1902), with the idea of killing them off by exposure to inhospitable living conditions and forced labour. One of these camps was on Shark Island, an island next to the town of Lüderitzbucht, and only 13 kilometres from Kolmanskop, where Mr Ginsberg’s diamond ‘mine’ was to be established in 1908.

Closed in 1907, Shark Island was a forerunner of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other equally notorious places. It was undoubtedly a concentration camp.  However, as is well-described by Olusoga and Erichsen, Shark Island was not simply used to separate the Africans from the Europeans, but it was part of a systematic attempt to exterminate the Africans. Many unfortunates were killed by the cruelty of their captors, starvation, and exposure to the harsh elements. Others were worked to death. Working to death, which was to become a feature of the Nazi concentration camps, was pioneered in the many concentration camps of SWA including Shark Island. The only thing that distinguished these camps from those set up by the Nazis a few years later was the absence of industrialised methods of mass murder (i.e. the use of carbon monoxide and Zyklon B).

According to Martin Gilbert in his book Auschwitz and the Allies, very little was known outside the Axis territories about the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews and others before 1944. Even between 1944 and the end of the war, knowledge of the existence of what is now called ‘The Holocaust’ was limited to a very few politicians. The converse was true forty years earlier in German SWA. If my ancestor, Mr Ginsberg, had been a reader of the Cape Argus, a newspaper published in Cape Town, he would have read about the horrific suffering that was happening in camps like Shark Island. Olusoga and Erichsen quote from a series of articles published in 1905 in this paper. These contained reports on the camps supplied by a German trader who had witnessed them first-hand. The excerpts, which they reproduce in the book, are too horrific to be included in this review.

What had the Africans done to inspire such cruelty as was inflicted upon them by the Germans in their colony?

Was it their failure to trust their German invaders and their false promises of protection? Was it the heavy blows that the Africans rained on the initially ill-prepared German military forces? Or, was it the result of a belief in Social Darwinism? All three of these were important in determining the Germans’ behaviour in SWA. However, the authors of The Kaiser’s Holocaust consider that the major driving factor in the genocide in German SWA was strong belief in the concepts of racial supremacy and Social Darwinism. The evidence that they present to support their views is impressive.

They describe, for example, the writings of Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), who was inspired by Social Darwinism and ‘invented’ the Lebensraum concept. He believed, according to Olusoga and Erichsen, that, “Colonial peoples disappeared because they were persecuted, enslaved and exterminated” because some “inner cultural weakness of the native races of Africa, America and Asia made them passive, and therefore incapable of withstanding the European assault. All this was acceptable because the people the Europeans were destroying were what he termed ‘inferior races’”.  A few years later in 1912, Paul Rohrbach (1869-1956) wrote, “No false philanthropy or race-theory can prove to reasonable people that the preservation of any tribe of nomadic South African Kaffirs… is more important for the future of mankind than the expansion of the European nations, or the white race as a whole.” Horrific as this may sound today, it was perfectly reasonable to those who ordered, and carried out the genocide in SWA.  The same kind of reasoning was applied by the Nazis a few decades later in Europe. They believed that Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs, all of whom were to be regarded as being sub-human were suitable only for use as slave labour before being exterminated.

The authors of the Kaiser’s Holocaust devote many pages to describing the genocide of the Africans in German SWA and comparing it with what was to follow later in Nazi Occupied Europe. The comparisons are frightening. They include the use of prisoners in scientifically questionable medical experiments, and their corpses for anthropological studies, whose aims were to attempt to prove scurrilous, pseudo-scientific theories of racial supremacy. However, what is more frightening is the gradual evolution from the Imperial Germans’ justification of genocide to that of the Nazis.

Whilst most of the Kaiser’s Holocaust is dedicated to the German treatment of the Africans in German SWA, a largish part of the second half of the book deals with the development of Nazi ideas, and the regime that resulted from them. Many of the Nazi’s views on race and how to deal with ‘inferior people’ (Untermenschen, the translation of a derogatory term coined by the American eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard in 1922) were, as is well demonstrated by Olusoga and Erichsen, derived from the ideas believed by those whose racial theories justified the African genocide, and also those persons who carried it out in SWA and then later lived in Germany.

Some readers may consider that too much space in the book has been devoted to development of the Nazi’s genocidal plans, everything that is contained in this book is fascinating, and contributes to a greater understanding of the basis of Hitler’s dreams and their ghastly realisation.

Anyone with even the faintest interest in twentieth century history should spend a few hours reading this fascinating, well-written book. And if you don’t have any interest in this aspect of history, this book will certainly change that!


Lest we should become complacent, we must not forget that the German elimination of the ‘natives’ in SWA was not without precedent. Olusoga and Erichsen mention that Ratzel cited the ‘displacement’ of indigenous people in North America, Brazil, Tasmania, and New Zealand, as being models for future colonialism, wars of extermination, and, dare I say it, genocide. 

Remember, “History is written by the victors”, or as George Orwell put it, “He, who controls the present, controls the past. He, who controls the past, controls the future.”