Some months ago, I mentioned to my father that I was reading “The Kaiser’s Holocaust”, a book by Olusaga and Erichsen about the 1903-1908 German massacres of the Herero and other ‘native’ people in German Southwest Africa (‘SWA’, now ‘
My father remembered that whilst he was a schoolboy in a small town in South Africa
during the early 1930s, he had read a book in German about a soldier who took
part in the campaign. Its vivid descriptions had made a lasting impression on
him. He remembered that its title contained the name ‘Peter Moor’. I was
curious to read it if it were available in translation.
I found bought a copy of “Peter Moor's journey to
Southwest Africa; a
narrative of the German campaign” (‘Peter Moor’ for short) from a second-hand bookseller. The
story written by Gustav Frenssen (1863-1945) was first published in German in
1906, and then translated into English by Margaret May Ward in 1908. My copy is
a 1914 reprint. The book is rare, and
now rarely read. However, the translation is available on-line (see: http://archive.org/details/petermoorsjourn00frengoog
In 1903, the 17 year old Peter Moor, the hero of the book, decides to enlist in the German naval reserves, most probably in order to get to see a little more of the world. Soon after he has joined up, a friend tells him:
the blacks, like cowards, have treacherously murdered all the farmers and their
wives and children.”
“Are those murdered people Germans?”
He learns that they are, and immediately volunteers to join the troops being sent by ship to SWA. He sets sail.
During the long sea voyage, in which he spends a day or two in
watches the black men on board the ship, and concludes,
“It seemed to me like this: that the people of Madeira, although strangers to us, are like cousins whom we seldom see; but that these blacks are quite, quite different from us, so that there could be at heart no possible understanding or relationship between us. There must always be misunderstandings instead.”
Were these really the thoughts of a teenager keen to discover the wide world or is this an example of the seeds of racism, which Frenssen was attempting to sow in the minds of his, mainly young, readers?
Moor reaches the
in SWA, and discovers that he
has not landed in a bed of roses. Instead, he has entered a hostile
environment, one which will harshly dominate his experiences whilst he is in port of Swakopmund Africa. Some weeks later, he sees:
“… a great covered wagon left deserted on the road. A farmer or trader had wanted to escape, had packed his most valuable possessions in the wagon, harnessed his oxen to it, and driven the rest of his flocks before it. He had come as far as this. His bones lay eaten by beasts,…, and round the wagon were strewn the only things which the enemy couldn’t use…”
After giving the (German) farmer’s bones a Christian burial, they moved on and after a short while, discovered “… many deserted huts of the enemy.” Although he and his comrades were so tired, they, “…took time to set fire to these…”
Peter Moor is naturally distressed by the fate of his fellow countrymen, their deaths caused by the rebellious Africans, but he is not unaware of the reasons behind it. For, one day, an older German man, who has lived in SWA for several years explains the behaviour of the Africans to him, and therefore to the reader as well,
“Children, how should it be otherwise? They were ranchmen and proprietors, and we were to make them landless working men; and they rose up in revolt. They acted just the same way that
Germany did in 1813. This is their struggle for independence.”
This is a remarkable admission from a writer who, according to an article in ‘Wikipedia’, abandoned Christianity and became a blatant racist.
Much of the book is concerned with the discomforts of life in the harsh environment that Moor in which he finds himself. He is plagued, by thirst, hunger, fatigue, disease, and the occasional minor wound. However, he is luckier than many of his fellow soldiers in that he lives to tell the tale without losing any limbs, or worse. For days and weeks they ride or walk through the wilderness, trying to track down their often elusive enemy. The author portrays the slowness of the campaign and the discomforts of this kind of life excellently. His book deserves to be read in order to dispel the glamour of warfare, but on the other hand its present obscurity is not a bad thing given the racist sentiments that are often expressed in it.
A long time passes before the Germans catch up with the African people whom they are trying either to kill or to chase out of their colony. One night they get close enough for Peter to spy on an encampment at the base of some mountains. He was struck by a thought:
“There lies a people, with all its children and all its possessions, hard pressed on all sides by the horrible, deadly lead, and condemned to death.”
This thought, says Peter, “…sent cold shudders down my back.” And, rightly so given what we now know of the awful fate of the African people in German SWA.
After the reader has been subjected to many pages describing Peter’s wanderings through a most hostile environment, he becomes aware that many of his African enemies had perished, and the rest were fleeing towards the inhospitable terrain at the eastern edge of the colony, where, “…thousands of them had perished” already. Victory was in sight, yet,
“The general decided to follow them thither, to attack them and force them to go northwards into thirst and death, so that the colony would be left in peace and quiet for all times.”
Thus, the Germans hoped to establish Lebensraum in
A few days later, Peter and his companions stumbled upon five African men with their families. After shooting the men, he describes how the women and children were, “…hunted into the bush.” As the book nears its ending, the writer’s tone becomes increasingly harsh. He describes a religious service ordered by one of the generals, whom Peter meets in the bush. After singing a hymn, the chaplain says:
“A people savage by nature had rebelled against the authorities that God had set over them. Then the authorities had given the sword, which we were to use on the morrow, into our hands. Might every man of us use it honourably, like a good soldier…” Peter and his companions did as commanded. Two days later, this same chaplain preached:
“These blacks have deserved death before God and man, not because they have murdered two hundred farmers and revolted against us, but because they have built no houses and dug no wells… God has let us conquer because we are the nobler and more advanced people … to the nobler and more vigorous belongs the world. That is the justice of God.” ‘Peter Moor’ was written long before Mein Kampf. So, maybe we should not have been too surprised when Hitler and his generals led his Herrenvolk into war with the rest of the world.
However, the Africans, desperate as their situation had become, did not give up without a fight. In their wake, they left “… great clouds of smoke and flame” behind them as they were “… burning the sparse, dry fodder” in the land through which the Germans would have to chase them.
Eventually nothing was to be seen of the Africans “…except below in the distance, where a monstrous cloud of dust was moving swiftly across the plain. Then it was clear that the proud nation had lost all courage and hope, and preferred to die in the desert rather than to fight any more with us.” Peter was under no illusion about their fate. They were moving “… toward certain death from thirst.”
In the last pages of the book, Peter makes this sinister remark after seeing the corpse of an African boy: “It is strange what a matter of indifference another man’s life is to us when he belongs to another race.” I imagine that it was thoughts such as this that made it easier for the murderers of the Jews and members of other ‘races’ a few decades after the Germans had massacred most of the Africans in their colony. Yet, here it is coolly expressed in a book amongst whose intended audience were impressionable young people.
Another incident which Peter describes is the capturing of a Negro who was carrying a gun. After his colleague had questioned this fellow, he says:
“The missionary said to me, Beloved don’t forget the blacks are our brothers.’ Now I will give my brother his reward.”
Having said those words, he told the captive to run away to freedom, but hardly had the unfortunate taken five leaps, he shot him dead. A few moments later, he told Peter:
“Safe is safe. He can’t raise a gun against us any more, nor beget any more children to fight against us. The struggle for
will still be a hard one, whether it is to belong to the Germans or the blacks.”
As to the hard struggle, Frenssen certainly did not underestimate reality, but the message he conveyed to his readers was not one which was likely to reduce its intensity.
Frenssen’s hero, Peter Moor, was a creation of his imagination. His experiences described in the book were drawn from what he had learnt from veterans of the German’s African campaign. The authors of “The Kaiser’s Holocaust” point out that “Peter Moor” was “… a simplistic dramatised account of the Herero-Nama genocides…” and point out that it was “… the best-selling children’s book in Germany until 1945.” One can understand its popularity. It is well-written, at times gripping, and always heroic. However, even if we heed Lord Justice Denning’s advice that “We must not look at the 1947 incident with 1954 spectacles”, and not look at something written in 1906 with 2012 spectacles, we cannot forgive the author for encouraging malicious thoughts of racial superiority in the minds of his young readers. Contemporary writers such as the British John Buchan (1875-1940) and Dornford Yates( 1885-1960) were prone to planting prejudices against ‘foreigners’ in their books, but none of them were as virulently hateful as Frenssen appears to have been in his “Peter Moor”.
In conclusion, I can recommend “Peter Moor” to those who take an interest in obscenities in world literature such as “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of The Learned Elders of
This book should definitely be excluded from any reading lists for children,
towards whom it was originally aimed. Zion
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