“The Death Camp” and the forgotten story of Germany’s first holocaust
Shark Island was founded in 1795 off the coast of Luderitz, Namibia. Originally named Star Island, the land sat amidst immense winds and crashing waters of the Atlantic for a century before being connected to the mainland and used as a concentration camp by the Germans from 1904 to 1908.
But did you know there was a holocaust under the Second Reich of the Kaiser just as there was one under the Third Reich of Hitler?
You may not have heard of the Herero and Nama peoples, and this is not surprising: the Kaiser almost succeeded in removing them from the face of Earth.
The story of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s holocaust against the Herero and Nama began in 1883 when the German flag was raised on the coast of South-West Africa, the first conquest of Germany’s African empire.
Deutsch-Südwestafrika, the current Namibia, was a testing ground for Lebensraum, the German word for “living space”, a policy of expansion advocated by the 19th-century German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who distorted Darwin’s theory of evolution to proclaim that migration was necessary for a race’s survival.
The same policy was later adopted by the Nazi Party, but back in the 19th century an uncrowded “New Germany” was to be created on African soil. The seizure of land from the Herero and Nama peoples was conveniently alibied by their “inferior” racial status. However, they were not savages, and many Nama were the Christian offspring of earlier Dutch settlers.
After two decades of having their cattle and land stolen by German immigrants the Herero, under their chief Samuel Maharero, revolted. The Berlin government accordingly dispatched Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha and 14,000 soldiers to the insurgent colony in 1904. General Trotha’s task was more than subduing the Herero insurrection: he was to conduct a “racial struggle” against them and he announced his programme with chilling clarity: “I believe that the nation (the Herero) as such should be annihilated. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain.”
After beating the Herero in the battle of Waterberg, Trotha drove the survivors into the pitiless Omaheke desert with the intention they should die from thirst and starvation. In addition, all waterholes were poisoned by “cleansing patrols” of the Schutztruppe, the colonial army, to prevent from using them.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, the German general staff publicly lauded Trotha for his extermination measures. By 1905 Herero fugitives still alive in the Omaheke were too weak to do anything but surrender. They were rounded up, put into cattle wagons and sent by train to concentration camps, where they became slave labour for the colony’s new railways.
Women were raped by Schutztruppen and the facts turned into photographs by the new-fangled Kodak roll-fill camera. The pictures were then sent as pornographic postcards to Germany.
Food was so scarce in the concentration camps that, according to a witness, when rations were distributed, “prisoners fought like wild animals and killed each other to secure a share”. After two years, the main concentration camp at windswept Shark Island near Luderitz was obliged to close. The reason? Most of its inhabitants had perished. Even the German soldiers called Shark Island “The Death Camp”.
However, something more terrible than extermination by starvation occurred at Shark Island: the prisoners were used in racial “science experiments”. The Island camp physician, Dr Bofinger, conducted medical tests that probably inspired those of Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death”, at Auschwitz in the Forties.
He would conduct inhuman trials such as testing whether scurvy, an illness caused by lack of vitamin C, was contagious by injecting prisoners with opium and arsenic. Research on cadavers was uncontrolled. According to German medical statistics 778 autopsies were conducted in the concentration camps in one year, and more than 3,000 skulls belonging to the Herero and Nama people were sent back to Germany for further experimentation.
Among others, the chancellor Bernhard von Bulow, tried to stop the outrages as “contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle”, and he was also aware that the genocide was damaging to Germany’s international reputation. However, the Kaiser and the military were largely beyond political control though. Not until 1907 did national and international pressure succeed in making the Kaiser call off the holocaust: the camp in Shark Island closed in the same year, and prisoners were transferred to an open area near Radford Bay where mortality rates eventually declined.mBy then the Herero population had gone from 100,000 to 15,000 and half of the 10,000 Nama had been killed.
Even though overt German imperial murder of blacks in Namibia stopped, their persecution was unabated: In 1912 interracial marriage was prohibited throughout the German colonies. All Africans over seven years of age were required to carry a token, the so-called “pass mark” around their necks, as a sign of their inferior status.
There are some links between the Kaiser’s holocaust and Hitler: racist ubiquitous Eugen Fischer taught medicine at the University of Berlin to Nazi physicians, and his students included Josef Mengele himself. Admirers of Fischer’s racist “Principles Of Human Heredity And Race Hygiene” included Adolf Hitler, who used the eugenic principles in the book to underpin his dream of a pure Aryan nation in his manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
Today the Shark Island in Namibia is the site of a small memorial and plenty of open space for history enthusiasts to go camping.
Images from web.