Book Review: The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide

By Casper Erichsen and David Olusoga


On 12 May 1883, the German flag was raised on the coast of South-West Africa, modern Namibia, the beginnings of Germany's African Empire. As colonial forces moved in, their ruthless punitive raids became an open war of extermination. Thousands of the indigenous people were killed or driven out into the desert to die. By 1905, the survivors were interned in concentration camps, and systematically starved and worked to death. Years later, the people and ideas that drove the ethnic cleansing of German South West Africa would influence the formation of the Nazi party. The Kaiser's Holocaust uncovers extraordinary links between the two regimes: their ideologies, personnel, even symbols and uniform.

Price: £10:99
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0571231423

Between 1904 and 1909, the administration of German South West Africa liquidated the indigenous Herero and Nama peoples of modern-day Namibia. This has become known as the Herero and Namaqua Genocide and is considered to have been the first genocide of the 20th century. This was done in the name of acquiring “living space” for German settlers, and foreshadowed the murderous racism inflicted half a century later by the Nazis. German settlers had been encouraged by the Kaiser to scorn the Judaeo-Christian morality of compassion for the weak and view the African tribes in their midst as metamorphosed apes.
Even by the standards of Wilhelmine Germany, however, the genocide of the Herero and Nama tribes could not sensibly be termed a “holocaust”. There is something objectionable about appropriating a term peculiar to the Jewish tragedy. The Kaiser’s racial policies in Africa, motivated chiefly by a desire to rival Britain as an imperial power, were horrific, but they were not the industrial scale gassing of human beings.

Under German colonial rule natives were routinely used as slave labourers, and their lands were frequently confiscated and given to colonists, who were encouraged to settle on land taken from the natives; that land was stocked with cattle stolen from the Hereros and Namas, causing a great deal of resentment. After several revolts Berlin sanctioned the use of concentration camps. The most notorious of these, set up in 1905, was situated on Shark Island near the town of L├╝deritz. Eugen Fischer, a German scientist, came to the camp to conduct medical experiments on race, using children of Herero people and mulatto children of Herero women and German men as test subjects. Together with Theodor Mollison he also experimented upon Herero prisoners.. Those experiments included sterilization, injection of smallpox, typhus as well as tuberculosis.

The enormity of Shark Island has been suppressed and forgotten too long, say the authors. By the time the Konzentrationslager was closed in 1907, thousands had died there due to beatings and forced labour. Though the death toll is impossible to establish accurately (the Germans later burned incriminating documents), the liquidations were carried out so efficiently that by 1908 the Kaiser’s government had wrested a total of 46 million hectares of land from the Africans.
On August 16, 2004, at the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide, a member of the German government, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany's Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation, officially apologized and expressed grief about the genocide, declaring in a speech that: We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time.

The Kaiser’s Holocaust is an engaging  and important book.  In their clear and seamlessly researched account of the Herero and Nama genocides, the authors reveal Namibia’s dark colonial history.

Site of the Shark Island Extermination Camp today, apparently a popular tourist campsite.