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Battle of Waterberg (1904)

Herero Attack at Okahandja, German
South-West Africa, 1903
"Image Ownership: Public Domain"
The Battle of Waterberg on August 11, 1904 in German South-West Africa (Namibia), triggered the annihilation decree by German military of the Herero people, the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of the area.  An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people perished during and after The Battle of Waterberg which marked the beginning of Germany's extermination campaign which continued until 1908.

The German colonization of South-West Africa began in 1883, two years before the official Partition of Africa, when settlers arrived and expropriated land, cattle, and water rights from local peoples, including the Hereros.  By 1903, the Herero had ceded over 50,000 square miles of land to the Germans. Some Herero resisted German settler encroachment and engaged in periodic battles with the settlers. In one of the largest of these battles, the Herero led Samuel Maharere, killed about 100 German soldiers and farmers near the small northern town of Okahandja.

The Okahandja deaths were used by Imperial Germany as a pretext to initiate the military occupation of all of South-West Africa. Fourteen thousand troops were dispatched to the German colony under the leadership of Lieutenant General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha. This proved to be the costliest military campaign prior to World War I ever undertaken by Germany.

By the time the first German troops under von Trotha arrived, the Herero had moved inland away from German settler areas.  They considered their conflict with the Germans to be over and were now waiting under Maharero to begin a dialogue for peace.  

In the spring of 1904, nearly 8,000 Herero had gathered on the Plateau of Waterberg at the last big waterhole before the Omaheke Desert, expecting to engage in land rights negotiation with von Trotha. Instead, German military forces, on August 11, 1904 surrounded the Hereros forcing them to flee down a dried river bed into the Omaheke Desert.  Those not killed by pursuing soldiers perished by thirst.  

The German military then constructed a 200 mile fence locking the Herero into the desert.  Samuel Maharero successfully led about 1,000 people into present day Botswana, where he remained as an exiled leader until his death in 1923.

Thousands of remaining Hereros were rounded up and placed in concentration camps where they were used as slave labour. They built the prosperous German shipping ports on the Namibian coast such as Luderitz and Swakopmund. By 1908, 45% of Herero prisoners had perished, mostly due to exhaustion.

The camps were closed in response to a public backlash in Germany but surviving Hereros were sold as slaves to German farmers. Estimates suggest that only 15,000 of the estimated 100,000 Hereros in South-West Africa survived the annihilation campaign. Today there are about 250,000 Hereros living in Namibia.

Shark Island, an isolated camp near Luderitz was used as an extermination center.  An estimated 8,000 Herero perished here as the camp became the prototype for concentration camps in Nazi Germany three decades later. Research on corpses was conducted on Shark Island by race scientists including Eugen Fischer who became known as the father of Nazi eugenic policy.  

General Franz Ritter von Epp (1868-1946), a veteran company commander during the Herero genocide, later mentored Adolf Hitler in the practice of lebensraum (ethnic cleansing) which had been used to justify the near extermination of the Hereros.

In 2001, living ancestors of the Hereros filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court demanding reparations. In 2004, Germany issued an official apology via Heidemarie Wiecaorek-Zeul, the German Development Aid minister. There is no record of reparations ever having been made, although in 2011, skulls of Herero prisoners taken to Germany for scientific research were returned to Namibia for ceremonial burial.

Sources:
“The Battle of Waterberg,” http://www.namibia-1on1.com/a-northern/battle-of-waterberg-2.html; Casper W. Erichsen, The angel of death has descended violently among them: Concentration camps and prisoners-of-war in Namibia, 1904–08 (Leiden: University of Leiden African Studies Centre, 2004); Benjamin Madley, "From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe," European History Quarterly 35:3 (2005); David Adebayo Olusoga, Namibia: Genocide and the Second Reich (London: BBC, 2004).

Contributor(s):
Schinke, Birgit
Independent Historian

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