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The Kalahari Holocaust

“I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros.

The Hereros are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off the ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and now are too cowardly to want to fight any longer. I announce to the people that whoever hands me one of the chiefs shall receive 1,000 marks, and 5,000 marks for Samuel Maharero. The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘Groot Rohr’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.” The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.” - Trotha

Above is an English translation of the German General Lothar von Trotha’s infamous October 1904 order calling for the extermination of the Ovaherero people in Namibia. Over 70% of the Ovaherero perished as a result, as well as over 50% of the Nama and Damara as the mass slaughter was extended to their communities. Many of the survivors found refuge in Botswana.

Demands by the affected communities that today’s Germany acknowledge and pay reparations for what was the 20th century’s first genocide are currently the subject to litigation in the United States. This past week, Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, Advocate Vekuii Rukoro Ombara Otjitambi, and the Chairperson of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, Gaob Johannes Isaack, confirmed that they would be appealing the September 24, 2020 verdict of a US Circuit Court of Appeal that dismissed their case, citing a lack of jurisdiction while expressing its belief that the plaintiffs had genuine grievances.

In their statement Advocate Rukoro and Gaob Isaak affirmed: “We have reviewed the decision and we see a fundamental legal error at its heart. Thus, we instructed our attorneys in New York to file a petition for rehearing and for en banc proceedings. The en banc petition will be put to a vote by the entire Second Circuit, which will decide whether or not to rehear and withdraw the flawed decision.”

Von Trotha’s original Extermination Order, was produced in German and Tjiherero languages, for circulation amongst the Ovaherero as well as his own troops. Amongst the Botswana National Archives valued holdings is the only known surviving original copy of the Tjiherero text, uncovered by Jan Gewald some years ago.

Some have questioned whether von Trotha’s order was actually intended to

be carried out, or was just an act of psychological warfare. In this respect, the following passage from von Trotha’s private journal, written within 24 hours of the order’s issuance, further confirms his desire to completely destroy Ovaherero:

“Now I have to ask myself how to end the war with the Hereros. The views of the Governor and also a few old Afrikaners on the one hand, and my views on the other, differ completely.

The first wanted to negotiate for some time already and regard the Herero nation as necessary labour material for the future development of the country. I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country by operative means and further detailed treatment. This will be possible if the waterholes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of the nation who have moved back westwards and destroy them gradually…I find it most appropriate that the nation perishes instead of infecting our soldiers and diminishing their supplies of water and food. Apart from that mildness on my side would only be interpreted as weakness on the other side. They have to perish in the sandveld or try to cross the Bechuanaland border.”On April 22, 1905 Von Trotha issued a second proclamation threatening to annihilate the Nama as he had the Ovaherero, an excerpt: “I ask you where are all the Hereros today, where are their chiefs? Samuel Maharero, who once called thousands of head of cattle his own, is now harried like a wild beast and driven over the border into English territory.

He has become as poor as the poorest field Herero and possesses nothing. It is the same with the other chiefs, the majority of whom have lost their lives, and the Herero people too have been annihilated - part of them dying of hunger and thirst on the desert, part killed by German soldiers,…”

As it was, Von Trotha’s extermination orders gave sanction to a process that was already well under way by the end of 1904. The diaries of German soldiers reveal that the massacre of civilians as well as summary execution of prisoners from the very beginning of the conflict. At the time the survivors’ only escape route was to Sekgoma Letsholathebe’s Gatawana Kingdom via the Omaheke desert. With the wells destroyed an uncounted multitude thus perished on this trek of tears.

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