After the Herero ‘Uprising’: Child Separation and Racial Apartheid in German Southwest Africa

By Adam A. Blackler

Regimes seeking to exercise power over a segment of the population, past and present, have used child separation as a mechanism of social control. In a previously unknown collection at the National Archives of Namibia in Windhoek, I discovered new evidence confirming that German settler-colonists were no different. In vivid detail, these documents reveal how the German colonial administration in Southwest Africa (DSWA, present-day Namibia) split-up African families to enhance its political authority in the colony. A dispatch to the Omaruru District Commander, for instance, details the separation of Emma, an 8-year-old Herero girl, from her parents as they departed from the capital city of Windhoek. It concludes that “she ran after her parents since she belongs with her Omaruru family.” Emma’s fate remains a mystery to the present day.[1]

Map of German Southwest Africa.

Another collection exposes the bureaucratic extent of German settler-colonial practices in Namibia. In a folder of “native passports” (Paßmarken), I found several lists of “employed prisoners-of-war.” These records include a person’s name, age, “tribal” affiliation, and the last-known location of their parents. In most cases, officials simply wrote “dead” (tot) with no additional information. Several colonial administrators remarked in documents that these efforts provided the imperial government an “effective means of controlling the local populations.”[2]

German list of "dead" Africans in the aftermath of the genocide.
German list of “dead” Africans in the aftermath of the genocide

After the arrival of German settlers in Namibia in 1884, colonial officials moved quickly to displace Africans from their traditional lands, first through negotiations and the establishment of so-called “protection treaties.” When these policies failed, German imperial leaders increasingly sanctioned the use of armed aggression to drive local African communities from positions of regional influence, most notably the Ovaherero and Namaqua. The most destructive German effort began in 1904 during the so-called Herero-Aufstand (Herero Uprising), when soldiers under the command of General Lothar von Trotha instigated the first genocide of the twentieth century. In what historians now refer to as his “Annihilation Order,” Trotha decreed that:

The Herero are no longer German subjects [and] must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it do so with the [great cannon]. Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall spare neither women nor children. Such are my words to the Herero people.[3]

Trotha’s actions resulted in the murder of approximately 60-80% and 25-35% of the Herero and Nama’s pre-1904 populations respectively. In the aftermath of the genocide, German colonial authorities rounded-up entire families and placed them in concentration camps, where thousands more died from exposure and inhumane treatment. The imperial government also relocated survivors to other African regions under German control, most especially German East Africa. This policy further displaced African families and resulted in even more deaths among Herero and Namaqua peoples.

Photograph of a German military fort in Namibia.
Herero “native reservation” outside the Alte Feste (German military fort in Windhoek, Namibia).

In 1908, German colonists forced survivors to rely on the imperial government for basic commodities and supplies, and also implemented steps to segregate Africans and Germans along racial lines. Paul Rohrbach, Germany’s Settlement Commissary (Ansiedlungskommissar), articulated the specific intentions behind Rassentrennung (racial segregation) in 1907: “Our task is to divest [the Herero and Namaqua] … of their specific völkisch and national characteristics and gradually meld them with the other natives into a single colored work force…. This is to be a society based on work.”[4] The German imperial government moved on two fronts to accomplish Rohrbach’s objective. First, leaders created segregated “native reservations” (Eingeborenenwerften) throughout the colony. Second, it passed a formal “anti-miscegenation” act, as well as various other racially-prejudicial laws. Hans von Tecklenburg, vice governor of DSWA, also issued legal restrictions against “mixed marriages.” He justified the law as a preventative security measure:

Mixed-blood children produced by a native woman become German citizens and are thereby subject to the laws valid for Germans. The male mix-bloods will be liable for military service, capable of holding public offices, and will assume the right to vote sometime in the future, as well as other rights tied to citizenship. Not only is the preservation of purity of the German race and German civilization here substantially impaired because of them, but also the white man’s position of power is altogether endangered.[5]

The racial motives behind Tecklenburg’s security measures are explicit throughout his pronouncement. In his estimation, race-mixing represented the antithesis of a prosperous colonial state.[6] Miscegenation was so dire a threat, he asserted, that it authorized the imperial government to outlaw not only future mixed-marriages, but also existing ones retroactively, as well. Advocates of Rassentrennung elsewhere in Germany’s overseas empire, notably in German East Africa (1906) and German Samoa (1912), looked upon Tecklenburg’s anti-miscegenation program as a positive step forward and soon passed similar restrictions based on DSWA’s racial guidelines.

During Europe’s colonial age, German settler-colonists exemplified a national character that celebrated exploration, scientific discovery, and overseas conquest. As exponents of culture, Germans abroad (Auslandsdeutschen) stood as agents of Germandom in regions otherwise devoid of “modern achievement.” Hubert Janson, a German settler-farmer living in DSWA, captured the essence of this sentiment in a 1907 edition of the popular German periodical, Kolonie und Heimat. He claimed that “one must be everything, gardener, livestock breeder, farmer, glassblower, yes even photographer. Only tailoring and cobbling I have yet to try…. [T]he man who does not shun work and who has a little bit of the devil in his body, he is the right many for our Southwest!”[7]

Freedom, however, had limits. After the start of the so-called Herero Uprising, racial apartheid consumed all social and political policy in DSWA. Indeed, it justified Governor Tecklenburg’s decision to ban and nullify “mixed marriages,” raised the cultural status of white women and men, and pressed politicians in the metropole to reconsider their views on the colonial empire. Germans of “mixed-race” and other non-white populations, meanwhile, found themselves at the mercy of the colonial state. The inclusion of race as a category of German national belonging represents the most consequential legacy of Germany’s imperial project. Though exclusionary views of German citizenship were neither an inevitable outcome, nor a natural outgrowth of colonial expansion, the means through which settler-colonialists justified imperial domination depended on racial segregation after 1904. From child separation to racial segregation, German colonists utilized the dangerous potentials of modern governments to fashion an imperial state along a rigid color line.

Any serious historian recognizes the importance of historical context and the necessity for evaluating the past on its own terms. At a time when high-profile media personalities invoke a skewed or blatantly false historical narrative to justify policy on a seemingly daily basis, I am wary of arguments that clumsily rely on unnuanced comparisons. But professional responsibility does not abjure scholars the right to call attention to present-day human rights crises, from those fleeing systematic violence in Syria, to the forced-separation of families at the U.S. southern border. Academics in the humanities, in particular, dedicate their careers to the collection, examination, and comparison of diverse source materials in an effort to provide answers to complicated questions. Critical analysis, however, often times leads to uncomfortable conclusions.

We can no longer comfort ourselves in a false logic that regards discriminatory practices against so-called “stateless” peoples as a unique aspect of German history or the distant past. It is incumbent for each of us to continue to learn about the plight of the rightless so as to identify the dangerous potentials of their condition. History does not repeat itself, but a critical evaluation of past events can at least provide us means to learn about the destructive capabilities of nationalism, racism, and collective fears of a so-called “Other.” A failure to do so imperils the standing of everyone, but most especially those who have nothing left except for what Hannah Arendt pointedly identifies as their “abstract nakedness of being human.”[8]

Adam A. Blackler is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wyoming. His current book project, entitled An Imperial Homeland: Forging Identity in German Southwest Africa, explores the transnational dimensions of German colonialism, race, and genocide in German Southwest Africa. He is presently co-editing After the Imperialist Imagination: Two Decades of Research on Global Germany and Its Legacies, an anthology on German interactions across the globe (Peter Lang, 2020). He will publish “Settler-Colonialism and Its Eliminatory Repercussions in the Nineteenth Century” in A Cultural History of Genocide: The Long Nineteenth Century (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Title image: Archival document that details the separation of Emma, photo courtesy of Adam A. Blackler.

Recommended Readings:

Baranowski, Shelley. Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Grosse, Pascal. Kolonialismus, Eugenik und Bürgerliche Gesellschaft in Deutschland, 1850-1918. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2000.

Hull, Isabel. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. London: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Kuss, Susanne. German Colonial Wars and the Context of Military Violence. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Madley, Benjamin. “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 33, no. 3 (2003): 429-64.

Zimmerer, Jürgen. Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz: Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust. Münster: Lit Verlag, 2011.


[1] National Archives of Namibia (NAN), Kaislerliches Bizirksamt Windhoek (BWI) 34: E.I.c (1): Bericht Nr. 40, Omaruru Distrikt, 03 January 1908, 141.

[2] NAN BWI 34: E.I.c (1): No. 13966, Referat 2, Windhoek, 26 June 1906, 22.

[3] Bundesarchiv-Berlin (BArch) Reichskolonialamt (R) 1001/2089: Differenzen zwischen Generalleutent von Trotha und Gouverneur Leutwein bezbg. der Aufstande in DSWA: General Lothar von Trotha, “Kommando der Schutztruppe, J. Nr. 3737,” 02 October 1904, 7.

[4] Paul Rohrbach, Deutsche Kolonialwirtschaft, Südwest-Afrika, Vol. 1 (Berlin: 1907), 21.

[5] Jonathan Hyslop, “White Working-Class Women and the Invention of Apartheid: ‘Purified’ Afrikaner Nationalist Agitation for Legislation against ‘Mixed’ Marriages, 1934-9,” Journal of African History 36, No. 1 (1995): 65.

[6] Robbie Aitken, Exclusion and Inclusion: Gradations of Whiteness and Socio-Economic Engineering in German Southwest Africa, 1884-1914 (Bern: Peter Lang Press, 2007, 109-117.

[7] Hubert Janson, “Aus dem Farmerleben in Südwest,” Kolonie und Heimat 1, No. 23 (1907/1908): 3. Also see Daniel Walther, Creating Germans Abroad, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002), 29-30.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1951), 300.

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