How Does Anyone Write About Genocide?
In the 2000s, when asked to write about the genocide of the Tutsi, the Togolese author Kossi Efoui – the one who described African literature as something that does not exist – declined to take part in such a project. It was not that he lacked the human sensitivity, but quite simply that when a situation defies meaning and logic and escapes the bounds of humanity, putting it into words raises legitimate ethical questions about addressing it through fiction.
And yet literature does have a role to play by confirming, bearing witness and immortalising events of this magnitude, like lasting evidence to withstand denialism, as if to say: »Look, this is what happened.«
It was because writers took the plunge into Rwanda’s horror that Boubacar Boris Diop produced his shattering Murambi, le livre des ossements, the ultimate testimony to the unspeakable, where the author paints his vision of a genocide marking the end of a century with a certain track record of genocides.
This register of memorial was indisputably the one chosen by the French author Elise Fontenaille-N’Diaye when writing her Blue Book, the account of the Herero and Namaqua genocide in Namibia. A forgotten genocide, the logical culmination of an imperialist madness that gripped Europe in the 19th century. A genocide which demonstrated that the imperialist logic with its capitalist underlay, and the racist ideology on which it founded its civilising mission, must inevitably end in horror.
It Turns Out That Germany Was a Colonial Power
The book was born of a portentous random moment in the life of an author who had set out to write a biography of her paternal grandfather, a former general who served in the colonies after the Great War and was a commander of the French army that occupied the Rhineland. When she delved into the family archives, there was a surprise in store: the impact on the German psyche of a black presence on the Rhine. At the time, the German media accused France of sending rutting “French negroes” to invade Germany and bastardise the German race by raping “blond women”. A staggering press campaign which prompted her to wonder whether Germany had a colonial past of its own. One thing led to another, and one day her incursion into German history drew her to the shelves of a library in Pretoria (South Africa) where she came across a copy of the Blue Book, a report by the British officer Thomas O’Reilly about atrocities and massacres committed by German troops among the Herero and Nama peoples of South-West Africa, then a German colony.
»…in the case of Namibia the atrocities were committed with the sole aim of confiscating land from Africans not very eager to have it stolen from them, triggering a dynamic of annihilation.«Tony Feda
Roughly speaking, of the 80,000 Herero making up the colony, barely 15,000 survived the war of extermination to which they were subjected.
Her account, linear in structure, methodically presents the phases, the fragments, the abuses, piecing together the jigsaw which constituted the last stage of what would later come to be called the Herero genocide. The work includes material to help the reader assess and understand the potential horror inherent in colonial activity, so aptly described by Aimé Césaire in his fascinating essay Discourse on Colonialism: “Colonisation: bridgehead in the civilisation of barbarism from which may spring at any time the pure and simple negation of civilisation.”
Unlike the Shoah during the Second World War, or the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda – where we note that there already existed, out of context, a prior extermination plan founded on political constructions of racial or tribal prejudice – in the case of Namibia the atrocities were committed with the sole aim of confiscating land from Africans not very eager to have it stolen from them, triggering a dynamic of annihilation.
The mass crimes committed in South-West Africa prompt us to take a closer look at Germany’s colonial past. The Second German Empire also maintained a presence in Cameroon, Togo, Tanganyika (not much is heard about this country now known as Tanzania), but it was only in Namibia that colonisation span out of control with horrific consequences.
In Togo, there were at most 100 soldiers on the ground, and we may still rightly wonder how they managed to impose rule on a population of more than a million inhabitants. A mystery. There must have been some violent incidents, if not minor wars, to subjugate local chiefs who resisted the German presence. But in Namibia, the scale of abuse defies all logic and can only be grasped by digging deeper into German history at the end of the 19th century and into the composition of the Namibian population at the time.
In 1885, when the first German soldier set foot on the soil of South-West Africa, a triumphant Germany had just united in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and four years after defeating Austria at Königgrätz. Germany became a major power in Europe. It had a redoubtable army, whose officers played a dominant role in the Reich. Its economy flourished thanks to Rhine capitalism, and it outshone its neighbours in various fields. Under the influence of certain anthropologists, an idea was born that the German race was somehow superior, as Georges Clémenceau pointed out to the French parliament: »German scholars have demonstrated scientifically that France was bound to be defeated in the Franco-German War because the French are an inferior race!«
Preoccupied with its policy for Central Europe and with its own unification, for a long time Germany took no interest in the colonial fever which had held the English, French and Portuguese in its sway for centuries. And when in 1885, weary of war and despite the severe reservations expressed by Chancellor Bismarck, Germany threw itself into colonial conquest in an effort to catch up with its rivals, it was a very hasty scramble.
»What are we being protected from? We are in our own country and we do not need protecting, and certainly not by you.«Hendrik Witbooi, Nama chief, responding to commander Curt von François
In 1885, the German army entered the territory of South-West Africa in the footsteps of missionaries. There were a number of peoples living there, including the Herero and the Nama, eighty thousand and twenty thousand souls respectively. Herders and crop-growers, in contact with the Boers of South Africa since the 16th century, very many had adopted Christianity and many were well educated, like the Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi, a regular reader of English newspapers from the South African colony. He was a remarkable leader of men, and quite well informed about world developments. Unlike the Herero chief Samuel Maharero, Hendrik Witbooi opposed signing any protection treaties. »What are we being protected from? We are in our own country and we do not need protecting, and certainly not by you,« he wrote to commander Curt von François. That refusal was one reason for the hostilities.
Given that they came from a country renowned for its culture and with a distaste for mediocrity, the German colonial force consisted of an astonishing number of bandits. The troops committed rape and lynching, while settlers colluded with the administration to steal land. Some soldiers indulged in tomb raiding and devoted themselves to trafficking in skulls for Berlin, where so-called scholars set about measuring nose tips and temples for purposes of racial comparison.
The exasperation reached a peak on 12 January 1904. Chief Samuel Maharero’s daughter-in-law was raped and murdered. There was a Herero uprising, and about a hundred settlers were massacred. Kaiser Wilhelm, unable to tolerate this affront, decided to teach the Herero a lesson. He called in General von Trotha, who had already earned his spurs in the Boxer Rebellion. The general arrived with »six warships, 15,000 men, shiny new Krupp cannons, shrapnel, grenades and rifles by the thousand…«
On 2 October 1904, von Trotha issued an extermination order worded as follows:
»I, the great general of the German army, send this message to the Herero people. The Herero people must leave this land. If they do not, I shall force them to do so with cannon fire. For the capture of a kaptein: 1,000 marks. For the capture of Samuel Maharero: 5,000 marks. Within the German borders, any Herero, man, woman or child, armed or unarmed, with or without a flock, shall be shot. Hear my words. Signed: The great general of the Almighty Kaiser…«
Slaughtered in their thousands by machine guns, the Herero fled into the Kalahari Desert, where they thought they had found a refuge. But their chances of survival were very slight, for General von Trotha had the wells poisoned.
»Given that they came from a country renowned for its culture and with a distaste for mediocrity, the German colonial force consisted of an astonishing number of bandits.«Tony Feda
When the rainy season began, the German patrols discovered the horror: skeletons grouped around dry holes twelve to sixteen metres deep, dug in vain by Herero in their search for water. Thirty thousand Herero died.
The repression lasted three years: summary executions and hangings of all descriptions, bayonetted babies.
One German soldier wrote in his diary
»Once the rainy season arrived, the scene gradually cleared. When our patrols advanced to the edge of the desert, they caught sight of the terrible image of armies parched to death. The moans of the dying, the furious cries of madness had abated in the sublime silence of eternity. The punishment was complete: the Herero had ceased to be an independent people.«
According to the dictionary, »a genocide is the deliberate, methodical elimination of a group of people on grounds of race, ethnic origin, nationality or religion, with the purpose of wiping them out completely in the name of a racist principle or an ideological conception of that group.«
In a dispatch to the Chief of Staff of the German Army, this is what General von Trotha had to say on 2 October 1904:
»The Herero nation was to be either exterminated or, if this was a military impossibility, expelled from the territory. (…) I gave the order to execute the prisoners, to send the women and the children into the desert. (…) The uprising is and remains the beginning of a racial war.«
Apart from massacre by cannon, other facts confirm the genocidal nature of the repression. Any Herero and Nama taken prisoner were placed in two concentration camps, Konzentrationlager, at Swakopmond and on Shark Island, where inmates confronted with starvation and forced labour had no way of escape other than to hurl themselves into the frozen, shark-infested waters of the Atlantic.
»Madness took hold of the island…« writes the narrator in the light of the raping and other abuses perpetrated by the soldiers in the camp. Like during the Shoah thirty years later, they took photographs of their misdeeds. Scientific experiments were carried out in the camp:
»The German universities had a great demand for negro skulls to use in their research, and an alternative task to laying rails was devised for the prisoners of Shark Island and Swakopmond: after men had been hanged, their heads would be cut off and given to the captives, whose job it now was to boil them, take out the eyes, tongue and brain, then scrape off the flesh down to the bone with shards of bottles – the ones the soldiers had emptied the night before. Most of the time, these skulls were those of their loved ones, their brothers, their sons, their cousins, their fathers,« the writer reports.
The elements that constitute genocide all seem to apply:
- the massacre was organised and planned. Documentation is available in archives, in the form of detailed records of the operations, drawn up by von Trotha and his subordinates;
- the chosen criteria were racial or ethnic: eliminate the Herero to release their lands for German settlers and to prevent racial mixing.
- the number of victims was huge, most of them civilians, including women and children. There were 80,000 Herero in the territory. When the conflict was ended following the intervention of Germany’s parliament, the Reichstag, only 15,000 Herero remained.
With a realism perhaps suited to the action, the account makes negligible use of fiction. The author stuck very closely to telling the facts, establishing an intertextual relationship between the British officer’s report and her own narrative. Extracts are integrated without inverted commas. Too many words would be embellishment; the style is above all journalistic, in an evident desire to counter the disbelief such facts might provoke. It is a sound decision when, at the end of the book, the author lets us see some extracts about the massacres from the archives, while revealing glimpses of the situation in Namibia today.
»Every year Lüderitz, a very German city in Namibia with 19th-century architecture, celebrates the birthday of Adolf Hitler. The Shark Island concentration camp is now a tourist resort, where German amateur divers come to frolic.«Tony Feda
And in this final chapter the writer describes the behaviour of the German minority in Namibia, unrestrainedly racist and anti-Semitic, rejoicing in the death of Simon Wiesenthal, the Jew, the Nazi hunter. Plus, a German-language magazine in Namibia, added the following caption to the photo of Simon Wiesenthal!
»Let us rejoice, the monster is dead!
The Monster is dead!
We take pleasure in announcing at last the death of the Monster, the unpunished perpetrator of crimes, abductions, thefts, ransom demands… His crime was living 95 years.«
In the furore that followed its dissemination, the editor-in-chief said that he realised he had overshot the mark by publishing this text, but that he had been offered too much money to turn the offer down. A fat cheque was drawn on a German bank account. One year before this appeared, another magazine in Windhoek, the Namibian capital, published some apologetics on Rudolf Hess to widespread indifference.
Every year Lüderitz, a very German city in Namibia with 19th-century architecture, celebrates the birthday of Adolf Hitler. The Shark Island concentration camp is now a tourist resort, where German amateur divers come to frolic. The height of ignominy.
Elise Fontenaille-N’Diaye has given us a vibrant testimony to this forgotten genocide of the 20th century. The first of its genre in the French-speaking world to address Germany’s past in Africa. Note, if you will, that once again it is a French writer here who is informing Africa and the international public about something that intimately concerns Africa.
Elise Fontenaille-N’Diaye, Blue Book, Calmann-Levy, 2015
All images by Sokey Edorh.
Sokey Edorh is one of three well-known contemporary artists from Togo. He is also known as one of the current major African artists. He’s had several exhibitions in Europe, especially in Germany, in Canada and in numerous African countries. Some of his works are in Skoto Gallery of New-York.one of three well-known contemporary artists from Togo. He is also known as one of the current major African artists. He’s had several exhibitions in Europe, especially in Germany, in Canada and in numerous African countries. Some of his works are in Skoto Gallery of New-York.
Translated by Kate Vanovitch