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Germans Slaughtered Blacks Before they Slaughtered Jews, but You Shouldn’t Draw a Line between both Genocides

HNN Editor  In May HNN published an article by Edwin Black on the Holocaust:  "Before Germans Slaughtered Jews They Slaughtered Africans." This week we are publishing this critique by historian Jeremy Best. Click here for Edwin Black's response.

Historians, especially historians of Germany, are particularly interested in tracing and identifying continuities and discontinuities. We look for the threads of similarity (continuities) and dissimilarity (discontinuities) that connect the events of one century or decade with another. In particular, historians of modern Germany have long framed their attempts to understand the rise of the Nazis, the establishment of the Third Reich, and the murders of the Holocaust in a discussion of the continuities and discontinuities between the 1930s and -40s on the one hand and Germany’s earlier history on the other hand. For a number of reasons, their focus largely settled on uncovering how Germany’s nineteenth-century history may or may not have given rise to its twentieth-century history.

It was from this perspective that I, a historian of Germany and a Holocaust educator, read Edwin Black’s essay, “Before Germans Slaughtered Jews They Slaughtered Africans” which appeared on May 22, 2016 on the History News Network. And it is from this perspective that I was motivated to write what I see as a necessary corrective to Black’s argument. I take no exceptions with Black’s purpose for his article – convincing readers of the multicultural importance of understanding the Holocaust. As a white scholar, I am somewhat uncomfortable taking on the position of instructing African-Americans what to care about, but I agree that the history of the Shoah is relevant to peoples of all backgrounds regardless of how personally distant they may feel from the victims, murderers, and witnesses of the Holocaust. Learning about the Holocaust is learning about the full spectrum of the human condition from its darkest villainy to its brightest heroism.

Nonetheless, I think that Black’s article makes the mistake of perpetuating a vision of German colonialism and the Holocaust which resurrects in a new form an old scholarly explanation that has been subject to substantial revisions. In this way the rest of the colonial powers are let off the hook for their colonial behavior and Germany is marked out as a uniquely murderous society. Since 1945, a key question of history has been how the Holocaust happened. How had Germany, a thoroughly modern and thoroughly Western culture, renounced its civilizational heritage and engaged in the horrifying and barbaric project of exterminating a whole race of people?

Starting in the 1940s and continuing through the 1980s, the explanation of Nazism’s roots was dominated by the Sonderweg Thesis. Proponents of this idea argued that, during the nineteenth century, Germany deviated from Western European norms by failing to achieve democratic and social modernization. Germany had taken its own “Special Path,” as the German loan word Sonderweg translates into English. The German middle classes and liberals had failed to effectively break the power of the aristocracy and to dispel autocracy and militarism. As a result, the Weimar Republic never had any chance to resist the forces of dictatorship and nationalist extremism because democracy had failed to take root.

The Sonderweg Thesis, therefore, focuses heavily on the continuities of German history, but since the 1980s, the dominance of the Sonderweg Thesis has ebbed. Although, it is by no means a settled matter, most historians of Germany have turned to explaining the nineteenth century as an inconclusive decades-long struggle between the forces of democracy and autocracy. At different moments the empire of the Kaiser made great strides toward greater democracy and at other moments took steps backward from liberal principles. For example, the constitution of the German Empire enacted universal male suffrage for its lower house of parliament, the Reichstag, and protected the rights of its citizens against each other and the state. At the same time, the Kaiser’s head of government, the Chancellor, was not selected by the Reichstag majority and had no responsibility to govern with their mandate. It is impossible to say which direction Germany was headed in before its defeat in World War I, but there is no direct equivalence between the powers of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler.

This scholarly background is intended to illustrate the place in which Black’s article finds itself. A certain segment of historians have gone elsewhere seeking evidence of Germany’s Sonderweg. And like some of them, Black has settled on Germany’s colonial history.i The genocide of the Herero and Nama and the Holocaust present a tantalizing opportunity to locate the origins of the Holocaust in something specifically German. But doing so requires a narrow understanding of the history of race and racism in Germany and of the history of colonialism around the world.

This discussion of the esoterica of German historical scholarship may seem beside the point. After all, if I agree with Black that the Holocaust is important material for all people to learn then why am I motivated to inform the wider public of what may seem Ivory Tower quibbles with Black’s essay? Primarily I disagree with the simplicity of Black’s historical argument. Black’s emphasis on the continuities among nineteenth-century German colonial policy and violence and Nazi-era murder is too comforting. It reduces the origins of the Holocaust to one country and one people when the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the origins of both colonial violence and the Holocaust are not uniquely German but are, in fact, recognizable products of Western culture and thought. The Genocide of the Herero and Nama and the Holocaust are not linked in a causal sequence. One was not a rehearsal of the other. There are far too many discontinuities between the two events for that explanation to be satisfactory.

Black’s article seeks to inspire African-Americans to take an interest in the Holocaust because, as his title suggests, Germans also slaughtered Africans. As his article details, German racial thought and policy and American racial thought and policy were close parallels of one another.ii I would like to offer a plea for a more complicated and messy understanding of Germany’s history of conquest and racism. I want to demonstrate that a better story – a more accurate story that includes discontinuities along with the continuities on which Black focuses – is more compelling. It is more compelling because the whole story is always more authentic than half the story and because the interplay of continuities and discontinuities points to a more accurate explanation of the relationship between colonial racism and the Nazi program of extermination. Before Germans slaughtered Jews; Europeans, South Africans, Americans, Australians, Canadians, and Japanese, and others slaughtered Africans, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, First Peoples, Taiwanese, and many others. If we want to see an end to the injustices and horrors of our present, it would be good to start with the full story of the past.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Black’s characterizations of German colonial rule. He does make some nods to the general bad behavior of colonial masters, but he suggests through his article that the Germans were particularly brutal and especially racist. This interpretation of German colonial rule had its historical origins in World War I. During that conflict, the British, French, Japanese, and the Dominion governments of South Africa and Australia seized on the opportunity to claim Germany’s overseas colonies. In order to justify these seizures, the British began producing propaganda even before the war was over that vilified German colonial rule. Black makes use of these self-same reports as evidence of German brutality, citing the “Blue Book” multiple times as providing clear evidence of Germany’s colonial brutality. The German colonial administrators were absolutely guilty of colonial brutality. But the historical record, British propaganda aside, pretty clearly illustrates that the Germans were, in the main, no more or less brutal than any other colonial master.iii

The Herero and Nama Genocide stands out as an example of German colonial brutality, and I make no arguments that it was not a genocide. However, the long history of Western colonial conquest is one of horrible brutality. Between 1850 and 1918 each of the Western colonial powers engaged in bloody colonial wars that violated their own contemporary and present-day standards of warfare. The British suppression of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 killed tens of thousands with little condemnation of its methods in the British press. During World War I, France faced a sustained resistance struggle in what is now Burkina Faso in which the French were responsible for perhaps as many as 300,000 African deaths. In the American-Filipino War, fought shortly after the United States took that country from the Spanish in the Spanish-American War, American forces engaged in noteworthy atrocities against the Filipinos. The U.S. Department of State estimates that over 200,000 Filipinos died as a result of that conflict. The list of colonial atrocities and violence goes beyond these examples. Put into this context, the Herero and Nama Genocide is unique. But it is not unique because no other colonial power murdered indigenous peoples with horrifying abandon. It is unique because it has come to be identified as genocide when these other conflicts, for varying reasons, have evaded that classification.

Black’s argument for the continuity between the colonial genocide in German Southwest Africa and the Nazi genocide in Central and Eastern Europe is built on similarities between the ideas and the people that operated in both places. He argues that the ideas were widely held and the people were a representative sample of personnel involved. It is in this area of people and ideas that Black most significantly relies on a thin framework of continuities. He connects dots that shouldn’t be connected. In his article, he either overemphasizes the import of the connections he has found between Africa around 1900 and Germany around 1940 or omits, perhaps because he is not aware of them, the many examples of discontinuity. During the 1880s, 1890s, and after 1900, the racial ideas Black outlines were not universal or even necessarily in the majority in Germany, and the people involved were not representative either. Therefore, his continuities do not prove overwhelming when set against the many historical discontinuities.

Black makes much of the commonality of vocabulary between the policies and ideas undergirding German colonial activity. He is particularly evocative when he presents the origins of words like Lebensraum, Endlösung, and Rassenschande. And certainly there is much merit in tracing the origins of concepts. It is true that German colonial officials used these words. It is also true that Nazi ideologues used these words. But it is not true that these words meant the same thing or had the same determinative role in the nineteenth century as they did in the twentieth century.

For example, the geographer Friedrich Ratzel may have suggested colonies as potential Lebensraum for Germany, but, after 1900, no serious German colonialist in or out of government thought Germany’s colonies would provide the “living space” for German demographic expansion. In fact, after 1900 Germany largely ceased being an exporter of its population and began to become an importer of labor. There were right-wing populist nationalist groups, like the Pan-German League, whose members sought claim to “historic” German lands – lands where German-speaking peoples had settled in the medieval and early modern era. But seizure of these lands would have required the dispossession of Slavic peoples, not Africans. And more importantly, the Pan-German League was not calling the tune in Germany at that time. It was only during and not before World War I that German leaders, intoxicated by the possibilities of victory, began seriously considering territorial expansion in Europe.

Take a second example, the usage of the term Endlösung in the colonial period. According to Black, its first use in German was by Georg Hartmann in 1904 in reference to a “final solution to the native question.” Black goes on to say this was the first use of this word as a code word for murder. This historical data point requires further explanation. First of all, it is nearly impossible to read Endlösung and not immediately jump in one’s mind to the mechanized and intentional murder of Jews in Auschwitz. However, historians are still debating if the “final solution” in the form of gas chambers and extermination squads had a settled definition in 1939.iv So how could it have been as open and shut a definition as Black suggests in 1904?

Furthermore, 1904 was not even the first usage of the term in reference to racial policy, and its users were not talking about Africans, they were talking about Jews. Through the 1880s and 1890s, a new wave of anti-Semitism arose across Europe. In the German-speaking lands, anti-Semitic groups intersected with groups like the Pan-German League and, like the Pan-German League, promoted a form of populism that claimed to speak for the German Mittelstand of lower middle class shopkeepers, artisans, and clerks. They lacked the popular support and the murderous imagination of the National Socialists, but these groups were the intellectual and political forebears of Hitler’s party. And it was they who put the term Endlösung into use in reference to the supposed “problem” of a multicultural society.v

The nineteenth-century anti-Semites were a particular breed of racist. Most of them surely had plenty of racism to spare and just as likely despised and feared black people. But the fear of black people and the fear of Jewish people was never the same. The Nazis replicated this distinction. The fear of Jews was a fear of the supposed enemy within. European society since the Enlightenment had been gradually integrating and assimilating its Jewish population first legally, then economically, and, in the lead up to World War I, increasingly socially and politically. To the anti-Semites of the time and later to the Nazis, Jews represented the dangers of European modernization. The process of economic and political liberalization had undercut the lower middle classes of Europe. In the meantime, Jewish families and individuals appeared to be prospering under the new economic and political regime. It was a simple argument for the anti-Semites to make: capitalism and economic liberalization have enriched the Jews at the expense of “ordinary” Germans (or Frenchmen or Russians – anti-Semitism was not a uniquely German political movement). Anti-Semitic ideologues of the time argued that the Jews had insinuated themselves into European society and that they operated as parasites sucking off the wealth of the hardworking person. The Jew was an enemy that was becoming increasingly hard to identify, poisoning European civilization with his clandestine foreign ways.

On the other hand, the black person was the threat to Europe from without. The dangerous African was never depicted as a rat or an insect; he was almost uniformly depicted as a brutish half-human. As dangerous beasts threatening to destroy European civilization through debasement and violence, black men, especially, posed an external threat. The danger to Europeans was from Africans abroad, and the fear most often expressed was of Europeans “going native,” abandoning civilization for barbarous impulsivity when surrounded by Africans. Furthermore, and especially in Germany, fear of peoples of African descent was mitigated by distance. Certainly there were black people in Europe before World War I, but they still posed a much more distant threat in the minds of racists than the racists’ Jewish fellow citizens. This distinction becomes clear when the first time that anti-black racism had any sort of widespread expression in Germany was during the Rhineland Occupation. Of course it was not only Germans who panicked at the presence of armed black men on European soil, Black points out the ways in which the “Horror on the Rhine” played in American presidential politics.

I bring these points up to point out the distinction between anti-Semitic racism and anti-black racism in the nineteenth century, at least in Europe. And during the Nazi era a similar distinction is clear. The Nazis pursued a policy of segregation, disenfranchisement, exclusion, expropriation, and murder with singular purpose against the Jews of Europe, and, if they had been able, there is no doubt they would have expanded it to every Jew in the world. Their policy against people of African descent is less single-minded and less purposeful. Black’s own example of Hans Massaquoi is itself quite indicative of this ambiguity. That a boy of half-Liberian ancestry thought he might be able to join the Hitler Youth raises questions about how clear the anti-black racism of the Nazis was. Furthermore, that he survived the Nazi years relatively unscathed speaks to his courage and good fortune. Black Germans, Africans, and African-Americans suffered in many instances from the racism enacted by the Nazis, but they were never the main target of Nazi racial policies. The horrible policy of sterilization carried out against the “Rhineland bastards,” was the lone exception.

Another vocabulary term that Black includes is directly connected to the experience of Massaquoi and tens of thousands of other Black Germans and Jewish Germans – Rassenschande. Black is correct that the Germans’ anti-miscegenation laws in Namibia were connected to the Herero and Nama Genocide (but these were not the first such laws – they were already widespread across the United States by that point), but support for these laws was not even close to universal. In fact, in the Reichstag, critics of the anti-miscegenation laws took strong stands in opposition for a decade before World War I. This opposition included the leadership of the Social Democrats, the largest and fastest growing party which held over a third of the seats in the Reichstag; the leadership of Catholic Center Party and their 16 percent of the parliament; and other principled opponents among the Conservative Protestants. Total these factions up and you see how limited support was for these sorts of policies among Germany’s elected leadership.

Black’s connections between nineteenth-century anti-black racism and twentieth-century anti-Jewish racism are too simple. What should we make of the architects of German colonial racism and racial warfare? Black identifies individuals whose careers, for him, are illustrative of the professional class of genocidal architects who transferred the ideas and tools of the Herero and Nama Genocide to the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He goes on to say that these men are just the smallest of samples and that “The list of Southwest African soldiers, colonial overseers, and commercial settlers and their prominent involvement in the Nazi movement is long and odious.” The list of veterans of colonial genocide is definitely odious, but its names were neither individually significant nor were they even representative of their own time. Black’s claim is the very essence of his overemphasis on continuities and his omission of discontinuities.

The names of Hermann Goering and Franz Ritter von Epp, two prominent Nazis, both of them connected to Southwest Africa, seem to be names to conjure with. But, to flesh out the example, Goering’s father was in the colony a full two decades before the genocide and left three years before his son was born. To understand Goering’s Nazism we would be better off looking to his upbringing in nineteenth-century Germany and his war experience than, Nazi official biography to the contrary, his father’s term as colonial governor. Von Epp represents an example of an individual continuity and he had some influence in the Nazi party before 1933. But by the end of the 1930s he had been reduced largely to a functionary. Von Epp, like many others with dreams of a new Nazi colonial empire overseas, did everything he could to accommodate himself and the colonial movement to the Nazis, but the Nazis never did more than pay lip service to the notion of a restored colonial empire. For Hitler and the real powers in the party, Germany’s colonial expansion would be on the plains of Poland and the Ukraine.

If we total up all the Germans who lived in or served in German Southwest Africa between 1904 and 1914, a very optimistic estimate could put that number at 50,000. It is possible that the harsh racial climate created in the colony converted the majority or even all of those 50,000 Germans into racial warriors. But in 1933, when it came to power, the Nazi Party had over 2 million members. Beyond von Epp and Goering, the number of former colonialists in the party leadership is almost nonexistent, even refuting any argument about colonialist influence being out of proportion to colonialist numbers.

Along with the insignificance of colonialists in the Nazi movement, the harsh racism that Black suggests permeated German colonialism was far from universal as well. During the war with and subsequent genocide against the Herero and Nama, there were noteworthy voices of opposition among the Germans. The most sizeable constituency of Germans in the German colonial empire after colonial administrators was missionaries. Protestant and Catholic missionaries from Germany had been present in the German colonies in Africa, China, and the South Pacific since before German authority had been established. My own research into German Protestant missionaries directly refutes arguments for a special German case of colonial racism. German Protestant missionaries spoke regularly against colonial abuses and did not engage in the same sort of racial language and policy that Black suggests was typical of German colonialism. These missionaries had extensive networks of support in Germany from peasants in Pomerania to influential figures in the Reichstag and the German government. Missionaries’ message, though proffered in racial terms, shared little with the genocidal and racially exploitative language of the Nazis or their antecedents.vi

I have spent a lot of time explaining why I find Black’s representation of the connections between Germany’s colonial violence and the Holocaust to be inadequate. As I said in the opening, I think the historical record makes it difficult to defend a simple straight line of causality or methods from the Herero and Nama Genocide to the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews. Colonialism and its accompanying colonial violence are, like the Holocaust, products of Western culture and thought. Though they are related, the first did not give rise to the second.

Without engaging in a lengthy discussion of the origins of nineteenth-century imperialism and of twentieth-century fascism and anti-Semitism, I would argue that both the Holocaust and the Herero and Nama Genocide were unique events, as all genocides are unique. Both shared certain characteristics as genocides – the dehumanization of a victim group defined by racial or other community characteristics, the use of state power to prepare the victims for death, and the execution of those victims with the intention of the total extermination of the entirety of the community – but each was also defined by its historical circumstances. The Holocaust could not have happened around 1900 and the Herero and Nama Genocide would not have happened in 1941. I detailed a number of examples of colonial violence that have evaded the definition of genocide to this point but which appear similar in scale, intentions, and methods to the Herero and Nama Genocide. I do not believe this relativizes the suffering of the Herero and Nama victims any more than it relativizes the victims of the Holocaust when the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial devotes itself, as it does, to the study of other genocides.

The colonial project was international. Colonial officials regularly studied each other’s methods and frequently corresponded with one another across national borders on “best practices.” And these best practices were a complicated mix of paternalistic philanthropy and extreme brutality. The humanitarian E. D. Morel represents an interesting example of the complexities of the colonial project. Morel was the son of a French father and an English mother. While working as a clerk for a Liverpool shipping firm he began to become interested in the Congo Free State, the personal domain of the Belgian King Leopold II and one of his employer’s clients. The colony, the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, was brutally exploited for its rubber. Indigenous peoples were punished with death and decapitation if they did not meet their cruel harvesting quotas. Morel learned of these abuses and many others and published one of the most famous critiques of the exploitative nature of colonialism, Red Rubber on Belgian atrocities in the Congo in 1906 and The Black Man’s Burden, a more wide-ranging critique of colonialism, in 1920. Morel is a shining example of liberal anti-imperialism. And yet the same year he published The Black Man’s Burden, Morel published his pamphlet, The Horror on the Rhine. In that pamphlet he harshly criticized the French government for using African troops to occupy German territory. He sensationalized fears of African sexual predation and conformed to the international wave of racist protest that broke out. The totality of Morel’s writings, therefore, mirrored the complexities of European attitudes about race around the turn of the twentieth century.

The Herero and the Nama peoples of Namibia deserve to have recognition from the international community and the German government for what happened from 1904 to 1907. The attempts to destroy two peoples must be recognized and justice must be served. Understanding the Holocaust and recognizing other genocides is perhaps a necessary part of the process. But it is too easy to make the historically inadequate argument that one begat the other. A straight line between murderous Germans in one time and place and murderous Germans in another time and place lets the rest of the world off the hook when it comes to recognizing the origins of racism and the terrifying possibilities of racial thought pursued to its conclusions. We must all remember and try our best to understand the nearly incomprehensible so that we can recognize the flaws in humanity that make the murder of entire peoples possible.


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i Helmuth Bley, Kolonialherrschaft und Sozialstruktur in Deutsch-Südwestafrika ([Hamburg]: Leibnitz-Verlag, 1968); Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire, 1871-1918, trans. Kim Traynor (Dover, NH: Berg Publishers, 1985); and Jürgen Zimmerer and Joachim Zeller, Völkermord in Deutsch-Südwestafrika: der Kolonialkrieg (1904-1908) in Namibia und seine Folgen (Berlin: Links, 2003). See also: Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973) and Horst Drechsler, Südwestafrika unter deutscher Kolonialherrschaft: Der Kampf der Herero und Nama gegen den deutschen Imperialismus <1884-1915> (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966).

ii Horst Drechsler, “Let Us Die Fighting”: The Struggle of the Herero and Nama against German Imperialism, 1884-1915 (London: Zed Press, 1980); Casper Erichsen and David Olusoga. The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (London: Faber & Faber, 2010); 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(2005): 429-464.

iii Report on the Natives of South-West Africa and Their Treatment by Germany, Cd. 9146, London, 1918 (“Blue Book). For a careful analysis of the production of the Blue Book see Christina Twomey, “Atrocity Narratives and Imperial Rivalry: Britain, Germany and the Treatment of ‘Native Races’, 1904-1939” in Evil, Barbarism and Empire: Britain and Abroad, c. 1830-2000, edited by T. Crook and B. Taithe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 201-225. See also William Roger Louis, Great Britain and Germany’s Lost Colonies, 1914-1919. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1967.On the comparative violence of German colonialism, see Robert Gerwarth and Stephan Malinowski, “Der Holocaust als ‘kolonialer Genozid’? Europäische Kolonialgewalt und nationalsozialistischer Vernichtungskrieg,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 33(2007): 439-466. Also supported in Jon M. Bridgman, Revolt of the Hereros (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) and more generally on the variety German colonial “native policies”, George Steinmetz,The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa and Southwest Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). On the more endemic violence of empires in human history, see Timothy Parsons, The Rule of Empires (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010).

iv Richard Bessel, “Functionalists vs. Intentionalists: The Debate Twenty Years on or Whatever Happened to Functionalism and Intentionalism?” German Studies Review 26(1): 15-20; Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 2 vols. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997-2007); Ian Kershaw, Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

v Alex Bein, Die Judenfrage: Biographie eines Weltproblems, Bd. 1 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1980).

vi Jeremy Best, “Godly, International, and Independent: German Protestant Missionary Loyalties before World War I” Central European History 47(3): 585-611 and Jeremy Best, “Science for Mission and Empire: The Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift and Missionary Nationalism,” in Missions and Media: The Politics of Missionary Periodicals in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Felicity Jensz and Hanna Acke, (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013): 39-56