Adam's Reviews > The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism

The Kaiser's Holocaust by David Olusoga
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Apr 01, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: south-africa, germany

HOW THE SOUTHWEST WAS WON

One of the great stumbling blocks during the lengthy, eight year process leading up to the Union of South Africa in 1910 was whether or not to give non-Europeans the right to vote, or any political rights at all. In 1909, JBM Hertzog, whilst discussing the draft constitution of the proposed union in the Transvaal Parliament, is recorded as having said that, “the native was undeniably a human being, but he was not yet entitled to political rights because he was still a child, ‘in matters of civilisation … thousands of years behind the whites.’”. Earlier on in that debate, Abraham Fischer had questioned, “whether the people of South Africa had done any act of injustice to the natives”, before adding that, “…the overriding law was ‘the law of self-preservation’” For, he said, “The black man’s rights were not the rights of the white man, who had no intention of acknowledging that they were such now.” (All of these quotes come from The Unification of South Africa 1902-1910, by LM Thompson, published 1960 in Oxford). At least, the most ardent opponents of giving black people the franchise in South Africa recognised that the Africans were human, and were willing to discuss whether they had any rights to self-representation.

This was definitely not the case across the border in German South West Africa (‘SWA’, now ‘Namibia’), as is eloquently described in The Kaiser’s Holocaust, a book written by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen.

JC Smuts, in his 1952 biography of his father Jan Christian Smuts (South Africa’s Prime Minister from 1939 to 1948), summarises the history of German SWA succinctly: “The German flag was hoisted on the 6th August, 1884, at Lüderitzbucht… Nine years later a ruthless series of wars began which went on till 1908. The German ideal of colonisation was the same as in the old Americas - extermination. Thereafter there was no Red Indian problem. In South-West Africa Germany determined there would be no Herero problem…” (See Jan Christian Smuts: A Biography)

The Kaiser’s Holocaust describes how, to quote Smuts, the Germans ‘determined there would be no Herero problem’ in SWA, and shows effectively how the genocide of the Herero and many of the Nama people can be considered to have been a prototype for the Holocaust orchestrated by the Germans during the Second World War in their quest for Lebensraum and racial purity.

This alone would have made me want to read the book, but I had an additional personal interest in the subject matter.

Newspapers across South Africa noted the discovery of alluvial diamonds in SWA in 1908. In November of that year, The Cape Mercury, published in King Williams Town, carried a detailed report about the extremely rich alluvial diamond field discovered in the immediate vicinity of Lüderitzbucht. The diamonds were easily accessible, lying just beneath the surface of the dust on the floor of the desert. The writer of the article expressed surprise that this remarkable discovery had not been made earlier, as, “… it is understood that during the recent struggle between the German Troops and the Hereros, detachments of troops camped in the immediate vicinity, if not even upon the actual ground where the stones are now being picked…”. It is this ‘struggle’ against the Hereros and also against the other ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ inhabitants of SWA, which is described in detail by Olusoga and Erichsen. This ‘struggle’ that began as an attempt to suppress native attacks on the recently arrived German settlers rapidly deteriorated into blatant genocide.

On the 28th December, 1908, a writer in the Mercury wrote: “Attention is directed to the advertisement appearing in another column regarding the prospectus of the Kolmans-Kop Diamond Mines Ltd., near Lüderitzbucht, German South West Africa … One of the directors is Mr Franz Ginsberg, MLA”. Mr Ginsberg, Member of Parliament for King Williams Town, was one of my ancestors. As I read The Kaiser’s Holocaust, I wondered how much my ancestor knew about what had been going on in SWA until a few months before he trod the diamond-bearing sands near Lüderitzbucht (upon which the Imperial German Army had camped whilst executing their ‘struggle’), and what he thought about it.

The ‘struggle’ alluded to above began in earnest 1904, when the Hereros, fed up with the unfriendly activities and false promises of the recently arrived colonists from Europe, began their attacks on the Germans. At first, they were very successful, but later when Germany sent out reinforcements, their defeat became inevitable. The arrival of General Lothar Von Trotha (1848-1920) in SWA marked the beginning of the ruthless destruction of the Hereros. Von Trotha wrote of the situation in SWA in 1904, “I know enough tribes in Africa. They all have the same mentality insofar as they yield only to force. It was and remains my policy by absolute terrorism and even cruelty I shall destroy the rebellious tribes by shedding rivers of blood and money.” And he did, even employing ‘Cleansing Patrols’ to kill any natives who had managed to escape his murderous forces. This was a forerunner of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’, such as disfigured the Balkans not so long ago.

Many Africans, who were not killed immediately, were herded together and imprisoned in concentration camps (such as were pioneered by the Spanish in Cuba in the late 1890s, and used with devastating effect by the British during the 2nd Boer War of 1899-1902), with the idea of killing them off by exposure to inhospitable living conditions and forced labour. One of these camps was on Shark Island, an island next to the town of Lüderitzbucht, and only 13 kilometres from Kolmanskop, where Mr Ginsberg’s diamond ‘mine’ was to be established in 1908.

Closed in 1907, Shark Island was a forerunner of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other equally notorious places. It was undoubtedly a concentration camp. However, as is well-described by Olusoga and Erichsen, Shark Island was not simply used to separate the Africans from the Europeans, but it was part of a systematic attempt to exterminate the Africans. Many unfortunates were killed by the cruelty of their captors, starvation, and exposure to the harsh elements. Others were worked to death. Working to death, which was to become a feature of the Nazi concentration camps, was pioneered in the many concentration camps of SWA including Shark Island. The only thing that distinguished these camps from those set up by the Nazis a few years later was the absence of industrialised methods of mass murder (i.e. the use of carbon monoxide and Zyklon B).

According to Martin Gilbert in his book Auschwitz and the Allies: A Devastating Account of How the Allies Responded to the News of Hitler's Mass Murder, very little was known outside the Axis territories about the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews and others before 1944. Even between 1944 and the end of the war, knowledge of the existence of what is now called ‘The Holocaust’ was limited to a very few politicians. The converse was true forty years earlier in German SWA. If my ancestor, Mr Ginsberg, had been a reader of the Cape Argus, a newspaper published in Cape Town, he would have read about the horrific suffering that was happening in camps like Shark Island. Olusoga and Erichsen quote from a series of articles published in 1905 in this paper. These contained reports on the camps supplied by a German trader who had witnessed them first-hand. The excerpts, which they reproduce in the book, are too horrific to be included in this review.

What had the Africans done to inspire such cruelty as was inflicted upon them by the Germans in their colony?

Was it their failure to trust their German invaders and their false promises of protection? Was it the heavy blows that the Africans rained on the initially ill-prepared German military forces? Or, was it the result of a belief in Social Darwinism? All three of these were important in determining the Germans’ behaviour in SWA. However, the authors of The Kaiser’s Holocaust consider that the major driving factor in the genocide in German SWA was strong belief in the concepts of racial supremacy and Social Darwinism. The evidence that they present to support their views is impressive.

They describe, for example, the writings of Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), who was inspired by Social Darwinism and ‘invented’ the Lebensraum concept. He believed, according to Olusoga and Erichsen, that, “Colonial peoples disappeared because they were persecuted, enslaved and exterminated” because some “inner cultural weakness of the native races of Africa, America and Asia made them passive, and therefore incapable of withstanding the European assault. All this was acceptable because the people the Europeans were destroying were what he termed ‘inferior races’”. A few years later in 1912, Paul Rohrbach (1869-1956) wrote, “No false philanthropy or race-theory can prove to reasonable people that the preservation of any tribe of nomadic South African Kaffirs… is more important for the future of mankind than the expansion of the European nations, or the white race as a whole.” Horrific as this may sound today, it was perfectly reasonable to those who ordered, and carried out the genocide in SWA. The same kind of reasoning was applied by the Nazis a few decades later in Europe. They believed that Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs, all of whom were to be regarded as being sub-human were suitable only for use as slave labour before being exterminated.

The authors of the Kaiser’s Holocaust devote many pages to describing the genocide of the Africans in German SWA and comparing it with what was to follow later in Nazi Occupied Europe. The comparisons are frightening. They include the use of prisoners in scientifically questionable medical experiments, and their corpses for anthropological studies, whose aims were to attempt to prove scurrilous, pseudo-scientific theories of racial supremacy. However, what is more frightening is the gradual evolution from the Imperial Germans’ justification of genocide to that of the Nazis.

Whilst most of the Kaiser’s Holocaust is dedicated to the German treatment of the Africans in German SWA, a largish part of the second half of the book deals with the development of Nazi ideas, and the regime that resulted from them. Many of the Nazi’s views on race and how to deal with ‘inferior people’ (Untermenschen, the translation of a derogatory term coined by the American eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard in 1922) were, as is well demonstrated by Olusoga and Erichsen, derived from the ideas believed by those whose racial theories justified the African genocide, and also those persons who carried it out in SWA and then later lived in Germany.

Some readers may consider that too much space in the book has been devoted to development of the Nazi’s genocidal plans, everything that is contained in this book is fascinating, and contributes to a greater understanding of the basis of Hitler’s dreams and their ghastly realisation.

Anyone with even the faintest interest in twentieth century history should spend a few hours reading this fascinating, well-written book. And if you don’t have any interest in this aspect of history, this book will certainly change that!

AFTERTHOUGHT

Lest we should become complacent, we must not forget that the German elimination of the ‘natives’ in SWA was not without precedent. Olusoga and Erichsen mention that Ratzel cited the ‘displacement’ of indigenous people in North America, Brazil, Tasmania, and New Zealand, as being models for future colonialism, wars of extermination, and, dare I say it, genocide.

Finally, remember that, "History is written by the victors", or in George Orwell's words, “He, who controls the present, controls the past. He, who controls the past, controls the future.
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Reading Progress

April 1, 2012 – Shelved
June 5, 2012 – Started Reading
June 5, 2012 –
page 30
7.5%
June 6, 2012 –
page 60
15.0% "Fascinating"
June 8, 2012 –
page 120
30.0%
June 10, 2012 –
page 172
43.0%
June 13, 2012 –
page 226
56.5%
June 17, 2012 –
page 288
72.0%
June 20, 2012 –
page 312
78.0% "Still fascinating me!"
June 22, 2012 –
page 343
85.75%
June 23, 2012 – Shelved as: south-africa
June 23, 2012 – Shelved as: germany
June 23, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Shuddersome reading. Shark Island in particular made my hair stand on end.


message 2: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Absolutely new history for me regarding the forerunner to Nazi barbarism. Should make for fascinating reading. Thanks.


message 3: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 This sounds very interesting. One of the best things about goodreads is having people discover and preview works relating to forgotten parts of history.


message 4: by Lilo (new) - added it

Lilo Oh, dear! I had no idea that the Holocaust had a German forerunner. The more I learn about barbarism, and especially German barbarism, I can only say: He who knows people, loves animals.


message 5: by Andre (last edited Jun 19, 2016 07:15AM) (new) - added it

Andre Lest we should become complacent, we must not forget that the German elimination of the ‘natives’ in SWA was not without precedent. Olusoga and Erichsen mention that Ratzel cited the ‘displacement’ of indigenous people in North America, Brazil, Tasmania, and New Zealand, as being models for future colonialism, wars of extermination, and, dare I say it, genocide."

"Displacement"? Oh you mean that term that is used so the successful exterminators (British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Canadians, Americans, Australians etc.) don't have to face up to their past? Displacement sounds like whitewashing what actually happened in the Americas and Australia: deportation and genocide. I know most people from those continents hide behind diseases being the cause, but they tend to forget all the cases were that apparently wasn't enough to drive the unwanted "savages" from the land. So call it what it is: Near or full extermination. Or just genocide.


message 6: by Lilo (new) - added it

Lilo @ Andre: You are right. The British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Canadians, the Americans, The Australians, etc. were no angels and did commit genocide. Nevertheless, I can't help it, you sound a bit like a Nazi sympathizer. One crime doesn't justify another crime. One genocide doesn't justify another genocide.

I am so tired of listening to Nazi sympathizers defending German crimes by pointing to crimes of other nations. You could have, at least, accepted what is said in the above review before pointing out crimes of other nations.


message 7: by Andre (last edited Jun 19, 2016 12:40PM) (new) - added it

Andre Lilo wrote: "Nevertheless, I can't help it, you sound a bit like a Nazi sympathizer. One crime doesn't justify another crime. One genocide doesn't justify another genocide.

I am so tired of listening to Nazi sympathizers defending German crimes by pointing to crimes of other nations. You could have, at least, accepted what is said in the above review before pointing out crimes of other nations."


And who says that I do no accept what is said above? What is that statement of yours based upon?
And I said something Nazi sympathizers said? So what? Does that have anything to do with the accuracy of my statement? And in what way is that Nazi sympathizing? I pointed out that "displacement" sounds like whitewashing of extermination and genocide to me. In what way does that make me a Nazi sympathizer?
By that logic I could have accused you of defending the crimes of the other European powers by pointing towards Nazis. But I do no such thing because there is no evidence for you doing or even attempting such a thing.
But there is evidence for genocides that do not fall under the Holocaust (and partially even within the Holocaust as the Porajmos and the attempted decimation of Slavic people often tend to be ignored in sole favor of the Shoah) to be downplayed and ignored. And that is something I am definitely against. In fact, from my perspective, there is ample evidence that the path to Auschwitz, so to speak, was prepared long before Germany began it's colonialism, long before the genocide of the Herero was attempted. Not only do we have the concept of wiping out an entire people in the Bible but it is also in antiquity (Carthage for instance), but the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks in the Ottomon empire was not the only reason why Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Rosenberg, Göbels etc. etc. thought that their conquest of the East would work. How many times have brutal conquerors and despots been romanticized in the past because they had won the battle? Who cared much about the American Indians and Australian Aborigines while they were still considered a threat to the expansion of the British Empire and later the USA and Canada? In fact a North America and Australia without it's first people was both imagined and canvassed well before the rise of Nazism, and the public discussion persisted, directly in relation to policy, until well after Nazism was defeated. The difference is that there basically nothing was done until long after every survivor was dead, so it can easily be downplayed (except in the case of the boarding schools and the Aboriginal Protection Act as they lasted basically until the end of the 20th century). Not to mention that apparently in the public mind the Holocaust exists somehow in a vacuum, as if it had nothing to do or in common with the then ongoing and previous episodes of conquest and extermination. Nothing could be further from the truth in my mind. If you ask me, the whole thing was attempted because in the eyes of the planers, such things had worked plenty of times already in the past. The same bloody story had played out over and over in the Americas and Australia, with terrible crimes now pushed under the rug, because in those cases the side committing these acts won, thereby basically proofing Hitler's murderous cynicism that no one would care as long as they win right.
And does that sound to you like something a Nazi sympathizers would write and say?


message 8: by Lilo (last edited Jun 19, 2016 05:45PM) (new) - added it

Lilo Andre wrote: "Lilo wrote: "Nevertheless, I can't help it, you sound a bit like a Nazi sympathizer. One crime doesn't justify another crime. One genocide doesn't justify another genocide.

I am so tired of liste..."


I am not saying that you are a Nazi-sympathizer; I am only saying that you sounded like one, and you did.

The Holocaust, definitely, was not the only genocide in history. However, it happened in the middle of the 20th century, in the heart of Europe, carried out by a so-called civilized nation, known as the "Volk der Dichter und Denker" ("people of poets and thinkers"). And its victims were not primitive people (usually depicted as "savages") but a people of high culture, high civilization, and IMO outstanding average intelligence and ethics. Thus, the usual meager "excuse" that the victims were primitive savages, not much different from animals, does not even hold.

Thus, the Holocaust is unique and not on the same level with other genocides--condemnable as they might be.

It is good to point out all the genocides (and other crimes) in history, but they should never be used to belittle or trivialize the Holocaust. Maybe this wasn't your intention, but it surely sounded like it.

Since I joined GR in 2012, I have battled many diehard Nazis, neo-Nazis, Nazi-sympathizers, Nazi-romantics (the latter usually living in India), as well as anti-Semites and other racists. They all tried to put the Holocaust on the same level with other genocides. I cannot accept this. The Holocaust was a genocide of unimaginable magnitude committed in fairly recent time by a civilized nation against an (even more) civilized people. The perpetrators did not have even the lame excuse that their victims were primitive or of a different (in their eyes, more animal-like) race. Thus, I insist that the Holocaust IS different from other genocides, as terrible and despicable these other genocides might have been.


message 9: by Andre (new) - added it

Andre Lilo wrote: "I am not saying that you are a Nazi-sympathizer; I am only saying that you sounded like one, and you did.

The Holocaust, definitely, was not the only genocide in history. However, it happened in the middle of the 20th century, in the heart of Europe, carried out by a so-called civilized nation, known as the "Volk der Dichter und Denker" ("people of poets and thinkers"). And its victims were not primitive people (usually depicted as "savages") but a people of high culture, high civilization, and IMO outstanding average intelligence and ethics. Thus, the usual meager "excuse" that the victims were primitive savages, not much different from animals, does not even hold."


In my eyes there was nothing that I wrote that was even remotely sympathetic to the Nazi cause and I find much more troubling what you wrote here.

Have you thought about what some of the things that you wrote there imply?

Let's ignore that other genocides have their unique elements as well and let's focus on your statements about "savages." You stated that The Holocaust was a genocide of unimaginable magnitude committed in fairly recent time by a civilized nation against an (even more) civilized people.

Even more civilized people? Whom are you talking about here? Not to mention you do realize that you sound here as if you basically do the same things so many other people did before you when they justified their genocidal actions right?
Saying that Thus, the usual meager "excuse" that the victims were primitive savages, not much different from animals, does not even hold. in the case of the Holocaust does imply in my mind that the other victims (the Armenians, the Tutsi, the Lakota, the Tasmanians etc. etc.) were savages, that they were not civilized. Is that what you are implying? Because that is what that statement and saying The perpetrators did not have even the lame excuse that their victims were primitive or of a different (in their eyes, more animal-like) race. sounds to me. Not to mention that this is not how racial categorization works, but that is another topic.
So what were you implying about the victims of the other genocides?


message 10: by Lilo (new) - added it

Lilo Andre wrote: "Lilo wrote: "I am not saying that you are a Nazi-sympathizer; I am only saying that you sounded like one, and you did.

The Holocaust, definitely, was not the only genocide in history. However, it ..."



Yes, I consider the Jews of the time--in average--as "even more civilized" than the Germans of the time. They produced the best scientists and were highly successful as professionals of all kinds. The Nazis declared themselves the master race and depicted the Jews as "inferior", while the Jews were, in average, actually "superior" to the Germans, in average.

It would not have been my idea to compare and call either people "inferior" or "superior", but since the Nazis did, one might as well state the truth.

Re savages etc.: You should read my comment more carefully. While it is a fact that native populations of America, Australia, and large parts of Africa were more primitive than European populations, it should be rather clear that not I depict them as "savages" and "more animal-like", but that this was the opinion or rather the "excuse" the colonial powers used to exterminate these people.

And now you'll have to excuse me. I have nothing to add, and I am very busy and have to take care of other things.


message 11: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook Lilo, attend to other things. Please. You misread Andre. Blame it on the cats.


message 12: by Andre (last edited Jun 20, 2016 01:09AM) (new) - added it

Andre Sketchbook wrote: "Lilo, attend to other things. Please. You misread Andre. Blame it on the cats."

Thanks.

Lilo wrote: "Yes, I consider the Jews of the time--in average--as "even more civilized" than the Germans of the time. They produced the best scientists and were highly successful as professionals of all kinds. The Nazis declared themselves the master race and depicted the Jews as "inferior", while the Jews were, in average, actually "superior" to the Germans, in average.

It would not have been my idea to compare and call either people "inferior" or "superior", but since the Nazis did, one might as well state the truth."


Wow, this is really disturbing what you did there. It is almost scary how much you are like the very people you go against.

But since you shut this down via And now you'll have to excuse me. I have nothing to add, and I am very busy and have to take care of other things. I guess there is nothing more to say. Not to mention that it is not fair to the reviewer to add so much more to the comment section. But let me end with this quote by Israel Charny:
For me, the passion to exclude this or that mass killing from the universe of genocide, as well as the intense competition to establish the exclusive "superiority" or unique form of any one genocide, ends up creating a fetishistic atmosphere in which the masses of bodies that are not to be qualified for the definition of genocide are dumped into a conceptual black hole, where they are forgotten.

In my eyes, when you say the Holocaust (and interestingly based on your statements you only seem to count Jewish people among the "more civilized" and "superior" but not Slaws or Romani) is worse than every other genocide, you basically tend towards trivializing them and also have a clear rank of who is more worth to be a victim than any one else, thereby including the Herero among the worthy.


message 13: by Ihellm (new)

Ihellm Lilo wrote: "@ Andre: You are right. The British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Canadians, the Americans, The Australians, etc. were no angels and did commit genocide. Nevertheless, I can't help ..."

I am so tired of listening to Jews defending Israel crimes by pointing to crimes of other nations. You could have, at least, accepted what is said in the above review before pointing out crimes of Israel.


message 14: by Chloe (new) - added it

Chloe Ihellm wrote: "Lilo wrote: "@ Andre: You are right. The British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Canadians, the Americans, The Australians, etc. were no angels and did commit genocide. Nevertheless, ...”

@Ihellm: I am sure you are sick of this constant defense of Israel. So are the jihadis. You should take into consideration the fact that “Israel” is essentially synonymous with “Jews”. Jihadi proponents start with the premise of Killing all the Jews - so it is largely about Jews - not Israelis at all. There Arab Israelis who live within Israel, work, have families and worship in “the Jewish State”. Being the target of annihilation for Jews is NOT NEW. Jews have been there and done that - they have started no wars since biblical times - when I might add, everyone started wars (much like today). The ugliness between two groups that should actually be allies (see religious similarities) was caused by The Prophet’s anger at a group of Arab Jews who did not want to be Muslims. Prior to this - there was little or no enmity. So this is an old cause and one that may or may not have a basis in historical fact. We have to consider the times and context which is not usually a factor in legitimate arguments. There was a time when Islam was spread throughout the Mediterranean countries and in Spain, especially - the seat of Al-Andalus - Jews were essential to the Islamic government and filled many positions and jobs. I call this “Situational Scripture Interpretation” of ANY Scripture used to influence billions of people. History is rife with the bending of rules for victory. Do you believe Jews - in population numbers vs. acknowledged accomplishments are not a tad better at achievements - per capita - than many other cultures? I imagine being herded together like animals could have produced a group of slovenly, ne’er do wells. But it didn’t. It encouraged learning, dialogue and faith. So I would have to side with Lilo on her original comments because it is largely accurate. And Israel herself has produced and invented and shared so much with the world in 68 years - while fighting enemies of the people and the state - it boggles my mind. As an exercise in trivia - since you seem to have opinions that are well formed - remove from history all Jewish contributions and let me know what you get?


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