The story of the German extermination of the Herero and Nama peoples has been expunged from the history books – contrary to the German belief, the indigenous Herero and Nama people were not savages.
However, Heinrich Goering had already planted the seeds of an experiment that would ultimately lead to their genocide. German South-West Africa was to become a testbed for Lebensraum – the twisted policy of expansion that was to form the heart of Hitler’s ideology.
The ideas were developed in the 1870s by a writer, Friedrich Ratzel, who distorted Darwin’s theory of evolution to argue that migration was essential for the long-term survival of a race. To stop migrating, so the theory went, was to stop advancing and risk being overtaken by other races better fitted for survival.
What better solution for the Germans living in the crowded cities of the Rhineland than to create a new Germany on African soil? And it was easy to justify the elimination of the local Africans because they were an ‘inferior race’.
But a sinister new idea was forming in the evil minds of the governors of German South-West Africa. An ‘anthropologist’ was commissioned to investigate the prisoners, who reported that it was of ‘vital importance’ for the success of the German colonial project that those races deemed ‘unfit for labour’ should be allowed to disappear. ‘The struggle for our own existence’ depends on it, he warned.
And so the first Holocaust was born. Shark Island – a bleak rocky islet in the harbour outside Luderitz – would become the world’s first death camp and the most feared place on earth for all the black peoples of South-West Africa.
A missionary who was one of the first to enter the camp was shocked by what he saw: ‘A woman who was so weak from illness that she could not stand, crawled to some of the other prisoners to beg for water. The overseer fired five shots at her. Two shots hit her: one in the thigh, the other smashing her forearm.’
The most important witness to the atrocities of Shark Island was the newly invented Kodak roll-film camera, which was used by wealthier German officers to take home ‘mementoes’ of their time there. Many of these photographs of prisoners being mistreated and humiliated were turned into postcards to send back home, often captioned with sarcastic comments.
The rape and sexual exploitation of women was not just commonplace but celebrated, and many semi-pornographic images, too, were made into postcards to be posted back to Berlin, Hamburg or Munich.
In one of the local concentration camps, at a place called Swakopmund, women were forced to boil the severed heads of their own people, and scrape the flesh, sinews and ligaments off the skull with shards of broken glass. The victims may have been people they had known or even relatives. The skulls were packed into crates and sent off to museums and universities in Germany.
Most notorious of all was the Shark Island camp physician, Dr Bofinger. He carefully decapitated the bodies of 17 prisoners, including a one-year-old girl. After breaking open the skulls he removed and weighed the brains before placing each head in preserving alcohol and sealing them in tins for export to the University of Berlin.