As the twentieth century dawned, Germany was in the vanguard of Western civilization. It was German professors who won the lion’s share of Nobel science prizes: 33 per cent of the total awarded between 1901 and 1910 and 29 per cent in the following decade. It was German universities that led the world in chemistry and biochemistry. Ambitious graduates flocked from all over Europe to Göttingen, Heidelberg and Tübingen to tremble before the titans of German Wissenschaft. After Pasteur, Robert Koch had emerged as the dominant force in bacteriology. Another German, Emil von Behring, was one of the developers of the tetanus and diphtheria antitoxins, for which he was awarded both the Nobel Prize and the Iron Cross. Two other German scientists, Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann, identified the spirocheta pallida as the cause of syphilis, and a third, Paul Ehrlich, was one of the inventors of Salvarsan, the first effective treatment for the disease.

Yet there was a shadow side to this extraordinary scientific success. Lurking within the real science was a pseudo-science, which asserted that mankind was not a single more or less homogeneous species but was subdivided and ranked from an Aryan ‘master race’ down to a black race unworthy of the designation Homo sapiens. And where better to test these theories than in Germany’s newly acquired African colonies? Africa was about to become another kind of laboratory – this time for racial biology.

Each European power had its own distinctive way of scrambling for Africa. The French, as we have seen, favoured railways and health centres. The British did more than just dig for gold and hunt for happy valleys; they also built mission schools. The Belgians turned the Congo into a vast slave state. The Portuguese did as little as possible. The Germans were the latecomers to the party. For them, colonizing Africa was a giant experiment to test, among other things, a racial theory. Earlier colonizing powers had, of course, been bolstered by a sense of innate superiority. According to the theory of ‘social Darwinism’, Africans were biologically inferior, an inconvenient obstacle to the development of Africa by more advanced white ‘Aryans’. But no one turned that theory into colonial practice more ruthlessly than the Germans in South-West Africa, today’s Namibia.

The Germans first laid claim to the bleak shores of South-West Africa in 1884. A year later Heinrich Ernst Göring – father of the more famous Hermann – was appointed Reich commissioner. By the time Theodor Leutwein was appointed the colony’s first governor in 1893, German intentions were becoming clear: to expropriate the native Herero and Nama peoples and settle their land with German farmers. This was the policy that would be openly advocated by Paul von Rohrbach in his influential book German Colonial Economics (1907).74 It was a project that at the time seemed as scientifically legitimate as the ongoing European campaign against tropical disease.

In 1851 Charles Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton had come to this arid yet lovely country under the aegis of the Royal Geographical Society. On returning to London, Galton reported that he had seen ‘enough of savage races to give me material to think about all the rest of my life’. Galton’s observations of the Herero and Nama would later inform his thinking about human evolution. It was Galton’s anthropometric work on human heredity that laid the foundation for the discipline he christened ‘eugenics’ – the use of selective breeding to improve the human gene pool.* Here was the ultimate solution to the problem of public health: a master-race of superhumans, bred to withstand the attacks of pathogens. The crucial point to note is that a hundred years ago work like Galton’s was at the cutting edge of science. Racism was not some backward-looking reactionary ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that eugenics and the related concept of ‘racial hygiene’ were finally discredited with the realization that genetic differences between the races are relatively small, and the variations within races quite large.

A century ago hardly anyone in the West doubted that white men were superior to black. Hardly anyone white, that is. Racial theory justified flagrant inequality of the sort that would later be institutionalized in the American South as segregation and in South Africa as ‘apartheid’ – apartness. In German South-West Africa, blacks were forbidden to ride horses, had to salute whites, could not walk on the footpaths, could not own bicycles or go to libraries. In the colony’s rudimentary courts of law, the word of one German was worth the word of seven Africans. Settlers got fined for crimes like murder and rape for which Africans were summarily hanged. As a missionary commented, ‘the average German looks down upon the natives as being about on the same level as the higher primates (baboon being their favourite term for the natives) and treats them like animals.’75The British and the French had made a point of abolishing slavery in their colonies during the nineteenth century. The Germans did not.76

There was only one small problem. The Herero and Nama were not the childlike creatures of racial theory. The Herero were tough herdsmen, skilled at maintaining their cattle in the sparse pastureland that lay between the Namib and Kalahari deserts. The Nama were raiders every bit as skilled as horsemen and marksmen as the Boers to the east.77 Having seen the Dutch and British in action in South Africa, they knew full well what the Germans were up to. The economic position of the Herero had been severely weakened at the turn of the century by a devastating outbreak of rinderpest. As a result, the process of selling land to German settlers was already under way. There was also mounting tension between the Herero and German merchants, whose debt-collection methods were less than subtle.78 But flagrant robbery the Herero were bound to resist, especially after a succession of egregious acts of violence, including the murder (and attempted rape) by a German settler of the daughter-in-law of one of their chiefs.79

It was the forgery by a young district chief lieutenant named Zürn of Herero elders’ signatures on documents setting the boundaries of new native reservations that put the match to the powder keg.80 On 12 January 1904, under the leadership of Samuel Maharero, the Herero rose in rebellion, killing every able-bodied German man they could find in the area around Okahandja, though pointedly sparing women and children. More than a hundred settlers were killed.81 In response, the German Kaiser, William II, sent General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha with instructions to ‘restore order … by all means necessary’. He chose the foulest means at his disposal.

German theorists of colonization already went further than their French or British counterparts when they spoke of the need for ‘actual eradication’ of ‘bad, culturally inept and predatory [native] tribes’. Now Trotha resolved to put this theory into practice. He resolved to use ‘absolute terrorism’ to ‘destroy the rebellious tribes by shedding rivers of blood’.82 In a chilling decree addressed to the Herero, he spelled out in rudimentary Otjiherero what German racial theory meant in practice:

I am the great General of the Germans. I am sending a word to you Hereros, you who are Hereros are no longer under the Germans [that is, are no longer German subjects] … You Hereros must now leave this land, it belongs to the Germans. If you do not do this I shall remove you with the Groot Rohr [big cannon]. A person in German land shall be killed by the gun. I shall not catch women or the sick but I will chase them after their chiefs or I will kill them with the gun.

These are my words to the Herero people.

The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.


The Battle of Hamakari near the Waterberg Plateau on 11 August 1904 was not a battle. It was a massacre. The Herero were concentrated in a large encampment, where, having seen off an earlier German force, they were awaiting peace negotiations. Instead, Trotha encircled them, unleashed a lethal bombardment and proceeded to mow men, women and children down with Maxim guns. As he seems to have intended, the survivors fled into the arid Omaheke desert and, in his words, ‘their doom’. Waterholes on the edge of the desert were tightly guarded. In the words of an official report by the South-West African General Staff: ‘The waterless Omaheke should finish what German guns had started: the extermination of the Herero people.’ Trotha was equally explicit: ‘I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated.’84

The Germans did not just rely on the desert. Herero who had not participated in the uprising were hunted down by ‘Cleansing Patrols’ of settler Schutztruppen, whose motto was ‘clean out, hang up, shoot down till they are all gone’.85 Those not killed on the spot, mostly women and children, were put in five concentration camps. They were later joined by the Nama clans who made the mistake of joining the anti-German revolt and the even bigger mistake of laying down their arms in return for assurances that their lives would be spared. These concentration camps differed from the ones set up by the British in South Africa during the Boer War. There, a guerrilla war was still raging and the intention was to disrupt the Boer lines; the appalling mortality rates were the unintended consequence of abysmal sanitation. In German South-West Africa the war was over and the concentration camps were intended to be death camps. The most notorious was on Shark Island, near Lüderitz.

The camp was located at the far end of the island to maximize its exposure to the wind. Denied adequate shelter, clothing and food, the prisoners were forced to build jetties, standing waist-deep in the ice-cold water. Those who faltered in their labours were mercilessly whipped by the sjambok-wielding guards. A missionary named August Kuhlman visited the island in September 1905. He was horrified to see an exhausted woman fatally shot in the thigh and arm simply for crawling in search of water. Between September 1906 and March 1907, a total of 1,032 out of 1,795 prisoners on Shark Island died. The final mortality rate was close to 80 per cent. Before the uprising, the Herero had numbered 80,000; afterwards only 15,000 remained. There had been 20,000 Nama; fewer than 10,000 were left when a census was conducted in 1911. Only one in ten Nama prisoners survived the camps. With all Herero and Nama land now confiscated, under an imperial decree of December 1905, the number of German settlers trebled to nearly 15,000 by 1913. The surviving Herero and Nama were little better than slave labourers, liable to brutal corporal punishment for the most trivial insubordination.86

Nor did the sufferings of the native peoples of South-West Africa end there. As if obliterating the greater number of them were not sufficient, the Germans inflicted further trials on the Herero and Nama peoples in the name of ‘race hygiene’. At least one doctor conducted lethal experiments on concentration-camp prisoners in South-West Africa. In 1906 as many as 778 autopsies were performed on prisoners for so called racial-biological research. After that, sample skulls were sent back to Germany for further research. Incredibly, female prisoners were forced to scrape the skulls clean with glass shards.87

Dr Eugen Fischer was one of many German scientists intensely interested in the voguish new field of race. Intrigued by what he heard about a mixed-race people in South-West Africa, the Rehoboth Basters, Fischer spent two months in the field measuring them from head to foot and scrutinizing their physiognomies. In 1913 he published his findings, trumpeting them as the first ever attempt to apply to humans the principles of genetic inheritance developed by the Russian Gregor Mendel. ‘The Bastards’, as he called them, were racially superior to pure negroes but inferior to pure whites. There might therefore be a useful role for people of mixed race as colonial policemen or lower officials. But any further racial mixing should be avoided:

We know this absolutely for sure: without exception, any European people … that has absorbed the blood of less valuable races – and only a zealot can deny that blacks, Hottentots and many others are less valuable [than whites] – has paid for this absorption with its spiritual [and] cultural downfall.88

By this time there was already a complex of laws against miscegenation in German South-West Africa.

Not everyone in Germany subscribed to such views. German Socialists and Catholics raised their voices to protest at what was being done in Africa by their supposedly civilized country.89 Even the theorist of colonial economics, Paul Rohrbach, condemned Trotha’s genocidal policy, pointing out that South-West Africa simply could not function without African labour.90 Yet the disturbing question remains. Was South-West Africa the testing site of future, much larger genocides?91 Was it, as Conrad suggested in his novel Heart of Darkness, a case of Africa turning Europeans into savages, rather than Europeans civilizing Africa? Where was the real heart of darkness? In Africa? Or within the Europeans who treated it as a laboratory for a racial pseudo-science that ranks alongside the ideology of communism as the most lethal of all Western civilization’s exports?92

Yet the cruelties inflicted on the Africans were to be avenged in a terrible way. For racial theory was too virulent an idea to be confined to the colonial periphery. As a new century dawned, it came home to Europe. Western civilization was about to encounter its most dangerous foe: itself.

The war that began in 1914 was not a war between a few quarrelling European states. It was a war between world empires. It was a war within Western civilization. And it was the first sign that the West carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. In this war, more than in any previous conflict, the West unleashed its killer applications against itself. The industrial economy supplied the means of mechanized destruction. And modern medicine, too, played its part in the bloody business of total war.

In no theatre were the problems of communication more severe than in Africa and, in the absence of extensive railways and reliable beasts of burden, there was only one solution: men. Over 2 million Africans served in the First World War, nearly all as carriers of supplies, weapons and wounded, and although they were far from the fields of Flanders, these forgotten auxiliaries had as hellish a time as the most exposed front-line troops in Europe. Not only were they underfed and overworked; once removed from their usual locales they were every bit as susceptible to disease as their white masters. Roughly a fifth of all Africans employed as carriers died, many of them the victims of the dysentery that ravaged all colonial armies in the field. In East Africa 3,156 whites in British service died in the line of duty; of these, fewer than a third were victims of enemy action. But if black troops and carriers are included, total losses were over 100,000.93

As we have seen, the familiar rationale of white rule in Africa was that it conferred the benefits of civilization. The war – which was fought in all Germany’s African colonies (Togoland, the Cameroons and East Africa as well as South-West Africa) – made a mockery of that claim. ‘Behind us we leave destroyed fields, ransacked magazines and, for the immediate future, starvation,’ wrote Ludwig Deppe, a doctor in the German East African Army. ‘We are no longer the agents of culture; our track is marked by death, plundering and evacuated villages, just like the progress of our own and enemy armies in the Thirty Years War.’94

For most of the First World War there was a stalemate. As the defenders, whom the French and British had somehow to drive from their entrenched positions on the Western Front, the Germans had the advantage in what amounted to the biggest siege in history. There was a similar impasse on the Trentino and Isonzo Fronts, where the Italians could not dislodge the Austro-Hungarians. The war in the East was much more mobile, but here too the Germans had the upper hand, despite the blunders of their Habsburg allies. Attempts to break the deadlock by opening new fronts – Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia – yielded miserable results. Nor did any wonder weapons materialize in the way that the atomic bomb later would; poison gas was widely used, horrible in its effects, but not decisive; submarines could disrupt Britain’s import trade but not stop it. By the spring of 1917, as the war of attrition ground on, the outlook for France was darkening. Mutiny and revolution in Russia in February had given Germany the prospect of victory on the Eastern Front. The United States, though officially at war with Germany from 6 April, would not be able to play a significant military role on the Western Front for at least six months. And, after the staggering losses suffered at the Battle of Verdun (1916), the French government was deeply concerned about the shortage of men. The limitation of family size had begun earlier in France than elsewhere – perhaps because sex was better understood by French women and contraception more readily available to them – so there were significantly fewer young Frenchmen than Germans. Already by the end of March 1917, some 1.3 million Frenchmen had been killed or taken prisoner. In all, French wartime losses were nearly double those of the British. Roughly one in eight Frenchmen aged between fifteen and forty-nine lost their lives. The ‘blood tax’ – l’impôt du sang – was heavy indeed.

It is easy to forget that France lost two out of three wars against Germany between 1870 and 1940. In 1917 it seemed on the verge of losing the First World War too. Where should France turn to for help? The answer was to Africa. Although, as we have seen, most of them were denied full French citizenship, France’s African subjects were still regarded as eligible to bear arms in the defence of la patrie. Yet everywhere – in Senegal, French Congo, French Sudan, Dahomey and Ivory Coast – Africans declined to answer the call of the motherland. The collective mood was captured by the lament of one mother to a French officer: ‘You have already taken all that I have, and now you are taking my only son.’ Most felt that induction into the army amounted to a sentence of ‘certain death’. The only man who seemed capable of resolving this situation was Blaise Diagne, the first African to have been elected to the French National Assembly. Now, was he willing to return to Senegal as a kind of glorified recruiting sergeant?

Diagne saw the chance to strike a bargain with Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. He insisted that any African who came to fight should be given French citizenship. More hospitals and schools should be built in West Africa. Veteran tirailleurs should be exempt from taxation and receive decent pensions. Diagne cabled his colleagues in Dakar to discourage enlistment if the concessions he demanded were not forthcoming.95

In his maiden speech in the French National Assembly Diagne had said, ‘If we can come here to legislate, we are French citizens, and if we are, we demand the right to serve [in the army] as all French citizens do.’ It was an ingenious appeal to the tradition of the French Revolution, with its ideal of the nation in arms – everyone a citizen with the right to liberty, equality and fraternity, but also with the solemn duty to bear arms for the defence of the nation. Clemenceau was won over: ‘Those who fall under fire fall neither as whites nor as blacks,’ he declared. ‘They fall as Frenchmen and for the same flag.’96

As an incentive to join up, the promise of French citizenship proved startlingly successful. At least 63,000 West Africans answered Diagne’s call, more than twice the number the French had asked for. In all, 164,000 men from French West Africa and Equatorial Africa were combatants in Europe during the war, a substantial part of a half-million strong colonial force drawn from all over the French Empire. As one recruit, Ndematy Mbaye, recalled: ‘He [Diagne] told us that France had entered a war with the Germans. And he said that “You are friends of the Frenchmen. So, when you are friends with someone – when someone has troubles – you have to help them. So, the Frenchmen have asked [you] to come to help them in the war.” ’97 The majority of volunteers were enthusiastic – averring how ‘glad’ they were to serve, how ‘happy’ they were to fight, how ‘proud’ they felt to be in the army. Demba Mboup was among those eager to fight for France:

I was very happy because I didn’t know what the war was really like. So it was a kind of curiosity – to know what the war was about, and about being a soldier … So I was happy [thinking] I was going to discover new experiences. I didn’t know.98

He was to find out soon enough.

His commanding officer General Charles Mangin thought he knew a thing or two about Africans. He had been a member of Marchand’s Fashoda expedition. In 1910, as an ambitious young lieutenant colonel, he and a group of scientists had toured West Africa with orders to increase recruitment. Mangin was familiar with the latest racial science. His survey team, after examining recruits with the full range of pseudo-scientific methods, concluded that, thanks to their supposedly underdeveloped nervous systems, African soldiers would feel less fear and suffer less pain than their European counterparts. They would therefore be exceptionally steadfast under fire. In 1917 Mangin was able to put his theory to the test. Under his leadership, Mboup and his fellow tirailleurs were pitted against perhaps the best-trained soldiers the West has ever produced: the fighting machine that was the imperial German army.

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