The first genocide of the 20th century

Europe struggles to atone for its colonial evils

Anti-populist minoritarian denialists for whataboutism

I learned another new word this week. Well, I’m always learning new words in Turkish – this one is English, my native language, in which I consider myself to have a pretty extensive vocabulary. What’s the word? Whatboutism

-ism/-ist are very useful suffixes in English. You attach them to the end of a noun or adjective and suddenly you have a belief system, usually with negative connotations, implying a fanatical adherence to a set of principles often justifying violence to those not belonging to the group; or at the very least, defending an indefensible point-of-view.

Examples: Communism, capitalism, Nazism, fundamentalist, evangelism, extremist, Islamist, Marxist, and so on.

In recent years, the following have become popular.

denialist/ism –people who think they have the right to deny something I am accusing them of. Implication? These people should just shut up and admit they are wrong and I am right!

majoritarianism –the mistaken belief that winning an election allows the elected party to get on with the job of governing a country. Implication? Even though my party of choice was unsuccessful, I still want things to be done my way.

populism/ist –a pejorative term applied by the losers to the winners of an election, even when, as in the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Big DT was only supported by 26% of eligible voters.

And now we have whataboutism– a debating technique allowing the user to accuse me of any and every evil deed, while denying me the right to point out that other people (or countries) are guilty of equal or often worse crimes.

Thanks toThe Washington Post for publishing the following account of the 20th century’s first genocide – will someone please bring it to the attention of Pope Francis, when he has time to spare from defending his cardinals against the victims of child abuse and pedophilia.

germany-namibia-herero-skulls.width-800At a handover ceremony held in a Berlin church on Wednesday, Namibian officials received the remains of indigenous people killed in their country by German forces more than a century ago. The grisly contents included 19 skulls, a scalp and bones belonging to five skeletons, all of which had been housed for decades on dusty shelves in German universities and museums.

kaiser_main_1695446fThe remains are a visceral link to a hideous past — what many historians recognize as the first genocide of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1908, colonial forces in what was then German South West Africa carried out the widespread massacre of Herero and Nama tribespeople. Estimates suggest as many as 80 percent of the nomadic Herero tribe — believed to number around 100,000 a century ago — perished, either killed by German soldiers or left to die of thirst and starvation in the desert.

In October 1904, Lothar von Trotha, the German commander in Namibia, delivered his infamous “extermination” order, dictating that “every Herero, with or without rifles, with or without cattle, will be shot.” The following year, he issued a similar warning concerning the Nama; some 10,000 are believed to have been killed.

The violence and indignity did not end there. Moved by the racist eugenics of the time, German authorities shipped thousands of skulls and other body parts of the aboriginal dead back to Europe. The specimens were subjected to studies that formed the basis for now-discredited theories of European racial superiority.

dsc_6574-2.jpgMany of the skulls belonged to tribesmen left to die in squalid concentration camps in the desert; their bodies were beheaded. In some instances, according to a 2011 article in Der Spiegel, widows were ordered to use shards of glass to scrape the flesh off their husbands’ heads so as to better prepare the skulls for transport.

The vileness of these acts is part and parcel of a far broader history. The Germans were hardly alone in slaughtering local populations or hoarding the body parts of slain natives. Myriad museums, clinics and universities in Europe still house remains of colonized peoples, who were sometimes killed explicitly for the purpose of augmenting these morbid collections.

Many Herero in Namibia are awaiting a formal German apology for the genocide of their ancestors. Officials in Berlin committed in 2016 to extending an apology, but they are still in negotiations with the Namibian government over the wording of an official statement. Analysts say the German government doesn’t want to commit to an apology that could make it liable for reparations.

c2bc3439f9145394b389693d4aeed376b3c08e71054d5122a452992bf4fd8b2bOn Wednesday, Michelle Müntefering, the minister of state at the German foreign office, said that “Germany is firmly committed to its historic responsibility” and asked the Namibian delegation for “forgiveness,” but stopped short of an official apology.

European governments are notoriously averse to offering formal apologies, while the right-wing populists ascendant in countries such as France, Britain and Germany — inflamed by various forms of imperial nostalgia — decry the supposed shame complexes of the left. Germany’s far-right AfD has even urged its compatriots to get over their “guilt cult” about Nazi-era crimes.

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3 thoughts on “The first genocide of the 20th century

  1. Thanks for talking about this genocide. I didn’t find out about this atrocity until last year when I first heard about Namibia suing the German government and trying to retrieve the skulls. Doing my own research and seeing the BBC documentary about this subject, my blood boiled hearing about all of this brutality that went on. There were a number of Germans responsible for the Namibian Genocide who would eventually be involved in the Holocaust. One person who partook in what happened in Africa is General von Epp who used to be Hitler’s boss before he went into politics. Hitler himself even said that von Epp “helped give him his voice”. Let THAT sink in. My heart also broke when I found out about Shark Island as the Namibians were annexed from their communities and got starved out. Seeing the imagery of this desert island with those bones around the place because of starvation made me wonder if Disney was inspired by this to make the Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King (when they weren’t ripping off Kimba the White Lion) as a proxy for wish fulfilling of torturing and vilifying Black people in a G-rated context. I’m glad some more people are bringing this part of history to life. Never forget.

    • I appreciate your feedback, and the additional information you provide. There’s an awful lot of selective morality and one-sided history circulating out there. Some countries and religions like to loudly condemn others in an attempt to blind us to their own evil activities.

      • No problem, Jack. It’s a shame that there are several people who still don’t know about that genocide. I didn’t know it until a few months ago. It’s certainly the historical equivalent of protagonist centered morality where the colonizers paint themselves as the good guys and that one-sided narrative is very damaging as much as it is fallacious. That’s certainly true. Pardon the Biblical reference, but it’s certainly a case of those countries and religions pointing specks in other’s eyes while ignoring the planks on their own. Thank you.

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