Lothar von Trotha is infamously remembered as the architect of the first genocide of the 20th century, which unfolded in Namibia. Serving as the commander of German forces in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) during the early 1900s, von Trotha led a brutal campaign against the indigenous Herero and Nama peoples. Under his orders, thousands of men, women, and children were mercilessly killed, while many more were subjected to forced labor, internment, human experimentation and unimaginable suffering.
In the late 19th century, the German Empire established its presence in Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia) through colonial expansion. The indigenous populations, primarily the Herero and Nama people, found themselves subjected to harsh German rule, economic exploitation, and the seizure of their lands. The resulting tensions eventually escalated into armed resistance.
To quell the uprisings and solidify German control, German military leaders sought a decisive figure to lead the campaign against the Herero and Nama people. In 1904, General Lothar von Trotha was appointed as the commander of the German forces in Southwest Africa. Von Trotha, who was born on July 3, 1848, in Magdeburg, Prussia, and came from a military family, was known for his strict military discipline and a reputation for ruthlessness, making him a suitable candidate for suppressing the uprisings.
Trotha arrived in South West Africa on 11 June 1904, when the war against the Herero had been raging for five months. The German command up to that time had little success against the Herero guerrilla tactics. Initially, he too suffered losses.
In October 1904, General von Trotha devised a new battle plan to end the uprisings by the Herero. At the Battle of Waterberg, he issued orders to encircle the Herero on three sides so that the only escape route was into the waterless Omaheke-Steppe, a western arm of the Kalahari Desert. The Herero fled into the desert and Trotha ordered his troops to poison water holes, erect guard posts along a 150-mile line and shoot on sight any Herero, be they man, woman or child, who attempted to escape. To make his attitude to the Herero absolutely clear, Trotha then issued the Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order:
The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.
This order marked the beginning of a systematic campaign of extermination.
German forces under von Trotha’s leadership embarked on a brutal scorched-earth policy, burning villages, poisoning wells, and destroying crops, effectively denying the Herero and Nama people access to food, water, and shelter. Forced into the desert, tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people perished from starvation, dehydration, and disease.
The surviving Hereros and Namas were subjected to forced labor, internment, and other forms of mistreatment. Estimates suggest that up to 80% of the Herero population and 50% of the Nama population perished during this genocide.
In the aftermath of the genocide, von Trotha was recalled from Southwest Africa in 1905 due to concerns over his extreme tactics. According to Professor Mahmood Mamdani from Columbia University, opposition to the policy of annihilation was largely the consequence of the fact that colonial officials looked at the Herero people as a potential source of labour, and thus economically important.
Despite the horrors he orchestrated, von Trotha was seen as a hero by many Germans at the time. On 2 November 1905, he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the highest military honors in Germany, for his services in Africa. This accolade further highlighted the acceptance and glorification of the near extermination of the Herero people within German society.
In Von Trotha’s absence, the Shark Island concentration camp, which he helped establish, continued to serve as a concentration camp where thousands of Herero and Nama prisoners were detained. Conditions at Shark Island were deplorable, with overcrowded and unsanitary living quarters, insufficient food, and brutal treatment.
The inmates of shark island concentration camp were subjected to forced labor and brutalization by the soldiers, while German scientist, Dr. Eugene Fisher, conducted unethical medical experiments on the imprisoned Hereros and Nama people. Fisher’s research focused on racial differences and aimed to validate his theories of the supposed inferiority of non-European peoples.
With the closure of concentration camps in 1907, all surviving natives were distributed as labourers for settlers in the German colony. From that time on, all Herero over the age of seven were forced to wear a metal disc with their labour registration number, and banned from owning land or cattle, a necessity for pastoral society.
Von Trotha’s Later Life:
Lothar von Trotha’s later life was marked by a decline in influence and reputation. After his recall from Africa, he retired from the military and spent his remaining years in relative obscurity. Von Trotha died of typhoid fever on 31 March 1920 in Bonn, Germany
In 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the massacres in Namibia as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of South West Africa, making it one of the earliest cases of genocide in the 20th century, preceding the Holocaust by several decades.
Despite the scale of the atrocities committed by von Trotha and his forces, and the United Nations Whitaker Report, there has been a long history of denial and lack of recognition from the German government.
However, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the genocide and calls for reparations and apology from Germany. In 2021, Germany officially recognized the events as genocide and entered into negotiations with the Namibian government to address the historical injustice. A reparation agreement was reached, including financial support for development projects in the affected communities and an apology from Germany.