Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The First Holocaust

What worldview assumptions would lead people to do what Kaiser Wilhelm II did in the 1880s in Africa, and what are the intellectual seeds of those assumptions? Here's the story:
[T]here was a holocaust under the Second Reich of the Kaiser just as there was one under the Third Reich of Hitler. You may not have heard of the Herero and Nama peoples. This is not surprising; the Kaiser almost succeeded in removing them from the face of Earth.

The tragic story of Kaiser Wilhelm II's holocaust against the Herero and Nama begins in 1883 when the German flag was raised on the coast of South-West Africa, the first conquest of Germany's African empire.

Deutsch-Sudwestafrika (now Namibia) was more than a place in the sun, it was a testing ground for Lebensraum, the German word for living space. The Lebensraum policy of expansion was advocated by the 19th-century German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who distorted Darwin's theory of evolution to proclaim that migration was necessary for a race's survival.
Whether this was a distortion of Darwinian theory or a reasonable inference deduced from it can be debated, but the main point is that Darwin taught, and many subsequent intellectuals believed, that every species is in competition for resources and thus for survival. If one accepts this then it seems reasonable to conclude that the "evolutionary imperative" of survival of the most biologically fit would entail that one is justified in seizing resources from competitors and eliminating the competition where possible.
It was a policy later adopted by the Nazi Party, but back in the 19th century an uncrowded "New Germany" was to be created on African soil. The seizure of land from the Herero and Nama peoples was conveniently alibied by their "inferior" racial status.

The Herero and Nama were not "savages", indeed many Nama were the mixed-race, Christian offspring of earlier Dutch settlers.

After two decades of having their cattle and land stolen by German immigrants the Herero, under their chief Samuel Maharero, revolted. The Berlin government accordingly dispatched Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha and 14,000 soldiers to the insurgent colony in 1904. General Trotha's task was more than subduing the Herero insurrection. He was to conduct a "racial struggle" against them. Trotha announced his programme with chilling clarity: "I believe that the nation [the Herero] as such should be annihilated. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain."

After beating the Herero in the battle of Waterberg, Trotha drove the survivors into the pitiless Omaheke desert with the intention they should die from thirst and starvation. Waterholes were poisoned by "cleansing patrols" of the Schutztruppe, the colonial army, to prevent the Herero from using them.

In Berlin the German general staff publicly lauded Trotha for his "extermination" measures. By 1905 Herero fugitives still alive in the Omaheke were too weak to do anything but surrender. They were rounded up, put into cattle wagons and sent by train to concentration camps, where they became slave labour for the colony's new railways.

Women were systematically raped by Schutztruppen, the incidents turned into photographs by the new-fangled Kodak roll-fill camera. The pictures were then sent as pornographic postcards to Germany.

Food was so scarce in the concentration camps that, according to a witness, when rations were distributed, "prisoners fought like wild animals and killed each other to secure a share". Inmates died in nightmarish numbers; after two years the main concentration camp at windswept Shark Island near Luderitz was obliged to close; most of its inhabitants had perished. Even the German soldiers called Shark Island "The Death Camp".

A sane wing of the German establishment, including the chancellor Bernhard von Bulow, tried to stop the outrages as "contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle". Bulow was also aware that the genocide was damaging to Germany's international reputation. The Daily Express was one of the many British papers that gave the "war" against the Herero coverage.

Not until 1907 did domestic and international pressure succeed in making the Kaiser call off the holocaust. By then the Herero population had gone from 100,000 to 15,000 and half of the 10,000-strong Nama had been killed.
When men see each other as nothing more than the products of blind, impersonal nature, when they see life as a struggle for the survival of the fittest, when they no longer believe that each human being is created in the image of God because they no longer believe in God - or have a distorted concept of God - it's easy to see other races as inferior and it's easy to justify killing them.

It was a distorted concept of God (and of one's duty to God) that led to the Spanish atrocities against the Indians in Central America in the 16th century and at least some of the severe treatment of Indians in North America in the 19th century. It was also a distorted concept of God that allowed the consciences of slave traders and North American slave owners alike to remain untroubled about treating members of other races like livestock. And it was the complete lack of belief in God, added to the belief that man is engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival and the belief that the fittest will prevail in that struggle, that led to the horrific exterminations of the twentieth century, not just those conducted by the Nazis, but those perpetrated by Stalin against the Ukrainians, by the Japanese against the Chinese in Nanking, by Mao against his own people in the Cultural Revolution, by Pol Pot against his own people in Cambodia, by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda, and many other similar horrors throughout what was surely the bloodiest century in human history.

Ideas have consequences. The ideas of 19th century materialism - the idea that there's no objective ground for morality, that we're not essentially different from other animals in nature, and that nature is "red in tooth and claw" - provided the philosophical pretext for historically unprecedented mass exterminations in the twentieth century to which Kaiser Wilhelm's genocide in South West Africa was just a prelude.