Surviving Herero tribesmen after escaping German executioners through the arid desert in German Southwest Africa (circa 1907)

Pre-Nazi Germany’s African genocide was a preview of the Holocaust.

By Edwin Black, Special to the Jewish News

This report is excerpted from an extensive investigation by author and human rights writer Edwin Black. An expanded version can be read online at The author’s website is

In recent years, too many in the African American community have expressed a disconnect to Holocaust topics, seeing the genocide of Jews as someone else’s nightmare.

After all, African Americans are still struggling to achieve general recognition of the barbarity of the Middle Passage, the inhumanity of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow and the battle for modern civil rights.

For many in that community, the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of other Europeans happened to other minorities in a faraway place where they had no involvement.

However, a deeper look shows that proto-Nazi ideology before the Third Reich, the wide net of Nazi-era policy and Hitler’s post-war legacy deeply impacted Africans, Afro-Germans and African Americans throughout the 20th century.

America’s black community has a mighty stake in this topic. Understanding the German Reich and the Holocaust is important for blacks just as it is for other communities, including Roma, Eastern Europeans, people with disabilities, the gay community, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other groups in addition to Jews.

Surviving Herero tribesmen after escaping German executioners through the arid desert in German Southwest Africa (circa 1907)

The dots are well known to many scholars — but rarely connected to form a distinct historical nexus for either the Holocaust or the African American communities.

This is understandable. The saga behind these connections started decades before the Third Reich came into existence, in a savage episode on another continent that targeted a completely different racial and ethnic group for death and destruction.

But the horrors visited on another defenseless group endured and became a template for the Final Solution. Students of the Holocaust are accustomed to looking backward long before the Third Reich and long after the demise of the Nazi war machine. African Americans should do the same.


Colonial Racism

It all begins with the oft-overlooked first genocide of the 20th century. In the second half of the 1800s, Germany suffered massive urban overcrowding due to its shift from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation. As a result, Germany sought lebensraum or “living space.” Africa, with its wide-open areas and rugged, romantic beauty, had long beckoned white Europe.

Beginning in 1884, Germany colonized four territories, but its main coastal presence was in Southwest Africa, now known as Namibia. There, German settlers were able to establish lucrative plantations by exploiting the labor of local Herero and Nama (also known as Hottentot) indigenous peoples.

Berlin dispatched a small military contingent to protect white settlers as they confronted the lightly armed African natives considered untermenschen or “subhuman” in Germany’s twisted notion of racial hierarchy.

Once entrenched, the German minority established a culture of pure labor enslavement. Tribeswomen were subjected to incessant and often capricious rape — and, not infrequently, their men were killed while attempting to defend them. Whites routinely stole the possessions of natives, such as cattle, and found ways to seize ancestral lands over trivialities.

In 1903, on the verge of utter dispossession, Nama warriors revolted against the 2,500-strong white community. Later, Herero fighters joined. Scores of German settlers were massacred in a sequence of surprise attacks.


In 1904, Berlin dispatched 14,000 soldiers to suppress the uprising. Lt. Gen. Lothar von Trotha, supreme commander of German Southwest Africa, was determined to quickly and completely exterminate the African natives, leaving the land free for fulfillment of the German dream of lebensraum.


Mass Murder

After decimating the outclassed fighters, Trotha decided to annihilate the civilians as well. His proclamation to the Hereros and the colonists was an open pledge of extermination, unmistakable to all:

“… 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.”

Understandably, Trotha’s command became known in official circles as a vernichtungsbefehl, that is, an “extermination order.”

Many attempted to flee. But starved of food or water, the desperate and weakened Herero wandered from watering hole to watering hole. Many of these wells were poisoned by the Germans or surrounded by deadly soldiers. Thousands, in family groups, gradually fell dead, their rib cages bulging to the limits of their gaunt and emaciated skins.

Many who did not die quickly enough were seized — still whimpering — and then stacked by soldiers into human heaps atop makeshift pyres comprised of bush branches and limbs. The people mounds of vanquished Hereros, still barely alive and breathing, were set on fire — to finish the business.

For many years, their mass murdered bodies littered the desert in nightmarish aggregations of killed humanity.


Concentration Camps

With the vast majority of the Africans murdered, Berlin rethought the extermination program. What good was maintaining a colony without a local workforce to exploit? Therefore, at some point, those civilian Herero and Nama people and related clans that managed to escape the bullets, cannon shot, killing thirst and fiery execution were rounded up and sent to konzentrationslager or concentration camps.

Many died on the long march. Others were simply transported to serve in cruel bondage for great German industrial concerns, building roads, berms and useful holes for the German infrastructure. One of these camps was the notorious Shark Island Concentration Camp.

For all intents and purposes, Shark Island was considered an “extermination by labor” camp where Nama and Herero civilians, including women and children, were knowingly and methodically worked to death. Investigators estimate the death rate at 90 percent.

Scholars commonly say the Armenian genocide of 1914-1915, perpetrated by the Turks, was the first genocide of the 20th century. That is wrong. History records the first deliberate 20th-century effort to systematically exterminate an entire group was by the Germans in Southwest Africa, 1904-1908.

Many of the veterans of Germany’s Southwest Africa extermination campaign went on to become key Nazi activists or otherwise inspired major figures in the Third Reich. For example, Hermann Goering idolized his father, Heinrich, for his role as governor of Southwest Africa.

In the 1920s, former colonial Trooper Franz Ritter von Epp went on to hire Adolf Hitler, fund the purchase of the Nazi newspaper Volkische Beobachter and, with Ernst Rohm, helped found the Storm Troopers. The Storm Troopers even adopted the desert sand-colored brownshirt uniforms worn by the troops deployed in Africa.


Blacks In Germany

After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of its African colonies, German citizens were shocked to see African soldiers patrolling their streets. It is not widely known that when France occupied post-Great War Germany, it deployed 20,000-40,000 colonial African troops.

The Germans reacted with a bitter national protest movement, imbued with sexual imagery, called “Black Shame on the Rhine.” When a generation of Afro-Germans arose, denigrated by Hitler and the Nazis as “Rhineland Bastards,” they were among the first to be forcibly sterilized.

When the Nazis came to power, like throngs of other loyal Germans, some Afro-Germans tried to join the Nazi Party. Hans Massaquoi, son of a Liberian diplomat and a German woman, was among those who wanted to sign up with his local branch of the Hitler Youth, just like the rest of his schoolmates. Young Hans was astonished to discover that the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, defining German blood and racial status, applied to him — denying him admittance.

His teacher reluctantly told him that joining the Hitler Youth was now impossible. “But I am German,” implored Hans, “my mother says I’m German just like anybody else.” Nearly hysterical, he pressured his incredulous mother to take him to the nearest Hitler Youth recruitment home, where he was roundly told to leave.

From that moment on, Massaquoi learned to live with the twin fears that the Gestapo would knock on his door or that Allied bombs would rain down on his roof. After the war, Massaquoi was able to imigrate to the United States, where he became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Later, Hans became a marcher alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago. In Chicago, he took a job with Jet magazine and then Ebony, where he rose to become the managing editor.


Jews Mentoring Blacks

Ironically, African Americans were impacted beneficially by Nazi policy again in the 1930s when refugee Jewish professors, ousted from their posts in Germany, immigrated to the United States. Some 50 such refugees accepted teaching positions in historically black colleges and universities, helping to mentor the generation that fought the civil rights struggle.

Among the students who credit the inspiration of German-Jewish professors is Joyce Ladner, who went on to organize civil rights protests with Medgar Evers and who would later rise to the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

Ladner’s mentor was Ernst Borinski, a Jewish sociologist who arrived from Germany in 1938 and eventually taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Others include Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who went from being mentored by a German-Jewish professor to a distinguished career in medicine. In 1993, she became surgeon general of the United States.

“The German-Jewish professors had a tremendous impact on young blacks in the South,” summed up African American attorney Jim McWilliams, who attended Talladega College.


U.S. Racial ‘Science’

In the 1940s, when African American soldiers were deployed to Europe, Nazi soldiers who encountered them treated them mercilessly, often committing massacres and war crimes against them when they were POWs.

After the fall of Berlin, returning African American soldiers discovered Nazi racial policy was in force in some 27 U.S. states that had adopted forced sterilization laws based on corrupt German eugenic pseudoscience. Ironically, this race science had been nurtured in America first and then transplanted to Germany.

In American state after state, eugenic boards quoted Nazi race theory and statutes as justification to sterilize blacks and even confine them in camps as a social protective measure. In Connecticut, one state program even sought to implement Nazi-style race-based expulsions and organized euthanasia of those deemed unworthy of life.

We have only begun to chart the impact of German policy on those of African descent. More would be known, but such research remains almost completely unfunded and indeed unsupported. However, this much is certain: All misery bleeds the same color blood. Any man’s persecution should inspire everyman’s crusade. *

 Human rights writer Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, War Against the Weak, and The Farhud. He can be found at