Recently, Pope Francis caused a major diplomatic incident with remarks he made about the Armenian Genocide during a mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Turkey, which has long maintained that the deaths of Armenians during WWI were a tragic accident of war and not an intentional slaughter of an ethnic group, has withdrawn its ambassador to the Vatican in protest, referring to the Pope’s statement as both unacceptable and inaccurate.
From an academic perspective, there is little controversy in calling the slaughter of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire genocide. However, the Pope’s statement did contain one important inaccuracy: he referred to the Armenian Genocide as “the first genocide of the twentieth century.” This statement, which was a quote from a declaration made in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, unfortunately erases a very important genocide that had happened roughly a decade prior to the Armenian Genocide, that of the Herero and Nama peoples in what is now called Namibia, by German colonial authorities.
Namibia was Germany’s first colony, acquired in 1883 and known as German South West Africa until 1915. It was under German rule that an estimated 40,000-70,000 Herero and 6,000-7,000 Nama living in colonial Namibia were killed by the state.
In 1904, the Germans brutally suppressed an uprising by the Herero, after which they proceeded to kill between 50% to 80% of the Herero population. Unarmed men, women and children who fled the Germans were shot and bayoneted if captured, with the remainder deliberately forced out into the Kalahari desert to die and the few survivors held in concentration camps.
This mass murder of the Herero was the result of a deliberate policy by the Germans. After defeating the Herero at the Battle of Waterberg, German General von Trotha announced an explicit genocide program against the Herero:
“I will annihilate the rebelling tribes with rivers of blood and rivers of gold. Only after a complete uprooting will something new emerge.”
The same general later announced publicly that any Herero found within German territory would be executed, including women and children. According to German authorities, women and children were a threat because they were diseased, although this didn’t stop German soldiers from engaging in mass rape. The Herero were not even safe once they reached the desert. Instead they were harassed by troops and pushed deeper into the desert and their water holes plugged.
Following the defeat of the Herero, the Nama people initiated hostilities against the Germans, in part because they believed they would likely be the next target of the German state. General von Trotha called for the Nama to surrender, invoking the Herero:
“The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in the German area will be shot, until all are exterminated. Those who, at the start of the rebellion, committed murder against whites or have commanded that whites be murdered have, by law, forfeited their lives. As for the few not defeated, it will fare with them as it fared with the Herero, who in their blindness also believed that they could make successful war against the powerful German Emperor and the great German people. I ask you, where are the Herero today?”
Ultimately, the Germans defeated the Nama. Like the Herero, the few who weren’t killed were sent to concentration camps.
The first German concentration camps were in colonial Namibia and according to UCLA historian Benjamin Madley‘s research, their construction introduced the German word for concentration camp – Konzentrationslager – into the German language. Shark Island was the deadliest of these camps; of the 3500 people sent there, only 193 left when the camp closed in 1907. In Madley’s article titled, “From Africa to Auschwitz,” he wrote:
“Rape, malnutrition, beatings, inadequate housing, and minimal medical care in the face of typhus outbreaks destroyed the minds and ultimately the bodies of African inmates. Others were simply executed.”
To the extent to which people in the West discuss the Herero genocide (even fewer remark on the great loss to the Nama peoples), it is as a precursor to the Holocaust. There are a number of disturbing parallels here, including, as Olusoga and Erichsen list in their book The Kaiser’s Holocaust, “concentration camps, the bureaucratization of killing, meticulous record-keeping of death tolls and death rates, the use of work as a means of extermination, civilians transported in cattle trucks then worked to death, their remains experimented upon by race scientists, and the identification of ethnic groups who had a future as slaves and those who had no future of any sort.”
Multiple studies by historians marshal evidence directly connecting colonization and genocide in German South West Africa as a “crucial precursor” to Nazi plans to conquer and settle Eastern Europe and exterminate Gypsies and Jews. The colonial campaigns against the Herero and Nama incubated ideas later used by Nazi forces, including defining the conflict as a race war, articulating a strategy of annihilation, murdering prisoners of war and civilians, and political rhetoric that employed public health rationalization for committing mass murder.
While it is important to understand the connections and relationships between different genocides, this framing situates the deaths of Africans as important ONLY as a foreshadowing of the future deaths of Europeans rather than as a horrible tragedy in its own right.
A long history of failing to regard the loss of African lives as equally significant may also be responsible for the fact that so few people know about the genocides of the Herero and Nama, including, it seems, even the pontiff himself. The pope’s omission of these genocides, and the failure of his staff to catch it, is part of an unfortunate pattern in the west of paying attention to histories of violence performed against people in Europe, while ignoring mass violence committed by colonial authorities against non-white people. The incident is an illustration of a broader question about differential valuing of life. Though the context is in historical Africa, the issue resonates with the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States.
Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the department of international-security studies at the Air War College, in Montgomery, Alabama. Though he studies coups, this isn’t the first time he’s written about the pope. The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Defense Department.