An Island of Death, a System of Destruction

Research Question:  To what extent did the Second Reich’s colonial activities in South West Africa influence Nazi ideology?

Examination Session: May 2015


This essay shall examine in detail the leading figures and events involved in the build up, execution and consequences of the 1905 Herero and Nama Genocide, while contrasting the beliefs and attitudes these represented with the Nazi ideology that appeared in Germany 30 years later, in the hope of forming connections that will the following research question “To what extent did the Second Reich’s colonial activities in South West Africa influence Nazi ideology?” This essay therefore examines the rise of Nazism detailed in the IB history syllabus from an alternative angle, with the aim of correcting commonly asserted misapprehensions regarding the origins of Nazism in post World War One Germany.

The research within this essay is mostly qualitative research originating from a range of secondary sources. A number of restrictions prevented the usage of primary sources: the geographical displacement of the object of study from the region of writing and the scarcity of primary sources at all, many being destroyed in attempted cover-ups perpetrated by the German government in subsequent years. Nevertheless, this essay shall include some photographs to provide (somewhat limited) visual evidence of the events being described. Similarly, there is a relative scarcity of quantitative data for analysis; nevertheless, this essay shall include data from what records were kept by the colonial Germans. It remains, however, that various secondary sources such as academic essays, journals and popular historical books account for the majority of research within this essay.


Using this research and the above method of comparing and contrasting in the search for connections, this essay shall argue that the origins of the Nazi ideology can be found far earlier than the aftermath of the First World War, as is commonly held, instead finding key influences in the colonial attitudes of the German Empire.

Word Count: 296 words


Today we consider the origins of Nazism, historically one of the most extreme and controversial political systems ever,[1] to be a fact. The general perception is and has been for decades[2] that Nazism rose from the ashes of post-World War One Germany.[3] Many “textbook” historians argue that the First World War destroyed Germany’s political order,[4] allowing new brands of politics to be given free reign to develop and grow.[5] This, subject to the extreme economic and social pressures of the time,[6] would then give rise to extremist parties, most notably the National Socialist (Nazi) party.[7] The question remains, however, whether such a clear divide between the fall of the Second Reich and the rise of political extremism in Germany can be made. Can we justifiably state that, during the rule of the Second Reich, National Socialist beliefs or tendencies were entirely absent? Is it possible that an entirely new political ideology could spring into being influenced only by the discontent of a defeated people in 1918?[8] This essay shall attempt to disprove this view by examining one of the most controversial events in the Second Reich’s history[9] and through this we will try to find possible observable links between the ideologies of the Second and Third Reich, thus showing how the deeds of the Second Reich may have been responsible for the development of Nazi ideology. The Namibian Genocide of 1905, although mostly unknown to the wider public,[10] is the event in question, as it portrays to us a historical instance where the Second Reich not only closely resembles, but also appears to directly influence the Third Reich’s ideologies.[11] Thus, by examining various different aspects of this genocide and recognising similarities to this within Nazi ideology, we shall uncover the various influences that the Genocide may have had on future Nazi generations. These findings shall be evidenced primarily by the various historical literature published on the subject, but shall also seek to employ some limited aid from a number of archival photographs and statistics. Finally, due to the limited length of this essay, certain vagueness, especially when drawing connections and conclusions, is unfortunately inevitable. Nevertheless, this essay shall attempt to present a convincing, if not complete, argument shedding light on some of the unknown[12] origins of Nazism.


There are two main reasons why this topic is extremely important. First, by examining the events in Namibia in 1905, we are examining events in history that have, appallingly, been widely forgotten.[13] Colonial history, especially colonial history in Africa, is littered with such occurrences where we witness the merciless exploitation of colonial powers.[14] Nevertheless, such events remain widely unknown to the greater public: they aren’t taught in schools, nor are they widely discussed in public or historical forums, despite the grave questions regarding our own heritage that these events pose.[15] Part of this “amnesia” is conscious, with former colonial powers seeking to avoid political embarrassment and responsibility,[16] another part is simply a subconscious amnesia caused by not caring about “different” peoples.[17] Nevertheless, it is crucial to negate this wilful ignorance and, in doing so, comprehend the dangers and warnings these events convey,[18] something that this essay shall attempt to do. Secondly, this essay is important as it tries to dispel a popular historical myth that is also implicitly taught formally in school.[19] This myth regarding the origins of Nazism stemming from 1918 onwards fails to recognize the continuity of history as it creates a conceived, non-existent divide between purported eras.[20] This essay shall attempt to demonstrate how history, especially the history of ideas, is a continuous evolution as the beliefs and actions of the past influence those of the future,[21] hence disproving such a clear definition regarding the origins of Nazism. Therefore this essay shall implicitly try to establish two hugely important historical cornerstones. First, it shall exhibit how History develops from past, to present and then through to the future and second, this essay shall try to counter the general amnesia that attempts to render important travesties, such as the Namibian Genocide, to the dustbin of history.[22] All this is important, as it allows us to re-evaluate our view and understanding of history, both specifically (to Namibia) and generally.


The primary aim of this essay is to recognise similarities between the Namibian Genocide of 1905 and Nazi political ideals. We shall attempt to do this by examining three key areas present within this field of study and what similarities can be seen between these areas and Nazi attitudes and beliefs. We will then evaluate, for each of these fields of historical observation, to what extent these similarities could prove to have been influences on the creators of Nazi doctrine in 1918/19. These three fields are as follows: First, we shall examine the causes of both the Genocide and German colonization of Southwest Africa in itself.  Next, we shall examine the characters involved with the genocide so as to see whether any physical links can be drawn between the dramatis personae in Namibia and those of the early Nazi party. Finally, we shall examine the execution of the Genocide itself, the attitudes that created it and the beliefs, tools and techniques that it gave birth to, to see whether the Namibian Genocide helped build the foundations of the methods and institutions central to the Nazi state. Then, we shall conduct a criticism of the discussed evidence with the aim of evaluating how far these connections can be trusted, in the process seeking to introduce some counter-claims. In sum these steps explicitly seek to provide a defensible answer to the central research question.


Before we can seek to establish influences of Nazi ideology in the Namibian Genocide, we must first be able to define what Nazi ideology is. This is not as easy as it seems.[23] To paraphrase Camus, the Nazi movement was an irrational terror in that it chose to deify the senseless and base itself on near absolute nihilism.[24] This complicates matters, as due to this irrational negation characterising the gang rule of the Nazi party,[25] extricating some form of coherent political philosophy from this is made manifold times more difficult by the internal contradictions rife within the party itself.[26] Nevertheless, a number of characteristics remain recognizable. First, the Lebensraum policies that preached the imperialistic expansion of German territory.[27] Second, principles regarding scientific racial superiority, inextricably linked with the idea of the German Volk, played a prominent role.[28] Finally, and particularly pertinent even today, the elevation of mass killings to an industrial scale, bureaucratically run and mechanically executed,[29] which proved to be one of the most controversial cornerstones of Nazi ideology.[30]

Importance of Ideology

Why is ideology important? Why do we care so much about immaterial ideas that society has? Ideas, especially regarding how society should be (the basis of ideology itself) provide a framework for the functioning of society.[31] Ideology thus dictates our attitudes towards society and hence the nature of the decisions society makes politically and socially.[32] Therefore, the study of ideology relates closely to understanding the reasons for human behaviour,[33] which proves central to our essay, which seeks to examine how and why our reasons for behaviour changed through history for the worse.

Evaluation of Sources

The secondary documents used consist of various popular history books, such as Olusoga’s “A Kaiser’s Holocaust” and academic papers published on the subject. They all originate at least 40 years past the occurrences, which proves valuable in that it allows for the advantages of retrospect and the examination of a greater context, yet the origins are also limiting in that the accounts cannot be informed based on the mood at the time. Additionally, the fact these interpretations are made by historical experts within the field implies a reliability of the knowledge presented. These secondary documents purport to objectively inform on the subject; hence they are not prone to substantial biases. On the other hand, popular history books may, in seeking accessibility of material, oversimplify events, whilst academic papers, in trying to prove their argument, might be selective in their evidence.

The primary documents used entail letters sent between German commanders, photographs, speeches and opinion columns. They all originate from the time of these events, meaning they are valuable as they prove insights into the moods and emotions, intangible in future accounts, of the time. They are limited however by their more restricted scope and context, especially photographs portraying only a single instance, as well as not benefiting from the relative clarity of retrospect. These documents often seek to convince, meaning that they are biased and thus provide a limiting view. Conversely, photographs are valuable, as their purpose is to portray to reality, effectively making them immune to bias and thus valuable. Photographers may, however be selective or manipulative in their photos, hence limiting their value once again.

Volk and Raum

Examining the Second Reich’s colonization of South West Africa, we observe some interesting attitudes and beliefs. The main cause of Germany’s expansion into Africa was the perceived prestige that this gave the German nation.[34] To quote Wilhelm II, the German imperialist expansion would allow Germany to “take its place in the sun.”[35] Despite initial opposition to the colonialist movement by some sectors of the German government, most notably by Bismarck,[36] the public furore caused by pro-colonialist propaganda and urgings of other political segments spurred Germany to colonize the parts of Africa not already claimed by the other European powers.[37] The inhospitable South West was one such part of Africa.[38] This is the standardised, textbook justification for German imperialism. In fact, more intriguing causes of German expansionism emerge, when we consider the period in detail. During the 1870s through to the 1890s, Germany experienced a huge boom in its urban population.[39] Despite rapid construction, German cities had run out of room, with several families crowded into an apartment designed for one throughout Berlin.[40] Repeated failure of municipal planners to cope with this growth led to the Germans becoming known as the “Volk ohne Raum” (people without space).[41] Consequently, many corners of German society began to see colonies as the ideal solution to this issue: the German people would colonize the wild frontier, affording themselves room to live, or, in German, Lebensraum.[42] This word would later come to represent the Nazi expansionist policies that aimed to do the exact same as those of the Second Reich: to create more space for the German people to live.[43] Thus we already see a continuity regarding imperialist expansionism being a necessary solution to overcrowding within Germany proper, which has been passed from the Second Reich to the Third.  A second justification for the colonization for Africa also reveals a perturbing link to Nazism. During the mid-19th Century, Charles Darwin shocked the world with his theories on evolution.[44] Many, especially amongst the politically elite, chose to warmly embrace these new ideas.[45] A number of Darwin’s contemporaries, however, chose to take his theories beyond certain limits that he had set upon himself. Notably, Ernst Haeckl chose to write books attempting to apply Darwin’s theories upon societal evolution.[46] Thus a new wave of “scientifically proven” racism was born. Men who lived in slums or were brutally oppressed were dismissed as merely those who had failed to adapt.[47] The concept of “survival of the fittest” was applied to human history, justifying one race that chose to eradicate another race as being simply fitter to survive and therefore, by nature, justified in their actions.[48] He argued that it was fair game for Europeans to wipe out native Africans, as this was a natural phenomenon justified by Darwin’s theories.[49] Haeckl, along with numerous other German intellectuals, came to the conclusion that it was Africa’s destiny to be subjugated by the racially superior white people.[50] Thus we see that through the birth Social Darwinism and its related racism came the justifications both for colonization and genocide that would be implemented both in Africa by the Second Reich, but also in Europe by the Third Reich, whose Herrenmensch and Untermensch racial distinctions served as justification for the elimination of all Jews, Slavs and others.[51] An uncanny resemblance is thus seen between the birth of Social Darwinism and the justifications for genocide given by the Nazi regime, implying that these justifications were indeed inspired by the Second Reich’s social interpretations of Darwinism.


Not all influences are of an immaterial nature. Although it is true that historical ideas do tend to influence subsequent policies, other, subtler influences may in fact be more direct in nature. One particularly interesting influence on the formation of the Nazi state was various people present at the time. Many of the central dramatis personae present during the Namibian genocide were involved in or witness to the various beliefs, attitudes and methods at work during this period. Foremost amongst these was General Franz von Epp, who had served in the wars with the Herero and Nama that had most directly caused the subsequent genocide.[52] Dispatched to Namibia by General von Schlieffen to fight the Herero,[53] Epp was in many ways a model Nazi. He was an advocate of racial and social Darwinist theories, as well as a battle-hardened soldier and viewed the war against the Herero, not to mention the subsequent genocide, as a racial crusade aiming to secure Lebensraum for the German Volk.[54] Upon his return to Germany and following the end of the First World War, Epp became the leader of his own mercenary group, known as the Freikorps.[55] Charismatic and experienced, Epp would have a crucial influence on Hitler and the Nazis. First, Epp’s deputy, Ernst Röhm, an idealist of Epp’s ilk,[56] would become, through extensive dealings with Hitler, a cornerstone of Hitler’s rise to power utilising Epp’s influence to form the Nazi’s paramilitary wing (the SA).[57] Additionally, Epp provided Röhm with the security to choose which Freikorps Brigades to finance and equip, thus allowing Röhm to maneuver and gain Hitler a better political foothold.[58] Epp remained a benefactor of the Nazi party throughout the 20s and 30s, even supplying them with a newspaper that would remain a propaganda tool through to 1945.[59] Although he had become marginal by 1939, Epp and, crucially the connections he had established throughout the extreme right wing during his time in Africa, had allowed the Nazi party to develop smoothly in its early stages.[60] Although there seems at this stage very little connection here with political ideology, one does well to remember that many soldiers who had previously served in Namibia initiated this process.[61] Thus, many actors, not least von Epp, but also personas such as Maercker and Erhardt, who would become involved with the Nazi party, had prior experience of death camps, systematic extermination and racially motivated policies.[62] It’s easy to recognise that this continuity between the characters involved and indoctrinated in Namibia and those involved during the early development of the Nazi party would help establish and influence the racially motivated policies that would characterize National Socialism and that had already characterized the Namibian Genocide.

Concentration and Extermination

Most notable of the Namibian Genocide was the usage of concentration camps. These camps, most famously used by the Nazis during the Second World War,[63] were also implemented to devastating effect in Namibia. The British in the Boer War first used the concentration camp, where a group of targeted people are confined to a prison-like compound.[64] The German concentration camps served both as a prison and as a work camp, exploiting the labour of the captives brought in by the German army.[65] What distinguished the German concentration camp from its predecessors was that it was not implemented as a military strategy, but instead was first introduced following the defeat of the Herero to the Germans, as a means of pacifying what remained of the Herero population.[66] Already we see a similarity to Nazi Germany. Just as Windhoek concentration camp sought to oppress the surviving Herero, so was the Dachau concentration camp used as a means of political oppression in 1933.[67] The conditions within these camps also distinctly resemble those found within Nazi Germany. Photographs showing malnutrition, insufficient clothing and hard labour[68] explain outbreaks of disease and shockingly high mortality rates.[69] Prisoners in Swakopmund were not expected to last longer than 10 months, with most dying within the first 6 months.[70] Nor were these camps the products of some rogue colonial official. An officially stamped death register for the Swakopmund camp and a secret report commissioned by the top officials of the colonial commission investigating the mortality rate indicate that some of the senior-most officials of the German Empire knew of the brutality of these concentration camps,[71] yet failed to act, implying a conscious acceptance of these camps. Following the revolt of the Nama people in 1904,[72] one concentration camp became still more extreme. Set off the coast of Lüderitz, Shark Island quickly became the most feared place in Southwest Africa.[73] The use of force, beatings and public executions on Shark Island far exceeded the norm.[74] Indeed, the activities of guards, shooting or flogging exhausted female and child prisoners who stopped working reminds one of the behaviour of Nazi guards in Auschwitz.[75] In 1905, over 2000 Nama were added to Shark Island, overpopulating it dramatically.[76] No successful moves were made to improve conditions for this influx, leading to mortality rates of over 70%, far exceeding any other concentration camp.[77] The inmates were also systematically overworked, with an initial labour force of 1600 working on Lüderitz harbour dropping to a mere 50 within a year.[78] Clearly, German officials had no interest in sustainable slave labour, seeking to instead work the inmates to death. Although such innovations as gas chambers[79] were absent from the Namibian concentration camps, it is nevertheless startling how much they align with the Nazi model. The essential goal of extermination remained the same, as did the methods of forced labour and extreme punishment. Once reports reached Germany of Shark Island, nicknamed Death Island, the left-wing parliamentarian Georg Lebedor labelled the entire movement as “a war of extermination”.[80] Further similarities between Shark Island and the Nazi death camps abound: Dead bodies were either buried in mass graves or left to rot;[81] Body parts, notably brains and skulls, were shipped to Germany as scientific and decorative objects.[82] Racial scientist Bofinger, similar to Dr Mengele, tested his racial scientific theses on live inmates.[83] This host of similarities cannot be a coincidence. The fact that top German imperial officials would carry out such gruesome acts with the aim of extermination, then repeat the process four decades later implies a racial culture amongst the German colonialist elite, both in their methodology of concentrated and systematic killing and within their intent of genocide. Thus we see how Shark Island had served, in the eyes of the experienced Nazi elite, as a model that they could then “perfect”[84] and was therefore a huge influence on the development of Nazi ideology regarding methods of colonization and extermination.


We have made some few connections between the 1905 Namibian genocide and Nazi ideology. It would be tempting to instantly conclude that the Second Reich’s colonial attitudes had a resounding influence upon the development of Nazi idealism and on the development of the Party itself. This, however, would neglect to consider two crucial criticisms of our above analysis. First, by focusing so heavily on two distinct historical eras, those of the Nazi period and of Namibian Genocide, we risk overlooking the broader context of the period itself.[85] We have touched in detail upon the colonial atrocities of Germany, but to presume that Germany was alone in conducting such racially motivated evils would be incorrect. Famously recounted in Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”, Belgian colonialists in the Congo mercilessly worked thousands of natives to death in their ambition for the production of rubber.[86] The death toll far exceeded that in Namibia, whilst the justifications for these atrocities remained the same: racial concepts of “natural” superiority and dominance.[87] And yet, how come, if this culture of racism was also so prevalent in Belgium, did it not have an extremist influence upon domestic politics, such as the Nazis in Germany? This would indicate our argumentation is flawed: it fails to explain why colonial policies would have a larger domestic influence in Germany compared to other exploitative colonial powers of the time. The problem with this criticism is that it ignores some crucial distinctions. Germany pursued a racial crusade of extermination – genocide – not exploitation, such as occurred in the Congo.[88] Additionally, the political vacuum of the abdicated Kaiser provided the ideal conditions for these colonialist ideals to gain a foothold in politics,[89] whereas Belgium retained its monarchy and thus relative political stability following the conclusion of the war.[90] Hence, although it would be false to assume that Germany was alone in the committing of colonialist atrocities, it would be equally incorrect to purport that fair comparisons can be made between these powers regarding the comparative influence that common racial ideals had on their specific political systems. A second, more pertinent criticism of the argumentation within this essay is that we have failed to make a clear distinction between similarities and influences. Certainly, by contrasting Nazi idealism with the Namibian genocide, we have established a number of interesting similarities, however we seem to assume that due to the close proximity of the two eras of study, these similarities must have thus been influences. In fact, similarities and influences differ greatly. We can see similarities between Thucydides’ explanations for the Peloponnesian Wars and current Chinese-US tensions[91] but to claim that one event influenced the other would be absurd. German intellectuals, writing in the 1960s, claim that these connections drawn between Namibia and Nazi Germany are simply misinterpreted instances of historical coincidence.[92] History is not a science: it does not have a logical structure and hence random chance allows for similarities to arise that have no link between them.[93] They argue that the movement from Namibia to Nazi Germany was indeed part of a greater historical cycle, but this cycle cannot be considered within the limited context of just Germany. If we look at specific similarities, they must remain similarities, unless presented evidence explicitly shows otherwise.[94] Although one struggles to believe that one can have so many similarities without there being some inter-connection between events, this criticism nevertheless helps show the biggest weakness of our argument.


In this investigation, we attempted to answer, “To what extent the Second Reich’s colonial policies in South West Africa influenced Nazi ideology”. In our examination of the early 20th Century in Namibia, we recognised multiple similarities and potential influences. Racial theories misusing Darwin’s evolutionary theory, combined with a population crisis in Germany led to the development of expansionist policies and justifications of genocide, that would, in turn, influence Hitler’s own violent Lebensraum goals. Soldiers such as Von Epp, indoctrinated into the brutal system in Namibia would return to Germany in 1918 to form the empowering support and influence of extreme right-wing parties. Finally, a culture and experience of systematic peacetime extermination would provide the Nazis with a model upon which to base their own extermination schemes upon. The strength of these influences can be called into question, though. Our argument somewhat fails to explain why Germany differed from other colonial powers, while the difference between similarity and influence remains a matter of dispute, effectively undermining our main argument. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are just too many similarities to dismiss the idea that the 1905 genocide was a key influence in the development of Nazi ideology. Hence, we show that Nazism was born out of a continuously evolving and developing group of beliefs, characters and tools that, through their demonstration in Namibia and the inspiration this lent Von Epp and later Hitler, paved the road from Shark Island to Auschwitz.

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[1] Panayi 2014, p. 268
[2] Martel 2002, p. 58
[3] Freeman 2014, p. 11
[4] Lutz 1968, p. 263
[5] Freeman 2014, p. 20
[6] Ibid., p. 25
[7] Kerr 2003, p. 44
[8] Bendersky 2000, p. 73
[9] Sarkin-Hughes 2011, p. 36
[10] Stone 2013, p. 155
[11] Olusoga 2010, p. 13
[12] Olusoga 2010, p. 10
[13] Lemarchand 2011, p. 52
[14] Olusoga 2010, p. 71
[15] Sarkin-Hughes 2011, p. 73
[16] Melber 2014
[17] Schmeller 2012
[18] Olusoga 2010, p. 359
[19] Freeman 2014, p. 21
[20] Olusoga 2010, p. 13
[21] Ortega y Gasset 2002, p. 80
[22] Olusoga 2010, p. 11
[23] Drummond 2002, p. 59
[24] Camus 1951, p. 124
[25] Ibid., p. 122
[26] Smith 1986, p. 195
[27] Bendersky 2000, p. 177
[28] Schaefer 2008, p. 636
[29] Nersessian 2010, p. 8
[30] Smith 1986, p. 215
[31] Van Dijk 1998, p. 9
[32] Rowley 2004, p. 293
[33] Ibid., p. 291
[34]  Langbehn 2011, p. 255
[35]  Ibid., p. 126
[36]  Wehler 1991, p. 129
[37]  Olusoga 2010, p. 34
[38]  Ibid., p. 28
[39]  Ibid., p. 85
[40]  Statistisches Amt Der Stadt Berlin 1910, p. 967
[41]  Olusoga 2010, p. 86
[42]  Röhl 1970, p. 61
[43]  Bendersky 2000, p. 178
[44]  Francis 2007, p. 63
[45] Olusoga 2010, p. 72
[46] Ibid., p. 75
[47] Gasman 1971, p. 47
[48] Ibid., p. 88
[49] Olusoga 2010, p. 73
[50] Reade 1863, p. 452
[51] Cesarani 2004, p. 94
[52] Conrad 2011, p. 163
[53] Olusoga 2010, p. 132
[54] Krumbach 1940, p. 185
[55] Olusoga 2010, p. 284
[56] Wistrich 1995, p. 54
[57] Olusoga 2010, p. 289
[58] Kershaw 1999, p. 174
[59] Asmuss 1994, p. 40
[60] Olusoga 2010, p. 290
[61] Gordon 1957, p. 281
[62] Olusoga 2010, p. 291
[63] Bendersky 2000, p. 225
[64] Fremont-Barnes 2003, p. 79
[65] Stillfried 1904, p. 59b
[66] Olusoga 2010, p. 160
[67] Freeman 2014, p. 73
[68] Appendix 1
[69] Erichsen 2005, p. 48-53
[70] Olusoga 2010, p. 168
[71] Fuchs 1905, p. 58-9
[72] Mwakikagile 2000, p. 69
[73] Erichsen 2005, p. 65-9
[74] Griffith 1905
[75] Byers 2010, p. 78
[76] Olusoga 2010, p. 214
[77] Laaf 1906, p. 103-4
[78] Müller 1906
[79] Freeman 2014, p. 192
[80] Lebedour (Reichstag Debate) 1906, p. 4367
[81] Olusoga 2010, p. 223
[82] Fetzer 1912
[83] Bofinger 1910
[84] Olusoga 2010, p. 342
[85] Gould 2003, p. 34
[86] Hochschild 1998, p. 45
[87] Ibid., p. 147
[88] Ibid., p. 306
[89] Spielvogel 2010, p. 555
[90] Van Goethem 2010, p. 128
[91] Allison 2013
[92] Schneider-Waterberg 2006, p. 112
[93] Ibid., p. 115
[94] Ibid., p. 135