Faber & Faber, £20, 394pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Kaiser's Holocaust, By David Olusoga & Caspar W Erichsen

In 1904, in what was then German South-West Africa, now Namibia, the Herero and Nama peoples rebelled against colonial control. The two risings were neither coordinated nor very shrewdly planned. Like rebels throughout Africa and Asia, the insurgents were almost inevitably doomed to failure: outgunned and outnumbered.

The Nama, though, already highly Europeanised, fairly well-equipped, and adopting effective guerrilla tactics, put up a stronger fight than most. The twin revolts, even if never really threatening to overthrow German rule, induced a small wave of panic back in Berlin. Killings of German settlers, few though they were compared to the casualties on the other side, were seen as evidence of incorrigible African savagery. The cry went up that these barbarians must be crushed quickly, thoroughly and by any means necessary.

A new military overlord, General Lothar von Trotha, after beating the main Herero armed force, pursued the survivors and their families into the Kalahari desert where most died of thirst or starvation. The Nama, fewer though better armed, soon suffered a similar fate. Many of the remaining Herero and Nama were "concentrated" in detention camps or subjected to a harsh forced labour regime. The total death toll is poorly documented, but may have been around 60,000 Herero – four-fifths of their population – and 10,000 Nama.

So far, so very typical of colonialisms nearly everywhere. Resistance to European conquest was almost invariably met by ferocious repression. Few Europeans then questioned the assumption that neither the rule of law nor the laws of war applied when confronting "uncivilised" opponents.

Tales of massacre were repeated from Tasmania to the American West, and in Africa from Cape to Cairo. The French in Algeria and west Africa, Belgians in the Congo, Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the Germans themselves in what is now Tanzania, Americans in the Philippines as well as their own Great Plains, and Britain right across its global empire, observed few distinctions between counter- insurgency and mass murder.

Yet perhaps there was something different about the Namibian story, a further kind of monstrous excess which did not only echo colonial patterns but offered a terrible foretaste of what was to come within Europe itself 40 years later. Von Trotha and his political masters, so it is suggested, did not just indulge in a murderous rampage like so many of their imperial equivalents, but planned, announced and pursued the total elimination of the Herero (the evidence for such a policy towards the Nama is less strong).

This, then, was the 20th century's first genocide. And it was distinctively German in style, setting the precedent for the fate of Europe's Jews under Hitler. There was a direct path from Namibia to Auschwitz, from German attempts at empire-building in Africa to the vastly more destructive 1940s bid for empire within Europe. As David Olusoga and Caspar Erichsen point out, there were some striking continuities of ideology, methods, personnel, even of uniforms between the African venture and the Nazis.

Olusoga and Erichsen have written a vivid, powerful narrative of the Namibian genocide – though disputed, the term does seem apt – and of the ways it has been forgotten and remembered, concealed and exhumed. They have done some fascinating archival digging, and offer moving evocations of the sites of slaughter today; most especially Shark Island, now a tourist resort, but a century ago the most deadly of the colonial concentration camps. They give a compelling sketch of the multiple connections between Namibia and Nazism.

None of this, though, is anything like as new as they make it sound – although they do break new ground in their discussion of the murderous internment camps. Before about 2004-5, it would have been at least half true to speak of the Namibian atrocities as a "forgotten genocide". The centenary of the revolts and their suppression, though, produced a huge outpouring of commemoration and debate in both Germany and Namibia.

Germany's government made a formal, public apology for the genocide: in stark contrast to the continuing evasions of many other former colonialists, including Britain. Dozens of works appeared on these themes, in German and English. The ground which Olusoga and Erichsen cover has in great part been surveyed in the past few years by – to pluck out a few names from dozens – Dominik Schaller, Reinhart Koessler, Jürgen Zimmerer, Benjamin Madley and Robert Gerwarth, building on earlier writings of Hannah Arendt and Horst Drechsler. It is rather startling that almost none of those names appears in this book.

Admittedly, some have published in relatively obscure academic locations, or mainly in German: but if that explains why a more "popular" history in English ignores them, then more's the pity. Apartheid between academic history and that aimed at a broader public is both unnecessary and mutually damaging. And it doesn't explain why this book's use of German sources, especially recent ones, is so patchy; nor their occasional but surprising mistranslations.

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history at Bristol University

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions