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

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