Germany’s First Genocide Looked a Lot Like China’s
The killing of the Herero has disturbing parallels with the treatment of Uyghurs.
Between 1904 and 1908, imperial Germany all but destroyed the Herero and Nama people in their South West African colony. It was not Europe’s worst action in Africa: The Belgians were devastating what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo to South West Africa’s north, torturing, murdering, and starving up to 10 million people. But the killing of 34,000 to 111,000 people in South West Africa would prove prologue to a raft of similar atrocities in World War I and even worse horrors in World War II.
Now, as then, a preeminent rising power is unashamedly and directly enacting a genocide in its imperial periphery. Starting in 2014, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has forcibly imprisoned, enslaved, and even sterilized hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. How the first genocide happened can inform our understanding of the second—and of the colonial dynamics that increasingly shape China’s actions on its imperial periphery.
In both cases, the story begins with embarrassment and rage. As historian Isabel Hull details in her magisterial work on the South West Africa genocides, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany, in 1903, the Herero, fed up with enforced social inferiority to and abuses by German settlers, rebelled. Although unable to expel the Germans entirely, they briefly threw off German authority and killed approximately 158 Germans in the first few weeks. All but five of the dead were adult men, and none were children. Nevertheless, the German press—making up its own facts in the face of an extremely tight-lipped German military and government—printed lurid tales of atrocities against white women and children, and an outraged German public demanded immediate and decisive reprisal. The German Army would shortly grant their wish.
A century later, from 2009 to 2014, a series of riots and spree killings by individual Uyghurs inspired similar vengefulness in the Chinese public. In the country as a whole, the Han Chinese are the supermajority; in Xinjiang, they are a minority, but a powerful one, with the full force of colonialism behind them.
The initial prompt was Uyghur riots that killed at least 140 people, mostly Han. The government had no choice but to acknowledge the violence in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, but did its best to cover up clashes in the rest of Xinjiang, brutal retaliation by the Chinese People’s Armed Police and killings of Uyghurs by Han. Over the next few years, censors attempted to conceal the scale of the conflict, but an attack in Kunming was the final straw; inflammatory reports of racial peril went viral on social media faster than party censors could remove them. The CCP was publicly embarrassed, and it—like imperial Germany—would respond with mass violence.
In both nations, structural factors contributed to the march toward genocide. The main structural cause was the near-total isolation of the imperial German military from civilian control. When Otto von Bismarck drafted imperial Germany’s constitution, he sharply limited parliamentary authority over military budgets and gave the kaiser sole control of diplomatic and military appointments. Military officers, as a rule, did not answer to civilian authorities. A military officer’s career depended solely on his ability to please the strict hierarchy above him and not at all on his ability to survive a parliamentary confirmation hearing.
These malignancies are, if anything, much more pronounced in the operation of the Chinese Communist Party. As a Marxist-Leninist party, it is run as a militarized revolutionary vanguard, answering to no authorities beyond itself. It comports itself as the supreme and final guardian of the Chinese nation. Individual party members’ success and survival depend entirely on their role in the hierarchy. In Xinjiang itself, a militarized, party-controlled production corps, the Bingtuan, already controlled critical portions of the economy.
In both instances, however, genocide also required a change in local leadership: The steady hand of a relatively conciliatory managerial leader was traded in for the clenched fist of a ruthless militant. Early in the German conflict with the Herero, then-Gov. Theodor Leutwein pursued a negotiated peace, as opposed to the “sharp and ruthless punishment” demanded by most German media; while perfectly willing to inflict brutal reprisals, he employed them on a fairly small scale as a means of coercing surrender. In 1904, an impatient and displeased Kaiser Wilhelm II—hellbent on immediate and suitably crushing victory—subordinated him to Lt. Gen. Lothar von Trotha, a bullheaded devotee of the strategic offensive.
Likewise, Chinese President Xi Jinping quickly tired of the leadership of Xinjiang’s party secretary, Zhang Chunxian: By 2016, prominent Han Chinese commentators came to see Zhang as “soft in his approach to Xinjiang’s governance,” so Zhang had to go. In his place, Xi appointed Chen Quanguo, who led the party’s renewed repression of Tibet following mass protests in the late 2000s.
In South West Africa, Leutwein drove the Herero tribes to the Waterberg, a mountain whose inherently defensible terrain was supplemented by ample spring water. When Trotha took charge, rather than continuing Leutwein’s plan of simply waiting the Herero out, he launched a formulaic battle of annihilation in accordance with German offensive doctrine.
The terrified Herero fled into the Omaheke desert. Trotha cornered them at the few available desert waterholes, and they fled again. Trotha continued the pursuit, and the Herero continued running away. Infuriated by the enemy’s refusal to act according to his plans, Trotha officially ordered the summary execution of all Herero men in early October 1904. Herero women and children faced a far crueler fate: To protect “the good reputation of the German soldier,” they would instead be driven further into the desert, where the majority would die slowly of hunger, thirst, and exposure. Trotha publicly hoped the Herero would cross the desert into British territory but privately confided that “the entire Herero people must be exterminated.”
First Image: Herero captives are held in chains in German South West Africa in 1904. ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES Second Image: A guard is seen in a watchtower of a prison in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, on May 3. THOMAS PETER/ REUTERS
Extermination is not yet on the agenda in Xinjiang, but the scale of events has still been catastrophic. Chen, with Xi’s encouragement, ordered his subordinates to “round up everyone who should be rounded up” and expanded concentration camps and prisons to cope with the influx of any vaguely suspicious Uyghurs: Any behavior not predicted by the CCP’s non-public statistical models is labeled “enemy movements” and may result in imprisonment. China’s police system sets regular quotas for arrests and imprisonment, which are sharply raised during crackdown: Thus, many Uyghurs are locked up for no reason but to hit the target. Entire extended families are routinely broken up and sent to violent, squalid jails because a single member proved mildly inconvenient.
In the meantime, even the Uyghurs lucky enough to avoid imprisonment are typically forbidden from speaking their language or practicing their religion: Indeed, Uyghurs are routinely forced to prove their abandonment of Islam by consuming pork, alcohol, and tobacco (all of which are forbidden in Islam) and denouncing key Islamic tenets. Uyghur poets, intellectuals, and writers are priority targets.
The Chinese party state, while apparently uninterested in physical extermination, is busily experimenting with the destruction of Uyghur culture and annihilation of the Uyghur people by more subtle means. Uyghurs are routinely sterilized, often without consent, or are forced to have abortions. The objective appears to be to bring and keep Uyghur fertility permanently below that of the Han Chinese, ensuring Han domination of Xinjiang in perpetuity. To speed things up further, the children of detained Uyghurs are usually given to orphanages and foster families for forcible assimilation into Han culture.
In both genocides, public exposure proved to be the only restraint. As foreign outrageover the Uyghur genocide mounts, the CCP appears to be gradually ameliorating its atrocities. Embarrassment was motivation enough for the CCP to swiftly instigate crimes against humanity, not to swiftly end them.
Likewise, public exposure of German atrocities in South West Africa only slowly cooled the German Empire’s fury. Trotha’s public embrace of genocide horrified Germany’s civilian government, and German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow convinced the kaiser to rescind Trotha’s extermination order. A petulantly homicidal Trotha, assisted by Army Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen, quietly slow-rolled the kaiser’s edict as best he could, taking as few prisoners as possible and intentionally imprisoning them under the worst conditions he could get away with—the camps killed their inhabitants almost as consistently as the open desert. However, Trotha’s impotent butchery failed to cow a similar ongoing revolt by the Nama people, and in November 1905, he was sent back to Germany after his bloodthirsty incompetence finally turned even the local German settlers against him. This did not, however, prevent him from receiving the Pour le Mérite, imperial Germany’s highest military honor. With his removal, civilian government resumed in December 1905 under then-Gov. Friedrich von Lindequist.
Lindequist, like Leutwein before him, sought to re-subjugate and exploit—rather than exterminate—the rebelling tribes. But his precarious position did not allow for a quick return to normal. Rather than risk even a single instance of Black-on-white violence, Lindequist dutifully incarcerated every captured or surrendered Herero or Nama in concentration camps. The camps—overwhelmed by the influx of new prisoners—were every bit as squalid as under Trotha, and the inmates were expected to perform hard labor on starvation rations. The war stretched German logistics and the South West Africa government budget beyond their breaking point, and restoring full control of the colony as fast as possible came before prisoner survival. Like under Trotha, typhus and dysentery repeatedly tore through the prisoners, and mortality rates peaked at 18.9 percent per month. By the time the rebellion and internment ended in 1908, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the Herero and roughly half of the Nama had died.
The Uyghur are lucky—if that’s the word—that public health is leaps and bounds ahead of 1904: Typhus will not spread in an even minimally well-managed concentration camp. But the callous disregard for life, as accounts from the camps show, is still there—along with reports of widespread sexual assault. Recent reports suggest public exposure has bought some amelioration of conditions—even as Uyghurs remain trapped inside an open-air prison and forced into slave labor for Chinese firms.
The road from militarism to World War I to Nazism was a long one. Time and again, Germany had the chance to turn away from a festering cult of mass violence and toward a brighter future for itself and the world alike. It only made that choice in 1948, after two catastrophic losses and tens of millions of deaths.
China has time to avert this terrible future. But China alone can choose its path, and the clock is ticking.
(c) 2021, Foreign Policy