1904 December 09 – Order to erect concentration camps

Concentration camp Shark Island Lüderitz OvaHerero Nama 1905 - 1907

• Concentration camps erected •

On 9 December 1904, Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow gave the commander-in-chief of the Schutztruppe, Lothar von Trotha, the order to establish concentration camps in German South West Africa. The British camps in the Boer War in South Africa and the camps set up by other colonial powers to control the natives served as a model. In 1905, the Schutztruppe erected the concentration camps in Swakopmund and Lüderitz in addition to the existing prison camps in Windhoek, Okahandja and Karibib.

Historical research agrees that, despite some similarities and the same term, they should not be equated with the concentration camps that the Nazis set up for Jews decades later in the Third Reich in Germany.

Unlike the latter, they were initially intended to help ensure the safety of the German minority against the hostile ‘black’ majority in the colony. In addition, the camps were justified at the time on the grounds that OvaHerero and Nama had to be punished for the uprising and deterred from rising up again.

Thirdly, the concentration camps served as reservoirs for urgently needed labour. The colonial administration, companies, farmers and private individuals could pick up men and women for their projects as required. Large companies such as the Woermann Line even had their own camps. Many forced labourers were used in railway construction.

No extermination camps, but death camps

Many historians argue that the great demand for (cheap) labour speaks against the German colonial power’s intention to exterminate OvaHerero and Nama. Nevertheless, the conditions in these camps were hostile. The prisoners, both men and women, had to work very hard. The food, on the other hand, was poor. It consisted largely of rice and pulses. In most cases, the people had no way of cooking them. There were hardly any sanitary facilities or clinics. In the camps in the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Lüderitz, there was also the cold and damp climate to which the prisoners were exposed almost without protection.

Men, women and children died of exhaustion and diseases such as scurvy, intestinal catarrh and typhoid fever. From October 1904 to March 1907, a total of almost 7,700 deaths were recorded. With an estimated figure of 15,000 OvaHerero and 2,000 Nama in the camps, that would be around 45 per cent of the prisoners.

German missionaries repeatedly denounced the conditions in the camps. However, it was only under the new commander-in-chief of the Schutztruppe, Ludwig von Estorff, that conditions gradually improved. In Lüderitz, the prisoners were moved from Shark Island to a camp on the eastern side of the town. However, the death rate only decreased, the dying did not stop.

Mass deaths shrugged off by those responsible

By and large, historians agree that there was no intention to exterminate the OvaHerero and Nama. Some point out that the colonial authorities were at times overwhelmed with the provision of food and other basic necessities to so many prisoners. The same was found to be true of the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Second Boer War in 1901/1902, in which almost 28,000 Boers and more than 20,000 ‘blacks’ died (see detailed article on Wikipedia; checked in January 2024).

However, it is also undisputed that the mass deaths were caused by the hostile conditions in the camps and were shrugged off by those responsible. Some historians therefore lable it ‘extermination by negligance’ (for more on the debate on genocide see our article “1908 January 27 – Concentration camps officially dissolved”).


Concentration camp Shark Island Lüderitz OvaHerero Nama 1905 - 1907

Concentration camp on Shark Island in Lüderitz. Photo source: National Archives of Namibia

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