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Von der „Eingeborenenpolitik“ zur Vernichtungsstrategie: Deutsch-Südwestafrika, 1904

George Steinmetz

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Abstract


This paper examines the transition from colonial „native policy“ to a program of deliberate genocide, directed against the Ovaherero and Witbooi peoples, in German Southwest Africa. The German assault during and after the 1904 war was the first genocide of the 20th century, and was unusual among colonial powers at that time. The legal definition of genocide does not present an interpretive barrier, since the decision to exterminate the Ovaherero was intentional and approved at the highest levels of the German government. This points back to the „Sonderweg“ thesis: was German colonialism not, after all, exceptionally exterminationist? The paper then asks about the reasons for this escalation of violence. The first necessary (but not sufficient) condition was the extant body of ethnographic representations of Ovaherero. In contrast to precolonial images of other German colonized subject populations (including the Witbooi), this discursive formation was extremely homogenous and relentlessly demonizing. The second factor relates to the structure of the colonial state field. The symbolic class conflict between the main fractions of the German elite – nobility, economic bourgeoisie – and educated middle class – Bildungsbürgertum – was transposed to the German colonies. The struggle between the middle class colonial Governor Theodor Leutwein and the man sent to replace him in the 1904 war, General Lothar von Trotha, assumed the epic proportions of the metropolitan Wilhelmine battle between bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Both parties were driven to more extreme positions, representative of their respective social classes’ symbolically dominant stances within the colonial field. Leutwein became more „humane“ and anti-genocidal, while von Trotha identified paradoxically with an imago of the barbaric and „indescribably cruel“ Ovaherero.

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