The 20th Century’s First Genocide

If you ask most people what the first modern genocide was, they would point to either the Holocaust carried out over the course of the 1940s, or the increasingly better-known Armenian Genocide of that began in 1915.

But the first systematic mass murder of an entire people to kick off an unfortunate slew of others began in a backwater German colony in southeast Africa: the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, also known as the Namibian Genocide.

As The Guardian points out, not only did this extermination campaign have all the characteristics of its successors (though the term genocide would not be invented until decades later), but it was disturbing prescient:

The Namibian genocide, 1904-1909, was not only the first of the 20th century; in so many ways, it also seemed to prefigure the later horrors of that troubled century. The systematic extermination of around 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama was the work both of German soldiers and colonial administrators; banal, desk-bound killers. The most reliable figures estimate 90,000 people were killed.

In the case of the Herero, an official, written order – the extermination order – was issued by the German commander, explicitly condemning the entire people to annihilation. After military attempts to bring this about had been thwarted, the liquidation of the surviving Herero, along with the Nama people, was continued in concentration camps, a term that was used at the time for the archipelago of facilities the Germans built across Namibia. Some of the victims of the Namibian genocide were transported to those camps in cattle trucks and the bodies of some of the victims were subjected to pseudoscientific racial examinations and dissections.

Granted, the eradication of entire peoples is a sadly regular occurrence in human history: though a modern phenomenon both conceptually and etymologically, one could find genocide-style killings going back millennia, from the Assyrian Empire‘s conquests in the first half of the first millennium BCE, to the complete destruction of Carthage by Rome following the Third Punic War, the consequences of the Mongol invasions, and the various resettlements and forced migrations of indigenous inhabitants during the age of colonization; some have suggested that even Neanderthals were driven into extinction, in part, by human violence.

It appears genocide is less a 20th century development and more a result of an inherently human moral failing. If the 21st century is any indication, this scourge upon our species has yet to disappear, even if we have gotten better at identifying at condemning it on principle.

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