From Windhoek to Auschwitz? The colonial ‘Sonderweg’ and Transcolonial approaches

Mads Nielsen | 19 March 2019

European History | African History | Modern History | Imperial History | Global History 

The colonial world is often seen within the confines of the colonial powers and is divided into ‘British’, ‘French’ or ‘German’ territories. However, if we are to truly understand the context in which colonial rule and resistance to it operated, we need to see it outside the scope of the European national borders extended to the colonial world.

German Southwest Africa (GSWA), present day Namibia, remains a striking case for a nationally-derived historiography. Between 1904-8, the German Schutztruppe (‘protection force’) embarked on a brutal campaign against the Herero and Nama peoples that ended in the first genocide of the twentieth century. Concentration camps were established where the prisoners were kept in inhumane conditions and were subjected to forced labour, intentional malnutrition and even medical experiments.

Over the last 15 years, German colonialism has received increasing attention by historians. However, the tendency in the historiography has been to link the genocide in GSWA as a precursor to the Holocaust. Some have observed either subtle or explicit continuities while others have even argued for a causal link ‘from Africa to Auschwitz’. [1] This has rekindled the old notion of Sonderweg – the idea that Germany took a unique path to modernity which deterministically ended in the Holocaust – and brought it into colonial history.

There remains a central problem, however. The ‘colonial’ Sonderweg confines the history of the rebellion and genocide in GSWA to a history in which the German nation is its nucleus. Consequently, other perhaps more plausible contexts are obscured. For instance, the concentration camps of GSWA are arguably more suitably seen in the context of the camps established by the British a few years prior in South Africa rather than those of Nazi Germany much later. Also, this inter-colonial context indicates that colonial powers shared tools of empire across the colonial borders. Indeed, some scholars have pointed to a shared Anglo-German ‘colonial project’ intended to uphold colonial rule and stability, particularly in the colonial borderlands. [2]

Rather than solid demarcations, colonial borderlands were contact zones and was where colonial hegemony was at its weakest. They were punctured by entanglements and cross-border interactions, whether they were guerillas utilizing the borders to their advantage or the colonial administrations cooperating (or opting not to). To consider GSWA itself as a solely German colony would also be rather mistaken. Not only was it dependent on Cape imports, but half its white settler population was also either British or Afrikaaners. This does not mean that we ought to completely disband the spheres of influence in the colonial world, but rather that we should not consider them rigid and impenetrable. [3]

Understanding the genocide in GSWA within the context of the Holocaust also diminishes the comparability to other colonial wars such as the Second Matabele War in 1896, the brutalities in the Congo Free State or the Black Wars in Tasmania in the 1860’s. [4]

The consequence of drawing causal links or continuities to the Holocaust is that the colonial context is lost for the sake of highlighting the scale of violence. Instead, if the genocide in GSWA is to be understood in a broader context, it should be in a transcolonial one, where transfers of methods such as concentrations camps or comparable incidents of violence are more viable and constructive than a nationally-deduced Sonderweg. [5]

At the time of writing, the issue over reparations for the genocide in GSWA is still unresolved. Key to the demands for reparations is the supposed link to the Holocaust. This is, in a sense, paradoxical. For while we may sympathize with the desire to address the wrongdoings of the past, it is imperative that the history of those colonized is not reduced to one of passive victimhood. Moreover, the effect of rendering the genocide a mere precursor to the Holocaust is that it is taken out of Africa and placed into a Eurocentric history of violence. Yet, remarkably, this view is implicitly promoted by the descendants of those who actively resisted German colonial rule and suffered for it.

Mads Bomholt Nielsen is a Carlsberg Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He completed his PhD at King’s College London in 2018 and currently works on the confiscation of Germany’s colonies at the end of the First World War.

[1] See Benjamin Madley, ‘From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe’, European History Quarterly, 35, 3 (2005), 429-464. Also, Jürgen Zimmerer, Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz? Beitrage zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust (Münster, 2011). [/ref]

[2] For Anglo-German colonial collaboration and ‘colonial projects’ see Ulrike Lindner, Koloniale Begegnungen. Deutschland und Grossbritannien als Imperialmächte in Afrika 1880-1914 (Frankfurt-am-Main, 2011). For an English publication on this see, Ulrike Linder, ’Colonialism as a European Project before 1914? British and German concepts of colonial rule in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Comparativ 19, 1 (2009), 88-106. [/ref]

[3] Tilman Dedering, ‘War and Mobility in the Borderlands of South Western Africa in the Early Twentieth Century’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 39, 2 (2006), 275-294. [/ref]

[4] This point was actually made by the German delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 in a response to British demands to confiscate German colonies on the basis of their inhumane record in GSWA. [/ref]

[5] See Mads Bomholt Nielsen, ‘Selective Memory: British Perceptions of the Herero-Nama Genocide, 1904-1908 and 1918’, in Journal of Southern African Studies, 43, 2 (2017), 315-330. [/ref]