A Review of The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen
Faber and Faber Ltd. London, 2010

Reviewed by Marc Ambler

As one reads this fascinating book, one gets the sense that the major theme that develops was not what the writers intended. That theme is one of Social Darwinistic scientific racism put into horrifying practice in the German colony of South West Africa in the final decades of the 19thcentury and into the 20th century. Olusoga is an Anglo-Nigerian historian and BBC radio and television producer; and his co-author Erichsen, a Namibian (formerly South West Africa) double graduate and director of a Namibian HIV/AIDS NGO.

The book sets out to draw the many parallels between the extermination campaign against the Herero and Nama people of SWA by the German colonists, and the later horrors of Nazi Germany and its campaign ofRassenhygiene against Eastern Europeans, Jews, Gypsies and others they deemed ‘unfit’.1 The parallels provide compelling evidence that the Nazi genocide and the Holocaust against the Jews was not some strange aberration invented and perpetrated by Hitler’s National Socialists; it was the outcome and climax of a program of indoctrination of the German people in Social Darwinism begun in the second half of the 19th century.2South West Africa became one of the first major laboratories where Darwinian theories of race supremacy were experimentally applied. Due to the relative isolation of the country, the fewer personalities directly involved and the lesser absolute numbers of lives lost in the campaign, these links are perhaps clearer to draw than those of WWII which was on a vastly larger and much more complex scale.

The writers compellingly lay out the direct links between the Herero and Nama genocide and WWII. Characters, strategies, philosophical justifications and even uniforms of those involved in the genocide show continuity with what followed under Nazi Germany on a far greater scale. In all of this, the writers repeatedly document its Social Darwinist underpinnings with their eugenicist and scientific racist offshoots. One senses (without judging the writers) that perhaps these links were unwelcome conclusions, even for the writers, but that they admirably follow the evidence where it leads. They frequently qualify the Darwinist connection with the words “distorted view of Social Darwinism” and the like (pp. 3, 74, 111, 294, 361 and elsewhere.). One wonders from whence a model of ‘undistorted Social Darwinism’ would come. What criteria can evolution provide to decide on what is morally appropriate and what is not in the practice of Darwinism? Only ‘survival’, and so if Hitler had won and the Aryan dream had become a reality, we would today likely be saying that the SWA genocide was right and admirable….

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