The great centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide is almost over. With parades in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, massive rallies in Argentina, prayer services in Washington, D.C., historical displays at the Library of Congress, and a formal remembrance by the European Union, Armenians and their supporters have kept alive memories of the atrocities of 1915.
In Boston, over three thousand gathered at the Armenian Heritage Park to honor the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by the Turks, a genocide that saw men tortured and shot, women raped and beheaded, and children forced to jump into the Black Sea to drown. Pope Francis recognized the event as “the first genocide of the 20th-century.”
Trouble is, the Pope—although admirable in his intentions—was wrong. So were others who memorialized the Armenians as the first 20th-century victims of mass atrocities.
The first victims of 20th-century genocide were in fact the Herero, a group of semi-nomadic tribes in South-West Africa (now Namibia). Before colonization by Germany began, in the 1880s, the Herero’s tribal confederation consisted of about 85,000 people. Caught up in the “scramble for Africa,” Germans settlers moved into South-West Africa as if by right, taking the natives’ cattle, building railroads on their grazing lands, raping and shooting women, and flogging men to death until the Herero decided to rise up.
The Herero knew they could not possibly win a fight against the Germans settlers and their army. “Let us die fighting,” counseled one chief, “rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment, or some other calamity.”
The surviving son of a Herero leader said his father “knew that if we rose in revolt we would be wiped out in battle because our men were almost unarmed and without ammunition. The cruelty and injustice of the Germans had driven us to despair, and our leaders and the people felt that death had lost much of its horror in the light of the conditions under which we lived.”
In response to the uprising, the German emperor put the colony under military rule and sent in Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who had already brutally suppressed rebellious blacks in East Africa. Delivering his opinion of “race war” with Africans, von Trotha declared that “no war may be conducted humanely against nonhumans.” To his soldiers (as to the general himself), Africans seemed more like “baboons” than human beings.
Hung, burned, shot, starved, and driven into the desert to die of thirst, few Herero survived von Trotha’s extermination order. More than three-quarters died, while survivors became virtual slaves to the German settlers.
Germany held onto the colony for another decade but was forced out by an invasion from South Africa during World War I. After that, the British took control of what had once been Herero lands.
This was the first genocide of the 20th-century. If the Herero genocide is more obscure today than the Armenians’, it may be because of race, location, and geopolitics. It is wonderful that we have, in the Armenian case, monuments and memorials commemorating white people who were targeted for extermination partly because the Turks wanted their land. At the same time, we should remember these black people who were targeted for extermination because Germany wanted African land.
Genocide denial comes in many forms. We are familiar with the brazen dismissals of Holocaust deniers. We are also familiar with Turkish insistence that their country did nothing but “relocate” the Armenians. A more subtle but equally insidious form of erasure is genocide denial by default—by inadvertence or ignorance.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s claim that the Armenian genocide was “the first genocide of the 20th-century” marginalizes and ignores the near-extinction of the Herero.
This too is a form of genocide denial.
Nicole Rafter is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. She is the author of Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture (NYU Press, 2011).