Isabel Hull
Absolute Destruction

On 2 October Trotha ordered the prisoners to assemble. The men were hanged. To the women he gave Herero translations of his proclamation, and then they were sent back into the desert. The proclamation read:
I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero people. Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered, stolen, cut off the ears and noses and other body parts from wounded soldiers, and now out of cowardice refuse to fight. I say to the people: anyone delivering a captain to one of my stations as a prisoner will receive one thousand marks; whoever brings in Samuel Maherero will receive five thousand marks. The Herero people must leave this land. If they do not, I will force them to do so by using the great gun [artillery]. Within the German border every male Herero, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will he shot to death. I will no longer receive women or children but will drive them back to their people or have them shot at. These are my words to the Herero people.
To the German troops Trotha added the following explanation:
This proclamation is to be read to the troops at roll-call, with the addition that the unit that catches a captain will also receive the appropriate reward, and that shooting at women and children is to be understood as shooting above their heads, so as to force them to run [away]. I assume absolutely that this proclamation will result in taking no more male prisoners, but will not degenerate into atrocities against women and children. The latter will run away if one shoots at them a couple of times. The troops will remain conscious of the good reputation of the German soldier.
Having issued these orders, Trotha left one unit, Estorff's, to continue harrying the Herero, while the remaining, exhausted troops were simply to occupy the waterholes and prevent the Herero from slipping back.

Not surprisingly, Trotha's proclamation was the most controversial document of the war. Before examining the controversies, however, it might be good to summarize what the proclamation says. It begins by making a quasi-legal point, that the Herero are no longer subjects (and thus are vogelfrei, that is, beyond the law and may be shot at). It suggests they have lost this status because of dishonorable military behavior (mutilation and cowardice). It then offers rewards for further dishonorable behavior (selling out the leaders), but makes the conditions for fulfillment impossible (all Herero will be shot or shot at, making it hard to see how they could deliver up their captains). The goal of the war is the disappearance of all Herero. This can occur in two ways: by fleeing to British territory, or by dying. All adult men will be killed (this simply ratified ex post facto what was occurring anyway). Women and children will be driven by force back into the desert (where most, having surrendered out of physical desperation anyway, would presumably die of thirst or starvation). In the explanation to German troops, Trotha decreed that his proclamation was indeed an order and that soldiers could collect bounty, but he worried that this manner of warfare could undermine discipline. So he warned that women and children must not be killed directly but simply driven away.

The three most controversial points surrounding the proclamation have been its context and thus Trotha's aim; the extent to which it was put into practice; and the question of who learned of it when. Concerning context, we must clear up one misunderstanding at the outset. Some writers, noting the proximity of Trotha's order to the Witbooi uprising in the colony's south, have taken the logical-seeming path and interpreted the proclamation as Trotha's desperate response to the news that he now had two revolts on his hands. In fact, the Witbooi uprising broke out unexpectedly on the same day that Trotha issued his proclamation, but over 500 km away. Trotha did not learn of the revolt until 8 or 9 October, almost a week afterward. The context therefore is the conclusion of the first phase of pursuit.

The timing of the order has suggested to nearly everyone that frustration was its main motive. Trotha, having failed to end the war at Waterberg, had now again failed to do so by a sharp pursuit; his troops, suffering greatly from thirst, hunger, and illness, were physically incapable of achieving the absolute 'success' the homeland demanded. But what did such an order achieve? Those who wish to minimize the order's seriousness represent it as merely psychological warfare with two aims. By driving the Herero away, it was supposed to save troopers from more casualties inflicted by Herero sharpshooters. And it was designed for domestic propaganda: if one could not actually defeat the Herero, one could at least appear properly fierce. The first suggestion is simply not credible. The suffering of the German troops had long been primarily due to lack of provisioning, exhaustion, and resultant illness; Trotha and his officers repeatedly stated that the military capacity of the Herero was ended. The suggestion that Trotha wished to impress the Kaiser or the General Staff chief with tough words is possible, but it seems unlikely as a proclamation seriously (as did the governor, chancellor, director of the Colonial Department, and the Reichstag), believes that its aim was to prevent the Herero from infiltrating back into the colony. That is surely true and had long been Trotha's goal. But the violence and finality of the order seem out of proportion to such an aim.

If we ask what the order achieved from the military perspective, the answer is, not much. It essentially sanctioned practices (the shooting of all men) that were already customary. It tried, as Trotha had done in August, to reassert disciplinary control relating to the shooting of women and children, which had become widespread, while granting explicitly the very objective that justified shooting: the 'disappearance' of all Herero.

The order accomplished only one thing: it made negotiations practically impossible. It did so by scaring the Herero away, and even more so by attempting to lock the military leadership into the most drastic possible policy That kept the war out of civilian hands and entirely within the military's bailiwick, which was the order's major purpose. For a negotiated settlement was the logical next step, now that the resistance of the Herero people had been broken but while German troops were incapable of ending the war militarily. This is precisely what Trotha wanted to avoid, as he explained to the General Staff chief in the cover letter (4 October) to the proclamation:
For me, it is merely a question of how to end the war with the Herero. My opinion is completely opposite to that of the governor and some 'old Africans.' They have wanted to negotiate for a long time and describe the Herero nation as a necessary labor force for the future use of the colony. I am of an entirely different opinion. I believe that the nation must be destroyed as such, or since this was not possible using tactical blows, it must be expelled from the land operatively and by means of detailed actions.
Trotha continued that he believed it would be possible to dispose of small bands trying to reenter the colony, though provisioning problems prevented him from capturing the captains. If Estorff did not succeed in forcing the Herero into British Bechuanaland, then it only remained to be seen if they would go voluntarily,
or if they will try to regain possession of their old pastureland by force or by complete submission. Because I neither can treat with these people, nor do I want to, without the express direction of His Majesty, a certain rigorous treatment of all parts of the nation is absolutely necessary, a treatment that I have for the present taken and executed on my own responsibility, and from which, as long as I have command, I shall not detour without a direct order. My detailed knowledge of many Central African tribes. Bantu and others, has taught me the convincing certainty that Negroes never submit to a contract but only to raw force. Yesterday before my departure, I had the warriors who were captured in the last several days, [and who were] condemned by court-martial, hanged, and I have chased all the women and children who had gathered here back into the desert, taking with them the proclamation to the Herero people. This proclamation (enclosed), which will unavoidably become known, will be attacked. I only ask that it be explained to His Majesty that these means are absolutely necessary, and that my order to the troops (who are [still] excellently disciplined and with three characters like Deimling, Estorff, and Muhlenfels will surely remain so) gives the necessary instruction and guarantee for the execution of the order. On the other hand [sic] accepting women and children, who are mostly ill, is an eminent danger to the troops, and taking care of them is impossible. Therefore, I think it better that the nation perish rather than infect our troops and affect our water and food. In addition, the Herero would interpret any kindness on my side as weakness. They must now die in the desert or try to cross the Bechuanaland border.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.