Rosa Luxemburg Exposed the Colonial Genocide in Namibia

When Germany pledged to oppose South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, the Namibian government reminded German politicians of their state’s genocidal record in Africa. Rosa Luxemburg exposed the crimes of German colonialism while they were happening.

Rosa Luxemburg, circa 1900. (Karl Pinkau / Wikimedia Commons)

The Namibian government issued one of the most striking expressions of solidarity with Palestinians facing the blows of Israel’s ongoing destruction of Gaza on January 13, in support of South Africa’s case bringing the charge of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice. It issued the following statement in response to the German government’s decision to officially support Israel’s denial of these charges:

Namibia rejects Germany’s support of the genocidal intent of the racist Israeli state against innocent civilians in Gaza. Germany committed the first genocide of the twentieth century in 1904–1908, in which tens of thousands of innocent Namibians died in the most inhumane and brutal conditions . . . President [Hage] Geingob appeals to the German Government to reconsider its untimely decision to intervene as a third-party in defense and support of the genocidal acts of Israel before the International Court of Justice.

It is surely a remarkable act of bad faith for Germany to defend Israel’s actions when it has yet to fully account for its own genocidal acts against the Nama and Herero peoples of what is now Namibia. The German state has never agreed to provide financial compensation or reparations for the descendants of its victims.

Genocide in Namibia

Germany began to take control of Southwest Africa in 1884, shortly after the Berlin Conference divided Africa between an array of European powers, with the active support of the United States. It dispossessed Africans of their land, forced them into reservations and concentration camps, and subjected many to slave labor.

In 1903, the Nama revolted against the German occupation, joined not long afterward by the Herero, in 1904. Germany responded with unprecedented violence: General Lothar von Trotha, an archmilitarist who had helped suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, was given a free hand to crush the rebellion. Trotha declared:

I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country . . . the constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of this nation and destroy them gradually.

After defeating the rebels in battle, he proceeded to drive their entire communities — men, women, and children — into the Kalahari Desert, where most died of thirst, illness, or starvation. The genocidal intent was unmistakable in von Trotha‘s proclamation:

Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them.

About one hundred thousand Nama and Herero — 85 percent of their total population — died as a result.

Hailed for his actions by the German kaiser, Trotha became a leading figure in the racist, far-right Thule Society following his return to Germany. In this role he served as an inspiration to the young Adolf Hitler. It was surely no accident that Hitler later declared, upon launching his invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, “Russia is our Africa and the Russians are our Africans.”

Luxemburg on Imperialism

The Namibian government’s strident retort to the German government recalls the powerful indictment of German imperialism at the time by Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish Jewish revolutionary socialist. From the start of her work as an activist and theorist, Luxemburg castigated the genocidal implications of European and American capital’s intrusion into the non-Western world — including in Africa, a part of the world that many Western socialists paid scant attention to at the time.

As Luxemburg wrote in her Introduction to Political Economy (1909–15):

For peoples in colonized territories, the transition from primitive communist conditions to modern capitalist ones always takes place as a sudden catastrophe, an unforeseeable misfortune with the most frightful sufferings, as it is presently true of the Germans with Negroes of Southwest Africa.

She extended this critique in her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, when discussing the Boer War between the white Afrikaner settlers and British government in South Africa. Luxemburg noted that the “tiny peasant republics” of the Boers were engaged in “a constant guerrilla war with the Bantu-speaking Africans”:

The peasant economy and the colonial policy of large-scale capital engaged each other in a competitive struggle over the Khoikoi and other indigenous peoples — i.e. over their land and their labor power. The goal of both competitors was exactly the same: to crush, drive out, or exterminate Black Africans, to destroy their forms of social organization, to appropriate their land, and to compel them to work in conditions of exploitation.

She singled out Germany’s crimes against the Nama and Herero as they were occurring. Consider the following passage from her 1904 article “The Russian Terrorist Trial”:

Our Privy Councilors know only too well how to hound the African Hereros and the “pig-tailed Chinese,” calling for “revenge campaigns” for the death of every German colonial adventurer to be “atoned” by not one but by thousands of foreign lives. They understand their screams for revenge as being for “German honor,” as soon as someone in Honolulu or Patagonia dares as much as look at the Germans disapprovingly.

Luxemburg developed this point further in her essay “Proletarian Women” (1912):

The workshop of the future requires many hands and hearts. A world of female misery is waiting for relief. The wife of the peasant moans as she nearly collapses under life’s burdens. In German Africa, in the Kalahari Desert, the bones of defenseless Herero women are bleaching in the sun, hunted down by a band of German soldiers and subjected to a horrific death of hunger and thirst. On the other side of the ocean, in the high cliffs of Putumayo, the death cries of martyred Indian women, ignored by the world, fade away in the rubber plantations of the international capitalists.

Three years later, she again recalled the litany of colonial crimes in her famous Junius Pamphlet:

The present world war is a turning point in the course of imperialism . . . The “civilized world” that has stood calmly by when this same imperialism doomed tens of thousands of Hereros to destruction; when the desert of Kalahari shuddered with the insane cry of the thirsty and the rattling breath of the dying . . . when in Tripoli the Arabs were mowed down, with fire and swords, under the yoke of capital while their civilization and their homes were razed to the ground.

Rediscovering Luxemburg

Luxemburg’s strident criticism of German imperialism’s crimes against the indigenous peoples of Southwest Africa has long been widely known. However, it has only recently emerged that she penned a series of twice-weekly analyses and reports on the Nama and Herero revolt in 1904, in the Polish-language newspaper Gazeta Ludowa.

Gazeta Lodowa was published in Poznań, a predominantly Polish-speaking region that was annexed to the Prussian Empire during the second partition of Poland in 1793. The publication was sponsored by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) rather than Luxemburg’s Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, which operated in Russian-occupied Poland.

As part of an effort to show skeptical SPD officials that she could win Polish workers in Poznań and other parts of German-occupied Poland to the cause of socialism, Luxemburg became the newspaper’s editor from July 1902 to June 1904. While many of the issues of 1902 and 1903 have not been found, all of those from 1904 have been. The newspaper was discontinued in July 1904 after the arrest and execution of Luxemburg’s close comrade and friend, Marcin Kasprzak (her main organizer in Poznań), and her own three-month prison sentence later in 1904.

All of Luxemburg’s articles in Gazeta Ludowa were published anonymously. They covered a wide range of issues, from political developments in Germany to the oppression of Poles by German settlers who were seeking to “cleanse” parts of Silesia and South Prussia of Poles, as well as various events taking place overseas. In 1962, Polish labor historian Felix Tych identified her as the author of twenty-seven articles in Gazeta Ludowa.

However, these writings of hers were completely ignored. They were never reproduced in Polish or included in her German-language Collected Works, and they remained totally unknown in the English-speaking world. Thanks to the prodigious research of Jörn Schütrumpf, it was recently discovered that Luxemburg herself wrote virtually every article from 1904 in this four-page newspaper.

Moreover, almost every issue contained articles and reports by her on events in Africa — mostly about the resistance of the Nama and Herero to Germany’s genocide. She clearly wanted the Polish proletarians to know what was happening in Southwest Africa and extend solidarity with African victims of German oppression.

Some of Luxemburg’s writings in Gazeta Ludowa have recently appeared for the first time in German translation in a collection edited by Holger Politt. All of Luxemburg’s writings in the Gazeta Ludowa, totaling several hundred pages, will appear in a forthcoming volume of the English-language Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg.

The Civilization of Capital

Luxemburg had a lot on her plate in 1904. She was a prolific writer for the German socialist press who was intensively engaged in theoretical and political debates in the SPD and the Socialist International, as well as working tirelessly to campaign for SPD candidates while running her underground party in Poland (along with her colleague Leo Jogiches). That is without even counting her voluminous correspondence.

It is hard to imagine how she found time to write virtually the entire content of a twice-weekly newspaper in what was then a rather modest-sized provincial city of 120,000 — it turned out that she had fewer supporters in Poznań than she let on to the SPD. And yet she still managed to handle this added commitment.

So what exactly did Luxemburg have to say about events in Africa in 1904? In January of that year, she highlighted the depredations of Belgian king Leopold II in the Congo:

An English priest, a missionary, describes the atrocities of the Belgians towards the Blacks in the Belgian colony of Congo as follows: In Mbongo, a Belgian village in Congo, a rubber warehouse has been set up where the local population can harvest the rubber tree must be added as tax. If the Black man doesn’t bring enough rubber, the lightest punishment that awaits him is a lash. Black people are often shot on the spot for such offenses as a deterrent example so that “the others are more diligent.”

It also happens that the Belgians, to save ammunition, have the Blacks line up one behind the other in a row so that they can kill several people with just one bullet as it penetrates one body after the other. At another Belgian station, the missionary saw human skeletons scattered in the grass; he counted 36 skulls. When he asked where the bones came from, he was told that they were Black people shot by Belgian soldiers, and that their relatives were forbidden to bury them. It is safe to assume that these beasts in human form, who commit elaborate murder for the sake of mammon, will still utter comments about the “immorality of socialists.”

Responding to the pardoning of Prince Prosper von Arenberg, a German military officer who brutally tortured and murdered a defenseless African, she wrote the following in February 1904:

It makes your hair stand on end when you read about such murder and it’s hard to believe that the beast capable of such abomination is a normal human being. And yet both the trial and its outcome raise many probing and troubling questions. First of all, how many convicted murderers may there be who, like Prince Arenberg, are mentally ill and yet were calmly sent to the scaffold or to prison? We Social Democrats are decidedly against the death penalty, and against penitentiaries in general; we do not believe that a prison could reform any criminal. In any case, we ask: if the roles had been reversed, that is, if the unfortunate Black had murdered Prince Arenberg, would public opinion have taken so much trouble to investigate his mental state?

She went on to raise “the most important question” arising from Arenberg’s case:

What should we think of a colonial policy that results in insane and degenerate criminals gaining such limitless power over the life and death of the unfortunate population in the colonies? Is it any wonder that the Herero people would now rather die than continue to recognize the dominance of German “culture,” which is represented by such beasts as [Carl] Peters, [Karl] Wehlan, [Heinrich] Leist and Prince von Arenberg?

Also in February 1904, Luxemburg returned to the subject of the Congo and the exposure of Leopold’s atrocities by Roger Casement, who went on take part in Ireland’s Easter Rising twelve years later:

The English government’s report was recently presented on the prevailing conditions in the African state of Congo, which is a Belgian colony. The report contains the eyewitness account of the English consul Casement, who examined the area on a special trip. The consul reports that the open slave trade has disappeared in Congo (so it existed before, and it is still practiced to some extent!), but forced labor now exists.

But the “forced labor” of the Blacks means nothing less than de facto slavery, of which the rapporteur himself gives the best information when he describes how Belgian officials throw women into prison just to force their husbands to work, or when he describes the torture against Blacks and other horrors committed by the colonial soldiers. The English press is extremely outraged by the inhumanity of the Belgians but forgets that the English in their colonies are no better at dealing with the so-called “semi-savage tribes” when they spread the “civilization” of capital through robbery, killing and torture.

In April, Luxemburg discussed the link between capitalism and colonial expansion:

While the whole world is glued to the bloody struggle between Russia and Japan over a large piece of mainland Asia, behind their backs the African earth has been quietly and secretly divided up! Such is the bloody path with which capitalism circles the globe! But the faster it races, consumed by greedy robbery, the faster it reaches its goal — its end. Despite its bloody course, the socialist movement presses like an inseparable shadow in the wake of the robbery and exploitation of capitalism. Where capitalism paves the way today through deserts, mountains and oceans, there we will one day stand the enlightened people who have liberated work, liberated peoples, fraternized humanity, driven out suffering and oppression. And to the Blacks in the African deserts, who are now divided like a herd of cattle between two rapacious powers, international, victorious socialism will one day bring the gospel of freedom, equality, and fraternity!

Another article from the same month connected German colonial atrocities in Africa to servile, authoritarian militarism on the home front:

The Germans order Blacks to be hunted to take away their soil and honor, after which their freedom, peace and livelihood are taken away. The farmers and workers from Pomerania, from Posen, from Bavaria, to whom no Black person has ever done anything bad, are now hunting down the poor Black people somewhere in the sandy desert of Africa, murdering, robbing, and raping the women. Will at least one of them do this on their own initiative and with deliberation? No, iron military discipline alone turns the soldier into an animal, a fratricide, a murderer in war. First, he is mistreated, humiliated, and dishonored in the barracks for two years, and then he is let loose on others like a trained dog.

Luxemburg continued to develop the point:

The crimes of today’s militarism are as closely tied as links in a chain. The mistreatment of soldiers in peacetime, the war crimes, the politics of military conquest — these are all just flowers and fruits of a single branch, of militarism, which grows on a single bush, that of the capitalist economy.

New Passions, New Forces

It is hard to read these passages and not be struck by how much they speak to the horrors being visited upon those suffering from neocolonialism and imperialism today — whether it be in Palestine, Ukraine, or Amazonia. Then as now, this oppression is the “flower and fruit of a single branch” — a global capitalist system in total disarray. Clearly, Rosa Luxemburg was a true internationalist and anti-imperialist, and most of all a humanist, who had no illusions that the struggle against imperialism could succeed if it was confined to acts of vengeance and terrorism.

As she argued during the 1905 Russian Revolution, “the thirst for vengeance invariably awakens vague hopes and expectations” and “weakens the clear understanding of the absolute necessity for, and the exceptionally decisive importance of, a mass movement among the people, a mass revolution of the proletariat” for the destruction of capitalism and imperialism. The massive outpouring of protests in solidarity with Palestine and against Israel’s genocide points to the emergence of precisely the kind of new passions and new forces that can make this perspective a reality for today.