How the Germans Invented the Concentration Camp in Africa

“General Adolf Lebrecht von Trotha ordered the extermination of the Hereros for contesting the expropriation of their lands. This massacre, in southwest Africa in 1904, became a touchstone in later German discussions of population elimination as a mechanism for creating lebensraum [living space] in Europe. Eighty percent of the Hereros were killed: some shot, others driven into desert concentration camps and held there until they died. The general staff reported: “The month-long sealing of desert areas, carried out with iron severity, completed the work of annihilation.... The death rattles of the dying and their insane screams of fury ... resounded in the sublime silence of infinity.’”

Then comes the most startling sentence of all: “This ‘work of annihilation’ introduced to German the term ‘concentration camp.’”

---Rob Nixon, from a review of “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide. Sven Lindqvist. Trans. Joan Tate. NY: New Press, $20. Reviewed in the Village Voice Literary Supplement 144 (April 1996): 11.

For comment on the above, scroll down:

Color The origins of the ‘concentration camp’ are thus in Africa---European colonialism in Africa and the racism that drove it. As if racism directed outwards was bound to rebound against the ‘home’ and to search out/invent “Others” designated racially inferior and culturally threatening, Others in the heart of home to be massacred.... The Holocaust can’t be understood as the inexplicable appearance of pure Evil without precedent, nor can it be understood in the opposite way, as a historical inevitability predetermined and focused from the Middle Ages on hatred of the Jews. But the Holocaust did achieve its frightening force from history, from historical hatreds---and these patterns can’t be traced unless far greater patterns of hatred are studied than just the history of anti-Semitism in Europe (important as that is as a cause).

And how has this particular twentieth-century massacre come to be the only one that is a Holocaust that must be capitalized, as if reserving special awe and horror for itself? It is not an insult to the dead murdered in the camps to link their fates to earlier atrocities, to show the connections. The Holocaust rehearsals in Africa, the slave trade and what followed as the most monstrous Holocaust of all, direct progenitor of the slaughter in Europe, systemic slavery and racism had suddenly been used upon Europeans.... We should speak of the European Holocaust, the African Holocaust, New World Holocausts, Japan’s Holocaust against the Chinese in the 1930s and 1940s (which may have killed over 4-5 times as many human beings as the Nazi Holocaust and was also fueled by theories of racial superiority....) --- and unfortunately many more ....

Mourning can have its deepest meaning only if its roots are deep.

The complexities of the idea of lebensraum: clearing a pure space for the survival of a pure race = creating a concentrated space of death for those threatening that purity. but living space also involved partitioning Africa for raw materials etc. and the importation home of tactics tested abroad: internal space was shaped by expansion abroad. these two spaces were to be linked, the colony providing resources for the ‘home’, but never merged.

Never again? Never now?

lebensraum vs. lebestraum, the famous love-death theme in Wagner as an arias of guilt?

[as to the above, consider also Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel V, pp. 260ff]

Post Script: Khurbn

The Yiddish word used to refer to the Holocaust is “khurbn.” This word is historically central to Jewish history; it is most commonly used in the phrase “der urshter un tsveyter khurbn,” the First and Second Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Unlike the English word, which just has general references to atrocities and to religious rites (“holocaust” means “burnt offerings,” as on an altar for the gods), calling Nazi and Stalinist atrocities “khurbn” links modern attempts to destroy the Jewish people with ancient attempts to do so.

Ironically, this historical sense is strongest not in Hebrew or German or English but in Yiddish, a “second-place” and young language even within Jewish tradition. It is a language of secular and (often) domestic maternal realities and ties, not (supposedly) of spiritual, religious, and male authority and public identity, even nationhood. Yet the above truth about the extermination is spoken most strongly in the “women’s” language and space, in the (violated) home: in Yiddish. And the deepest historical resonance is carried by the Jews’ youngest language.

Precious cargo carried in the frailest boats of all---the sounds of words....

---for more: see Irena Klepfisz, A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: Poems Selected and New (1971-1990); Adrienne Rich’s introduction to this volume, pp. 14-15; and Irena Klepfisz’s collection of essays, Dreams of an Insomniac.

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