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What was the 20th century's first genocide?

The Dubious Honor Goes to... the Herero Genocide

At the turn of the 20th century, the Herero people, one the many Bantu tribes living in southwest Africa, watched as their territory was slowly swallowed up, shrinking the borders of their homeland. The loss of land was one of many objections they had to the German colonial rulers who had entered their territory and threatened their pastoral way of life. In an attempt to salvage the situation, they staged a secret uprising, attacking military posts and farms. They focused their attacks only on those with whom they had just grievances in the conflict -- avoiding women, children, German missionaries, colonists of different nationalities and rival tribes -- hoping to garner allies among others in the region.

The uprising began on Jan. 12, 1904. Farms were destroyed, forts were harried and some civilians were killed. What little the Hereros accomplished for themselves, however, would be extremely short lived. A new commanding officer charged with leading the colony's military forces -- Gen. Lothar von Trotha -- soon set foot in the territory. His presence spelled doom for Hereroland.

The Battle of Waterberg took place in 1904, with fighting lasting two days. However, the outcome of the actual combat was less important than von Trotha's strategy of troop deployment, because the Hereros were boxed in. Three enemy sides were strongly defended, the fourth less so. As it became obvious the battle was unwinnable, the surviving Hereros were forced to break free by way of the weaker path, the path which led into the brutal Omaheke Desert. Von Trotha pursued, ordering his troops to kill any who tried to flee the forced march or fell behind the main body in exhaustion. Once his quarry was trapped in the desert, von Trotha had his troops deny the Hereros access to water holes; later, he had those water holes poisoned. Hand-dug holes dozens of feet deep were later found in the desert wastes; desperate attempts to find water in the bleak landscape.

The situation only got worse -- von Trotha's stated goal was complete expulsion or annihilation. He had the edge of the desert fortified to keep the Hereros cordoned in the barren land. Throughout the ordeal, no prisoners were taken; young or old, healthy or infirm, weak or wounded, male or female. All were killed (or simply left to die) if encountered by patrolling soldiers. Sometimes, after what the Herero suffered at the hands of their captors, death was probably an escape. Eyewitness accounts preserve the horrors of the massacring.

Forced labor in horrendous concentration camps followed for those who survived the initial genocidal efforts. The death rates in the camps were staggering. Thankfully though, the story of the Hereros didn't end there.

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