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What was the 20th century's first genocide?

After the Herero Genocide
The overwhelming tragedy of genocide can't be properly conveyed in words.
The overwhelming tragedy of genocide can't be properly conveyed in words.

Von Trotha was not completely successful, however. Some Hereros survived his horrific campaign, but their tribe's numbers were decimated. And while casualty statistics are always subject to great debate, one proposed estimate puts the magnitude of the event into perspective. Out of an original 80,000 Herero people, only about 20,000 escaped von Trotha's death crusade alive; that's three quarters of the entire population, wiped from existence [source: A Century of Genocide].

While most experts concur that what happened in German South West Africa -- now Namibia -- was unquestionably genocide, some disagree. They argue, for example, that there were not enough casualties to qualify the incident as genocide, or that the intent of the military campaign was misinterpreted as an extermination attempt. Another factor is that von Trotha acted pretty much of his own accord -- the killings were largely not state-sanctioned and indeed, were protested by many.

But the disagreement over the word "genocide" seems of little import in light of the atrocities carried out against the Herero people. Episodes such as these continue around the world to this day with little justice delivered in return. For the Hereros themselves, even a modicum of validity was a long time coming. In 2004, Germany offered its first formal apology, finally admitting officially to the genocide on the 100th anniversary of its inception. However, the speech given by the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, left many in attendance calling for a more direct apology.

A group of Hereros has also tried seeking financial compensation. They filed a lawsuit in 2001 against the German government and two German banks in U.S. courts, asking for $4 billion in damages, but the lawsuit is not expected to succeed. Two reasons frequently given are the age of the incident, and the fact that it predates the UN's 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

To learn more about the violence that still plagues us in modern times -- and about those working hard to turn things around and bring about peace -- visit the links on the next page.

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