Tuesday, July 26, 2022

colonial crimes

some thoughts on


Uwe Timm

published 1983, new edition: dtv, 2020

In 1904, my adventurous great-grandfather Julius (born in May 1883) signed up to serve in the colonial war against the Herero and Nama in the area now known as Namibia, but soon caught a tropical disease and was sent home, arriving back in March 1905. He was rumoured to have witnessed terrible things there but as far as I know didn’t tell anybody any details.

In recent years, the operations under the command of general Lothar von Trotha have been increasingly described as genocide and discussed as foreboding of the Holocaust (eg by David Olusoga), although earlier accounts saw no more than the ruthless suppression of a rebellion against colonial rule.

Uwe Timm’s account of the events is half fictional, half documentary and dates from the time when the war was described in more forgiving terms. It contrasts the perspective of a (fictional) naïve and relatively innocent veterinarian serving the German troops, with lengthy extracts from contemporary documents.

Reading the sources with their original racist language and all the rest of it is disturbing at times and could lead the reader to condemning colonialist attitudes. Then again, I suspect any reader thinking that colonialism was a good thing could take those sources as the good side and the veterinarian as the crazy outlier. I suspect the fact that the book has now been re-issued (with a new afterword by Green politician Robert Habeck, no less) after the views have shifted shows that the format allows it to move with the times and allows readers to pick and choose.

Considering that Jacob Morenga, an important leader of guerrilla warfare after the Nama joined the rebellion in 1904, lends his name to the book title, we don’t learn all that much about him. I suppose the idea behind the title is that he is essentially the phantom that haunts the German troops, but a book that is actually about him, showing the other side of the front lines, might also be interesting.

PS: I'll collect some other materials relevant to this here:

  • Just after finishing reading Morenga, I discovered the Bradt travel guidebook Namibia in a charity shop. Would have been handy if only for the map. In this edition, dating from 2011, the word genocide doesn't occur.

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