JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 23, 2016
Until quite recently, while Queen Elizabeth and her family were celebrating her birthday every April 21, a group of elderly men in south-west Africa were nursing the effects of the birthday toasts they had drunk the night before.
The birthday these ageing men were celebrating was that of Adolf Hitler, who was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria. The men had been senior officials in Hitler’s Nazi party and its military wing, the Waffen-SS, and had managed to escape capture by the Allies at the end of the Second World War.
It is well known that about 9,000 former Nazis wanted for war crimes escaped capture using the Odessa network, usually with the complicity of sympathetic Catholic priests, and made their way to various South American countries. Less well documented is the story of the several hundred former Nazis who managed to make their way to the far more inviting sanctuary of the former German colony of Southwest Africa, now called Namibia.
And once there, most of them gravitated to the town of Swakopmund, 280 kilometres across the Namib Desert west of the capital Windhoek, at the heart of the fabled Skeleton Coast.
Exactly how many former Nazis made it to Namibia and how has never been conclusively established. In then 1970s a young German ethnologist, Karl Budack, moved to Namibia with the intention of exploring the Nazi refugee story. He managed to get a few interviews, but not many and when the German magazine Der Spiegel tried to follow up the story, also in the 1970s, the entire German-Namibian community closed ranks.
I got much the same treatment when I first went to Swakopumnd in the late 1980s after hearing rumours of the Nazi exiles. I was then the Southam News Africa Correspondent and one of the first major stories on my plate were the negotiations for Namibia’s independence from South Africa, which had occupied and ruled the country since 1915. In all my visits to Swakopmund I never did find ex-Nazis who were willing to talk. But after a few visits some townspeople opened up enough to tell me about the long tables set up in private dining rooms in some of Swakopmund’s hotels where, on the evening of each April 20, the increasingly elderly comrades would eat together and share silent toasts.
There was other evidence of their presence. Swakopmund’s antique shops had on display for sale significant amounts of Nazi memorabilia. There were well-thumbed copies of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, lots of swastika flags of various kinds, and now and then Waffen-SS daggers, which are much prized by collectors of this sort of dross of history.
The book store run by Peter Haller and his son Ludwig was one of the main outlets for this sort of stuff. But not any more. When German tourists starting coming in significant numbers after Namibia achieved independence from South Africa in 1990, many of them were not pleased to see on display these affronts to their country’s determined efforts to expunge the Nazi past. After many angry confrontations with customers, the Haller’s culled their stock and focussed more on offering arts and crafts produced by Namibia’s many African ethnic groups.
There are other ambiguities in Swakopmund. The war memorial, for example, is a large stone cross surrounded by a low fence. The writing on the cross simply gives the dates “1914-1918,” and “1939-1945.” The only clue to whom is being remembered are the imperial German crosses built into the gates of the small enclosure.
For the Nazis who did make it to Swakopmund it was a sensible choice, and a much more attractive and safe refuge than hellish bolt-holes like Paraguay.
Before my first visit I had been warned it is a bizarre place, and it lived up to its billing. It is Bavaria in the desert. The architecture is from the German colonial period of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The faux medieval half-timbered houses, ornate Lutheran churches and imposingly Germanic public buildings would fit neatly into some small Black Forest, Alpine town. But, surrounded by the Namib Desert on one side and the crashing South Atlantic Ocean on the other, Swakopmund looks like some particularly demented Disneyland.
Yet the architecture undoubtedly offered the comfort of the familiar to Hitler’s refugees.
And it was not just the buildings.
Germany held its Southwest Africa colony for only 31 years from its founding in 1884 until it was captured by the British moving up from neighbouring South Africa in 1915 during the First World War. But for some reason, Germany has left a far greater mark on even modern Namibia than it left in its other African colonies: what are now Tanzania, Togo and Cameroon.
German remains one of Namibia’s 13 official languages and is still widely used. It was even more prevalent when the Nazi exiles slipped into the country after 1945. There are now about 40,000 German-speakers out of a population of just over two million.
Namibia offered many other comforts not available in Paraguay.
Namibia still brews beer by the same rules established in Bavaria in 1516. These specified that pure beer must only contain water, malted barley and hops. Namibian breweries import barley and hops from Germany to make their beer.
Then, just down the road, are South Africa’s Cape Province vineyards. They offer fine accompaniments to the produce of land and sea from around Swakopmund. Just south of the town is the old British outpost of Walvis Bay, which produces some of the best oysters to be found anywhere. The West Coast rock lobster, or crayfish, halved and grilled with garlic butter, is one of life’s delights.
Namibia used to boast massive fish stocking in its territorial waters off the Skeleton Coast. But in the late 1960s, the United Nations withdrew the mandate given South Africa after the First World War to manage the old German colony. Once South Africa’s occupation was declared illegal, pirate fishing fleets from the Soviet Bloc and other countries such as Portugal and Spain, took advantage of this legal immunity, swooped in on Namibia’s fishing grounds and vacuumed them clean.
The fisheries have recovered dramatically since Namibian independence in1990, when the new country gained the legal clout to manage its resource. These are again some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But it’s a bit late for Swakopmund’s Nazi exiles, most, if not all, have now crossed to Valhalla.
Old-style German cooking remains a staple in Namibia. It is an arid country that allows agriculture only grudgingly. Rainfall around Swakopmund is only about 20 mm a year. Many plants and animals rely on moisture from the abundant sea mists created by the collision of the cold Benguela sea current and the warm air.
Most of Namibia’s food production remains the domain of farmers of German heritage, who with a lot of patience, courage, and large reservoirs of minimally-paid black Namibian labourers, have forged a productive pastoral industry. The quality of the cattle, pigs and sheep are first rate, and are one of the country’s major exports.
Another major attraction for the Nazis was the legal vacuum when South African occupation was declared illegal by the UN. It made formal extradition impossible for any people wanted for war crimes, and, anyway, the apartheid regime in South Africa included people with more than a passing support for Nazi doctrines.
Such legal niceties never stopped Israeli secret services from hunting down Nazi war criminals in other parts of the world. However, there are no indications Mosad or other Israeli agencies operated against the Namibia Nazi exiles. Even the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which has played such a large part in tracking down Nazi war criminals in the last 70 years, has no records of the Swakopmund Boys in its public archives.
One of the reasons for Israel’s detachment from the Namibia connection may be the highly ambiguous relationship successive Tel Aviv governments maintained with South Africa’s apartheid regime. The international sanctions imposed on apartheid South Africa created a market, and Israeli companies and institutions took advantage of that opportunity.
One relationship does not appear to have been so ambiguous. On September 22, 1979, a massive double flash characteristic of a nuclear explosion was detected in the South Atlantic by a United States satellite. It is widely believed this was a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test, though there has never been public confirmation of that by Washington or anyone else.
There is significant contention that the Nazi links to Namibia and German Southwest Africa before are far more deep and old than the story of the old comrades in Swakopmund.
Germany grabbed what became known as German South-West Africa in 1884 during the “scramble for Africa” by European colonial powers. The British had already taken control of the only useful deep-water port on the coast, Walvis Bay, so in 1892 the Germans started constructing a harbour at Swakopmund, and linked it by railway to the capital, Windhoek.
The first Germans to arrive were Schutztruppe colonial forces and farmers. All were male, and their marriages to local women led to the creation of one of modern Namibia’s distinct ethnic groups, the Basters.
Back in Berlin, the administration of Otto von Bismark was not happy about what their colonials were up to with the local women. Much like the filles du roi who were shipped out to Quebec from France in the mid-1600s, Berlin arranged passage of cohorts of German women to stock its south-west African colony.
Not all Namibia’s local people welcomed the Germans with open arms.
In 1904 the Herero and the Namaqua took up arms against the Germans. The three-year war was brutal and on the German side, entirely merciless. In what is sometimes called “the first genocide of the Twentieth Century,” the Germans used machineguns and other industrialized weaponry. It is generally reckoned that about 10,000 Namaqua, half the population, were killed and about 65,000 Hereros, about 80 percent of their number.
The German government formally apologized for the war against the herero and the Namaqua in August, 2004.
Insurgents who were not killed, and their women and children, were kept in concentration camps, a strategy employed a few years before by the British against the Afrikaners in the Second Boer War in South Africa.
Some visitors to Namibia read more into the country’s place and street names than is there. Göringstrasse in Windhoek is often said to have been named for Herman Göring, Hitler’s close confident and head of the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In fact, it was named for Heinrich Ernst Göring, the father of Herman Göring, and one of German South-West Africa’s first governors. Since 1990, the street has been renamed for Danial Munamava, the founding president of the South-West Africa People’s Organization, which fought against South Africa for the independence of Namibia.
Other old Nazi links are more certain. In 1908, soon after the wars against the Herero and the Namaqua, a German professor of anthropology and eugenics, Eugen Fischer, spent a couple of years studying the Basters. His report railed against mixed marriages and in 1912 interracial marriages were prohibited in all German colonies.
Fischer’s work had a strong influence on Hitler and the Nazis. He went on to experiment on Jews in Germany and to provide the pseudo-scientific justifications for the Nazis’ racial laws.
Skulls of Basters and other Namibians collected by Fischer were returned to Namibia in March 2014.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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