Katharina von Hammerstein: Women’s Perspectives on Colonial War

On November 29, Katharina von Hammerstein gave the second presentation in LCL’s Colloquia series on “Women Writing War: Polyphony on Violence in the German-Herero Colonial War.” A professor of German studies, von Hammerstein’s areas of expertise include literature and culture from the eighteenth to the early twentieth-century, women’s literature, and (post)colonial German-African connections. In her talk, she demonstrated the many ways in which both German and Herero women made sense of and attempted to come to terms with the eruption of violence in former German South West Africa (today’s Namibia).

Building on Johan Galtung’s concept of violence, von Hammerstein explained how structural violence from the German side led to the Herero and Nama uprising in 1904. During this uprising, Herero and Nama targeted white men as the “representatives of [oppressive] power,” including settlers and soldiers. They nonetheless explicitly spared women and children, often even bringing them to safety in the midst of violence. In contrast, the German response was merciless and driven by a racist ideology. Few voiced any protest about it with the exception of the German socialist politician August Bebel. The twentieth century’s first genocide was therefore carried out unopposed under the leadership of the now infamous general Lothar von Trotha who killed black men, women, and children alike. Herero and Nama people were deliberately driven from their homes, left to perish in the Omaheke desert or in concentration camps.

While the women’s perspectives differed depending on which side of the conflict they found themselves on, there are parallels in the ways they frame their interpretations. The white German voices von Hammerstein presented were those of settler wives. Else Sonnenberg, for instance, vividly describes the horrors of witnessing the murder of her husband and the looting of her home during the rebellion. Von Hammerstein argued that Sonnenberg foregrounds her victimhood while at the same time claiming agency in helping to “write colonial history.” Testimonies from Herero women are harder to find not only in terms of the quantity of records left, but also in their accessibility to Western scholars. They exist in form of interviews, songs, or oral histories in Otjiherero, the Herero language. Herero women bewail their traumatic losses like the white women, depicting their victimhood through the atrocities against themselves and their people. They, too, express agency in supporting, preserving, and advocating for their community. The critical difference between the two groups of women and their testimonies, von Hammerstein concluded in her compelling talk, resided in the role race played in the colonizing dynamic: while the white womens’ lives were “respected in their precariousness,” black lives did not matter to German imperialists. The advances in “emancipation” for German women in Africa “[thus came] at the expense of non-whites.”