Although little remembered today, in the early twentieth century Gustav Frenssen (1863-1945) was a prolific and popular German novelist. Although a practicing pastor, the success of his first works Die Sandgräfin (1896) and Jörn Uhl (1901) allowed him to devote himself entirely to writing, and he spent the next few decades writing patriotic works that took on an increasingly chauvinistic and antisemitic tone. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis and many of their worst policies, including anti-Jewish measures and euthanasia policies.
His novel Peter Moors Fahrt nach Südwest (1906), which took the genocidal war in Southwest Africa as its theme, was his best-selling work and remained popular up through the Nazi period. Its success even led to his being considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The work was praised for its realism–he based the details for the novel on interviews with Germans who had been in the fighting–and is noteworthy for its nuanced depiction of the life of a white soldier, which highlights the physical and emotional travails that soldiers endured in the desert even as they fulfilled their “duty” against impossible odds. The depiction of the Herero enemy betrays little nuance, though. In the passages here, Frenssen depicts the enemy as bestial opponents, advancing in unseen hordes while making wild cries. Such a depiction is necessary for Frenssen’s ultimate point: although he is troubled by the killing of so many Africans–men, women, and children–he reassures himself through the colonialist logic that they have brought it upon themselves.
About this time of day, according to the predictions of our scouts, we ought to reach the enemy, but they were not to be seen. Then I thought, as did many others, that again there would be no fighting, and I was annoyed.
Then the first shot fell ahead. With a quick swing we were out of our saddles and had thrown reins over horses’ necks. Those who were to hold the horses seized them. Our company was only ninety strong, and, as we left ten with the horses, only eighty men went into the thick bush. The enemy were firing vigorously and letting out short, wild cries. I saw one of our men wounded. he stooped and examined a wound in his leg. Still, I saw nothing of the enemy. Then just for a second I saw a piece of an arm in a grayish brown coat, and I shot at it. Then I lay down to spy out another target. Lively firing was being exchanged. When one of us thought he had hit his mark, he would announce it with a loud voice: “That one won’t get up again! I got him in the middle of the breast!” The third man at my right, who was lying by a bush in front of me, twitched convulsively. A derisive voice on the other side shouted: “Had enough, Dutchman?” My comrade said, in a quiet voice: “I have a bullet in my shoulder, ” and he crawled back on all fours.
I could hear through all our own shooting that we were getting fired upon from the left. This fire now became heavier. They were coming nearer. In close ranks they came, creeping and shouting and screaming. Two of my neighbors were not shouting any more. We crawled back once or twice our length. The enemy shouted: “Look out, Dutchman, look out!” and laughed wildly. Others shouted: “Hurrah! hurrah!” The bush was swarming with men. I thought they would now break loose upon us in a wild storm and that it would be all up with us. On account of our wounded men I was fearfully anxious lest we should have to retreat.
Then word passed from man to man: “We are gong to charge.” Now the battle-cry told. I shall never forget it. With fierce yells, with distorted faces, with dry and burning eyes, we sprang to our feet and hurled ourselves forward. The enemy leaped, fired, and dispersed with loud outcries. We ran without interference, shouting, cursing, and shooting, to the good-sized clearing where we ardently desired water-holes were, and across it to the further edge, where the bush began again.
The enemy had fled to the east with their hole enormous mass, – woman, children, and herds.
A DRY AND THIRSTY LAND
The next morning we ventured to pursue the enemy. We left our unmounted men with the sick and wounded in camp and set out towards the east, two hundred horsemen in number. But our horses were weak, half-starved, or sick, and the region into which we were advancing was a waterless land and little explored. The ground was trodden down into a floor for a width of about a hundred yards; for in such a broad, thickly crowded horde had the enemy and their herds of cattle stormed along. In the path of their flight lay blankets, skins, ostrich feathers, household utensils, women’s ornaments, cattle, and men dead and dying and staring blankly. A shocking smell of old manure and of decaying bodies filled the hot, still air oppressively.
The further we went in the burning sun, the more disheartening became our journey. How deeply the wild, proud, sorrowful people had humbled themselves in the terror of death! Wherever I turned my eyes lay their goods in quantities: oxen and horses, goats and dogs, blankets and skins. And there lay the wounded and old, women and children. A number of babies lay helplessly languishing by mothers whose breasts hung down long and flabby. Others were lying along, still living, with eyes and noses full of flies. Somebody sent out our black drivers and I think they helped them to die. All this life lay scattered there, both man and beast, broken in the knees, helpless, still in agony or already motionless; it looked as if it had all been thrown down out of the air.
At noon we halted by water-holes which were filled to the very brim with corpses. We pulled them out by means of the ox-teams from the fieldpieces, but there was only a little stinking, bloody water in the depths. We tried to dig deeper, but no water came. There was no pasturage, either. The sun blazed down so hot on the sand that we could not even lie down. On our thirsting, starving horses, we thirsting and starving men rode on. At some distance crouched a crowd of old women who stared in apathy in front of them. Here and there were oxen, bellowing. In the last frenzy of despair man and beast will plunge madly into the bush, somewhere, anywhere to find water, and in the bush they will die of thirst.
Entirely forsaken in the scorching sun lay a two-year-old child. When it caught sight of us, it sat up straight and stared at us. I got down from my horse, picked the child up and carried it back where there was a deserted fireplace near a bush. It found at once the remainder of a root or a bone, and began to eat. It did not cry; it did not show fear, either; it was entirely indifferent. I believe it had grown there in the bush without human help.
THE LIMIT OF ENDURANCE
Then came the news that the enemy, after overcoming and passing the great stretch of waterless country, where thousands of them had perished, were situated far to the east on the further side of the sand field by some miserable water-holes. The general decided to follow them thither, to attack them and force them to go northward into thirst and death, so that the colony would be left in peace and quiet for all time.
At four in the afternoon we assembled for the service. The chaplain had been with the other division all the time, so that I had seen him for the first time only a few days before. He was a big, strong man, and wore a uniform and high boots, just as we did. He sat in the saddle with his gun by his side and his cartridge-belt around his waist. Even now when he stood before the chest, which was covered with a red cloth, he was in uniform and riding boots; but he had a gold cross hanging on his breast and wore on his arm a blue and white band with a red cross on it. First we sang the song, “We come to pray before a just God.” Then he began to speak. He said that a people savage by nature had rebelled against the authorities that God had set over them and besides had stained themselves with revolting murders. Then the authorities had given the sword, which we were to use on the morrow, into our hands. Might every man of us use it honorably, like a good soldier! It was serious hour. It might well be that one or another would not live till the next night. We would seek the face of God that He might bestow upon us of his eternal holiness, for to those who yield themselves to Him He has promised everlasting peace and rest.
We realized that the chaplain was in earnest and believed himself every word he spoke, and we all knew that there would be a fight and that perhaps we were going to suffer a sudden death or painful wounds and sorrowful transport. And then there faced us all the hard, long, weary road through shocking diseases and gnawing hunger and torturing thirst before we came again to our distant native land. Therefore we all listened with great seriousness and then took off our hats for the prayer.
Source: Gustav Frenssen, Peter Moor’s Journey to Southwest Africa: A Narrative of the German Campaign, translated by Margaret May Ward (London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1908): 174-198, 220-222.
Peter Moor goes to Southwest Africa (1906) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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