German Counterinsurgency Operations in East Africa: The Hehe War, 1890-1898


The war between German colonial troops (the Schutztruppe) and the Hehe people that devastated large parts of southern Tanzania between 1890 and 1898, remains one of the lesser known conflicts in the history of German imperialism and is often overshadowed by the Herero uprising (Namibia, 1904/05) or the Maji Maji War (Tanzania, 1905-1907). Nonetheless, surveying this specific war seems reasonable for researchers working in the field of military history, and especially the history of counterinsurgency operations, for it can be seen as an archetype of Germany’s colonial wars. The Hehe War that cost thousands of African lives and largely destroyed formerly productive agricultural areas had enormous influence on later conflicts. Many German officers learnt their practice during this war and tactics that were first employed in the fighting against the Hehe became typical for other colonial wars fought by German forces.


Obviously, the German Empire was not a first-rate imperial power like France, Great Britain or Spain. There were some colonial projects between the 16th and 18th century (in Western Africa and the Caribbean)[1], but there was no direct connection between these activities and later colonial policy. The most important impulse for a strong political engagement came with the foundation of the German Empire after the war with France 1870/71. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was a long-time critic of colonial ambitions, however, in 1884/85 he announced that Germany would establish “protection” over a number of territories: East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi), Southwest Africa (Namibia), Togo, Cameroon, and the Marshall Islands.[2] Bismarck had no intentions of implementing direct German rule (meaning investments in bureaucracy and security forces); he favored an approach based on the concept of “Chartered Companies”[3]. Trade companies were to be responsible for governing and securing specific areas, while the German Empire would render additional military assistance, primarily by using forward-deployed naval units.

In East Africa, the modern conquistador Carl Peters[4] in 1884 talked a number of local chiefs in the hinterland of Dar es Salaam into signing “treaties” (Schutzverträge) with him.[5] Although Bismarck was skeptical of Peters’ actions and declared that the signed documents were merely more than “a piece of paper with negro crosses beneath”[6], Peters finally achieved his goal to receive an official charter of the German Empire in February 1885.

Peters’ company, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Kolonisation („Company for German Colonization“, GfdK) and its successor from 1886 on, the Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft („German East African Company”, DOAG) largely ignored the need for a build-up of local security forces from the beginning. Expeditions were accompanied by rented Karawanen-Askari[7], but nearly all stations established by the company lacked military protection. In 1888, the rule of German agents led to a rebellion that became known as “Arab uprising” (Araberaufstand). The Sultan of Zanzibar, still the sovereign of large coastal areas of Tanzania, had delegated many of his rights to the DOAG and wanted to profit from tariffs in return – the influential Arab elites resisted, worried about losing their leading position in trade and commerce.[8] Fighting lasted for nearly one year, until a force under Hermann von Wissmann put down the rebellion. Some leading rebels were hanged, others became part of the colonial system as collaborators, “and the coast – that crucial nexus of Indian Ocean trade so desired by German colonial interests – was now ‘pacified’”[9]. Because of the DOAG’s deteriorating financial situation, the German Empire was finally forced to take over government of East Africa on January 1, 1891. Wissmann’s troops were then renamed Kaiserliche Schutztruppe, thus becoming the role model for all German colonial units.[10]

The new colonial power now turned its focus to Tanzania’s interior. While the coastal regions were shaped primarily by urban culture, the central and southern parts of German East Africa, as well as the regions around the Great Lakes featured larger hierarchy-based territories. In the southern highlands, the most important ethnic groups were the Ngoni, Sangu and Hehe (Wahehe), the latter being the strongest power since the 1860s.[11] The Ngoni had migrated to Tanzania from South Africa in the 1820s after coming under pressure from the expanding Zulu[12]. By adopting the Zulu military system, the Ngoni tried to become the dominant group in the region. Their efforts were thwarted, first by the Sangu, and finally by the Hehe, who – by improving the Zulu system – became a hegemonial power in southern Tanzania. Speaking of hegemony, one has to consider that members of subjected ethnical groups were integrated into Hehe society, and that “the Hehe” themselves have to be seen as a construction of political elites; the tribal name also was a construct, applied to the Hehe by their enemies.[13] After the death of Chief Munyigumba in 1880, his son Mkwawa[14] took over as ruler of the Hehe. A survey of the conflict between the Hehe and Germany has to reconsider one important fact: one cannot apply the often-mentioned theory that African ethnic groups were just “quiet victims” of colonial powers. Of course, the Hehe can be seen as victims of European imperialism – but their war with German forces was also a clash of two territorial entities focused on expansion. East Africa had been no peaceful paradise prior to the beginning of European activities; the Hehe had been known for their aggressiveness for decades, and it was no coincidence that other tribes, already in the pre-colonial era, had begun calling Chief Mkwawa muhinja, “the butcher”.[15]

Armed confrontations between the Hehe and the new colonial power began in the summer of 1890, when a German caravan was attacked near Mpapua, but after a quickly launched punitive expedition the Hehe immediately asked for peace.[16] However, the number of incidents did not decrease and so the commander of German forces, Emil von Zelewski, planned another expedition “to punish the rapacious and rebellious Wahehe”[17]. Many soldiers and officials thought “the most merciless and ruthless actions [to be] the most gentle” because they would lead to quick peace.[18] Zelewski’s force, consisting of 14 Germans and nearly 600 Africans, marched into Hehe territory (Uhehe) and burned down every settlement on its way. While avoiding open battle, Mkwawa prepared an ambush northeast of his residence Iringa (Kalenga). On August 17, 1891, 2000 to 3000 Hehe warriors threw themselves on the German troops – marching in a long column – “with the force of a cavalry attack”[19]. Breaking into the Askari lines, the Hehe were able to use their superiority in close combat; when the Battle of Rugaro was over, 10 Germans and about 400 Askari and porters lay dead. Hehe fatalities may have numbered 200 to 300.[20]

After this bloodiest defeat in the history of the Schutztruppe, many Germans in East Africa panicked, but Mkwawa had no intention of continuing the fight. He offered peace talks, which were accepted by the Germans, mainly because they needed time to reinforce their position – in spring of 1892, negotiations ended without an agreement.[21] This was followed by an increased number of skirmishes, including a fight at Munisagara, where a Hehe frontal attack was repulsed with heavy losses in what was the first decisive German victory of the war.[22] In general, however, set-piece battles were rare, and security forces focused on intimidating civilians, demonstrating the superiority of the German military.[23] The possibility of a peaceful solution (like it had been found after the “Arab uprising”) existed in this case too, but was prevented by the military’s desire for revenge.

By September 1894, the Schutztruppe had completed plans for a large-scale campaign against the Hehe. The German main force was to invade Uhehe from the east and take Iringa, while smaller contingents, assisted by warriors of the Sangu tribe, were to block possible routes of retreat.[24] Why Mkwawa chose to defend Iringa and did not resort to hit-and-run tactics, remains unclear. When the German troops arrived at his “capital”, they were surprised to find the settlement heavily fortified.[25] Even after being bombarded for two days, the Hehe did not surrender, so, on October 30, 1894, the Germans started a frontal attack that, after four hours of close combat, led to the capture of Iringa – the Schutztruppe buried 150 enemies after the battle, but many Hehe perished in burning houses and the real number of deaths remains unclear.[26] About 1500 women and children were captured and taken away to the coast. While some researchers see this German strategy as predecessor of later resettlement programs (like the “concentration zones” of the Philippine War or the “strategic hamlets” in Vietnam), there is at least one important difference: exiling Hehe civilians from their tribal lands was not part of a strategy aiming at improved population control; it primarily was a measure of punishment that was to show the Hehe leadership its own helplessness.

Militarily, the Battle of Iringa proved to be indecisive: Mkwawa and most of his warriors escaped. Governor Schele was soon replaced by Wissmann, who received orders to achieve a quick peace in East Africa.[27] Towards the end of 1895, Mkwawa was willing to subject his people to German rule – but the new governor was not satisfied. Captain Tom von Prince was ordered to establish a military post in the heart of Uhehe.[28] He also had the authority to depose Mkwawa as chief (if he resisted), and to name a successor, or, in case he found no other adequate leader, to break up the Hehe Empire into smaller entities.[29] When negotiations with Mkwawa stalled, the Germans attacked his camp, massacring 500 persons.[30] From this time on, Mkwawa was no longer seen as ruler, but as outlaw and rebel. The Hehe were pursued through remote areas and the Schutztruppe captured most of their cattle in order to destroy the tribe’s basis of nourishment.[31] This strategy led to the surrender of most Hehe warriors, including Mkwawa’s brother Mpangile, who was named new sultan of Uhehe.[32] The Sangu were given control of the western part of Uhehe[33] – a good example for using intra-African rivalries and the principle of divide et impera.

Mkwawa then began a guerrilla war. Supply columns and small patrols were ambushed, and many Hehe collaborators killed in a “terror campaign”.[34] However, Mkwawa’s situation deteriorated steadily. In July 1897, a bounty on the chief’s head was offered, and 2000 troops began searching for the rebels in the mountainous areas of Uhehe. Until November, they had captured about 1700 Hehe, most of them malnourished women and children.[35] For Captain von Prince, many prisoners were merely more than “skeletons”[36]. The last parts of Uhehe were officially declared “pacified” in April 1898, even though Mkwawa and some of his followers were still on the run. On July 19, the former chief of the Hehe people shot himself to avoid capture.[37] A German sergeant ordered his men to cut off Mkwawa’s head and presented it to his superiors.[38] Although German authorities remained skeptical in regards to the Hehe being subjugated, they heavily relied on them in later conflicts – especially during the Maji Maji War (1905-1907).[39]

If we look at the German-Hehe conflict, it can be stated that it turned from a punitive expedition into a real counterinsurgency campaign, maybe even into a war of annihilation[40]. Towards the end of the war, a proclamation was published, saying that every armed Hehe captured by German forces was to be shot, “so that the rapacious rabble that does not bow can be exterminated”[41]. The Germans used their advantage: better weaponry and the ability and willingness to destroy the enemy’s social basis. Hehe women, traditionally responsible for field work, were specifically targeted to be taken prisoner.[42] Of course, such strategies were not new, French troops had acted the same way in Algeria in the 1840s.[43] One thing becomes clear, if we survey German strategy against the Hehe: accepting a high mortality rate among the African population was an integral part of the overall counterinsurgency concept. Still, we cannot speak of genocide. Brutal measures implemented during the Hehe War aimed at achieving certain military goals. After the conflict had ended, German officials, for example, immediately sent seeds to Uhehe.[44] The colonial government simply had no choice but to support the indigenous population, for more and more settlers moved into the region and so the local workforce had to be conserved.[45] One of the main results of the war was that many German officers had begun to see colonial conflicts as race wars. For example, Lothar von Trotha (commander of the East African Schutztruppe from 1894 to 1897) clearly despised the Hehe – in 1904/05 he was the general responsible for the first German genocide in Southwest Africa, when tens of thousands of Herero and Nama died because of his large-scale annihilation strategies.[46] The Hehe War has to be seen as an important colonial conflict not only because of its duration or number of casualties; it also stands at the beginning of a number of bloody wars in German colonies that ended only with the demise of the Empire in 1918.

[1] See Christoph Rella, „Im Anfang war das Fort“: Europäische Fortifizierungspolitik in Guinea und Westindien 1415-1815, Dissertation Univ. Wien, 2008; Ulrich van der Heyden, Rote Adler an Afrikas Küste: Die brandenburgisch-preußische Kolonie Großfriedrichsburg in Westafrika, Selignow Verlag, Berlin, 2001.

[2] Thomas Morlang, Askari und Fitafita: „Farbige“ Söldner in den deutschen Kolonien, Christian Links Verlag, Berlin, 2008, p. 10.

[3] The best known „Chartered Company“ in history was the British East India Company.

[4] On the person of Carl Peters see Arne Perras, Carl Peters and German Imperialism 1856-1918: a political Biography, Clarendon Press, Oxford (UK), 2004.

[5] Kurt Büttner, Die Anfänge der deutschen Kolonialpolitik in Ostafrika, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1959, p. 48.

[6] Cited in Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Bismarck und der Imperialismus, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 51984, p. 342.

[7] Local „mercenaries“ specialized in guarding the traditional caravan routes; the term Askari was later used for all African colonial troops in German and Italian service.

[8] Tanja Bührer, Die kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika: Koloniale Sicherheitspolitik und transkulturelle Kriegführung, 1885-1918, Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich 2011, p. 212.

[9] David Pizzo, „To devour the Land of Mkwawa“: Colonial Violence and the German-Hehe War in East Africa c. 1884-1914, PhD Thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, 2007, p. 38.

[10] Morlang, Askari, p. 19 f.

[11] Pizzo, Mkwawa, p. 52.

[12] See Elizabeth A. Eldredge, Sources of Conflict in Southern Africa, c. 1800-1830: The ‘Mfecane’ Reconsidered. In: Journal of African History 33, 2 (1992), p. 1-35.

[13] Chris Peers, Warrior Peoples of East Africa 1840-1900, Osprey, Botley (UK)/New York, 2005, p. 20; Alison Redmayne, Mkwawa and the Hehe Wars. In: Journal of African History 9, 3 (1968), p. 409-436, p. 411.

[14] His real name was Mukwavinyika („Conqueror of many lands“).

[15] Ernst Nigmann, Die Wahehe. Ihre Geschichte, Kult-, Rechts-, Kriegs- und Jagd-Gebräuche, Verlag E. S. Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1908, p. 15.

[16] Thomas Morlang, „Die Wahehe haben ihre Vernichtung gewollt.“: Der Krieg der „Kaiserlichen Schutztruppe“ gegen die Hehe in Deutsch-Ostafrika (1890-1898). In: Thoralf Klein / Frank Schumacher (eds.), Kolonialkriege: Militärische Gewalt im Zeichen des Imperialismus, Hamburger Edition, Hamburg, 2006, p. 80-108, p. 82.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cited in Martin Baer / Olaf Schröter, Eine Kopfjagd: Deutsche in Ostafrika, Christian Links Verlag, Berlin, 2001, p. 27.

[19] Tom von Prince, Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit 1890-1895, Verlag E. S. Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, ²1914, p. 172.

[20] On the Battle of Rugaro see Thomas Morlang, „Die Kerls haben ja nicht mal Gewehre.“ Der Untergang der Zelewski-Expedition in Deutsch-Ostafrika im August 1891. In: Militärgeschichte 11 (2001), p. 22-28.

[21] Rochus Schmidt, Geschichte des Araberaufstandes in Ost-Afrika, seine Entstehung, seine Niederwerfung und seine Folgen, Trowitzsch Verlag, Frankfurt an der Oder, 1892, p. 310 f.

[22] David Pizzo, Cunning Tactics: Indigenous Responses to the Imposition of German Colonial Rule in East Africa. In: History Research 2, 2 (2012), p. 73-109, p. 89 f.

[23] Michael Pesek, Koloniale Herrschaft in Deutsch-Ostafrika: Expeditionen, Militär und Verwaltung seit 1880, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2005, p. 195.

[24] Morlang, Wahehe, p. 85.

[25] Friedrich von Schele, Ueber die Organisation der Kaiserlichen Schutztruppe in Deutsch-Ostafrika und die kriegerischen Operationen daselbst während der Jahre 1893/94. Vortrag. In: Beiheft zum Militär-Wochenblatt 9 (1896), p. 441-478, p. 472.

[26] Tanja Bührer, Kriegführung in Deutsch-Ostafrika (1889-1914). In: Tanja Bührer / Christian Stachelbeck / Dierk Walter (eds.), Imperialkriege von 1500 bis heute: Strukturen, Akteure, Lernprozesse, Schöningh Verlag, Paderborn, 2011, p. 197-215, p. 206; Morlang, Wahehe, p. 85; Pizzo, Mkwawa, p. 172.

[27] Alexander Becker, Aus Deutsch-Ostafrikas Sturm- und Drangperiode: Erinnerungen eines alten Afrikaners, Hendel Verlag, Halle an der Saale, 1911, p. 173.

[28] Pizzo, Mkwawa, p. 195.

[29] Baer / Schröter, Kopfjagd, p. 56.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ernst Nigmann, Geschichte der Kaiserlichen Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika, Verlag E. S. Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1911, p. 55.

[32] Magdalene von Prince, Eine deutsche Frau im Inneren Deutsch-Ostafrikas. Elf Jahre nach Tagebuchblättern erzählt, Berlin, 1908, p. 54 ff.

[33] John Iliffe, A modern history of Tanganyika, Cambridge UP, Cambridge 1979, p. 114.

[34] Morlang, Wahehe, p. 88.

[35] Morlang, Wahehe, p. 89.

[36] Cited in Pizzo, Mkwawa, p. 214 f.                 

[37] Morlang, Wahehe, p. 89.

[38] Baer / Schröter, Kopfjagd, p. 58. The skull was returned in 1954 on initiative of the British government and is on display in the Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Kalenga.

[39] Winfried Speitkamp, Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte, Reclam Verlag, Ditzingen, 2005, p. 131.

[40] The term is used here in the tradition of Clausewitz, i. e., in a military, not a genocidal sense.

[41] Cited in Jan-Bart Gewald, Colonial Warfare: Hehe and World War One – the Wars beside Maji Maji in south-western Tanzania, University of Leiden African Studies Centre, Leiden, 2005, p. 11.

[42] Eduard von Liebert, Neunzig Tage im Zelt: Meine Reise nach Uhehe, Verlag E. S. Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1898, p. 31; Prince, Frau, p. 144.                 

[43] Bruce Vandervort, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa: 1830-1914, Indiana UP, Bloomington, IN, 1998, p. 62 ff.

[44] Morlang, Wahehe, p. 97.

[45] Gewald, Warfare, p. 12.

[46] See Andreas Heinrich Bühler, Der Namaaufstand gegen die deutsche Kolonialherrschaft in Namibia von 1904-1913, IKO Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2003; Jürgen Zimmer, Annihilation in Africa: The ‚Race War‘ in German Southwest Africa (1904-1908) and its Significance for a global History of Genocide. In: Bulletin of the German Historical Institute (Washington, DC) 37, 3 (2005), p. 51-57.


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This is the kind of article that makes SWJ such an outstanding site. Where else would you find something about a conflict that most of us have never heard of and based on sources that are mostly not in English. Bravo.

The article says two of the things the German forces did to win the conflict was to capture cattle and, surprisingly, specifically target women to be taken prisoner. Both resulted in the men coming in because they didn't have anything to eat. Cattle were an obvious target but the article says the women were targeted because they did the agricultural field work. No cattle, no meat. No women, no crops. Nothing to eat, gotta give up.

That was probably blindingly obvious to the German forces at the time but it was quite interesting to me.