During the first half of the twentieth century, three generations of Germans fought to expand the German Empire in the colonial wars in Africa and in the subsequent First and Second World Wars. One man spanned all three of these generations, earning him the unfortunate and unique distinction of having helped to write the three darkest chapters of German history. He was Franz Ritter von Epp, the child of German colonialism who became the stepfather of the Nazi movement.
Franz Ritter von Epp was born in Munich in 1868 during the wars of German unification and would remain Bavarian through and through for the remainder of his life. When he came of age he entered a military academy in Munich, taking a commission as a lieutenant in the Ninth Bavarian Infantry Regiment after graduation. His regiment would first see combat in 1901 as part of an eight-nation coalition created to crush the anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion in China.
Epp took part in a battle near the Great Wall in which German forces tried and failed to encircle Chinese rebels. The rebels escaped, but Epp’s regiment managed to kill two hundred of them. While in China he would also lead a company charged with locating two missing German soldiers. When they found the soldiers’ weapons in the well of a nearby village Epp had the village burned to the ground. Epp would return to Germany hardened by his experience but unshaken in his commitment to the advancement of the German position in the world.
In 1904 Epp saw action on another distant continent, this time in German southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia). There he served as a line officer under another veteran of the Boxer Rebellion, Lothar von Trotha. Trotha had been charged by legendary German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen with suppressing an uprising by the Herero people again German rule. At the Battle of Waterberg Epp assisted Trotha in executing a reenactment of the encirclement maneuver they had attempted in China. Once again it failed, and the Herero broke free, but the only route of escape available to the Herero was into the barren Sandveld desert.
After the inconclusive Battle of Waterberg, the German colonial forces would change tactics. Rather than attempting to confront the Herero in a decisive battle, they focused upon denying the Herero an opportunity to break out of the desert so that they would eventually succumb to starvation or dehydration. Initially, when patrols encountered a band of Herero they would shoot the men and drive the women and children into the Sandveld. Later the Germans would establish a concentration camp at Shark Island where captured Herero were worked to death. The result of these genocidal policies was the death of three-quarters of the Herero people.