8 May 2020
In his life, Hermann Dietz had never achieved any great fame in Namibia. He hailed from the Thuringian Forest in Germany, where his parents where innkeepers at “Die Waldschänke” at Klein Schmalkalden. He was born in November 1877, star sign Scorpio. As a young teenager, aged 14 or 15, he left school and went to the Cologne area to learn the trade of bricklayer.
Times were tough, he had to serve a year in the military. When he was released he had empty pockets again, so he earned his passage to Buenos Aires, Argentina, by shoveling coal, firing the steam engines on a freightliner to the deep south of South America. He did not manage to find a way of making a halfway decent living. Yet when he was in a state of despair, an opportunity arose for him to accompany a ship load of horses to Cape Town. After arriving in South Africa, it became very clear to him why there had been such a big demand for horses in South Africa: Hermann Dietz found himself in the middle of the Anglo Boer War. The year was 1901, and he was a little too German to find any employment there either. During 1902, travelling as a stowaway back towards Germany, his ship stopped over at Swakopmund. He stayed behind in this little village on the Namib desert shore.
We don’t know much about his first year here, but Dietz must have realized quickly that this tiny village had big potential. It was a time when the Swakop Mole was nearing completion, the little settlement got its railway station, and its first lighthouse. And Dietz was an energetic young bricklayer.
During 1903 Dietz already owned a little wood and corrugated iron shack with four rooms. He made a large signboard and hung it over the entrance door “Hotel Hamburger Hof”. The only local brewery was just around the corner from the hotel, so, in the evenings Dietz worked in the bar of Rudolf Jauch’s Brauerei, pouring one draught beer after another. After a while Dietz was able to lease the entire pub and run it under his own name.
During September 1904 the 26-year old Dietz submitted his very simple building plans for a “double-storey dwelling” on the corner of Moltke & Brückenstrasse. The plans were approved swiftly and the project stood completed late in 1905. It turned out somewhat extravagant in style and was given the grand name “Haus Hohenzollern”. Built at the same time, all around only the tower of the Damara & Namaqua Trading Company rose taller than Dietz’s building. Very ornate stucco figurines decorated this unusual palace in the desert sands. A sculpture of Atlas flanked by a pair of lions crowned the corner gable of the Neo-Baroque building. Eccentric Dietz tried his hand at running a hotel for a while, but soon a recession had hit Swakopmund. He had to find other ways of making money. Fortunately, Swakopmund got its first municipality and the town council was only too eager to rent the entire ground floor of the Hohenzollern Haus.
Having secured such a good long-term tenant, Dietz took a ship to Germany, found a bride, married and brought her to Swakopmund. A year later a son was born. The family lived in the middle floor, on the northern side, behind the little balcony.
In 1913 the young mother Anna Dietz died unexpectedly, one day before Hermann Dietz’s 36th birthday. He was left as a single dad with the toddler Fritz.
Not even a year later, the First World War broke out, and by September 1914 Swakopmund got bombarded by two British battlecruisers, the ‘Kinfauns Castle’ and the ‘Armadale Castle’. The entire German population of Swakopmund was forced to evacuate their homes. Hundreds of Swakopmunders, including Hermann Dietz and young Fritz spent 11 months locked down at Windhoek, without any certainty about their future, waiting out the war. Fortunately, the widower Dietz, as a single dad, wasn’t conscripted into military service.
When life slowly turned back to normal late in August 1916, nothing was ‘normal’ in Swakopmund. All harbor activities had already been moved to Walvis Bay, and local business had come to a standstill.
Luckily again, Dietz had the Swakopmund Municipality as tenant in the ground floor of the building. But cash was extremely scarce, and Dietz had always been a restless man. He would not sit by and watch his fortunes dwindle, so, in 1917, Dietz took a job as bricklayer – stone mason with the South African Railways. He was based in Usakos, and had been tasked to build proper railway bridges across all the smaller and larger river beds along the Swakop – Windhoek railway line, but also the former OMEG line towards the copper mines at Tsumeb.
The great typhoid pandemic of 1918 found its way to our shores too, and despite best care, his son young Fritz Dietz fell victim to the flu. Hermann Dietz buried his son at the farmstead nearest to his construction site, at Farm Etiro below the imposing cliffs of the Erongo mountains.
During 1920, while many other men got repatriated to Germany, the tight-lipped, terse railway worker Dietz found a beautiful 23-year old woman, Marta, and found the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. A daughter ‘Helga’ was born in April 1921, and a son, ‘Fritz’ again a year later.
After several more years working for the Railway services, Hermann Dietz could afford to buy the farm Tsawisis along the Khan river, about 20 km below Usakos. He built a decent farm house and tried his best with livestock farming. During years of drought, he could let his sheep and cattle graze at Farm Kubas, a bit further east. During the more prosperous years he was even in a position to lease the farm. After the record rainfall years 1931/34 Dietz moved to the Hochfeld area where he eventually bought two cattle farms.
After a short sickness, Hermann Dietz passed away in Swakopmund in 1946. All along, through all the many ups and downs, despite all the hardships and challenges he had to face, he had managed to keep the Hohenzollern Haus as his property. His widow and the two children (in their mid-20s) inherited the Hochfeld farm, a ¾ ton Chevrolet pick-up truck, and the Hohenzollern Haus, then valued at £ 900.
In 1970 Marta Dietz passed away in Swakopmund and got buried near her husband at the local cemetery. The Hohenzollern Haus was declared a national monument in 1983.
Helga Dietz and her brother Fritz, the two most humble persons in the world, had been in their mid-60s when they tasked local architects and building contractors to do major renovations, and (all within the regulations laid down by the Monuments Council) divided the Hohenzollern Haus into quaint sectional title units, around 1986/7, just a few years before Namibian Independence.
When next you pass the Hohenzollern Haus, look at it as a monument to the resilience of the people that had lived and worked here in early times, as a monument to the tenacity of people eager to improve their situation. And when you happen to travel the B2 towards Windhoek on a rainy day, and the rivers are rushing and gushing, try to spot Dietz’s beautifully crafted stone bridges under the railway line, between Karibib and Farm Vogelsang.
* Fritz Dietz related the details to Georg Erb during an interview in 2007. He gave assurance that the first diamonds in Namibia were only discovered in 1908, and that he didn’t suspect his father of any foul play or corrupt practices either. He said he honestly had no practical idea, how his father found the inspiration and the means to build the Hohenzollern Haus - as a 26 year old bachelor.
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