Gruesomeness is my policy

Richard J. Evans

  • German Colonialism: A Short History by Sebastian Conrad
    Cambridge, 233 pp, £17.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 107 40047 4

Dotted around the world, there are still a few reminders of the fact that, between the 1880s and the First World War, Germany, like other major European powers, possessed an overseas colonial empire. If you go to Windhoek in Namibia, you can still pick up a copy of the Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper which caters for the remaining German-speaking residents of the town. If you fancy a trip to the Namibian seaside you can go to the coastal town of Lüderitz, passing ruined railway stations with their names still in Gothic letters, and spend time in Walfisch Bay enjoying the surf and keeping an eye out for penguins. In Tanzania, you can stay in the lakeside town of Wiedhafen. If you’re a businessman wanting to bulk buy palm oil in Cameroon, the Woermann plantations are still the place to go. In eastern Ghana, German-style buildings that once belonged to the colony of Togo are now advertised as tourist attractions.

Similarly, in the Pacific you can sail round the Bismarck Archipelago and visit Ritter Island (though there’s not much left: a volcanic eruption blew most of it to bits in 1888). Further east, if you visit a bookshop in Samoa you can pick up the works of the leading local poet, Momoe von Reiche. In Chinese restaurants almost anywhere in the world you can order a German-style Tsingtao beer, first produced in China in 1903 by the Germania brewery in the German-run town of the same name (now transliterated as Qingdao). In Qingdao itself, you may come across the imposing Romanesque-revival edifice of St Michael’s Cathedral, which looks as if it belongs in a city somewhere in north Germany a century or so ago, as, in a sense, it does.

All in all, it’s not much compared to the extensive remains, physical, cultural and political, left by larger and longer-lasting European overseas empires, which together covered most of the world’s land surface at one time or another. The German empire lasted a mere three decades and was broken up at the end of the First World War, its constituent parts redistributed among Britain, France, Belgium, Australia and South Africa. Small in surface area compared to the British, ephemeral in duration, the former empire still attracted attention in the interwar years, when colonial propagandists lobbied to get it back, but even the Nazis paid it little serious attention, preferring to go for conquests in Europe instead, at least to begin with.

For many years, such historical writing as there was on the subject – the work of the Anglo-German economic historian William Otto Henderson was the outstanding instance – tended to focus on refuting the allegations of violence and brutality that had led to the empire’s dismantling and redistribution at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. By the 1960s these arguments were no longer very relevant. However, the situation was transformed by the work of Helmut Bley, who in South-West Africa under German Rule 1894-1914 (1968) reconstructed the horrifying story of the German war against the Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia in 1904-7.

The story told by Bley isn’t complicated. The mounting pace of land seizures by the colonial government in the early 1900s led to attacks on German farmers, resulting in around 150 settler deaths and the dispatch of 14,000 troops from Berlin under General Lothar von Trotha, a hardline Prussian army officer with previous colonial experience. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘that African tribes yield only to violence. To exercise this violence with crass terrorism and even with gruesomeness was and is my policy.’ After defeating a Herero force at Waterberg, he announced that any Herero ‘found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle’ would be executed. Herero cattle-herders caught in the action were killed on the spot; women and children were driven into the desert and left to starve. The chief of the General Staff in Berlin, Alfred von Schlieffen, in thrall, like all Prussian officers, to the supposedly Clausewitzian doctrine that the aim of a war must be the total annihilation of the enemy force, praised Trotha’s campaign as ‘brilliant’, especially his use of the desert to complete what the General Staff’s official publication, Der Kampf, called, approvingly, ‘the extermination of the Herero nation’.

But voices were raised in criticism too; Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow described the action disapprovingly as un-Christian and warned it would damage Germany’s reputation abroad. Social Democratic and Catholic Centre Party politicians were outspoken in their condemnation. The civilian governor of the colony, Theodor Leutwein, elbowed aside by the military because of his policy of compromise with the Herero, protested about the action to Bülow and declared the extermination a ‘grave mistake’. He was dismissed for his pains, but his view that the Herero should instead be recruited as labourers won sufficient adherents to bring about the arrest of the remainder of the tribe, mostly women and children, along with the members of the Nama, and their incarceration in ‘concentration camps’ (the first official German use of the term).

Here, however, their fate was no better. At the worst of the camps, on the rocky terrain of Shark Island off the Namibian coast, the prisoners were used as forced labour, fed on minimal rations, exposed to bitter winds without adequate clothing and beaten with leather whips if they failed to work hard enough. Every day, bodies were taken to the beach and left for the tide to carry them out into the shark-infested waters. Even the South African press complained about the ‘horrible cruelty’ of the camp regime. The camps also became sites of scientific investigation, as the anthropologist Eugen Fischer, later a leading ‘racial hygienist’ under the Third Reich, descended on the town of Rehoboth to study its mixed-race inhabitants (he called them the ‘Rehoboth bastards’). He and his colleagues obtained skulls for craniometric studies of different races; up to 300 of them eventually found their way to Germany.

Fischer concluded that mixed-race offspring (of Boers or German settlers and black Africans) were inferior to the former but superior to the latter, and decided they were suitable as a kind of non-commissioned officer class in the police, postal service and other arms of the state. As a useful if inferior race, they should be protected, unlike the Herero and the Nama. The law, however, followed Trotha’s belief that Africans were subhuman and his almost pathological fear that racial mixing would spread disease. In 1905, racial intermarriage was banned by law, and two years later, all existing marriages between Germans and Africans were annulled. These measures introduced the term Rassenschande, or ‘racial defilement’, into German legal terminology – it was to resurface thirty years later, in the Nuremberg Laws. The official status ascribed to the German settlers was different from that of the rest of the population, allowing Herero men to be conscripted for forced labour and compelling them to wear identification tags (another measure later applied by the Nazis).

The Herero population, estimated to be 80,000 before the war, was reduced to 15,000 by the end, while up to 10,000 out of a total of 20,000 Nama were exterminated. Of some 17,000 Africans incarcerated in the concentration camps, only half survived. Given Trotha’s racial beliefs, there can be no doubt that this was what would later come to be called a genocide. Its exposure by Bley raised in urgent form the question of continuity between the kaiser’s Germany and Hitler’s. Other colonial regimes were brutal, most notably Belgian rule in the Congo, and did not hesitate to use mass murder to suppress uprisings or establish control, from the French in Algeria in the 1870s to the Italians in Ethiopia in the 1930s. Racial discrimination, expropriation and labour conscription were far from uniquely German.

But only the Germans introduced concentration camps, named them as such, and deliberately created conditions so harsh that their purpose was clearly as much to exterminate their inmates as it was to force them to work. (It would be left to the Nazis to devise the chilling term ‘extermination through labour’, but the effect was the same.) Only the Germans mounted an explicit attempt to exterminate an entire colonised people on racial grounds. Only the Germans legally banned racial intermarriage in their colonies, as they did not only in South-West Africa but also in East Africa (1906) and Samoa (1912). Only the Germans subsequently mounted a campaign of racial extermination on a global scale which encompassed not only Europe’s Jews but also, potentially, the Jewish inhabitants of the rest of the world. Was there a connection between the two?

For decades after the publication of Bley’s book, this question remained, perhaps surprisingly, unaddressed. The critical historians of the 1970s and 1980s who turned their attention to continuities between Imperial Germany and the Third Reich concentrated on the domestic roots of Nazism, on Hitler’s rule in Germany and on the Holocaust. The anti-imperialism of the left, fuelled by the Vietnam War, and perhaps part of the background to Bley’s work, subsided as American troops left and Europe’s remaining colonies were given their independence. In West Germany the legacy of colonialism in everyday life began to vanish with growing economic modernity. Even the grocery shops selling Kolonialwaren – coffee, tea, spices, rice and similar dry goods from overseas – that could still be seen in German towns in the early 1970s were now largely renamed or disguised; few who buy their coffee at an Edeka store today, for example, realise that the name stands for Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler (consumer co-operative of colonial goods traders). Germany’s former colonies seemed like an irrelevance, and were largely forgotten.

In the 1990s interest began to revive with the emergence of postcolonial studies. As historians now put racism and racial ideology instead of totalitarianism and class exploitation at the centre of their explanations of National Socialism, the history of the German colonising experience no longer seemed so very irrelevant. The renewal of interest was signalled by the publication in 1996 of a revised, English-language edition of Bley’s now classic work, as Namibia under German Rule. Monographs and articles began to appear on colonialist discourse in Germany, on the colonial origins of racial science and on representations of colonial subjects in literature. The growing interest in cultural memory led to studies of postcolonial memories and commemorations in Germany. Sebastian Conrad’s succinct book sums up this new literature and places it in the context of globalisation, which has led to a revival of interest in the empire. With its many excellent illustrations and maps, its annotated critical bibliography and its acute awareness of historiographical trends, it is a model of its kind, providing an essential guide to the subject and intelligent pointers for further research.

The origins of German colonialism, as Conrad notes, lie partly in German history, where colonial dreams and fantasies served as a blank screen onto which nationalists could project an image of German unity before it was finally achieved. As Wagner declared in 1848, ‘we will sail in ships across the sea and here and there set up a new Germany … We will do better than the Spanish, for whom the New World became a cleric-ridden slaughterhouse, and differently from the English, for whom it became a treasure-trove. We will do it in a wonderful, German way.’ Far more important was the global context of German capitalism, centred on autonomous trading states like Hamburg (where Bley came from). Leading Hamburg merchants in the 1870s were said to have visited ‘every town on the Mississippi’ and to have stayed ‘twenty times in London’ but never once been to Berlin. Building on the rapid growth of German industry and economic power, Hamburg’s merchants were trading in many coastal areas of Africa and other uncolonised parts of the globe, and maintained 279 consulates in cities across the world. German scientists, explorers and missionaries, such as Gerhard Rohlfs, the first European to traverse Africa from north to south (often in Muslim dress), won a popular following back at home for their exploits.

Bismarck was unenthusiastic (‘As long as I remain chancellor,’ he said in 1881, ‘we will not become involved in colonialism’), but in 1884 he triggered the ‘scramble for Africa’ by declaring protectorates over a number of areas in which German economic interests were involved, backing similar moves by the French in an attempt to divert their energies from avenging the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War. Perhaps he also wanted to placate mercantile interests represented by the powerful National Liberal Party, whose support he needed in forthcoming national elections. A scramble for territory had in any case become almost inevitable after Anglo-French rivalry in North Africa reached a critical point in 1881-82. Whatever the reason, as the scramble extended from Africa across the globe, Germany amassed a paper empire that eventually became the fourth largest after the British, French and Dutch.

The eclectic group of territories claimed by the Germans included the sparsely populated arid region of present-day Namibia, where German cattle ranchers quickly established themselves, and where the mining of copper and diamonds from 1907 onwards brought some profit to private enterprise; the malarial coastal areas of Cameroon, where the mercantile interests of the Woermann family from Hamburg were dominant (rubber and palm oil were produced by German-run plantations inland); Togo, where trade, again in palm oil, was controlled largely by local Afro-Brazilian elites on the coast; the populous colony of German East Africa (present-day Tanzania minus Zanzibar, but including Rwanda and Burundi), where German settlers established cotton and sisal plantations; New Guinea and Samoa and associated Pacific islands, where German settlers were few and mercantile interests prevailed; and the Chinese treaty port of Jiaozhou, leased for 99 years in 1897 and run by the German naval ministry, which adopted an energetic policy of modernisation and improvement, providing the town of Qingdao with electric streetlights and a university at which Chinese students could imbibe German science and scholarship.

Bismarck’s vision of protectorates run by private enterprise without the involvement of the state, along the lines of the old East India Company’s administration of the subcontinent, did not last long. Violent clashes with African societies resisting growing exploitation by German merchants and settlers soon brought in formal rule by German bureaucrats, backed by military force. This only made things worse, as the state began to use violence to protect planters and settlers who had clashed with indigenous farmers and traders, provoking resistance on a larger scale. The genocidal war in South-West Africa was the most dramatic instance, but violence was a constant feature of German rule. In East Africa, for instance, continual military clashes, many of them triggered by the unscrupulous colonial adventurer Carl Peters, drew the imperial government in Berlin to take over the colony’s administration in 1891; but armed conflict continued, with 61 major ‘penal expeditions’ launched in the following six years. In 1905, conflict over land seizures, tax rises and forced labour requirements led to the Maji-Maji uprising, in which some 80,000 Africans died at the hands of the military. In contrast to the situation in South-West Africa, this was not seen as a racial war by the Germans, and indeed many of the casualties were inflicted by African troops in German uniform, but the death toll was immense, with more than 200,000 Africans perishing from the famine caused by the destruction of rebel fields and villages.

Violence, including public beatings of Africans, was a part of everyday life in the German colonies: the officially recorded number of beatings in Cameroon, certainly an underestimate, rose from 315 in 1900 to 4800 in 1913. African chiefs in Cameroon took their case to the Reichstag, but the governor’s subsequent dismissal had more to do with the objections of traders and missionaries to his policy of granting big land concessions to the planters than with brutality. The situation reached a crisis point at the end of German rule, when a former paramount chief was publicly executed for objecting to racial segregation measures in Douala, the main town. The continuing fragility of German control was evident. Given their small numbers in comparison to the Africans – fewer than 2000 settlers and officials in Cameroon – the Germans could hope to establish only ‘islands of power’ in their colonies. Nowhere did Africans wholly accept German sovereignty. Their effective exclusion from the political and public spheres of the colonies doomed German rule to appear alien.

Indeed, it frequently prompted Africans to combine in resistance; after the Maji-Maji uprising, the governor of East Africa conceded that what began as a ‘locally limited rebellion by a few half-savage tribes’ eventually turned ‘into a kind of national struggle against foreign rule’. Sometimes German policies could create new identities, as in Rwanda, where colonial officers armed with ethnographic manuals turned loose social differentiations between Hutu and Tutsi into fixed racial identities that then became the basis for legal distinctions. The result was what some historians have described as an ‘ethnogenesis’ that laid the foundations for the genocidal massacres in 1994.

It was also possible for scientific experiments to be carried out in the colonies that would have been impossible in Germany. The Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch had no difficulty injecting a thousand East Africans suffering from sleeping sickness with dangerously high doses of arsenic every day in the search for a cure, with predictably high death rates among the subjects. Indeed, ideas of racial differentiation and hereditary ‘inferiority’ were given a huge boost by eugenic investigations by scientists such as Fischer and helped generate and popularise the racial ideas later put into practice by the Nazis. Shows like the Berlin Colonial Exhibition of 1896, alongside the presentation of an African village in Hagenbeck’s Tierpark, a privately run zoo in Hamburg, played their part in building a popular sense of racial superiority.

Some saw the colonies as laboratories of modernity, where new towns and cities could be built without regard to the rights of existing landowners, where racial science could be employed to create a new social order in place of outmoded European hierarchies of status, and where new model communities could be founded on the traditional patriarchal principles currently being undermined by an increasingly vociferous feminist movement back home. The vocabulary and purposes of colonial missionary work were re-imported into Germany as the Protestant ‘Inner Mission’ set out to rescue the destitute and ‘work-shy’ from the ‘dark continent’ of poverty and ignorance in the slums of major cities. In 1913, a new law defining German citizenship on the basis of ethnic descent rather than residence (as was usual in the rest of Europe) drew directly on racial doctrines hammered out in the colonies. German nationalists began to think of Poles and ‘Slavs’ as racially inferior, and to abandon talk of Germany’s ‘civilising mission’ in Eastern Europe, as the belief that Poles could be turned into useful Germans began to give way to the conviction that their racial character, like that of the Africans, put them beyond redemption.

Does all this mean that there was a direct line from the colonial empire to the Holocaust? For all the obvious similarities between the Herero and Nama genocide and the extermination of Europe’s Jews less than forty years later, there were also significant differences: although there undoubtedly were concentration camps in South-West Africa, they weren’t like Treblinka, devoted solely to killing members of a racial minority. The Jews appeared to the Nazis as a global threat; Africans, like Slavs, were a local obstacle to be subjugated or removed to make way for German settlers. Colonial experience, particularly in the field of race, infused the ideology of National Socialism, but the personal continuities were few, despite the examples of Hermann Göring’s father, the first governor of South-West Africa, or Franz Ritter von Epp, who served with Trotha in the Herero war and later became Nazi governor of Bavaria, or Viktor Boettcher, deputy governor of Cameroon and later the senior state official in a Nazi-occupied part of Poland.

Trotha’s genocidal war was an exception in German colonial history, and it owed more to the military and racial doctrines of its author than to the wider characteristics of German colonialism. There was no equivalent in Eastern Europe between 1939 and 1945 of the self-proclaimed mission of modernisation and civilisation enshrined in the educational, economic and religious policies adopted in the final phase of German colonial rule. It took the brutalising influence of the First World War – itself part of colonialism’s impact on Europe – to make political violence an endemic feature of German life in the 1920s and 1930s and to turn men like Boettcher into Nazis. German colonialism does seem to have been more systematically racist in conception and more brutally violent in operation than that of other European nations, but this does not mean it inspired the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, the Herero war, far more than any other aspect of colonialism, has entered the public memory of present-day Germany as a significant parallel to and precursor of the Holocaust. It has led to impassioned debates about how best it should be commemorated. Nowhere have such arguments been more keenly debated than in the trading port of Bremen, where, in a small park behind the main railway station, there is a ten-metre-high brick elephant; commuters and tourists walk past it every day. Put up towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the stylised monument was conceived as a memorial to and a reminder of the history of German colonialism. Terracotta tiles were set into the plinth, each bearing the name of one of the former colonies. Speeches delivered to vast crowds gathered in the park for the statue’s inauguration on 6 July 1932 celebrated the achievements of colonialism and demanded the restoration of the lost colonies.

Improbably, the elephant survived the Second World War unscathed, although the various inscriptions around the plinth were quickly removed after 1945. By the 50th anniversary of its construction in 1982, it had become an embarrassment, especially in view of the continuing rule of the South African apartheid regime over Namibia. In 1988, the local youth wing of the trade union IG Metall put up a sign next to the plinth: ‘For Human Rights, Against Apartheid.’ Two years later, the elephant was officially declared an ‘anti-colonial monument’ in defiance of its original purpose, obvious though that was. When Namibia gained its independence, Bremen’s mayor staged an official celebration around the elephant, and in 1996 Sam Nujoma, the Namibian president, unveiled a new plaque inscribed ‘In Memory of the Victims of German Colonial Rule in Namibia 1884-1914’ on a state visit to Germany. The elephant is now cared for by an officially recognised society dedicated to tolerance, creativity and multiculturalism. A bronze plaque reminds visitors of the monument’s past, but nearby a small memorial to the Herero and Nama has been built as a kind of ‘anti-monument’, signifying the memorial’s continuing ambiguity.