Snyder on Naranch and Eley, 'German Colonialism in a Global Age'

Bradley Naranch, Geoff Eley, eds.
Edward Snyder

Bradley Naranch, Geoff Eley, eds. German Colonialism in a Global Age. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 419 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5723-0.

Reviewed by Edward Snyder (Chowan University) Published on H-TGS (August, 2017) Commissioned by Benjamin Bryce (University of Northern British Columbia)

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German Colonialism in a Global Age

The concept of colonialism has always had an awkward place within the larger context of modern German history. Due to the relatively short duration of Germany’s formal colonial empire, historians have tended to treat colonization as a tool to understand the domestic politics of the imperial government or the nature of German expansion in eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. Only recently have historians started to give Germany’s overseas empire serious consideration on its own merits. As Bradley Naranch writes in his introduction: “Other than a number of review essays and recent conference-related volumes of essays, there have been few detailed attempts to define the field intellectually or to establish an institutional foundation for furthering its aims” (p. 3). In this context, the essays contained within this volume are extremely valuable because they explore the variety of ways in which imperialism affected the development of modern Germany, and in the process they attempt to define German colonialism as a field in its own right.

To this end, German Colonialism in a Global Age contributes to the larger historiographies of modern Germany as well as of imperialism and empire. Composed of seventeen chapters by many leading scholars of modern German history, this volume explores German colonialism in a truly global context that goes far beyond the existence of Germany’s formal colonial empire. Taken together, the contributions to this volume show that the history of modern Germany is incomplete without a serious consideration of colonialism. At the same time, it also raises a number of important questions for further study. In this sense, German Colonialism in a Global Age is essential reading for any scholar of modern Germany.

The volume begins with two introductory chapters by the volume’s editors. In the formal introduction, Naranch explains that one of the volume’s primary goals is to illustrate the pervasive nature of colonialism in the history of modern Germany. “It offers German historians a unique opportunity to examine the larger operations and daily transactions of a modern empire whose means of expression were unpredictable and varied, one in which colonialism was present but not central to the lives of most of its citizens” (p. 6). To this end, Naranch asserts that we can best understand the legacy of empire, and the ways in which it intersects with aspects of modern Germany, through the work of historians who are not necessarily experts in colonialism. Naranch’s introduction is followed by a longer piece in which Geoff Eley sketches the theoretical underpinnings of the volume through an examination of the historiography of German colonialism. Of particular relevance to this volume is Eley’s discussion of transnationalism, which shapes many of the volume’s contributions. By adopting a transnational approach, which contends that “a society’s history contains a complex repertoire of processes ... that cut across the main patterns of nation forming,” historians can illustrate how the “extra-European” aspects of German history influenced “Germany’s metropolitan history” (p. 30). Nearly all of the contributions clearly demonstrate this idea.

When taken together, the fifteen contributions generally represent a couple of broader themes while illustrating the importance of transnationalism to the study of German Empire. For example, the first three chapters explore the broader relationship between scientific study and empire. George Steinmetz connects the rise of sociology as an academic discipline and the question of scientific autonomy to the changes in German ideas about colonialism. Of particular interest is his analysis of the career of Richard Thurnwald, which began before World War I and included the Nazi era. Steinmetz clearly shows that the tremendous upheaval of German political life had a profound effect on Thurnwald’s scholarship. Thurnwald’s ideas about colonization frequently changed to reflect “political and temporal forces” as well as “his immediate academic environment” (p. 63). Like Steinmetz, Deborah Neill examines the relationship between science and colonialism in her analysis of the German scientific community and tropical medicine. She shows that colonialism not only resulted in territorial expansion but also in the creation of transnational, collaborative scientific networks as scientists had “unprecedented opportunities to conduct research, collect data, and identify new microbes” (pp. 75-76). To maximize the potential benefit of these new opportunities, German scientists and drug companies collaborated extensively with their colleagues in France and Belgium until World War I shattered these partnerships. Consequently, Neill argues that a number of doctors were attracted to Nazism in the hope that the party would “restore their profession’s reputation and their fields for research” (p. 87).

In one of the volume’s most innovative contributions, Andrew Zimmerman argues that not only was agricultural science an integral aspect of colonialism in Africa, but it was also central to the ability of German colonial authorities to govern their colonies. “From the beginning, agricultural science in German East Africa was bound up with labor discipline and state formation” (p. 98). Specifically, colonial authorities sought to collaborate with the Tuskegee Institute in the United States to use European agricultural practices to transform Africans into plantation laborers and obedient colonial subjects. Through this approach, Zimmerman asserts that Germany’s West African colony in Togo became a model on how to use science and technology simultaneously to exercise control and improve the lives of colonial subjects. Taken together, these chapters illustrate how colonization played a central role in the creation of transnational networks that allowed scientists to collaborate and exchange knowledge.

As Naranch argues in his introduction, however, the impact of colonialism was not always so clear and direct. Often, one may have been completely unaware of the extent to which colonialism affected life in the metropole. This theme is illustrated particularly effectively by the work of Heike Schmidt, Jeff Bowersox, and David Ciarlo. Schmidt explores the question of gender and masculinity, arguing that German East Africa served as a space where German men could deal with a crisis in masculinity that had its origins in the metropole. With the comparatively late onset of industrialization in the final decades of the nineteenth century, “industrial labor conditions and hurried urbanization were taking their toll” by challenging and transforming male social status. For those men who struggled to adapt to this changing landscape, the colonies served as a place where they could reassert their masculinity and at least have the appearance of dominance. Bowersox meanwhile examines education, arguing that a variety of different academic subjects used colonialism to assert their importance to larger curricula and to stimulate interest among students. For example, “school geographers” insisted on integrating the colonies into geography lessons (p. 171). “They aimed first and foremost to shape their undervalued discipline in such a way that it appealed to education authorities and teachers updating their curricula and instructional practices for the modern age” (p. 172). At a time when the world was becoming increasingly globalized, they insisted that students needed a firm grasp of geography in order to be successful. Finally, in a visually rich piece, Ciarlo shows how German companies frequently used colonial imagery to advertise their products even though they had nothing to do with colonization. “The appellation ‘suitable for the colonies’ could spice up a mundane purchase of soup bouillon or socks with a flash of imaginative travel” (p. 193). The result, he argues, is that in Germany colonialism was no longer the exclusive province of colonial advocates. The end result is that the visual images of the advertisements created a “simplified racial fantasy” that led Germany into two world wars (p. 206).

Finally, a third major theme in the volume is the relationship between German colonial projects and the political right in Germany. Even though the two were closely entwined, the relationship often ran counter to what one might expect. In his examination of the relationship between colonialism and anti-Semitism in Germany, Christian S. Davis challenges the prevailing wisdom of recent scholarship that “a fairly straightforward relationship between colonialism and anti-Semitism” existed in which anti-Semites took ideas about European racial superiority and applied them to Jews (p. 241). While this relationship certainly existed, Davis argues that more radical anti-Semites were often critical of the German colonial project. They believed that colonial policies would ultimately harm rather than benefit Germans, and they were concerned about the presence of several Germans of Jewish descent among the leading figures of the German colonial movement. Thus, the relationship between anti-Semites and the colonial movement was in fact more complicated.

While Sebastian Conrad is also interested in the impact of overseas colonization on German policies in Europe, his focus is on Germany’s dreams of colonization in eastern Europe. Building on an already impressive body of literature about modern Germany’s fraught relationship with the East, Conrad argues that while Germany’s interaction with eastern Europe is a form of colonization, it differed from overseas colonization. Germany’s activity in eastern Europe was “part and parcel of processes of global integration” while the concept of “difference” between Germans and non-Germans followed a distinct path in Poland compared to its path in the African colonies (p. 147). Unlike the overseas colonies, Germans differentiated between Poles who resided in imperial Germany and those who did not, with the former possessing German citizenship. Initially, Conrad argues that the German government attempted to assimilate Poles by focusing on factors like language and religion. Beginning in the mid-1880s, however, discourses about biopolitics began to affect German policies in Poland; the government increasingly focused on policies of “forced expulsion, border control, and expropriation of territory” (p. 252). Consequently, radical nationalists began to demand loudly that Poles be treated more like colonial subjects rather than being “integrated in terms of constitutional law” (253). In this sense, by the early 1900s Germans viewed Poland as part of a larger, global colonial network.

Ultimately, German Colonialism in a Global Age is a thoughtful and innovative collection of essays that should be of interest to any scholar of modern Germany. The themes and questions raised by the contributors would also make the individual essays excellent discussion pieces for advanced undergraduate and graduate-level courses on the history of modern Germany and imperialism. As each essay clearly demonstrates, colonialism does not have to be the exclusive domain of specialists in the history of empire. Historians are only beginning to understand the full impact of colonialism on the course of modern German history.

Citation: Edward Snyder. Review of Naranch, Bradley; Eley, Geoff, eds., German Colonialism in a Global Age. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL:

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