Wolfe on Muschalek, 'Violence as Usual: Policing and the Colonial State in German Southwest Africa'

Marie A. Muschalek
Jason M. Wolfe

Marie A. Muschalek. Violence as Usual: Policing and the Colonial State in German Southwest Africa. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. xi + 255 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-4285-9.

Reviewed by Jason M. Wolfe (Louisiana State University) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2021) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55484

Marie Muschalek’s Violence as Usual examines systemic racism and police violence in Southwest Africa in the early twentieth century. This work highlights the near-impossible task being placed upon officers as intercessory agents between state and community—though the author does not absolve the officers, as she explicitly states that the police were “not intermediaries in an improvised colonial state … they were the state” (p. 161). This region was one of Germany’s few colonies, a short-lived and failed experiment that ended due to the global conflict associated with the First World War, but not before it witnessed the twentieth century’s first genocide at the hands of Germany’s Schutztruppe (protection force). Muschalek covers the narrow period after the genocide of 1904-07 until the loss of the colony in 1915. After the horrific loss of life associated with the German massacre of Herero and Nama, the population of the region dwindled to approximately seventy thousand Africans and fifteen thousand settlers of European descent, all within an area larger than modern-day France or Texas (p. 4). The application of force in this postgenocide period was not always in accordance with colonial laws and guidelines, argues Muschalek, but it was generally effective and created a sense of order in a geographically enormous territory with relatively few people. Police were the embodiment of power. In this way, Muschalek challenges existing historiography that posits a weak colonial state or ineffective police force in the German colony. Police and their African assistants were significant agents of state power who exercised violence as a means to expedite justice on the spot, often due to the limited resources available to them. This work thus examines the “power of violence” more so than focusing specifically on the documented cases of violence and abuse at the hands of the Landespolizei (territory police) in Southwest Africa (p. 2).

Muschalek begins the first chapter of the monograph in a bold fashion with a shocking story of corporal punishment, coercion, and suicide. One would expect as much with the title of the work. Still, the book itself is not a parade of violence but more an investigation of identity construction, social and racial hierarchies, and the application of legitimate power in a colonial space. In terms of identity construction, Muschalek investigates those who became policemen emphasizing the concepts of masculinity and honor. The parallels between ethnic Germans and Africans entering the service are interesting, with each attempting to better their respective social standing. Muschalek reports that most Germans who signed up tended to have limited education and wealth, with little professional training outside of military service, implying that the police were underqualified men attempting to do the best they could to ensure their financial well-being while imitating middle-class values.

For those African men who joined the police, constructing a narrative requires creativity, as Muschalek acknowledges that African voices are mostly absent from the archival material referenced. By piecing together evidence from across sources, and with a healthy influence from secondary material, the author argues that there was an evolving social structure among African communities in the region after 1908 and by joining the police force, young African men were able to accelerate their standing in their respective societies. Africans also joined the police force as assistants. Muschalek speculates that they did this to avoid the restrictions placed on them by the colonial state. They, too, modeled their identities after European bourgeoise family practices, as evidenced by archival photos (pp. 34-35). However, officers often faced accusations of being effeminate due to the other bureaucratic tasks associated with their daily responsibilities; thus, violence was used to reinforce a strong, masculine identity. Muschalek further argues that there was an inherent insecurity and anxiety in those who became police because they existed in a nebulous middle ground socially and were often outnumbered. Therefore, the application of the law and resolution of problems at the hands of the police was often the product of ad hoc decisions, with the occasional outburst of violence.

The second chapter examines those who transitioned from soldiers to de facto bureaucrats. The colonial police force was not merely a continuation of the militaristic brutality witnessed during and immediately after the Herero and Nama Wars, despite some veterans making the transition. It was something different, designed to embody a plethora of stated duties to ensure protection and security for all within the colony. These obligations extended well beyond what is considered policing today, and included many clerical and administrative tasks. Here, too, there was an incomplete picture. What happened daily in the office or on patrols was recorded by the German officers in their reports and it is noted that a majority of outings were boring and uneventful. Often these narratives did not include the names or actions of Africans who assisted in the patrols, nor did they always detail the context of the events. In short, there are gaps in the historical record that are impossible to fill; therefore scholars must make some reasonable assumptions on occasion to round out the record. One minor qualm concerns Muschalek’s assertation that there “must have been a few sadists among the police officers” (p. 123). Unfortunately, Muschalek does not offer much detail upon which to judge the veracity of this claim. Aside from that, several other minor questions arose in this chapter: Did records provide any glaring inconsistences? Were there some limits to the abuse of power due to the bureaucratic process, despite having much discretion over what to include or not include in reports as an officer? Even without addressing these potential inquiries, Muschalek presents enough evidence to argue that the police, both German and African, were valuable and honorable agents who “got the job done,” but often in a fashion determined by them on the spot in the spirit of the law, not the letter of it (p. 128).

A discussion of the actual violence inflicted comes out from the shadows in the third chapter. Muschalek details the equipment and practices involved in police work as discipline and punishment was doled out in the region. One of the most familiar icons of colonial power and abuse was the sjambok, a leather whip that left scars at best and permanent physical damage at worst. The role of these whips disrupted traditional African norms while reinforcing German racial and social hierarchies, as men were traditionally not subject to corporal punishment, which was reserved for women and children. Guns are also discussed, as they, too, were critical not only to the identity of the police but in the enforcement of justice. Muschalek notes that it was illegal after the Herero Revolt for Africans to own firearms, but police assistants were often found in pictures with sidearms or rifles, demonstrating that the reality on the ground differed from official policy. The last tools of violence addressed are shackles and other restraints. Muschalek includes the anecdote of a prisoner, accused of theft, who died while chained to a wagon overnight. The police briefly investigated the case for wrongdoing, quickly concluding that there was no homicide because the rules were followed in relation to capture and transport. In the end, the use of violence was normalized, but it was expected to be applied according to the rules and not wantonly.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Police Work” and focuses on the daily job and expectations of these officers and police assistants, finding that the monopoly of violence claimed by the state was not always the reality. Muschalek demonstrates the continuity of the concept of policey that dates back to theorists from the eighteenth century. In it, there is an expectation that the Landespolizei (territory police) be given “total responsibility” to ensure the welfare and security of the territory (p. 101). Those in the police force were not merely expected to investigate crime and enforce the law; they were required to do much more as functionaries of the state, such as delivering mail, collecting taxes and fees, and settling disputes and dispensing justice in the field. Despite this wide range of almost impossible expectations, there was tension within the police administrative realm from those who wanted to focus on Polizeiwirtschaft (police work) rather than be relegated to a Behörde (public office).

Chapter 5 is focuses specifically on the police role in labor management. This function called on the police to assign labor to settlers or businesses and capture escaped workers or those who had broken their contracts without following official protocol. Police were also responsible for “educative violence,” which was corrective discipline applied by officers to ensure workers kept working (p. 132). This justification of corporal punishment was rooted in racist views of Africans as inherently lazy; therefore the police exercised a form of “civilized” violence as part of their “paternal right of chastisement” and it was this violence that was normalized in the colony (p. 137). Muschalek argues that the police did, overall, attend to the “right treatment” of Africans at the hands of the settler population, noting that the Germans especially sided with African complaints when filed against Boer or Baster employers—again, fitting in with general German frameworks of racial and social worldviews (p. 154).

Overall, this work is an excellent application of interdisciplinary theory (history, anthropology, and sociology), with its historical narrative firmly supported by archival evidence. Muschalek’s acknowledgements, introduction, and endnotes read like a family reunion for those of us who have studied Germans in Southern Africa, especially Southwest Africa. The research behind this microhistory is solid and abundant. The call to action in the conclusion is also important, noting that Southern Africa holds much for scholars to explore in terms of identity construction, racial conflict, and systems of control. This monograph has a place on the shelf of many academics, not just those focused on Germans in Africa. It can easily be incorporated into current conversations about systemic racism and police brutality, abuses of power, and discovering avenues of agency through identity construction. Anthropologists, sociologists, criminologists, activists interested in social justice, legal scholars, and virtually anyone interested in the application of power in a system of inequality will find value in Mushaklek’s research.

J. M. Wolfe is an instructor of history and coordinator of the Dual Enrollment Program at Louisiana State University. His research has taken him to Germany, South Africa, and Namibia in addition to special collections in the United States. His manuscript, God’s Children without a Nation: German missionaries, Settlers, and Africans in Southwest Africa, 1915-1960 (2016), examines what is modern-day Namibia through the lens of German evangelists from the Rhenish Missionary Society, specifically their role in shaping cultural, religious, and political developments in what became a League of Nations mandate.

Citation: Jason M. Wolfe. Review of Muschalek, Marie A., Violence as Usual: Policing and the Colonial State in German Southwest Africa. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55484

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