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

Marie A. Muschalek
Oliver Owen

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 Oliver Owen (University of Oxford) Published on H-Africa (December, 2021) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55801

Marie Muschalek’s book on policing Namibia does more than its title suggests. It sets out to be a book about colonial control at the point when the shock of mass genocide gave way to the everyday kick and the slap. And it does do what it flags as the headline message, which is to recenter our understanding of colonial violence as both more casual and more embedded in everyday forms of order and discipline than is usually presented. But it also gives an embedded and tangible sense of the fragility of this system, understaffed and stretched across miles of open space, and the demands placed on sometimes very willing, sometimes reluctant Landespolizei to facilitate settler control of farm labor. It shows how this system, which seems to have been constantly in a process of creation and adjustment, was also powerfully conditioning a postwar society; and that it was one where African subjects sought to reconstruct their own lives in a new system of constrained possibilities—one of them being to join the system of ordering.

As a piece of historical research and writing, this book is a jewel, in the sense that it is both intricate and ornate, and also in the sense that all of that intelligent design is done in a micro-crafted way that needs to be seen (or read) up close to really appreciate. It is both historically rigorous and thoughtfully encompasses the perspectival issues which African history needs to engage in the twenty-first century. Muschalek has brought to bear not only a great familiarity with the direct subject of colonialism in Namibia, but also strong contextual knowledge of German domestic society and politics that created it, and which allows important insights too often missing from the work of many other scholars currently engaged in reconsidering the colonial.

One of these insights is colonial policing as class mobility: if all settler colonialism was a kind of class alliance, which allowed capital accumulation for elites and social mobility for its lower-middle-class foot soldiers (and African intermediaries), then policing was the very essence of that, as Muschalek powerfully shows the reinvention of an economically endangered small-town tradesmen class as agents in the mechanisms of empire. The author also does a great job of capturing the dual bureaucratic and personal nature of this coercive rule. The combination of roles in very few people who concentrate great power in small contexts is a feature of both policing and colonialism, and Muschalek shows, often in their own words, how officers interpreted and used these powers, on subordinates and on the public. This was often done in ways that melded orders and their intention, rules and their assumed spirit, status and stereotypes, personal feeling and state law to be both more powerful and entirely more subjective than may at first be appreciated.

What readers might not also immediately appreciate is the very creative and thoughtful interpretative work that has to be done to create a historical narrative from a police archive—because police archives, even more than most forms of official state record, are potentially dangerous things, and therefore are carefully composed and curated to have as little as possible in them. Thus we can be assured that most of the telling incidents of relationships between German and Namibian police officers, or police and settlers, or police and the populations they targeted, were intentionally never entered into record, if they were even reported to superiors. The only places where they can be glimpsed are in disciplinary proceedings, which capture particular episodes that escalated beyond what could be silently managed.

So the paper trail is thin—though it seems that German imperialism carried within it a stronger bureaucratic fetishism than British models typically had. Muschalek makes the most of other details that tell the story—the letters of senior officers trying to transmit their ideology or idea of discipline across their dispersed forces; the personal opinions embedded in letters home of German officers; and the rules and regulations which tell readers a century later more than their writers ever intended about assumptions about race, class, and entitlement. The biggest culture shock of this "past as another country" for me as a reader was encountering just how internalized militarism was across many forms of self-image and social ordering, and in many seemingly trivial aspects of social behavior. This is an observation frequently made, both now and at the time, about German society of the period, but it is another thing to encounter it in everyday letters, rules, regulations, assumptions, and cultural forms.

From all of this of course, the hardest voice to reconstruct is that of the African subaltern, who rarely appears in record and even more rarely in their own voice. Despite that, the book also thinks carefully about how this system was engaged by African men, many of them a "lost generation" of the very young, who were trying to reestablish what masculinity and personal advancement could mean among the smashed fragments of former dominant values and lifeways. In the latter it does a great job of capturing both the disruptions and continuities of colonialism-in-process as well as the contradictions that feature so strongly in all perceptive studies of policing, making it much more of a full social and cultural history than its billing as a study of violence suggests.

Citation: Oliver Owen. Review of Muschalek, Marie A., Violence as Usual: Policing and the Colonial State in German Southwest Africa. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55801

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.