Empire of evil

The Kaiser’s Holocaust
Germany’s Forgotten Holocaust and the Colonial Roots of Genocide,
By Davis Olusoga and Casper W Erichsen, faber, £20

ONCE the industrial revolution had stabilised their wealth, strength and borders, Europe’s 19th century powers turned to nationalism and empire-building, which took the form of dressing up in elaborate uniforms and carving up the world.

Britain, with its navy and proven skills of colonising, had a head start and had already fused commercial with military power to colonise all of India with a comparative handful of administrators.

The Netherlands, Portugal, France and Spain (Italy’s colonial campaign didn’t start until the 1910s) had all forcibly acquired colonies and managed them with varying degrees of brutality, so the late arrival of Belgium (which only existed since 1839) and Germany, unified in 1870, came comparatively late to the carve-up for Africa, with both taking up colonies in the west.

Belgium’s Kings Leopold II launched a commercial venture in the Congo in 1865, while Germany went on to claim a million square miles of African territory by 1884. What seems to have set these two later arrivals apart, however, was their brutality.

Irish patriot Roger Casement was an outspoken protester at the cruelty Belgian colonists wreaked on the native population, while to the south, in what is now Namibia, Germany’s Second Reich launched an apparently systematic attempt to remove – kill – the native Nama and Herero peoples. It is impossible now to comprehend whatever sense of entitlement Europeans felt in colonising and exploiting weaker countries – essentially nations that had not developed industrial economies – as being anything other than exploitative opportunism.

“The white man’s burden” of turning the world Christian was a fairly lame justification for violent acquisition of territory, but whatever the motivation of earlier empire builders, by the late 19th century something more sinister had been added to the spurious justifications Europeans were using for bullying the world into submission.

According to the authors of The Kaiser’s Holocaust – Germany’s Forgotten Holocaust and the Colonial Roots of Genocide there was a brutality and self-justification at work in German imperialism that other empire builders – however cruel – seem to have lacked.

So called ‘social Darwinism’, which envisaged races in a battle for survival and living space; eugenics and the supposed ‘scientific’ research of the time based on anatomical measurements, contributed to an emergent ideology of racial supremacy and the dehumanising of ‘inferior’ races which, according to the book’s authors, provided a justification for genocide that ultimately peaked with Nazism 40 years later.

What is striking in this excellent chronology of Germany’s colonies is the absence of any religious or ethical impediments and though missionaries were present, there was no Christian restraint by the German army in establishing its first concentration camps and little intervention from local clergy.

The book traces the story of the German colonies from their formation in 1883 on the Skeleton Coast, so called because of the bones of so many shipwreck survivors who tried to venture inland, which was barren, disease-ridden and largely ignored by the other powers.

German settlers soon encountered two tribes who herded thousands of heads of cattle; who were comparatively wealthy, powerful and many of whose leaders were literate and Christian.

This book provides a valuable and unusual perspective on the tribes and their leaders, who were far from being the “hottentots” that imperial Germany required them to be.

The authors’ research on this is quite breathtaking, tracing official records, personal letters, diaries and oral testaments to piece together the events that ultimately lead to apparent attempted genocide.

What makes the book controversial, however, is the authors’ attempts to link the racial savagery unleashed by the Nazis 40 years later with the activities in the west African colonies.

Historian Max Hastings praised the book but was critical of this connection, which may however, miss the point. The Kaiser’s Holocaust is in many respects a history of German militarism, which the authors quite expertly show as an uninterrupted continuum from German unification through to the 1941 Nazi invasion of Russia in pursuit of its lebensraum – living space – ambition. The authors’ argument is the belief in German racial supremacy, which gathered momentum through the pseudo-sciences of the 19th century, did not come to a halt at the end of WWI to be resurrected by the Nazi’s 25 years later, but was instead an ongoing force that reached it climax in 1941 and the resulting genocide.

The concentration camps set up to eradicate the native tribes in Germany’s African colonies in 1903, the authors argue, were an important stage in its development that ultimately formed the outlook and ambitions of the Third Reich.

Where the authors’ argument may flounder is in their attempt to trace direct links with the personnel involved in Germany’s colonies and the emergence of the Nazis in 1920s. They provide some, but that is probably not the point. Germany’s colonies were a nationally popular adventure backed enthusiastically by the Kaiser and state, and by the growing legions of right-wing thinkers.

The colonies were certainly a financial disaster for most of their existence, propped up by taxpayers, and clearly fulfilling some national ambition rather than any return on investment.

Though personal links certainly did exist (Hermann Goering’s father, for instance, was head of one of the early settlements), the growth of the colonies was big enough news to capture the national imagination at a time when Nazi leaders were forming their view of the world.

The emerging idea of living space, which became Nazi doctrine, was already gaining currency in Germany and would inevitably demand the removal of ‘racially inferior’ races so the emergence of concentration camps was probably more of a by-product than a turning point in German right-wing thinking.

It is certainly easy to accept the book’s thesis that Nazism was part of an uninterrupted continuum in that thinking, with the 1918 armistice and subsequent Weimar Republic only providing a brief respite from the militarist forces that dominated the country’s history until 1945 from the foundations it formed in the era of its African colonies.

Overall, the effect of the book is chilling. The research and writing are flawless, and granted, though the attempts to connect the “colonial roots of Nazism” are hardly watertight, they are not without some validity.

What The Kaiser’s Holocaust does provide is an excellent insight into the horrific thinking and actions of extreme nationalism that darkened Europe and the world for a century, causing the deaths of millions.

The ease with which suffering was meted out to individuals, tribes and races is unnerving to read, making this, regrettably, an important book that perhaps provides more thought-provoking arguments than absolutely convincing ones, but is no less powerful for it.


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