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Review of German Colonialism: A Short History


By Henning Melber

German Colonialism. A Short History. Sebastian Conrad. Translated by Sorcha O’Hagan. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012. Pp. . ISBN. 9781 107400474 (pb). £17.99.

Originally published 2008 in Germany, the author (professor of modern history at the Free University of Berlin) presents in this concise overview his intimate knowledge on the thirty years of German colonialism (between 1884 and 1914) and the subsequent impacts, also in terms of how the period is reflected upon in the (mainly German and English) scholarly debate. It serves as a very readable and instructive introduction to the subject, which adds numerous illustrations (photos, cartoons, maps) visualizing the era and providing some feeling for it through contemporary lenses. The target group is clearly beyond a specialized academic community, for which not so much new is offered. Its value is much more the popularization of the subject, whose relevance is often ignored or overlooked for both, the impact upon Germany as a colonial power and at least as much the colonized societies at the receiving end.

The book provides a sensible structure, which starts with colonialism before the colonial empire and ends with chapters beyond the end of the German colonial empire, including colonialism in Europe, the global contexts of German colonialism and the current day relevance in terms of memory politics. Instead of a plethora of footnotes and references in the text, which might diminish the readability for a wider audience, most of the relevant literature on all the chapters is presented with short annotations at the end of the book. This is a useful and by and large comprehensive service. The entries were updated for the (excellent) English translation and include titles until 2010. But there are some few unfortunate omissions (which are in striking contrast to the otherwise well informed collection, which seems anything but erratic or selective) and a surprisingly big gap with regard to the literature published in 1984 on occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Berlin conference.

This does not reduce decisively the informative character of the summary narrative presented in the chapters. As mentioned, the book has not the ambition to present new research findings. Instead, it offers a sensible review of the state of the art with a broad knowledge of most of the relevant scholarly contributions. The author also manages to give voice to differing (at times controversial) views. He carefully avoids positioning himself by too overtly dismissing or ridiculing other views. Instead, his presentation seems guided by intellectual fairness and integrity. Especially the recent debate on the notion of genocide in South West Africa, the related school of thoughts emphasizing in line with Hannah Arendt’s approach a trajectory leading from the colonial wars to the Holocaust, as well as the recent debates around the memory politics and demands for reparation in Namibia are carefully treated and the proponents (at times engaged in pretty tough exchanges over their differing views and interpretations) are treated with respect.

Conrad is careful to identify the merits of a variety of different analytical undertakings and hence manages to indeed present a nuanced and broad picture of the research and especially the results in recent years. One does not have to agree with all his conclusions and preferences to accept this as a solid and helpful popular introduction to the subject matter. One can also easily agree with the author’s claims in the Introduction that ‘for comparative and global historians, German colonialism offers a rich and revealing case study’, that colonialism ‘had a more significant role to play within German history than has long been assumed’ and that ‘the colonial past is still very much with us’ (p.4). As he reinforces: ‘Indeed, it is almost ubiquitous, and not just in the former colonies. The legacy of colonialism is equally evident in the metropoles, and colonial issues continue to be central to present-day political conflicts.’ (p4f.) At the same time, as Conrad ends his – maybe a bit too sketchy and incomplete – final chapter on ‘Memory’, decolonization is a much longer process than the formal end of foreign rule seems to suggest at the surface, ‘one that was by no means completed at the moment of political independence, but rather continues into our post-colonial and globalized present’ (p201).

The most important value of this volume is in stressing this insight, that colonialism is not a matter of the past. Those interested in learning more about how colonialism has impacted also on our current life and mindset, would find this a valuable and worthwhile reading and time well spent.

Reviewed by: Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 96-97]

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