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  • Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914–1919 by Mahon Murphy
  • Martin Kalb
Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914–1919. By Mahon Murphy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. x + 245. Cloth $99.99. ISBN 978-1108418072.

World War I was a truly global war, fought on the fields of Flanders and in the Alps. New Zealanders participated in the Gallipoli Campaign, and Senegalese found themselves in the trenches on the western front. Battles also took place in overseas colonies: in Kiachow and German Southwest Africa, while in German East Africa General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, with the help of local askari, kept British troops occupied even after the armistice in November 1918. This is the wide-angle lens that frames Mahon Murphy's Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914–1919, in which he argues that "the colonial theatres of the war, where previously racial roles and hierarchies had been more rigidly defined than in Europe, were characterized by social transformation influenced through the expansion of the European Great War into a global conflict" (2). Mahon's focus is on the British internment of German soldiers (something the book's title does not make entirely clear), and he emphasizes links between "the extra-European and European theatres" through a variety of international negotiations related to prisoners (3). In the process he highlights the centralization of camp management, encounters of Germans with other inhabitants of the British empire, shifting identities, mobility and modernity, and the vital role played by the colonies in World War I (4–6).

This ambitious monograph is divided into three main parts, beginning with an exhaustive historiographical overview that might have found a better home in the introduction. A discussion of "the geography of internment" (35) follows, meant to establish and partially compare the situation in Togo, Cameroon, German Southwest [End Page 412] Africa, German East Africa, New Guinea, Samoa, and Kiaochow. Murphy then highlights broader themes, including health and internment, as well as mobility. He concludes part one by noting that "these transnational cross-border meetings must surely have cemented a common cause between the Germans overseas" that were further strengthened after their return to Germany (66).

The experience of prisoners is the theme of part 2. Murphy first addresses the subject of violence, asking "who or what placed restraint on the uses of violence and how did reactions to violence within the British Empire show the cohesion or lack of cohesion, between Britain and the Dominions?" (70). Examples from specific camps concerning the roles of alcohol, riots, and reprisals illustrate some of Murphy's points, although more would have been welcome. Particularly revealing is an episode in which "Germans had to suffer the humiliation of being led to the docks for repatriation under black guards and watched by those who until recently had been their colonial inferiors" (81–82), a situation best described as "colonial role reversal" (91). Murphy then explores identity formations, emasculation, and the role of social class, referring not only to Michelle Moyd's deconstruction of the myth of the "loyal askari," but also describing how German prisoners came to feel more German through the process of internment. Another chapter is devoted to the propaganda of internment: whereas the British wished to be seen as acting in a "civilized" manner, the Germans meant to portray themselves "as the victims of empires that did not have the common European civilizing mission at heart" (125). As Murphy puts it, "The German colonies were, in propaganda terms, Germany's Belgium" (146), a narrative widely exploited later on.

The final part of Colonial Captivity during the First World War sheds light on global connections more broadly. Murphy introduces other players within the camp network, mainly France and Japan. In his view, Germans appreciated the British more than the French, an argument in need of greater contextualization given the broad anti-French sentiments east of the Rhine. The discussion of Japan is enlightening, and Murphy skillfully shows how the Japanese sought to prove that they...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2164-8646
Print ISSN
0149-7952
Pages
pp. 412-414
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-31
Open Access
No
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