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  • The Devil's Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa
  • Daniel Walther
The Devil's Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. By George Steinmetz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 640 pp. $90.00 (cloth); $33.00 (paper).

George Steinmetz, after conducting research across five continents, offers scholars essentially the first comparative study of German colonialism. While works do exist that explain German colonialism and examine all of Germany's overseas colonies, this is truly the first monograph to take an in-depth comparative approach in English that contributes significantly to our understanding of this phenomenon.

According to Steinmetz, his goal is to "propose an interpretation of precolonial ethnography and an explanation of colonial native policy" (p. xxii), arguing that "precolonial ethnographic representations shaped colonial native policy" (p. 2). He focuses on native policy because it is something that "can . . . be defined analytically as the site at which [End Page 296] the colonial state identifies, produces, and reinforces the alterity that is required by the rule of hierarchial difference" (p. 41). For Steinmetz, it is native policy that differentiates "the modern colonial state from other state forms" (p. 41). Thus, he contends that colonies themselves were states and as such need "to be integrated into theoretical discussions of organized forms of political domination" (p. 27).

For the purposes of this study, he compares the experiences in the German colonies of Southwest Africa, Samoa, and Qingdao. Ultimately, his aim is to demonstrate that "the sheer variability among the colonies of the German empire should lay to rest any hypothesis of a national colonial style, even if there were nationally specific processes that combined with more general, pan-European ones and with local forces to give each colony its specific characteristics" (p. 5).

According to Steinmetz, the key to deciphering or explaining the experience in each colony, at least in regard to native policy, is to focus on what he describes as the "three crucial links in the chain of determinations leading from ethnographic representations to native policy" (p. 27). Specifically, he focuses on "patterns of resistance and collaboration of the colonized," "symbolic competition among colonizers," and "colonizers' imaginary cross-identification with images of their subjects" (p. 27) in addition to precolonial ethnography. Such an approach provides him with a framework to identify as well as to analyze "determining structures or causal mechanisms" (p. 2), thus revealing a strong sociological methodology. And, while he does explore all three "links," he certainly preferences the latter two, focusing deeply on the social identity of colonial administrators. This is most readily apparent in his analysis of the "struggle" between Governor Theodor Leutwein and General Lothar von Trotha in Southwest Africa or of the colonial officials in Qingdao.

After providing an introduction which lays out his argument and methodology, the book follows a specific pattern. Divided into three parts (one for each colony), Steinmetz first "interprets" the ethnographic representations of the Khoikhoi, Ovaherero, and Basters in Southwest Africa (chap. 2), the Samoans (chap. 4), and the Chinese (chap. 6) and then "explains" how German native policy was influenced by these ethnographic views as well as by the other "three crucial links" (Southwest Africa in chap. 3, Samoa in chap. 5, and Qingdao in chap. 7). In each case, he does demonstrate that "the Germans who established colonial states in [these territories] did, in fact, come equipped with well-wrought images of colonized cultures, images that were derived from earlier writers and artists" (p. 25). [End Page 297]

Undeniably, the greatest strength of the book is its comparative nature and the depth of the research. Within the last decade, the literature on German colonialism has expanded significantly. However, most of it remains fixed on a specific colony or on colonial activities in the metropole, or it is so broad that real in-depth, comparative analysis is impossible. In this work, Steinmetz through careful and probing examination rightly demonstrates the uniqueness of each situation and the pivotal role played by colonial officials, especially governors. And in doing so, he provides a necessary corrective to this deficiency and takes German colonial studies to the...


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