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  • Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany
  • Joe Perry
Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany. By Sebastian Conrad. Translated by Sorcha O’Hagan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 506 pp. $90.00 (cloth); $36.99 (paper).

Nation building was inextricably intertwined with globalization, colonization, and modernization in turn-of-the-century Germany, argues Sebastian Conrad in this provocative book, a translation of a German volume that first appeared in 2006. Increasing global interconnectedness circa 1880–1900 led to high levels of human mobility. Great numbers of people—primarily agricultural workers—sought economic opportunity and moved into, across, and out of the German Empire (or Kaiserreich). At the same time, the fledgling nation was establishing overseas colonies and settlements in Africa, South America, and China. Millions flooded across what were still poorly marked political, social, and cultural borders, and elites and intellectuals concerned with the stabilization and territorialization of the nation perceived both benefits and dangers. In theory and practice, race became a highly charged category for managing the boundaries of national demarcation. Other nations followed a similar path, but there were specific German consequences. In the formerly divided German lands, nationalization required the construction of a shared sense of cultural constancy, and the need to shore up borders in the face of unprecedented levels of migration forced issues of race to the center [End Page 729] of national consciousness. As the new transnational characteristics of labor exchange became increasingly unavoidable, the widely used notion of “German work” and its supposed superior qualities helped elite Germans understand and categorize the human groups they now wished to control and put to use: Poles, Jews, colonized subjects, German workers, and imagined non-Western others. In practice and the imagination, German state building was a key example of “the nationalizing effects of global circulation” (p. 15).

A professor of modern history at the Free University in Berlin, Conrad applies this general argument to a series of case studies, some familiar, some new. The book’s first chapter, “German Globalisation around 1900,” offers an accessible overview of Germany’s role in the surge of globalization at the turn of the century as well as a summary of the conceptual origins of global studies. Subsequent chapters explore the connections between German colonies in Africa and “worker’s colonies” in Germany designed for itinerant workers, attempts to manage relations with Poles and other agricultural workers who moved across Germany’s eastern frontier in search of jobs, German colonial endeavors and settlements in China and Brazil, and the way the notion of “German work” reflected and shaped practices and ideas about globalization. The final chapter draws out the larger ramifications of these more self-contained case studies, pushing readers to go beyond divisions between “internal” (national) and “external” (global) historical developments and to see, on the broadest scale, “the globalisation of the national” (p. 383).

Historians of Germany, Conrad claims, have “to date mainly looked at Germany in its European context” (p. 7). The author does have a point: well into the 1980s, Germanists were quite hesitant to adopt postcolonial, transnational, or global perspectives. In discussions of German imperialism, an older generation emphasized the primacy of domestic politics. They cast colonization as a form of “social imperialism” meant to distract the masses from internal crises and throw a sop to conservative interest groups (Navy League, Pan German League, “allies of rye and steel”). Germany lost its colonies in Africa and East Asia after World War I and escaped the turmoil of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, so postwar scholars could claim that the Kaiser-reich had never been a “real” colonial power in the first place. The strong German tradition of national history, the burden of explaining the Holocaust, and the disdain for poststructuralist methodologies—particularly among established professors at the commanding heights of German academia—further derailed the postcolonial turn.

Over the past fifteen years, however, the field has exploded. Studies [End Page 730] of Germany in the world include foundational books on the colonial imagination by Susanne Zantop, on gender and empire by Lora Wildenthal, on the connections between imperialism and Nazi racism by Woodruff D. Smith, on the effects of...


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