- German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust, and Postwar Germany ed. by Volker Langbehn and Mohammad Salama
By dint of its late entry into the fraternity of imperialist nations and quick exit from the same after the First World War, Germany bears a colonial history that is by and large a feature of the late nineteenth century. Yet it is German colonialism’s impact on the mid twentieth century that has perhaps excited the most scholarly interest. In this collection of essays edited by Volker Langbehn and Mohammad Salama, thirteen historians and literary scholars explore the echoes of Germany’s empire and find themselves at a critical point of intersection within German studies between the growing influence of global history on the one hand and the continuing allure of continuity theses on the other. While the former has breathed new life into studies of Germany’s encounters beyond Europe, the latter has tempted scholars once again to seek the origins of Nazi brutality in the nineteenth century.
At issue in this book is what Michael Rothberg has called the “colonial turn” in Holocaust scholarship, which emphasizes the purported links between colonialism and European genocide and asks whether the one necessarily led to the other. This line of inquiry is by no means new, having been first explored by Hannah Arendt in 1951. Nor, as Arendt argued, is it limited to the German context. Nevertheless, the study of German colonialism, which until fairly recently was a neglected subject, has been invigorated largely through its application to this debate.
Now this volume argues that the time has come to take stock of the conversation and assess the future that both German colonial and Holocaust studies seem to share. What is immediately clear is that Langbehn and Salama wish to leap beyond a simple review of the debate itself. The chapters thus highlight the intriguing connections [End Page 1019] between colonial practice and Nazi ideology while resisting unqualified characterizations of the German colonies as proving grounds for twentieth-century mass murder. Instead, the contributors to this volume wish to complicate the conventional set of questions and cast a more global frame for the problem at hand. Thus, A. Dirk Moses and Timothy Brennan destabilize longstanding scholarly assumptions by rethinking not only Hannah Arendt’s notion of colonial continuities in the Holocaust but also Friedrich Nietzsche’s impact on postcolonial studies. Malte Fuhrmann and Kristen Kopp, meanwhile, distill the unique aspects of the German example from the larger discussion of European imperialism by considering “levels of coloniality” in the German-Ottoman relationship and the difficult connections between “outer” and “inner” colonialism in Germany’s ties to Poland. At the same time, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann and Ulrike Lindner challenge this distinctiveness by highlighting the “intertwined” nature of the German, French, and British colonies.
Taken together, the authors succeed in injecting a healthy skepticism of simple linkages while still proving the point Russell Berman makes in his chapter that “colonial studies could grow into more than a minor supplement to Wilhelmine history” (p. 177). To achieve this balance, however, the editors must forego the chance to offer firm conclusions. Ultimately, their anthology is a nexus rather than a terminus, pulling together the various threads from the historiography without setting the path forward. Its one unmistakable claim is that research into the Holocaust and German colonialism should continue to inform one another. If this is indeed the case, then it raises an important question about the future of writing on German colonial history. To what degree will it become ensnared in the orbit of Holocaust historiography? We already see the implications of such a strong pull at two points in this volume. The first shows up in Ulrich van der Heyden’s chapter on Christian missionaries. Van der Heyden is certainly an expert on this topic, but since he stays within the boundaries of the colonial era, he struggles to address the overarching theme of the book. The second moment appears at the concluding...