- Magic Lantern Empire: Colonialism and Society in Germany by John Phillip Short
The role of Germany’s commercial and educated middle classes in supporting various forms of global expansionism, from mercantile extraction points to settler colonies, is well known. But, to revive a once oft-posed question, what about the workers? This is the question that John Phillip Short’s deeply researched and persuasively written book seeks to answer. Specifically, Magic Lantern Empire traces the unfolding interaction among colonial associations, German workers, and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) after 1884. Short uncovers a mutual antagonism between the middle-class Kolonialgesellschaft (Colonial Society) and the SPD, which continued well into the so-called “revisionist” period after 1907. More interestingly, he points to a continuous slippage between the official rejection of imperialism by the SPD and the ongoing fascination of segments of the working classes for certain elements of the colonial realm.
The permeability of class lines, Short demonstrates, was particularly evident in the embrace of popular culture representations of the colonial world, with workers devouring penny dreadfuls with colonial plotlines, enjoying colonial amusements and exhibitions, and showing a marked curiosity about an extra-European world that was ostensibly home to anthropological oddities such as cannibals, pygmies, and other “savages.” Yet this Volkskolonialismus (as Short labels it) also had its more serious side, with many German workers convinced by the liberal imperialist argument that the colonies represented a site for social mobility and personal material advancement. So, too, the colonial veterans’ associations became important sites for a subaltern engagement with colonialism.
With this popular colonial sphere in mind, Short deftly sidesteps Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s theory of social imperialism, arguing that “there is available no straightforward theory of elite manipulation, nor [sic] any simple picture of mass indifference to empire” (77) that might account for the place of the colonies in the lives of German workers. At the same time, Short is alert to the relative exclusivity of the highly activist Kolonialgesellschaft. He pays careful attention to the membership of the Colonial [End Page 190] Society which was, he correctly argues, essentially an organization of Honoratioren. Short views this as evidence of the limitations of the Colonial Society and contrasts it with the more obviously participatory organizations of the period, most notably the Navy League. Yet the two cannot be compared in the manner that Short suggests. Having more in common with a political lobby group than a mass organization, the Colonial Society’s propaganda role—which was to convince more and more Germans to support an overseas empire—was not necessarily at odds with the control of this enterprise by a select few.
Some of Short’s evidence from popular culture and advertising culture is reminiscent of that used by David Ciarlo in Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA, 2011), but Short employs it to different ends, complementing rather than replicating Ciarlo’s work. By charting the reception of popular exoticism within a different discourse community and its incorporation into a different sociopolitical milieu, Short is able to ascertain not merely the pervasiveness of colonial motifs in working-class culture, but also the extent to which this familiarity and popularity translated into a political affinity with the colonial enterprise. Short’s discussion of the 1907 “Hottentot” election exemplifies this approach. He properly investigates just how central colonial questions were, during the election, to the SPD’s working-class support base. He shows clearly that other issues were important, particularly the inequalities of the differential franchise as well as labor issues and living standards. Nonetheless, “German colonial policy became an important political issue for workers” in this election (135). Their interest in the cultural resonances of colonialism notwithstanding, SPD voters did not, Short informs us, embrace the liberal/conservative Bülow Bloc’s procolonial line. For Short, the 1907 election did not represent a watershed moment in which the SPD lost its constituents and was forced to embrace colonial revisionism à la Eduard Bernstein. Rather, the increase in...