The Nature of German Imperialism: Conservation and the Politics of Wildlife in Colonial East Africa by Bernhard Gissibl
Bernhard Gissibl’s The Nature of German Imperialism combines the history of empire, environmental history, and animal studies to offer a fresh interpretation of German East Africa, the German overseas empire, and colonialism more generally. By focusing on hunting (particularly of charismatic megafauna such as elephants) and associated conservation policies in colonial East Africa, Gissibl argues that colonialism was, at its base, “a political ecology constellation that essentially pertained to the land and its properties” (10). Such an argument adds nuance to recent trends in scholarship on the German empire, which has focused on the discourses and culture of imperialism, drawing inspiration from postcolonial theory. However, as Gissibl makes clear, German imperialism had a materiality manifested in patterns of land use and the imposition of imperial order on seemingly disorganized African spaces. Indeed, the conservation of East Africa’s charismatic megafauna became a central concern of the German civilizing mission, at once justifying colonization and shaping colonial policy.
The Nature of German Imperialism demonstrates the potential of environmental history and animal studies to complicate and expand scholarship on the German empire. The environmental history of empire has grown markedly in recent decades, but has been dominated by historians of the British Empire, in particular. Historians of the German Empire in Africa have recently joined the conversation: Philipp Lehmann has brought an environmental perspective to German Southwest Africa, and Gissibl’s [End Page 176] book builds on studies of German-Tanzanian environmental relations by Thaddeus Sunseri and Thomas Lekan.
Gissibl shows that attention to animals and conservation scrambles the usual temporal and geographical boundaries of German imperialism. He argues that hunting was, in the terms offered by Richard White, a “middle ground”: a common field of action and discourse where Germans and Africans cooperated and shared knowledge and experience. Far from representing the wholesale imposition of German practices onto African societies and landscapes, hunting produced hybrid cultures that traced continuities between precolony and colony. German bureaucrats acted within established networks of African “big men” who translated their control over the ivory trade into political capital. The German colonizers “saw like a state, but acted like big men” (96). Although Gissibl points to the continuities between the precolonial and colonial eras, he recognizes that the years of German rule (1885–1914) marked a definitive change in human-animal relations in East Africa, and that current hunting and conservation practices are indelibly marked by the age of German empire.
In geographical terms, Gissibl’s multiscalar approach layers the colonial (East Africa) atop the transimperial and transnational (British Kenya and the British Empire) and the metropolitan (Germany). Conceptions of Weidgerechtigkeit imported from Germany became marks of distinction, not only between Germans and Africans, but between gentlemanly, conservationist German hunters and the capitalistic, damaging hunting practices of Boer ivory traders. But the relationship between colony and metropole was more complicated than the export of policy from Berlin to East Africa. In Gissibl’s East Africa of hunting and conservation, all politics were local, with many hunting ordinances emerging from within the colony, in the context of forging alliances with African “big men.” Chapters 3 and 7 deploy transnational and transimperial lenses to complicate assumptions of Anglo-German imperial rivalry before World War I. Gissibl describes instances of “conservationist internationalism” (112), where officials in German East Africa and British Kenya codeveloped conservation practices that continue to shape land use in contemporary East Africa. Finally, a fascinating final chapter (chapter 8) traces the formulation of German ideas of nature between colony and metropole. Gissibl shows that the Naturschutz and Heimatschutz movements in pre-World War I Germany were indelibly shaped by East Africa, as the German romanticization of Africa’s idyllic landscapes and large mammals shaped metropolitan perceptions of the loss of wilderness at home.
The Nature of German Imperialism is theoretically sophisticated and impeccably researched. Gissibl made use of more than a dozen German archives and draws heavily from the national archives of Tanzania and Kenya, as well as the personal papers of German and British imperialists. As the author notes, the nature of the imperial archive and the loss and destruction of files in Tanzania make it difficult to capture [End Page 177] the voices of subaltern actors. Gissibl admirably reconstructs German East Africa between colony and metropole using surviving sources, but a selection of oral histories taken from African subjects would have allowed for a novel perspective—filtered through generations of memory—on German East Africa’s legacies of hunting and conservation. This reader was also struck by the implicit importance of mobility and immobility in the author’s argument. While colonialism can certainly be described as a “political ecology constellation” (10), it was the movement of people, animals, and goods through spaces controlled and organized by Germans that so confounded theories of imperial governance. A more concerted engagement with work in the field of mobility studies would have enriched this impressive book. That said, The Nature of German Imperialism is an impeccably researched work of interdisciplinary imperial history that shifts the geographic and temporal frames of Germany’s overseas empire, while making a compelling case that its relatively short-lived imperial enterprise continues to shape East African land-use patterns and cultures of conservation today.