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Reviewed by:
  • German Women for Empire, 1884–1945
  • Lara Kriegel
German Women for Empire, 1884–1945. By Lora Wildenthal. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Scholars have faced two challenges in writing the histories of Germany’s modern empire. First, students of other empires have dismissed the German story as “too late and too brief” to provide effective points of comparison. Second, the ascent of the Nazi racial state has overshadowed earlier developments. By adopting insights and approaches from the “new imperial history” that have proven so fruitful for the British case, and more recently for the French, Dutch, and Belgian stories, Lora Wildenthal invigorates the German experience and places it firmly on the map of imperial scholarship. Her groundbreaking and engaging monograph rejects the two constricting options of limited relevance or seeming overdetermination in favor of “political ambiguity” (8).

Wildenthal addresses colonialism’s ambiguity by focusing on the role of women as both “symbols and agents” of Germany’s imperial project (1). A feminist historian and an archival pioneer, she examines texts produced by German colonialist women, including travel journals, fiction, records of voluntary organizations, and personal correspondence. Wildenthal mobilizes these texts to address the rise, development, and persistence of imperialism’s gendered politics between 1885 and 1945. The five chapters of her monograph deftly and provokingly traverse the imperial domains of the intimate, the civic, and the governmental. Wildenthal locates the first successful strategy for German women’s imperial activity in a secular nationalist version of nursing; she examines the life and the writings of Frieda von Bülow, who looked, albeit in frustration, to empire as a way out of a conventional middle-class femininity; she analyzes the foreclosure of interracial marriage and the resulting ascent of white German women to the status of “necessary partners” in colonialism (130); she traces women’s own adoption and adaptation of this role, exemplified by the figure of the farmersfrau; and she tracks the persistence of a gendered imperial sentiment in the face of Germany’s unique history of forced decolonization and Nazism.

This persistence is exemplified by the Colonial School for Women, which inculcated a sense of rational domesticity in its students until 1945. Wildenthal casts the Colonial School as the “final setting” for German women’s “dreams of freedom as independent colonizers” (200). Her characterization of the Colonial School points to one of the central themes and intellectual contributions of the text. Wildenthal echoes scholars of modern British imperialism, including Antoinette Burton, Philippa Levine, and Angela Woollacott, who have demonstrated the fraught nature of empire as a generator of political possibilities for women. Wildenthal pushes this discussion in a fruitful direction through her conception of “colonial space.” Material and imaginary realms located “far from Germany’s social strife,” the colonies appeared as utopias offering economic opportunity, sexual freedom, or political agency (3). However, as the case of Frieda von Bülow demonstrates so well, women of all classes frequently found the “fantasyland” of colonial space foreclosed by ideological and intimate contests with German men (201). A provocative contribution to colonial history, Wildenthal’s analysis of colonial space as a geographical and imaginary realm bears similarities to Mrinalini Sinha’s notion of “imperial social formation.” Her text might benefit by directly addressing Sinha’s rubric. Such an engagement would intensify a dialogue with other colonial histories, press the significance of Wildenthal’s own conception, and foreground gender—rather than women—as one of the text’s analytical categories.

It was not only “imperial patriarchy” that transformed the utopian possibilities of colonial space, but also the “continuous intensification of racism” as a governing colonial logic (201). In another crucial interpretive line, Wildenthal charts the development of a twentieth-century racism based on “blood percentages” that usurped the nineteenth-century constellation of “morality, rights, upbringing, and appearance” (93). Colonial policy did not instantiate a “sharp boundary line” of race until the early twentieth century, when legislation prohibiting race mixing proliferated (47). While it protected male sexual privilege, such legislation restricted the radical possibilities of colonialism. This partnership between race and gender privilege did not exclude white German women from colonial space. Instead, it simultaneously increased and regimented their roles. As the “helpmeets...

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