The Presumption of Cultural Superiority
How Colonialism was Transformed (or Not) by the First World War
‘When I turned my eyes away from [the cart] back to the Ambassador’s litter, borne aloft three steps in front of me, I beheld a picture that momentarily froze my blood,’ recalled Heinrich Cordes, an interpreter at the German Embassy in Peking. ‘To the left of the litter, which had just passed the police station, stood a soldier (apparently a Manchu) who appeared to have sprung from the earth, in full uniform, cap with red insignia and blue feather, poised to strike, the mouth of the gun scarcely a metre from the side window of the litter, precisely where Herr von Ketteler’s head must be – appalled, I shouted ‘stop’ – at that very instant the shot rang out – the litters were flung to the ground.’ The German diplomat who was murdered in 1900 was Clemens von Ketteler, an aristocrat from the city of Münster.
I recently travelled to Münster. The city’s name derives from the Latin word ‘monasterium’, or monastery. In 1954 the university moved into what was once the palace of the prince-bishops who ruled over the surrounding area. Nowadays, fifteen per cent of the population of Münster consists of students. Walking through town, you have to pay more attention to the swarms of bicycles than to traffic on the roads. In 2004 this rather sleepy centre in North Rhine-Westphalia won an international competition for the title of the ‘World’s Most Liveable City’.
But Münster has a dark side, too. As a child, I lived for two years in nearby Bielefeld. One day my class went on a day trip to Münster. What I remember of that day is not the picturesque lake – the Aasee – nor the old quarter, criss-crossed by romantic canals. What stuck in my mind was the neo-Gothic tower of the Church of St. Lambert. In the sixteenth century, Anabaptists who revolted against the bishop were locked in cages, their tongues burned out while they were still alive, and the cages suspended in the church, where they still hang today. Fifty years after their deaths the bones were still clearly visible through the bars.
Back then, of course, I didn’t know anything about Clemens von Ketteler. It turned out that the idyllic palace garden also conceals secrets that are reluctant to expose themselves to public scrutiny. Among them are three memorials in honour of soldiers from Münster who fell in Germany’s imperialist wars at the turn of the twentieth century. One of the memorials bears the following inscription: ‘In memory of the Imperial German Ambassador Baron Clemens von Ketteler who fell in the line of duty in Peking on 20th June 1900’.
Today it is difficult to find the memorials at all in the park’s dense undergrowth. The path that leads to them is overgrown, the stone benches covered in moss. Someone has sprayed the word ‘blood’ in red paint across the plaque on one of the obelisks. They seem to have been seized by a last-minute fit of patriotism, though, as they’ve added a question mark underneath.
They didn’t need to. Ketteler’s hands and those of the imperial soldiers were steeped in blood up to the elbows. These pictures are a good illustration of the way in which contemporary Germany deals with its colonial legacy.
Who’s the Hun here?
As a diplomat, Ketteler was a party to the policies that devastated China and subjugated the country to the colonial power. He gave the order to shoot demonstrators who protested against the foreign influences. He personally beat and humiliated prisoners who found themselves in the hands of German soldiers.
Germany reacted to his murder by sending out an expeditionary force with the aim of suppressing the Boxer Rebellion against the colonial rulers. One of the local newspapers of the time published a joke: ‘So is it true that the Europeans want to smash China?’ – ‘Yes, my housemaid started things off today with the big vase in the drawing room.’
This joke is a reference to Germany’s situation at the time. France, Britain, America and other colonial powers had already been busy dividing up the world into different spheres of influence for a very long time. They made huge profits from the exploitation of these overseas territories. Germany, which had only been a unified country for thirty years, wanted at all costs to join the club, but was not really having much success.
The essence of imperial policy was determined by an idea that the renowned German sociologist Max Weber formulated as follows: ‘We must understand that the unification of Germany was a youthful folly, which the nation committed in its declining days, and which would have been better dispensed with because of the expense, if it should be the conclusion and not the starting point for a German Weltmachtpolitik.’
The Kaiser left people in no doubt whatsoever as to what this meant. Speaking to soldiers of the expeditionary force in Bremen, he gave his famous ‘Hun Speech’ in which he set out the context and aims of the expedition. Although there are different versions of the speech, we can assume that the following words were spoken: ‘You will give no pardon, and you will take no prisoners! Those whom you capture are at your mercy. As the Huns a thousand years ago under King Etzel [Attila] made a name for themselves that has lasted mightily in history and legend, so may the name of Germans be made known by you in China for a thousand years in such a way that no Chinese will ever again dare to look askance at a German!’
The vase joke quoted above acquired, over time, a double meaning. By the time the German force reached the battlefield, the battle had already been decided. However, this did not prevent the soldiers from participating in the atrocities the colonial rulers inflicted on the people they had conquered. One of the soldiers who took part in the expedition wrote in a letter to his mother that Chinese were exempted from human rights, and that there were therefore no limits to the slaughter. In order to save ammunition, people were simply stabbed to death. The soldier doesn’t say a word about the mass rape and pillaging. Presumably it was not done to admit such things to one’s mother.
Later, during the First World War, British propaganda mocked the Kaiser by turning the comparison on its head and referring to Germans as Huns.
Colonialism in Europe
To the same degree that Germany lagged behind the world’s great colonial powers, the German Empire was making up the deficit in Europe. As a result of wars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, territories of what were then Denmark and Poland, in particular, found themselves under German occupation. Under the slogan ‘Drang nach Osten’ (‘push eastward’) the Germans implemented a Germanisation programme directed at the Poles. This was most pronounced from the end of the nineteenth century until 1918, when Poland gained its independence.
There was no fundamental difference between Germanisation and colonialism. The occupiers introduced racially-motivated laws targeting the indigenous population, banned their language in schools, restricted construction on non-German soil, and brought in colonisers. The government bought up estates from Polish families and encouraged Germans to settle there. Prussian legislation even dispensed with the legalistic differentiation between colonisation and settlement.
Max Weber came to the aid of German policy in Poland. He even surpassed the poetry of the Kaiser’s address in Bremen by calling the Poles ‘eastern nomadic hordes’ who threatened to ‘set civilisation back several generations’. He viewed contact between Germans and Slavs as a mortal threat, and demanded that the state protect the ‘Germanic race’ from the ‘earthbound Poles’, who ‘practically [eat] the grass from off the ground’. Poles and Germans supposedly even had ‘differently constructed stomachs’. Who would have expected statements like these from the famous sociologist?
During the part of my childhood that I spent in Poland, the hero of our history lessons was a certain Michał Drzymała. Because he was a Pole, the German occupying powers denied him permission to build on his own plot of land. In 1904 Drzymała bought himself a circus caravan and proceeded to live in it. This led to a dispute. The German authorities argued that a vehicle that stood on the same spot for longer than twenty-four hours must be regarded as a house. Michał Drzymała’s case became a cause célèbre. With the help of donations he bought a new and better caravan. Drzymała moved it a little every day, so there were no grounds for eviction. The conflict went on for several years. Eventually Drzymała gave up and moved elsewhere. To this day his case remains a symbol of the resistance to Germanisation.
The colonisation processes in the history of Poland and Germany also determined the destiny of my family. At the end of the eighteenth century one of my father’s ancestors left Saxony and came to a village near Warsaw. Surprisingly, during the 120-year occupation of the city – first by the Germans, then by the Russians – and despite the lack of a Polish statehood, this German family became a Polish one. It changed its religious denomination and language and participated in the political and economic life of the occupied country. The tragic paradox of this was that when Nazi Germany implemented the second wave of the ‘push eastwards’ and attacked Poland at the start of World War Two, these people were taken for Poles and almost all of them were killed. The descendants of the colonists integrated, became locals, and eventually became themselves the object of colonial extermination.
The colonialism of the colonised
‘Colony is a term applied to countries governed by states that are more powerful and civilised than they are. These countries are usually inhabited either by aboriginal peoples, wild and incapable of governing themselves, or by peoples who do not want to adapt to global change, do not acquire modern inventions, and must therefore subordinate themselves to other countries that are more advanced.’ Does this quotation about colonialism come from a German newspaper? Or does it perhaps refer to the British or the French? Far from it! This is an extract from an article in the monthly journal Poland on the Sea [Polska na Morzu], dated 1935. The same text goes on to say: ‘The colonial question contains two fundamental problems. The first concerns the unjust distribution of colonial territories, as some countries, Poland among them, possess no territories whatsoever, while others govern regions covering a vast area that far exceeds that of their own country. The second problem is the colonial peoples’ pursuit of independence. The greatest challenge in this respect is being faced by the British in India. A just solution would be a redistribution of the colonies among all the states with access to the sea and a surplus population. Furthermore, all colonies should be recognised as mandates under the supremacy of the League of Nations.’
The paper from which this quotation is taken was published by the ‘Maritime and Colonial League’ (Liga Morska i Kolonialna). This social organisation, formed after Poland achieved independence, was created with the aim of promoting interest in maritime enterprises and the establishment of colonies.
Settlements were founded in Brazil using money from donations and funding from the Polish government, and preparations were made to establish colonies in Liberia. Before the outbreak of World War Two the Colonial League had almost a million members. That’s nearly three per cent of the entire population at the time! Poland, the country whose inhabitants had been the object of colonisation for four generations, now dreamed of colonising others.
The arguments of the colonial movement were the same as in other great colonial empires. Surplus population in the homeland was cited as a reason, as was the desire for unrestricted hegemonic expansion, increasing the power of the state, and enriching its citizens. They looked down on the indigenous populations of the regions to be colonised. The natives should be allowed to ‘make a little extra money’ for themselves – but only insofar as they proved to be ‘good consumers of the products of European industry’, both ‘essential and superfluous’. In this respect, the so-called ‘civilising mission’ was a fundamental ideological motivation. The inhabitants of the overseas countries were described as eternal children who had time for everything, whose needs were minimal, and who loved alcohol above all else.
The colonists saw themselves as quite the opposite. They were the ‘eternal slaves of work’ – and also, admittedly, of money. Constructive rivalry with the ‘traditional’ colonists (i.e. the older colonial powers, Britain and France) coupled with hard work was to assure the Poles of their rightful position as ‘new rulers of the world’. National pride was accompanied by ‘protection from denationalisation’, a racist law that prohibited too close contact with the indigenous population.
Right before the outbreak of the Second World War, Polish state propaganda was still deceiving society with a vision of the country as a great world power. It emphasised that the speed of natural population growth meant it was possible that in a few years Poles would outnumber the French, and that, in this situation, it was essential for Poland to have colonies.
What’s that got to do with me?
I do sometimes feel pride in Poland as my homeland, but in this regard I feel shame. It seems to be historical coincidence that Germany and other colonial countries implemented a programme that many others, my countrymen included, also dreamed about. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even nastier when one considers that this dwarf pretending to be a colonial giant not only compromised itself in so doing, it was also exposing itself to ridicule. It seems that nowadays colonialism plays no part in the lives of ordinary Germans or Poles. So why do we need to grapple with it at all?
Unfortunately, the patterns of colonial thinking are still widespread. I was recently invited to attend a meeting of a German politicians and diplomats to discuss cultural and social projects in the Middle East/Africa region. One of the topics under discussion was a proposal for a town twinning, extending the existing cultural cooperation between Cologne (where I live) and Beirut. ‘Why Cologne?’ asked one of the diplomats in surprise. ‘Culture is certainly important,’ he continued, ‘but the economy is even more important. Naturally, we support the idea of a twinning. But it needs to be the right town. A town that manufactures something. Like Zwickau.’ By this he meant a town whose main product was not culture, but commodities – things that could be sold.
Eventually the diplomat came round to the idea of Cologne, and is now a whole-hearted supporter of the project. In fact, it would not have succeeded without him. Perhaps, to him, his original statement did not seem problematic. After all, the conviction that, where non-European countries are concerned, politics should be subordinated to economic interest – meaning the opportunity to open up new markets for one’s own products – is nothing unusual in post-colonial societies.
Ideas and ideologies
According to Samir Amin, the principles of foreign policy have not altered significantly since the days of Ketteler and the Kaiser. Amin, an Egyptian sociologist and political scientist, developed a complex analysis of colonialism. He argues that we are currently in its third phase: the ‘imperialistic subjugation of the planet’.
‘The first phase began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,’ Amin explains. ‘That was the subjugation of both Americas, and the black slave trade. The second phase began in the nineteenth century and led to the subjugation of Africa and Asia. Then came the counterattack of the subjugated peoples. After the recovery of independence by the British colonies in North America and the revolution sparked by Haitian slaves, the great national freedom movements arose in Asia and Africa. Today we are entering the third phase, which I call the phase of the collective imperialism of the Triad, namely the United States, Europe and Japan.’
According to Amin, the period from the end of World War Two to the start of the 1980s was characterised by the predominance of the political Left, which emerged from the defeat of Fascism and the collapse of the colonial empires. However, ‘political Left’ should be defined somewhat more broadly than usual. It refers here not only to members of a Socialist community under the leadership of the USSR, but also to Western welfare states, or various populist forms of nationalism in the southern hemisphere. The Left, according to this definition, is now coming to an end. Today we are once again living in an age in which the Right holds sway. The Right is mobilising political and military forces with the aim of imposing its economic and societal order on the world, says Amin.
The racism that was at the heart of earlier phases of colonial expansion has undergone a peculiar metamorphosis. It is still alive and well in the shape of the conviction that nations or states have the right to impose their own order on others that are supposedly less civilised. The prosperity of what Amin calls the ‘Triad’ still rests on the fact that the majority of people in the world are denied it.
Amin also demonstrates that the growth of Islamist movements arose out of this logic. The patronage they enjoyed from America for decades is, he says, a consequence of the acceptance of neoliberalism. Islamists do not criticise the globalisation of the economy, only the globalisation of culture. So in fact they are not fighting the causes of social and economic tensions at regional or global levels: rather, they are encouraging people to establish small, conservative, even xenophobic communities promoting passivity and subservience.
Genealogy of power
There is a great deal of truth in Amin’s analyses. This is borne out by my experiences as a writer and creative artist at the interfaces of the rich North and the South, which to this day is still disadvantaged by us. However, as a philosophy graduate I have learned something from Michel Foucault, and I find that Amin’s interpretation lacks the French philosopher’s epistemological scepticism.
I had a similar impression after reading Said’s Orientalism. As with his Egyptian colleague, this book is a critique of the patterns of colonial thinking. However, the focus on a specific region of the world – the Arab countries, or the poor South – means that neither author is in a position to register phenomena outside their respective geographical or historical context. Valid points of criticism are wrenched out of their broader context, giving the impression that the processes described are unique. From here it is but a small step to the unfair division of the world into ‘goodies and baddies’, ‘the rulers and the ruled’. Instead, as philosophers, we should maintain a critical eye on the tools we use to describe reality.
In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault draws attention to the fact that all knowledge is based on certain rules that change from one epoch to the next (so-called epistemes). They substantiate knowledge and establish the conditions for the possibilities of knowledge. In this capacity they constitute the foundation of contemporary political, socio-moral and historical processes. Similarly, his analysis of the term Genealogy of Power makes clear that power always exposes certain groups to exclusion and oppression.
Of course, there is not enough space here to analyse Foucault’s opinions. However, the examples of colonial thinking in twentieth-century Poland and Germany are no coincidence. Both countries either did not – for various reasons – participate in colonisation (Poland), or did so only for a very short time (Germany). These examples demonstrate that the colonial discourse was an integral part of political life throughout the whole of Europe. This discourse was the norm: it was not limited to the countries of Western Europe or, to put it another way, the rich North. As indicated by Foucault, the passage quoted above from Poland on the Sea could have appeared, with only small alterations, in the newspapers of almost any country in the world. This awareness seems to me to be missing in the statements I have quoted from Amin. In analysing colonialism, one should not only focus on the Great Powers but also investigate the extent to which colonialism, in the broadest sense, is part of every power structure – because no government is innocent.
Wordplay and silence
I am not a politician. I have no great influence over Europe’s conduct towards the poor South, even if I am a European citizen. But I rejoice over every opportunity that allows for a discussion of this approach. During the aforementioned discussion with politicians and diplomats it was absolutely not my impression that I was sitting at a table with ‘post-colonial monsters’. On the contrary: these were people who wanted to act with the very best intentions. However, like the majority of citizens in their country they have been schooled according to standard education programmes, and are exposed to both human anxieties and the manipulations of the media. I very much appreciate the fact that they took the time to listen to alternative opinions, and it is my impression that they also took them to heart. In my view, the real challenge is to use education and media campaigns to scrutinise ingrained thought patterns that often prioritise economics in a post-colonial manner.
I am also, therefore, pleased that the city of Bremen, where the Kaiser gave his ‘Hun Speech’ over a hundred years ago, has now transformed the colonial memorial into an anti-colonial memorial – even if this change is really only wordplay, since the stone elephant, carved in 1931, has changed (as elephants tend to) not one bit. The worst thing of all is silence. The silence, for example, that still envelops the church’s participation in colonial policy; just as it still surrounds the cages in the church tower in Münster. I hope that one day the churches, too, will follow the example of countries and civil society structures that call into question their own colonial policy (regardless of whether or not they themselves are still entangled in it). But the role of religious doctrines and institutions in colonialism is a subject that will have to wait for another day.
is a Polish writer and journalist. Among other things, he also organises cultural projects between Poland, Germany and Lebanon. His novel The Story Seller [Handlarz wspomnień] was published in Polish in 2009. The Arabic edition will be published by Dar al-Adab in 2014.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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