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The German colonial empire, seen from its end

matthias leanza
  How do empires end? What influence do the ties and divides that shape imperial formations have after their downfall? And in what sense is the nation-state a legacy of empire rather than its negation? My essay ponders these questions using the example of German colonialism. It looks at the evolution of the German colonial empire from the 1880s in light of its sudden demise following World War I, arguing that the nation-state — in Germany and overseas — was among its most important legacies. However, the nation-state could only become a legacy of German colonialism because anticolonial activists failed to convert the overseas empire into a federated entity. The attempt at federal reform may have been futile, but it would have significantly altered the historical trajectories of all countries involved. Therefore, despite being an unlikely outcome, this counterfactual provides a contrast to assess what nation-states ultimately are — a product of decaying empires.

Anticolonial federalism

Fig. 1: Martin Dibobe as train driver in Berlin. (Image: Historisches Archiv der BVG)

On 27 June 1919, the day before Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, Martin Dibobe (born Quane a Dibobe) submitted a petition to the German Colonial Office on behalf of the Duala people in Cameroon.[1] This was not Dibobe’s first interaction with the Berlin authorities. Born to a Duala chief in 1876, Dibobe had been in Germany for over two decades by that point.[2] He had come in 1896 to participate in a state-organised colonial exhibit at the Berlin Trade Fair, where 103 individuals from various German colonies were to present their ways of life to the public.[3] After the fair, some decided to stay and settle in Germany, including Dibobe. He completed vocational training and subsequently worked as a train driver for Berlin’s urban rail and subway company. A fierce supporter of the November Revolution, Dibobe hoped to negotiate better terms for his people and extend the emergent republican order to the German colonies, all of which had been seized by the Entente Powers during the war. In June 1919, he organised a petition to the Weimar National Assembly with the support of 17 other members of the Duala community in Germany before turning to the Colonial Office again, as he had done on previous occasions.[4] The list of demands was extensive, but they all revolved around one core issue: Cameroon and the other German colonies in Africa were to remain with Germany. The residents of those territories were to be treated as Germans with equal rights and duties, regardless of their race or ethnicity.[5] The petition proposed introducing the German civil code and judicial system, including the abolition of corporal punishment, indentured labour and all colonial laws enshrining racial segregation.[6] At the same time, Cameroon was to maintain some degree of autonomy from Germany’s federal government — for example, by having three presidents of its own, each representing a different population group, and a separate tax fund — while obtaining permanent representation in the Reichstag.[7] As the primary liaison between the Duala diaspora in Germany and Cameroon, Dibobe seemed to be the natural candidate for this office. The German government would retain the right to appoint Cameroon’s governor, who had to ensure law and order in the territory.[8] However, the incumbent could be held accountable and even dismissed if the population expressed dissatisfaction with his performance. By contrast, all other public offices had to be occupied by people of African descent, thus establishing a permanent balance of power between the former metropole and the former colony. Although this proposal clearly distinguished between German citizens from Europe and German citizens from Africa, Dibobe left no doubt that the latter, too, were Germans in every sense of the word. ‘Since we are Germans’, he explained, ‘we demand equality, even if in public life we are always referred to as foreigners. This misapprehension must be eliminated by the present government through public announcements’.[9] These demands implied nothing less than the transformation of Germany’s colonial empire into a multiracial and transregional federation, where being German and being African were fully compatible. The proposal demonstrated that decolonisation did not necessarily mean secession, as it did in anticolonial nationalism.[10] Instead, exit from empire could also involve attempts to reshape existing ties according to the principle of plurality. Dibobe represented a political stance best understood as anticolonial federalism, which combines elements of both connection and disconnection. Later generations of activists from various European colonies would adopt this stance independently of him, as it promised to reconcile equality with difference.[11] The Minister for the Colonies, Johannes Bell, one of the envoys who signed the peace treaty in Versailles, even briefly mentioned the Dualas’ petitions in the National Assembly.[12] But in the end, Dibobe’s radical proposition for a postcolonial Africa, which was centred on federal integration rather than national independence, went unnoticed. In Bell’s account, the loyal people of Cameroon simply preferred to share their fate with Germany, preferring to perish together than become French spoils of war.

Double standards

Neither Dibobe’s plea for a federal reorganisation of the German colonial empire nor the widespread desire among the German population to retain their imperial status, as voiced by Bell and many other officials, had any chance of success. Dibobe lost his job and tried to return to Cameroon with his German wife and two of her children from a previous marriage in 1921, but they only managed to travel as far as Monrovia, where he had relatives.[13] The pervasive rhetoric of national self-determination notwithstanding, the Entente Powers had no intention of abolishing colonial rule. Instead, self-determination became a justification for carving up the empires of the vanquished in Europe, while the overseas empires of the victors remained intact and even expanded through the mandate system.[14] When discussing the terms of the peace deal, one deputy of the National Assembly, the high-profile conservative Arthur von Posadowsky-Wehner, expressed his discontent as follows: ‘There is so much talk among our enemies of the self-determination of peoples. Why doesn’t England introduce this right to self-determination in Ireland? Why doesn’t it introduce this principle in India? Well, one interprets things as one pleases’.[15] The recurrent theme of national self-determination had arisen in the National Assembly’s opening session in February 1919. Friedrich Ebert, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, welcomed the elected deputies in his capacity as the head of the provisional government, particularly emphasising the female deputies present.[16] Although women remained underrepresented — only 37 of the 423 deputies were women — they participated for the first time in the legislative process, evidencing that the November Revolution had infixed the principle of popular sovereignty. Invoking US President Wilson’s principles for the postwar order, Ebert maintained that the German people had earned favourable peace terms, including Germany’s reinstatement as a colonial power. They were just as much victims of Prussian militarism as the countries against which the German Reich had waged war: ‘The German people have fought for their right to self-determination at home; they cannot now cede it to the outside world’.[17] Certainly, the victors had a different idea for Germany’s future.[18] As the peace treaty stipulated, the occupied German colonies were to be administered as League of Nations mandates based on a concept of imperial guardianship, while the country’s multiple border regions in Europe became part of neighbouring nation-states, some newly created.[19] This uneven application of self-determination followed the colour line, deepening the North–South divide in the global political system. For Germany, this regulation entailed a double loss of empire, both in Europe and overseas, which was met with a politics of resentment. During the war, when state borders were fluid, Germany’s imperial ambitions evolved into grandiose visions of hegemony over continental Europe and central Africa, but the war resulted in the opposite. Beyond being vanquished, the perceived relegation to an ‘ordinary’ nation-state without imperial peripheries prompted deep resentment.[20] This sentiment is a desire for revenge despite, or because of, an inability to change the situation, giving birth to what Nietzsche called ‘indignant pessimists’.[21] This affect is arguably what spurred the numerous protest rallies advocating for the return of the colonies in the run-up to the peace settlement, and it was clearly manifested in a revisionist discourse centred around the theme of the ‘lie of colonial guilt’.[22] For the political campaigner Martin Hobohm, the loss of Germany’s colonial empire amounted to nothing less than the confinement of the German people in Europe, cutting the country off from its global lifelines.[23] Fig. 2: Andree, R. and A. Scobel. 'Karte von Afrika'. Bielefeld: Velhagen & Klasing, 1890.Fig. 2: Andree, R. and A. Scobel. 'Karte von Afrika'. Bielefeld: Velhagen & Klasing, 1890.

Spheres of influence

This view echoed a pervasive theme of colonialist discourse in Germany since the mid-19th century. Recalling Malthus, this discourse crystallised around the idea that colonial settlements represented a solution to overpopulation.[24] Emigration could help curb unchecked population growth, but it created its own problems — most notably, the loss of able-bodied men and women to competing nations. Expanding on Adolf Zehlicke’s adaptation of Malthus to the German situation, Friedrich Fabri advocated in 1879 for the establishment of colonial settlements.[25] To this end, a national emigration office was to be established and convert emigrants into settlers. However, the first impulse toward realising this idea came from voluntary associations, not from the state. The German Colonial Association, founded in 1882, soon emerged as the key player. It was conceived as a national umbrella organisation to coordinate various local initiatives. At the inaugural meeting in Frankfurt, the explorer and founding member Hermann von Maltzan explained that the previous associations were too local to affect the national consciousness and politics. That is why it had become imperative to create a nationwide umbrella organisation.[26] At the same time, Maltzan urged his fellow members to lower their expectations regarding the capabilities of such an entity. Establishing settler colonies was not yet viable. Fabri, who also attended the meeting, vehemently objected, arguing that only colonial settlements would forestall further population drain.[27] The statutes that the assembly eventually adopted, however, were unequivocal: in keeping with the founding call, they rejected the maximalist program of settler colonies and constrained the organisation’s purpose to lobbying for trading colonies without participating in their establishment.[28] Germany thus had a national lobby organisation promoting colonial expansion, but it had no colonies — something that only began to change thanks to a disparate group of political entrepreneurs.[29] In the early 1880s, various merchants and companies pushed for their ventures on the African coasts and in the Pacific to be protected by the German state. They hoped for a competitive advantage over other businesses, as foreign investors would either have to pay heavy tariffs or be excluded from the market. These scattered, largely uncoordinated initiatives took place in an international environment where competing powers jealously monitored each other’s expansion, which fuelled desires for territorial gains and fears of falling behind. The result was a self-reinforcing process of expansion that only halted when virtually all available territory had been claimed. The West Africa Conference of 1884–85 sought to regulate this process in its broad outlines, but expansion into the African interior and its piecemeal partition were organised in a decentralised manner through bilateral agreements.[30] The expansion into the Pacific followed a similar pattern. Thus, the European powers carved out their spheres of influence. Of course, this was not a new phenomenon, as a debate among legal scholars and political scientists around 1900 quickly established.[31] The spheres, however, were comparatively small and gave rise to a patchwork of territorial claims. The imperial periphery could no longer be integrated into overarching hemispheres as in earlier times when far fewer powers were involved. Initially, these spheres were only defined near coastlines, while the hinterlands remained open as frontiers for potential expansion. Yet even after the borders had been settled, which in some cases took until the 1900s, these territories were far from evenly integrated. When the German Reich took them over from private companies and gradually established colonial states, they displayed a pronounced core–periphery structure.[32] The reach of the colonial administration was limited to a core that faded into an active military frontier, pushing gradually into the hinterland. In virtually all colonies, some regions remained beyond colonial authorities’ control, often where local communities had already formed their own states. These regions represented an internal exterior, located within the sphere of influence but outside the colonial state. This layered governance architecture informed how the victors of World War I redistributed the German colonies as mandated territories among themselves. For instance, the East African kingdoms of Burundi and Rwanda, administered by the Germans on the model of indirect rule, were transferred to Belgium, while Tanganyika fell under British control. It is nonetheless remarkable how enduring the borders of the originally established spheres of influence have proven. Even a century later, around three-quarters of the land borders established under German rule persist today.[33] Together with the borders changed in the interwar period, they represent the fault lines along which the colonial empires disintegrated in the decolonisation that followed World War II, leaving territorial fragments behind that underlay postcolonial nation building.[34]

Fig. 3: 'Die deutsche und englische Interessensphäre an der Ostküste von Afrika'. Munich: Franz Moises, 1889.

In the public eye

The colonial empire also left a lasting imprint on the metropole and its political system. As already indicated, the loss of Germany’s status as a colonial power coincided with an internal reorganisation that transformed the country into a republic. Max Weber, who was directly involved in the preparation of the draft constitution by the Ministry of the Interior, suggested as early as December 1918 replacing the office of the Kaiser with a democratically elected president.[35] As a political official, the president’s job was to counterbalance the bureaucracy with its rational, legal orientation and bring an element of charismatic leadership into the state machinery. If Weber had had his way, the new constitution would have omitted the federalist aspects of the German state altogether. But he was well aware that such a radical change had no chance for political reasons — the Entente Powers would never allow it.[36] Nevertheless, the constitution endowed the Reich president with far-reaching powers. These included the right to dissolve the Reichstag and the prerogative to appoint the government, which consisted of the chancellor and his ministers.[37] However, as the central organ of the legislative branch, the Reichstag could hold the government accountable and even withdraw its confidence, while the Federal Council (Reichsrat), the representation of the states on the national level, maintained a back seat in the political process.[38] This power-sharing arrangement was the result of developments that had been underway for several decades by that point, developments that had been fuelled by Germany’s overseas expansion. It is true that the German colonies were mainly governed by ordinances and decrees, rather than by proper law, which made it easy to circumvent parliament with its legislative powers.[39] In addition, decisions regarding the overseas empire were at the discretion of the Kaiser, who, on behalf of the Reich, exercised sovereignty (Schutzgewalt) over the colonies, officially referred to as protectorates (Schutzgebiete).[40] This meant the Kaiser alone could decide on spending the revenues generated by the colonies, but this was precisely the problem. The colonies’ inability to support themselves financially gave the Reichstag a powerful lever. Because this situation was not expected to change, the Reich leadership decided early on to show goodwill and involve the Reichstag in determining the overall colonial budget, not just the subsidies.[41] Thus, the national parliament drew strength from the financial weakness of the overseas empire. Each year, from January to March, parliament transformed into a public forum where representatives from various parties ruminated on Germany’s colonial affairs. The spokesperson of the Reichstag’s Budget Commission, Ludwig Bamberger, set the tone in 1891. As was to become customary in future budget debates, he briefly addressed some technical issues before moving on to an hour-long assessment of the colonial policy.[42] The head of the Colonial Department in the Foreign Office, the legal expert Paul Kayser, responded right away, making some corrections and explaining his department’s policy.[43] Although the Reich leadership could usually secure majorities for its budget proposals, the Reichstag showered it with criticism during the legislative process. Each party used the colonial issue to raise its profile.[44] Above all, however, they collectively created a counterpart — the government — whose members had to explain themselves to the public. A particularly strong catalyst for this development were the countless cases of violent misconduct by colonial officials that impelled the government to act.[45] For example, Kayser maintained in 1893 that no abuse of office across the colonies had ever come to his attention.[46] The Reichstag made sure that this would soon change. In early 1894, the Social Democrats placed some hippo whips and other instruments of torture on display in the Reichstag building, explaining that they had come directly from Cameroon.[47] Just the day before, August Bebel had raised the brutal flogging of the wives of Dahomey soldiers ordered by Cameroon’s deputy governor, Heinrich Leist.[48] Reich Chancellor Caprivi, who attended the session, felt compelled to react and rejected the allegations against Leist.[49] However, his refusal to take responsibility elicited criticism, even from the conservative parties, recalibrating expectations regarding the accountability of senior government officials.[50] Tensions peaked in 1906 when the Reichstag denied additional funds for the contentious war against Herero and Nama in South West Africa. In a bold move, the government dissolved parliament, asserting its constitutional dominance in this trial of strength.[51] But this incident also revealed the undeniable influence the Reichstag had gained over national politics. The colonial empire made no small contribution to this structural transformation, which bolstered a core institution of the emergent German nation-state. Its effects would outlast the colonial era, forming part of its enduring legacy.
[1] 32-point petition to the Imperial Colonial Office in Berlin, personally submitted by Martin Dibobe together with Thomas Manga Akwa on June 27, 1899, BArch, R 1001/7220, 224–9. A reproduction can be found in Adolf Rüger, 'Imperialismus, Sozialformismus und antikoloniale demokratische Alternative: Zielvorstellungen von Afrikanern in Deutschland im Jahre 1919', Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenchaft 23, no. 7 (1975). [2] For a biographical sketch, see Eve Rosenhaft and Robbie Aitken, 'Martin Dibobe', in Unbekannte Biographien: Afrikaner im deutschsprachigen Europa vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zum Ende des Zweiten Weltkrieges, ed. Ulrich van der Heyden (Berlin: Kai Homilius, 2008). [3] Anne Dreesbach, Gezähmte Wilde: Die Zurschaustellung "exotischer Menschen" in Deutschland 1870-1940 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2005); George Steinmetz, 'Empire in Three Keys: Forging the Imperial Imaginary at the 1896 Berlin Trade Exhibition', Thesis Eleven 139, no. 1 (2017). [4] Stefan Gerbing, Afrodeutscher Aktivismus: Interventionen von Kolonisierten am Wendepunkt der Dokolonisierung Deutschlands 1919 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2010), 57-60; Andreas Eckert, Die Duala und die Kolonialmächte: Eine Untersuchung zu Widerstand, Protest und Protonationalismus in Kamerun vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (Münster: Lit, 1991), 216-25. [5] Points 1 and 20. [6] Points 2 t0 4. [7] Points 26, 27 and 31. [8] Points 5, 7 and 15. [9] Point 20. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author. [10] Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Naitonalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). [11] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019); Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank, Post-Imperial Possibilities: Eurasia, Eurafrica, Afroasia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023). [12] 'Proceedings of the German National Constituent Assembly, 96th Session', 330 (11 October 1919): 3023. [13] Robbie Aitken and Eve Rosenhaft, Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 103, 07-08. [14] Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (London: Penguin, 2017); Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, 1815 to the Present (New York: Penguin, 2012), ch. 5-6. [15] 'Proceedings of the German National Constituent Assembly, 40th Session', 327 (22 June 1919): 1122. [16] 'Proceedings of the German National Constituent Assembly, 1st Session', 326 (6 February 1919): 1. [17] 'Proceedings of the German National Constituent Assembly, 1st Session',  2. [18] Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World (London: John Murray, 2001), ch. 13-16. [19] See also Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). [20] Sean Andrew Wempe, Revenants of the German Empire: Colonial Legacies, Imperialism, and the League of Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). [21] Friedrich Nietzsche, 'Nachgelassene Fragmente: Anfang 1888 bis Anfang Januar 1889', in Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, vol. 8.3,  (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1972), 219. [22] There were at least 84 such rallies between December 1918 and March 1919, as documented in BArch, R 1001/7220, 262–72. The term ‘lie of colonial guilt’ was popularised by Heinrich Schnee, Die Koloniale Schuldlüge (Munich: Süddeutsche Monatshefte, 1924). [23] Martin Hobohm, Wir brauchen Kolonien (Berlin: Engelmann, 1918), 23.. [24] Klaus J. Bade, Friedrich Fabri und der Imperialismus in der Bismarckzeit: Revolution - Depression - Expansion (Freiburg: Atlantis, 1975), 135-44. See also Sebastian Conrad, Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany, trans. Sorcha O´Hagan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). [25] Freidrich Fabri, Bedarf Deutschland der Colonien (Gotha: Perthes, 1879), 86. [26] Hermann von Maltzan, Rede des Freiherrn Hermann von Maltzan auf der constituierenden Generalversammlung des Deutschen Kolonialvereins zu Frankfurt am Main am 6. Dezember 1882 (Berlin: Julius Sittenfeld, 1882). [27] Report in Frankfurter Journal und Frankfurter Presse on 6 December 1882, BArch, R 8023/253, 46. [28] Statutes of the German Colonial Association in Frankfurt, BArch, R 8023/253, 68–9. [29] For recent studies, see Kim Sebastian Todzi, Unternehmen Weltaneignung: Der Woermann-Konzern und der deutsche Kolonialismus 1837-1916 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2023); Dietman Pieper, Zucker, Schnaps und Nilpferdpeitsche: Wie Hanseatische Kaufleute Deutschland zur Kolonialherrschaft trieben (Munich: Piper, 2023). [30] Norbert Berthold Wagner, Die deutschen Schutzgebiete: Erwerb, Organisation und Verlust aus juristischer Sicht (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2002), 172-74. [31] Martin Hasenjäger, Der völkerrechtliche Begriff der "Interessensphäre" und des "Hinterlandes" im System der außereuropäischen Gebietserwerbungen (Greifswald: Kunike, 1907); Andreas Weissmüller, "Die Interessensphären:" Eine kolonialrechtliche Studie mit besonderer Berücksichtigung von Deutschland (Würzburg: Boegler, 1908). [32] For example, see Giorgio Miescher, Namibia's Red Line: The History of a Veterinary and Settlement Border (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). [33] For more information, see African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia, ed. Ian Brownlie and Ian R. Burns (London: C. Hurst & Co, 1979). [34] Jörg Fisch, The Right of Self-Determination of Peoples: The Domestication of an Illusion, trans. Anita Mage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 203-17. [35] Max Weber, 'Aufzeichnung über die Verhandlungen im Reichsamt des Innern über die Grundzüge des der verfassungsgebenden deutschen Nationalversammlung vorzulegenden Verfassungsentwurfs vom 9. bix 12. Dezember 1918', in Gesamtausgabe, ed. Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Wolfgang Schwentker, vol. 16: Zur Neuordnung Deutschlands,  (Tübingen: Mohr, 1988), 56-90; Weber, 'Deutschlands künftige Staatsform', 98-146. [36] Weber, 'Aufzeichnung über die Verhandlungen', 57. [37] Ernst Rudolf Huber, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789, vol. 6: Die Weimarer Reichsverfassung (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1981), 307-28. [38] Huber, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte, 349-89. [39] Harald Sippel, 'Recht und Gerichtsbarkeit', in Die Deutschen und Ihre Kolonien: Ein Überblick, ed. Horst Gründer and Hermann Hiery (Berlin: be.bra, 2018), 201-21; Wagner, Die deutschen Schutzgebiete, 304-06, 14-19. See also Marc Grohmann, Exotische Verfassung: Die Kompetenzen des Reichstags für die deutschen Kolonien in Gesetzgebung und Staatsrechtswissenschaft des Kaiserreichs (1884-1914) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001). [40] Wagner, Die deutschen Schutzgebiete, 273-82. [41] Grohmann, Exotische Verfassung, 70-76. [42] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 131st session', 118 (1 December 1891): 3172-78. [43] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 131st session',  3178-79. [44] Woodruff D. Smith, The German Colonial Empire (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978), 143-50. [45] For a vivid case study, see Rebekka Habermas, Skandal in Togo: Ein Kapitel deutscher Kolonialherrschaft (Frankfurt: Fischer, 2016). [46] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 55th session', 128 (1 March 1893): 1346. [47] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 53rd session', 134 (19 February 1894): 1340. However, the instruments of punishment were laid out the previous Saturday, 17 February. [48] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 51st session', 134 (16 February 1894): 1294-95. [49] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 51st session',  1295. [50] 'Proceedings of the Reichstag, 51st session',  1296. [51] Erik Grimmer-Solem, Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 344-49.
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Munich: Süddeutsche Monatshefte, 1924. Sippel, Harald. 'Recht und Gerichtsbarkeit'. In Die Deutschen und Ihre Kolonien: Ein Überblick, edited by Horst Gründer and Hermann Hiery,  Berlin: be.bra, 2018. Smith, Woodruff D. The German Colonial Empire. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978. Steinmetz, George. 'Empire in Three Keys: Forging the Imperial Imaginary at the 1896 Berlin Trade Exhibition'. Thesis Eleven 139, no. 1 (2017): 46-68. Todzi, Kim Sebastian. Unternehmen Weltaneignung: Der Woermann-Konzern und der deutsche Kolonialismus 1837-1916. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2023. von Maltzan, Hermann. Rede des Freiherrn Hermann von Maltzan auf der constituierenden Generalversammlung des Deutschen Kolonialvereins zu Frankfurt am Main am 6. Dezember 1882. Berlin: Julius Sittenfeld, 1882. Wagner, Norbert Berthold. Die deutschen Schutzgebiete: Erwerb, Organisation und Verlust aus juristischer Sicht. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2002. Weber, Max. 'Aufzeichnung über die Verhandlungen im Reichsamt des Innern über die Grundzüge des der verfassungsgebenden deutschen Nationalversammlung vorzulegenden Verfassungsentwurfs vom 9. bix 12. Dezember 1918'. In Gesamtausgabe, edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Wolfgang Schwentker, Vol. 16: Zur Neuordnung Deutschlands. Tübingen: Mohr, 1988. ———. 'Deutschlands künftige Staatsform'. In Gesamtausgabe, edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Wolfgang Schwentker, Vol. 16: Zur Neuordnung Deutschlands. Tübingen: Mohr, 1988. Weissmüller, Andreas. "Die Interessensphären:" Eine kolonialrechtliche Studie mit besonderer Berücksichtigung von Deutschland. Würzburg: Boegler, 1908. Wempe, Sean Andrew. Revenants of the German Empire: Colonial Legacies, Imperialism, and the League of Nations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
citation information
Leanza, Matthias, 'The German colonial empire, seen from its end', Ben Kamis ed. global dis:connect blog. Käte Hamburger Research Centre global dis:connect, 30 April 2024, https://www.globaldisconnect.org/04/30/the-german-colonial-empire-seen-from-its-end/.
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Hanna Charag-Zuntz’s Levantine ceramics: dis:connecting objects through narratives

hanni geiger
[Editor's note: The adjective 'Islamic' was changed to 'Arab' for greater accuracy in a single instance on 11 September 2023.]
The ceramic works of Hanna Charag-Zuntz (1915—2007) in exhibitions throughout the world cannot be read in isolation from the nationally framed history of Israeli ceramics. The exhibition catalogues all address the creative and social connections between East and West in very different ways. Some exhibitions link the artist’s vases, pots and bottles to the themes of exile and imported European modernism as an influence on Israeli ceramics since the state was founded in 1948. This contrasts with exhibitions that link the objects as representatives of a new Jewish pottery (and identity) with archaeological finds in the Middle East and to the state’s demand for cultural assimilation and national stability. In the postmodern-oriented exhibitions, the works are presented as transcultural objects that distance themselves from the early Zionist premises of social unification, but the exhibitions’ frames hardly allow for any deviation. As different as the programmes might appear, exhibitions framed or funded by national and/or religious institutions tend to conflate Orient and Occident. Favouring a state identity based on connection, these exhibitions and their catalogues fail to problematise the complex, politically charged entanglements of East and West. By analysing three exhibitions and their catalogues with a local approach focused on the Levant, I decouple Charag-Zuntz’s ceramics, mainly created in the 1950s—70s, from national narrative patterns of abbreviated connections between East and West.[1] Drawing on Levantine cultural philosophy — a social concept linked to the Eastern Mediterranean — my aim is to reveal the artistic and social interruptions and absences that are usually blurred in nation-based frames. I work with the concept of dis:connectivity, which emphasises the simultaneity and dynamic co-constitution of integrative and disintegrative elements in globalisation processes, which only become relevant in relation to each other.[2] I argue that the vessels, which were made on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, should be interpreted relative to a dis:connective body of water and its local cultures. This means reading the objects in connection to a Levantine Mediterranean — a reading that contradicts geopolitical narratives as presented in the catalogues and as known from theories of the Mediterranean.[3] Although these theories survey many definitions of this sea and recognise the significance of regional cultures and fragmentations, they all emphasise connectivity, which — whether conceived nationally or otherwise — ultimately produces a certain degree of temporal and spatial stability as well as homogeneity.[4] What remains absent in such representations is the predominantly North-Western perspective on the narrated Mediterranean and the structurally conditioned, asymmetrical relationship between the narrow ideas of the sea and its creators. Recontextualising these objects in terms of a ‘Levantine Sea’, which appears unifying and stable only in terms of its physical characteristics and is in fact socially marked by ambivalent connections that coincide with migration, unbounded and fluid identities, constant change and subversion,[5] would mean recognising these characteristics as intrinsic to Charag-Zuntz’s work. Relating the forms, colours, materials and techniques of her pieces to Mediterranean dis:connectivities could reveal past and present hegemonic structures that feign connectivity. In order to disrupt the nationally constructed narratives, it is necessary to allow for other perspectives and agencies. I analyse the formal properties of the ceramics through a contemporary Mediterranean lens and reveal what these objects communicate when read as creations not only of the artist, but also of the sea and its coast. Doing so yields insights as to what objects connected to a specific locality but that elude anti-territoriality can tell us about design and ultimately about society. It uncovers how objects that are materially and narratively immobilised in exhibitions but that are in a constant state of cultural performativity tell stories about heterogeneity and entanglements as well as discrimination and exclusion. It describes how the Mediterranean relates to the global North and West or Europe. And it demonstrates how dis:connective objects help to reframe the sea and contribute to thinking globalisation from the eastern and southern Mediterranean.
On becoming one: harmonising East-West disconnections
A photo from the online exhibition Ton in Ton. Jüdische Keramikerinnen aus Deutschland nach 1933 at the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2013 shows the young Charag-Zuntz in Siegfried Möller’s studio (fig. 01), where she apprenticed in pottery, before she fled to Palestine in 1940.[6] At the wheel, she is shaping an object with a narrow base and voluminous belly that tapers toward the opening. In its simplicity and progressiveness, the piece can be associated with the Bauhaus, to which Charag-Zuntz was indirectly exposed.[7]

Fig. 01: Hanna Charag-Zuntz, Stuttgart, 1936, family collection Hanna Charag-Zuntz (from: Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Ton in Ton. Jüdische Keramikerinnen aus Deutschland nach 1933, online exhibition, 2013, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/IQVBfUHgPN-sLA?hl=de).

The influence of exile, the design teachings from Germany and their imputed superiority over Middle Eastern material, techniques, forms and designs are evident in the text accompanying the exhibition.[8] In it, Michal Friedlander describes the confluence of the East and West in the foundation of Jewish craft, but at the same time allows for criticism of the inhospitable geographic environment and the limitations of indigenous Arab pottery. Although following a long tradition, and though early Israeli ceramic production also draws on the knowledge of Arab potters and collaboration with them, the text depicts ‘underdeveloped Palestine’, with its aridity and heat that prohibited Western glazes, tints and kilns, as an impediment to the establishment of serious ceramic art in Israel. Nevertheless, according to Friedlander, Charag-Zuntz succeeds in fusing European purism with Middle Eastern experiments with clay, resulting in a seemingly universal aesthetic. This creative connection of purportedly universal validity can be read as a reference to the social unity and stability to which the newly founded nation of Israel aspired. In fact, though, it was caught between cultures. This exhibition, like numerous others, effaces the tensions that attended the simultaneous selection and rejection of West and East in society and the arts. The exhibition Forms from Israel, sponsored by the Government of Israel in cooperation with the America-Israel Cultural Foundation & Crafts From Israel, and shown at the New York Museum of Contemporary Crafts, chose a different context for Charag- Zuntz’s objects as mediators among the cultures of Israel exactly a decade after its founding in 1948.[9] Under the heading Continuities, her works are flanked on the following page of the accompanying catalogue by a basalt bowl from the biblical site of Beersheba dating to 4000 BCE (fig. 02a + 02b).[10]

Fig. 02a: Hanna Charag-Zuntz, various ceramic vessels, undated.

 

Fig. 02b: Basalt bowl, Bersheeba, 4000 BCE
(© American Federation of Arts /
Courtesy American Craft Council
Library & Archives).

Despite a certain formal resemblance between the longer vessel shown here and the early pieces she had created in Germany (see fig. 01), the narratives about her objects in this exhibition, which celebrates the formation of Israeli identity, focus less on European modernity than on the archetypes of the territorially delimited landscape of the Middle East. The juxtaposition of contemporary Israeli handicrafts and purportedly Jewish-Canaanite archaeological finds in the catalogue is intended to emphasise the continuity of biblical Palestine and to restore its authenticity, which had been thought lost.[11] Additionally, the ‘renascence of a Hebrew civilisation’ is linguistically affirmed by employing the words ‘convergence’, ‘mixing’ and the ‘melting pot’ of carefully selected cultural elements.[12] This hybridisation of particular set pieces — traditional and contemporary — is noticeable in the juxtaposition of Turkish coffee sets, Arab drums, poster design and modern wooden toys. Charag-Zuntz’s work here is marshalled to reinforce a national ceramic tradition based in multicultural assimilation of excavated finds as markers of genuine Jewish culture and diverse immigrant cultures into the Middle Eastern landscape. What remains invisible, however, is a fusion restricted to selected art pieces, styles, elements and cultural groups.[13] As Rachel S. Harris argues, connecting with the new landscape economically and physically meant simultaneously remaining intellectually and socially distinct from the Middle Eastern ‘Other’. The catalogue erases the exclusion of any unreformed groups, namely Muslim communities, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, that blurred identities and disrupted hybridisation. My next example is the 2018 exhibition in San Diego, entitled Israel. 70 Years of Craft and Design, that reckoned with the Zionists’ previously lauded notions of hybridisation. According to the catalogue’s authors: ‘[…] it did not result in forming the collective unified identity of the “New Jew” dreamt of by Israel’s first leaders. Instead the Israeli melting pot sizzled with a vast array of ideologies, vigorously contradicting and swiftly replacing one another but never cohering into one entity’.[14] The exhibition was a collaboration between the House of Israel, which professes emphatically to be ‘non-profit’, ‘non-political’ and ‘non-sectarian’ at the beginning of the catalogue, and the Mingei international Museum, whose programme is dedicated to the collection, preservation and exhibition of arts of daily life ‘from all eras and cultures of the world’.[15] Although the catalogue distances itself from Israel’s early policy of unification, the exhibition recalls Form from Israel. It includes a selection of diverse objects from different times and cultures that have shaped Israel. Traditional Bedouin textiles and Yemeni jewellery were shown alongside contemporary industrial products, furniture and ceramics, notably Charag-Zuntz’s.[16] In contrast to what the museum claims on its webpage, the objects do not ‘[…] speak for themselves — in line, form, and color — the universal language of art’.[17] Instead, they are contextualised by Smadar Samson’s introduction, who relates the multidisciplinarity and stylistic heterogeneity of the vessels to a pluralistic Israel, open to differences and deviations. But, by emphasising the connection of diverse creative set pieces within one object — without referring to social gaps, segregation and isolation — the objects are once again truncated as symbols of cultural reconciliation,[18] at which point we must return to the exhibition’s title. The artefacts are employed to commemorate the founding of a state that geopolitically subsumes its cultures, religions and languages under an all-encompassing category. The curators’ critique of Israel’s unity policy and the museum’s pacifist programme thus seem committed to an imaginary postmodern dissolution of artistic and social classifications that never manifests in (national) reality.
Levantine disruptions or detours to connection
The émigré and philosopher Vilém Flusser observed that ‘visual languages’ ‘[…] run across the boundaries of national languages […]’.[19] So what do Charag-Zuntz’s ceramics reveal when decoupled from geopolitical narratives? What happens when we focus instead on their formal properties from a local perspective that would, unlike previous exhibitions, view the Mediterranean as the objects’ co-designer? Upon moving to Haifa in 1943, Charag-Zuntz specialised in Terra Sigillata, an ancient Mediterranean technique.[20] In this process, the pieces are fired at high temperatures and usually obtain a shimmering red surface without glazing. This technique was practiced throughout the Mediterranean 2500 years ago and suggests that people and their products were moving across historical and political boundaries.[21] Nationally framed exhibitions mention Terra Sigillata in Charag- Zuntz’s work as one of her many design tools. These exhibitions invoke this technique to symbolise Israel’s unitary ideal of interconnected cultures. In the context of the philosophy of Levantinism, however, the objects’ core message changes. ‘Levantine’ stands for a diverse society of immigrants from different places in the Mediterranean, including descendants of Genoese and Venetian merchants and of Jews who fled to the Ottoman Empire from Spain since antiquity.[22] They are migrants, refugees and dissidents who mixed with other minorities in the coastal countries of the eastern Mediterranean: Christian Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Marked by their place of arrival rather than their origins, even Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Arabic groups were called Levantines. They were branded as non-conformist, partly Eastern in the West and partly European in the East, subject neither to the colonial dictum of imitating the West nor to the later Israeli orientation towards Europe.[23] This diverse group of people were perceived as a threat to national identity and security, presumably because they were ‘not all of a piece’ and refusing to be ‘contained’ in geopolitical categories.[24] In their territorially and culturally indeterminate existence on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, as ‘cross-breeds’ despised by Israel’s early assimilating forces,[25] they de-stabilised territories and interrupted political narratives of connection. Prompted by the politically negated diaspora and the collective memory of Jews of European and Arab origins in the 1950s and 60s, Jaqueline Kahanoff dared to revitalise Levantinism as a social option for the young state.[26] In a 1959 article entitled Israel: Ambivalent Levantine, she called for a transcultural society that would include Arab and other minorities on an equal footing.[27] She referred to the absence of all the rejected, discriminated and geographically and socially excluded groups in slums, refugee camps of the Occupied Territories and marginal development town,[28] especially those marked by centuries of migration along the eastern Mediterranean coastline, which actually means half the population of Israel.[29] Linking Charag-Zuntz’s objects to the contested waters off Israel’s coast exposes ambiguities and tensions that are constitutive of social entanglements. It reveals constant change, disturbing expectations of rootedness that coincide with residence and indicating the simultaneous identification with and disavowal of both East and West. In short, it subverts spaces and disrupts singularities.[30] Also, the vessels narrated through this Mediterranean-Levantine lens disclose absences caused by the (neo-)colonial and imperialist programme of connections limited to selected decorative facets[31] of the Middle East that become equally evident in most exhibitions of Charag-Zuntz’s pieces. The narratively excluded elements of the cultural ‘Other’ remain invisible. Therefore, the works’ interruptions and absences in form and content demand interrogation. This becomes evident not only in Charag-Zuntz’s use of Terra Sigillata, which is a politically discarded symbol of cultural non-fixation and ambivalence in the eastern Mediterranean, but also through the ceramic’s shadings (fig. 03). Apart from the numerous reddish, yellow and brown objects, such as those in Forms from Israel, she also uses turquoise, blue and green nuances, which the exhibitions omit and fail to associate with the Oriental and Mediterranean ceramics known for these hues.[32]

Fig. 03: Hanna Charag-Zuntz, various ceramic vessels, late 1960s and 1970—’76s, image: Shay Ben Efraim (© The Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Centre / © Shay Ben Efraim).

The absence of the ‘Other’ in design also becomes apparent in the objects’ material. Charag-Zuntz finds sand and brine for the firing process off the ‘impure’ coast of Israel and clay in the formerly Arab Negev Desert, since absorbed into Israel.[33] This becomes relevant considering that the ascendence of Israeli ceramics and their national promotion to the status of art rests on the allegorical creation of ‘Adam’ and ‘Adamah’, referring to Israeli society, which actually arose from local — most recently Muslim — earths.[34] The catalogues’ description of the vessels as predominantly ‘calm’, ‘clear’, ‘simple’, ‘balanced’ and ‘unifying’ is also disputable.[35] In contrast to the exhibitions, one could equally focus on the tension between the pots’ protruding bellies and narrow openings, which interrupts Israeli rhetoric of cultural harmonisation. The objects’ doubtful functionality, which is a product of this formal disparity, further reinforces the impression of disruption: as in design, so in society. The references some exhibitions make to ostensibly Jewish archaeological finds can also be disrupted. Round artefacts with shapes that merge almost seamlessly into the opening and elongated forms that expand in the middle are also found among Levantine cultures from Cyprus and Muslims from Syria and Palestine (fig. 04a + 04b).[36] Moreover, the horizontal lines are also a common design element in ancient Levantine ceramics.[37] Charag-Zuntz’s brushstrokes, interpreted as Japanese in some exhibitions,[38] exemplify such Levantine characteristics.

Fig. 04a:
Jar with geometric designs, Levantine, ca. 585 BCE, h. 10,2 cm, terracotta, The William D. and Jane Welsh Collection at Fordham University, (from: Barbara Cavaliere and Jennifer Udell, eds., Ancient Mediterranean Art. The William D. and Jane Welsh Collection at Fordham
University (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 334.)

Fig. 04b
Bottle with pouring spout for water transport, mid-4th millennium BCE, Habuba Kabira, Syria, clay, pottery wheel ceramics, h. 69 cm, Prähistorische Staatssammlung, München, inv. nr. 1985, 701; (from: Gisela Zahlhaas, Prähistorische Staatssammlung. Keramiken des Vorderen Orients im internationalen Keramik-Museum Weiden, collection catalogue, Weiden, Keramik-Museum, 1990, 65.)

Thus, if we consider Charag-Zuntz’s works to be shaped by the eastern Mediterranean, a double dis:connectivity emerges. First, the detachment of the vessels from national narratives and their simultaneous coupling with a Levantine local culture is a methodological dis:connectivity, which reveals absent maritime narratives. Second, these maritime narratives frame the pieces as products of complex connections that go along with interruptions and absences. They are bound to a specific location but subvert the ideas of a settled territory and singular religions, languages and identities; they perform culture without possessing it.[39] A ‘neither—nor’ supplants and interrupts the narrow national vision of a ‘both—and’.[40] Interpreting the objects through this local cultural lens exposes the politically constructed absences that the nationally framed narratives of the exhibitions manage to circumvent. Instead of connection, harmony, and stability, analysing the works through an expanded Levantine perspective unveils past and present hegemonic mechanisms that segregate and exclude unwanted groups. The objects testify to the multidimensional interconnections in a space whose natural characteristics seem stable, all-encompassing and unifying, but whose social and political changes connote instability. These pieces echo the understanding of globalisation Deleuze and Guattari described as ‘[…] an effect of the multitudes of forces that coalesce, concatenate, and collapse at local, provisional sites.’[41] In this light, the Mediterranean and the understanding of the ceramics produced along its shores are more complicated than most theories (and exhibitions) permit. By revealing the interruptions and absences — in research and society — dis:connected objects read in contemporary Levantine terms present an alternative to the simplistic rhetoric of national connectivity. Extending the point, this new perspective and the visualisation of excluded artefact narratives and groups can even reintroduce previously erased themes and agents in art and society. For the history of art, craft and design, regionally influenced approaches can complicate object-bound narratives by generating more creative, institutional and personal participation and contribute to non-hegemonic research and theorisation. Locally framed objects represent a detour to a social and artistic presence and inclusion that national narratives only imagine. By extension, dis:connective Mediterranean artefacts could interrupt the dominant Northern and Western narratives of the Mediterranean, de-nationalising its past for its future perception.[42] New (trans-)local perspectives, images, ideas and representations would help to reconceive the global impact of the Mediterranean and the discursive absences of the manifold influences, which it has always exerted on modern Europe and its identity. [1] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘narrative’ goes back to the postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who used it 1979 in La condition postmoderne to refer to a crisis that for him heralded an era succeeding optimistic modernity, when the meta-narratives of the Enlightenment and Idealism had become implausible. Recognising and naming a narrative as such thus means distancing oneself from it. In the social sciences of the last three decades, the term ‘narrative’ stands for ’meaningful storytelling’: as regionally, culturally or nationally related narratives that are subject to change and are imbued with legitimacy. In my investigation, I refer to both concepts and use the term critically to denote how storytelling can influence the way the environment and thus art and design are perceived. In the following, the term relates to the creation of meaning in Charag-Zuntz’s objects in the context of nationally framed exhibition catalogues on the one hand and the cultural concept of ‘Levantinism’ — a sort of counternarrative to the catalogues — on the other. See: ‘Narrativ’, Duden, 2023, https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Narrativ_Erzaehlung_Geschichte; Matthias Heine, ‘Hinz und Kunz schwafeln heutzutage vom “Narrativ”’, Die Welt, 13 November 2016, https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article159450529/Hinz-und-Kunz-schwafeln-heutzutage-vom-Narrativ.html; Wolfgang Seibel, ‘Hegemoniale Semantiken und radikale Gegennarrative. Beitrag zum Arbeitsgespräch des Kulturwissenschaftlichen Kollegs’, Uni Konstanz, 22 January 2009, https://www.exc16.uni-konstanz.de/fileadmin/all/downloads/veranstaltungen2009/Seibel-Heg-Semantiken-090122.pdf. [2] This concept was coined by the Käte Hamburger Research Centre global dis:connect, see: ‘Research’, global dis:connect, 2023, https://www.org/research/disconnectivity/. [3] Among the basic theories of the Mediterranean are: Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’epoque de Philippe II (Paris: Armand Colin, 1949); Peregrin Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). [4] See Braudel’s study on how the geographical and cultural consistency and uniformity of the Mediterranean has affected humanity and our perception of the natural Connectivity — a concept later adapted by Horden and Purcell — plays a major role. Although the latter refer to the fragmented nature of the micro-regions, the natural disposition of a larger inland sea implies a bond and an exchange that ultimately ensures unity in diversity — which is once again elevated to the specificity of the Mediterranean. See: Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen; Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea; Mihran Dabag et al., ‘“New Horizons” der Mittelmeerforschung. Einleitung’, in New Horizons. Mediterranean Research in the 21st Century, eds. Mihran Dabag et al., Mittelmeerstudien, 10 (Paderborn: Fink/Schöningh, 2016). [5] Rachel S. Harris, ‘Israel. Finding the Levant within the Mediterranean’, review of The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity by Alexandra Nocke, The Levantine Review, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 107-8. [6] Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Ton in Ton. Jüdische Keramikerinnen aus Deutschland nach 1933. Online exhibition 2013, Google Arts and Culture, 2013, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/IQVBfUHgPN-sLA?hl=de. [7] Even though Charag-Zuntz, like colleagues of hers, such as Hedwig Grossmann, had not attended the famous art school, she attests in an interview with Antje Soléau to growing up in ‘the artistic atmosphere of the Bauhaus’ and emphasises its tangible influence on the ceramic attitudes of the young ceramicists in Germany in the Cf.: Antje Soleáu, ‘Zwei Leben — Zwei Schicksale: Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein und Hanna Charag-Zuntz’, Neue Keramik, no. 1 (2016): 33. [8] For the following paragraph see: Michal Friedlander, ‘Vasen statt Milchflaschen — Eva Samuel, Hedwig Grossmann und Hanna Charag-Zuntz: Die Töpferpionierinnen in Palästina nach 1932’, in Avantgarde für den Jüdische Keramikerinnen in Deutschland 1919—1933. Marguerite Friedlaender- Wildenhain, Margarete Heymann-Marks, Eva Stricker-Zeisel, Berlin, Bröhan- Museum, 2013, 104–11. Exhibition catalogue, https://www.jmberlin.de/sites/default/files/katalogbeitrag_friedlander_0.pdf. [9] The Israel Institute of Industrial Design in consultation with The American Federation of Arts, eds., Forms from Israel, New York, Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, 1958–1960. Exhibition catalogue, https://digital.craftcouncil.org/digital/collection/p15785coll5/id/4735/rec/2. [10] Ibid., 44ff. [11] Friedlander, ‘Vasen statt Milchflaschen’, 108-9. On roots of Jewish pottery in ancient Canaanite finds, see: Gidon Ofrat, ‘The Beginnings of Israeli Ceramics’, Ariel 90 (1992): 79. The authors of the exhibition catalogues largely dismiss the influence of the ‘small’ and ‘little’ Arab pots, especially since they produced the porous earthenware disdained by German ceramists. Cf.: Soleáu, ‘Zwei Leben — Zwei Schicksale‘, 33. [12] The Israel Institute of Industrial Design et. al., Forms from Israel, 6-7. [13] For the following paragraph see: Harris, ‘Israel’, 106–11. [14] Samson Smadar, ‘Introduction’, in 70 Years of Craft and Design, Mingei International Museum, 2018—2021, ed. Jean Patterson, San Diego, House of Israel, 2018, 12-13. Exhibition catalogue. [15] Jean Patterson, ed., 70 Years of Craft and Design, San Diego, Mingei International Museum, 2018—2021, San Diego, House of Israel, 2018, exhibition catalogue. Mingei International Museum, ‘About: Mission and Vision,’ accessed 9 February 2023. https://mingei.org/about/mission. [16] Patterson, Israel, 92ff. [17] Mingei International Museum, ‘About’. [18] Patterson, Israel, 92-3. [19] Vilém Flusser, ‘Nationalsprachen’, in Von der Freiheit des Einsprüche gegen den Nationalismus (Hamburg: CEP Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 2013), 12. [20] The term dates to the 18th A name from antiquity is not certain. Cf.: Verena Hasenbach, ‘Terra Sigillata’, Historisches Lexikon, 31 December 2011, https://historisches-lexikon.li/Terra_sigillata. [21] Ofrat, ‘The Beginnings of Israeli Ceramics’, 87. [22] For the following paragraph, see: Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf, ‘Kahanoff’s Levantinism: The Anachronic Possibilities of a Concept’, BAK, accessed 3 February 2022, https://www.bakonline.org/prospections/kahanoffs-levantinism-the-anachronic-possibilities-of-a-concept/. [23] Jaqueline Kahanoff, ‘Reflections of a Levantine Jew’, Jewish Frontier, April 1958, 7, cited in Meyer and Schaerf, ‘Kahanoff’s Levantinism’. [24] Meyer and Schaerf, ‘Kahanoff’s Levantinism’; Harris, ‘Israel’, 107-8. [25] Harris, ‘Israel’, 108. [26] Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, ‘Ambivalent Levantine’, in Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 193–212. [27] Ibid. [28] Karen Grumberg, Place and Ideology in Contemporary Hebrew Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010), 243, cited in Harris, ‘Israel’, 116. [29] Abraham B. Yehoshúa, ‘Beyond Folklore: The Identity of the Sephardic Jew’, Quaderns de La Mediterrània, no. 14 (2010), https://www.iemed.org/publication/beyond-folklore-the-identity-of-the-sephardic-jew-2/. [30] Ronit Matalon, The One Facing Us (New York: Metropolian Books, 1998), 214, cited in Harris, ‘Israel’, 116. [31] Harris, ‘Israel’, 107. [32] The objects were shown in an Israeli exhibition in 2019, which dealt with inter-generational dialogue among the artists. Cf.: Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Centre, Type of a Dialogue — Hanna Charag-Zuntz, Michal Alon, exhibition, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 2019, https://www.benyaminiceramics.org/en/ceramic-galleries/past-exhibitions/2019-2/type-if-a-dialogue/. [33] Ofrat, ‘The Beginnings of Israeli Ceramics’, 76. [34] From a quote by the ceramist Hedwig Grossmann-Lehmann on the beginnings of Israeli ceramics. Cf.: Maika Korfmacher, ‘Hanna Charag-Zuntz und Varda Yatom’, in Hanna Charag-Zuntz und Varda Yatom. Gefäße und Skulpturen aus Israel, ed. Bernd Hakenjos, Düsseldorf, Hetjens Museum, 1998, 6. Exhibition catalogue. [35] Ibid., 7, as well as Tadmor, Tova Berlinski. [36] For an overview of Levantine jars from the ancient Mediterranean region, see: Barbara Cavaliere and Jennifer Udell, eds., Ancient Mediterranean Art. The William D. and Jane Welsh Collection at Fordham University (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). For Syrian or Palestinian traditional pottery, see: Gisela Zahlhaas, Prähistorische Staatssammlung. Keramiken des Vorderen Orients im internationalen Keramik-Museum Weiden, (1990). Collection catalogue; John Landgraf and Owen Rye, ‘Introduction’, in Palestinian Traditional Pottery. A Contribution to Palestinian Culture, eds. Elizabeth Burr et al. (Leuven/Paris/Bristol: Peeters, 2021), XXVII–XXX. [37] Cavaliere and Udell, Ancient Mediterranean Art, especially 334. [38] For example, in the exhibition 70 Years of Craft and Design. Cf.: Patterson, Israel, 92. [39] Gil Hochberg, ‘“Permanent Immigration”: Jacqueline Kahanoff, Ronit Matalon, and the Impetus of Levantinism’, Boundary 31, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 220–21, cited in Harris, ‘Israel’, 107. [40] Ibid. [41] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, First published 1980 by Éd. de Minuit, Paris), cited in: Cavan Concannon and Lindsey A. Mazurek, ‘Introduction: A New Connectivity for the Twenty-First Century,’ in Across the Corrupting Sea: Post-Braudelian Approaches to the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean, eds. Cavan W. Concannon and Lindsey A. Mazurek (London: Routledge, 2016), 14. [42] Matthew D’Auria and Fernanda Gallo, ‘Introduction. Ideas of Europe and the (Modern) Mediterranean’, in Mediterranean Europe(s). Rethinking Europe from its Southern Shores, Matthew D’Auria and Fernanda Gallo (London/New York: Routledge, 2023).
Bibliography
Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Centre, Type of a Dialogue — Hanna Charag-Zuntz, Michal Alon. Exhibition, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 2019. https://www.benyaminiceramics.org/en/ceramic-galleries/past-exhibitions/2019-2/type-if-a-dialogue/. Braudel, Fernand, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’epoque de Philippe II. Paris: Armand Colin, 1949. Cavaliere, Barbara and Jennifer Udell, eds. Ancient Mediterranean Art. The William D. and Jane Welsh Collection at Fordham University. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. Concannon, Cavan, and Lindsey A. Mazurek, eds. Across the Corrupting Sea: Post-Braudelian Approaches to the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean. London: Routledge, 2016. Dabag, Mihran, Dieter Haller, Nikolas Jaspers and Achim Lichtenberger. ‘“New Horizons” der Mittelmeerforschung. Einleitung’. In New Horizons. Mediterranean Research in the 21st Century, edited by Mihran Dabag, Dieter Haller, Nikolas Jaspers, and Achim Lichtenberger, Mittelmeerstudien, 10. Paderborn: Fink/Schöningh, 2016. D’Auria, Matthew and Fernanda Gallo. ‘Introduction. Ideas of Europe and the (Modern) Mediterranean’. In Mediterranean Europe(s). Rethinking Europe from its Southern Shores, edited by Matthew D’Auria and Fernanda Gallo. London/New York: Routledge, 2023. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guttari, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. First published 1980 by Éd. de Minuit, Paris). Duden. ‘Narrativ’, 2023. https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Narrativ_Erzaehlung_Geschichte. Flusser, Vilém, ‘Nationalsprachen’. In Von der Freiheit des Migranten. Einsprüche gegen den Nationalismus, 11–14. Hamburg: CEP Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 2013. Friedlander, Michal, ‘Vasen statt Milchflaschen — Eva Samuel, Hedwig Grossmann and Hanna Charag-Zuntz: Die Töpferpionierinnen in Palästina Nach 1932’. In Avantgarde für den Alltag. Jüdische Keramikerinnen in Deutschland 1919—1933. Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain, Margarete Heymann-Marks, Eva Stricker-Zeisel, 104–11. Berlin: Bröhan-Museum. Exhibition catalogue, https://www.jmberlin.de/sites/default/files/katalogbeitrag_friedlander_0.pdf. global dis:connect, ‘Research’, 2023. https://www.globaldisconnect.org/research/disconnectivity/. Google Arts and Culture, Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Ton in Ton. Jüdische Keramikerinnen aus Deutschland nach 1933, online exhibition, 2013. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/IQVBfUHgPN-sLA?hl=de. Grumberg, Karen, Place and Ideology in Contemporary Hebrew Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010. Harris, Rachel S., ‘Israel. Finding the Levant within the Mediterranean. Review of The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity by Alexandra Nocke, The Levantine Review, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 106–17. Hasenbach, Verena, ‘Terra Sigillata’. Historisches Lexikon, 31 December 2011. https://historisches-lexikon.li/Terra_sigillata. Heine, Matthias, ‘Hinz und Kunz schwafeln heutzutage vom “Narrativ”’. Die Welt, 13 November 2016. https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article159450529/Hinz-und-Kunz-schwafeln-heutzutage-vom-Narrativ.html. Hochberg, Gil, ‘“Permanent Immigration”: Jacqueline Kahanoff, Ronit Matalon, and the Impetus of Levantinism’. Boundary 31, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 219–43. Horden, Peregrin, and Nicholas Purcell. The Corrupting Sea. A Study of Mediterranean History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Israel Institute of Industrial Design, The, in consultation with The American Federation of Arts, ed. Forms from Israel. New York: Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, 1958. Exhibition catalogue, https://digital.craftcouncil.org/digital/collection/p15785coll5/id/4735/rec/2. Kahanoff, Jacqueline Shohet, ‘Ambivalent Levantine’. In Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, edited by Debora A. Starr and Sasson Somekh, 193–212. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. Kahanoff, Jaqueline, ‘Reflections of a Levantine Jew’. Jewish Frontier, April 1958. Korfmacher, Maika ‘Hanna Charag-Zuntz und Varda Yatom’, in Hanna Charag-Zuntz und Varda Yatom. Gefäße und Skulpturen aus Israel, edited by Bernd Hakenjos, 6–8. Düsseldorf, Hetjens Museum, 1998. Exhibition catalogue. Landgraf, John and Owen Rye, ‘Introduction’. In Palestinian Traditional Pottery. A Contribution to Palestinian Culture, edited by Elizabeth Burr, Jean- Baptiste Humbert, Owen Rye and Hamed Salem, XXVII–XXX. Leuven/Paris/ Bristol: Peeters, 2021. Matalon, Ronit, The One Facing Us. New York: Metropolian Books, 1998. Meyer, Eva and Eran Schaerf, ‘Kahanoff’s Levantinism: The Anachronic Possibilities of a Concept’. Prospections. Accessed 3 February 2022. https://www.bakonline.org/prospections/kahanoffs-levantinism-the-anachronic-possibilities-of-a-concept/. Ofrat, Gidon, ‘The Beginnings of Israeli Ceramics’. Ariel 90 (1992): 75–94. Patterson, Jean, Israel. 70 Years of Craft and Design, San Diego, Mingei International Museum, 2018—2021. San Diego: House of Israel, 2018. Exhibition catalogue. Seibel, Wolfgang. ‘Hegemoniale Semantiken und radikale Gegennarrative. Beitrag zum Arbeitsgespräch des Kulturwissenschaftlichen Kollegs Uni Konstanz.’ Konstanz, 2009. https://www.exc16.uni-konstanz.de/fileadmin/all/downloads/veranstaltungen2009/Seibel-Heg-Semantiken-090122.pdf. Smadar, Samson, ‘Introduction’. In Israel. 70 Years of Craft and Design. Mingei International Museum, 2018—2021, edited by Jean Patterson, San Diego, House of Israel, 2018. Exhibition catalogue. Soleáu, Antje, ‘Zwei Leben — Zwei Schicksale: Margarete Heymann- Loebenstein und Hanna Charag-Zuntz’. Neue Keramik, no. 1 (2016): 30–33. Yehoshúa, Abraham B. ‘Beyond Folklore: The Identity of the Sephardic Jew’. Quaderns de La Mediterrània, no. 14 (2010). Zahlhaas, Gisela, Prähistorische Staatssammlung. Keramiken des Vorderen Orients im internationalen Keramik-Museum Weiden. Collection Catalogue. Weiden: Keramik-Museum Weiden, 1990.
citation information:
Geiger, Hanni. ‘Hanna Charag-Zuntz’s Levantine Ceramics: Dis:Connecting Objects through Narratives’. Blog, Global Dis:Connect (blog), 2 May 2023. https://www.globaldisconnect.org/05/02/hanna-charag-zuntzs-levantine-ceramics-disconnecting-objects-through-narratives/.
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Haeckel’s corals: on the extraction, collection and circulation of scientific objects

[Editor's note: this essay is the first in a series on the topic of dis:connected objects, curated by our own Burcu Dogramaci, Hanni Geiger and alumna fellow Änne Söll. The series originated with the workshop on dis:connected objects held in June 2022 and will appear in a special issue of static in May. Enjoy.]
petra löffler
 
‘… scientific objects are elusive and hard-won.’ (Lorraine Daston)

Magical corals

When the natural scientist Ernst Haeckel visited the shores of the Red Sea in March 1873, a dream came true for him: to see ‘the magical coral reefs’[1] with his own eyes. However, he went not only to admire the beauty and diversity of the abundant coral species that have fascinated naturalists and artists since antiquity,[2] but also to extract samples of his own from the sea. Corals are polyps (animals) that live in symbiosis with certain algae (plants), which they shelter in their calciferous exoskeletons, receiving nutrients in return. They live in colonies building the reefs that house many small species. Corals first have to be disconnected from their natural habitat to become collectible and classifiable scientific objects.[3] My aim is to reconstruct the migration routes and transformations that the extracted corals had to undertake from their natural watery habitat in the shallows around the Sinai Peninsula to the dry natural history museums in Germany. As I will show, Haeckel’s corals have passed through all commonplaces of Western science: the field as a space of exploration, the laboratory as a space of manipulation, the museum as a space of presentation and the archive as a space of circulation.[4] In following their traces through inventory lists, correspondences and publications, I seek the ‘waves of action’ they are nevertheless able to release.[5] As collection items, each specimen has its own history and ‘biography’ of extraction and migration from their areas of origin to the natural-history collections and museum repositories in the global North.

Figure 1: Madrepora (Acropora) squarrosa, collected 1873 by Ernst Haeckel near El Tor, Phyletic Museum, Jena (photo: Bernhard Bock).

Today, Haeckel’s extensive collection of corals is distributed across various scientific institutions, such as Berlin’s Natural History Museum and Jena’s Phyletic Museum. While some samples are exhibited as showpieces (figure 1), the majority of the impressive stock of corals is stored in repositories and thus disentangled once again (figure 2). Seen in this light, ‘his’ corals are not only disconnected but undead objects that raise questions about the entanglements of Western natural science and colonial politics in their extraction and involuntary migration.

Figure 2 a & b: Phyletic Museum, Jena, repository of Haeckel’s coral specimens (photo: Bernhard Bock).

With his 1873 journey, Haeckel explicitly followed in the footsteps of the natural scientist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, who had already travelled to the Red Sea in 1832 and had taken up quarters in El Tor to study coral species in their natural habitat.[6] Haeckel returned to this village on the west coast of the Red Sea, which soon became a regional locus for coral research. In his travel report, published in 1875, Haeckel complains about the ‘many and great difficulties’ of his journey to the scarcely populated Sinai Peninsula, which was, at least in the culturally biased eyes of the Western traveller, ‘mostly inhabited only by poor, half-wild Muhammedans’. ‘One must bring tents, servants, food and drinking water oneself in order to exist there. Nor is there any regular steamship connection between Suez and these wretched coastal places’.[7] The alternative overland route through the Sinai desert seemed to him equally arduous and time-consuming and, as he notes, ‘the transport of the corals I wished to collect would have been very awkward on the camel’.[8] Fortunately, the German naturalist could do without camels and servants because he could use the existing modern infrastructure of the country, which officially belonged to the Ottoman Empire. In his report, he describes hardships that were not too severe for a wealthy Western traveller. Haeckel could comfortably travel from Cairo to Suez with the railroad that opened in 1857, and he reached El Tor on board of an Egyptian navy steamship. These newly built imperial travel and transport routes, including the Suez Canal that opened in 1869, played an important part in the consolidation of colonial power.

Extracting corals

Arriving in El Tor, the whole harbour appeared to Haeckel as ‘a charming coral garden’.[9] His report betrays how possessive he was of the local people, who built their houses and harbour facilities from dead stone corals: ‘Some of these wretched huts hold in a single wall a larger collection of beautiful coral blocks than can be found in many European museums. We would have loved to buy up the whole village, pack it up and send it home’.[10] This did not happen, however, because the zoologist was even more excited about the abundance of coral communities living in the reefs fringing the village. In order to extract them from their natural habitat, he relied on local fishermen, who provided boats and were experienced pearl divers. As Haeckel reports, ‘[t]hey were neither equipped with diving bells nor with scaphander or other diving apparatus; but they swam so excellently, could stay under water so long and knew so skilfully how to detach even larger corals from their points of attachment that they never resurfaced without surprising us with new splendid gifts of coral’.[11] I am not as concerned with Haeckel’s admiration for the skill of the local divers as with his remark on the magnificent corals as ‘splendid gifts’. As anthropologist Nicholas Thomas points out, gifts are always part of complex exchange relations, that is ‘a political process, one in which wider relationships are expressed and negotiated in a personal encounter’.[12] Moreover, Haeckel describes the coral extraction as a fabulously successful treasure hunt: ‘As soon as we have indicated the desired object to our divers, they jump down. [...] In a few hours our boats are filled with the most precious treasures’.[13] Not only does he claim ownership of the corals, he extends this notion to those who did the work, whom he unhesitatingly refers to as ‘our divers’. In Haeckel’s rationalist Western worldview, the evocation of nature’s wealth is the prerequisite of the ability to freely take possession of it. Claims of ownership overlap with ideas of the assumed superiority of Western economy, culture and science that are entangled with regimes of coloniality.[14] Haeckel’s journey stood under the protection of the Egyptian regime, which also ruled over the Greek-Arab population of the Sinai. His travel report is dedicated to the Ottoman ruler Ismail Pasha for good reason. As a Western scientist, Haeckel undoubtedly profited from colonial power, even though he explicitly acknowledged the valuable support and hospitality of the local fishermen of El Tor.[15]

Collecting corals

Corals are a promising research object for the art-loving zoologist because of their immense diversity and their special way of living in colonies.[16] The title page of Arabische Korallen (Arabian Corals), designed by Haeckel himself, gives an impression of the richness of forms of these so-called anthozoans or floral animals (figure 3). His admiration for these diverse species was partly ignited by their metabolism (each individual polyp has a stomach and is therefore a person in a strictly biological sense) and because these coral persons settle in large colonies on submarine rocks.

Figure 3: Ernst Heackel: Kalkgerüste toter Korallen von Tur (Calcareous scaffolds of dead corals from El Tor), Arabian Corals, 1875, plate II (scan: Petra Löffler).

Haeckel, who promoted Darwin’s theory of evolution and shared with the English naturalist his admiration for corals as reef architects,[17] coined the term ‘ecology’.[18] He became especially interested in coral communities as habitats for various other small marine species that perform a kind of ‘social democracy’.[19] With this metaphor, corals enter the realm of politics and become a model for a civil society with equal members. At the same time, these coral communities reminded Haeckel of a miniature ‘zoological museum’.[20] Exactly this last notion turns living corals into a scientific object even before their extraction. The illustrations in Haeckel’s travelogue represent the richness of forms and the specific morphology of corals (figure 4). What is particularly revealing, however, is how he transformed them into scientific objects and proceeded as a collector. To transport the removed coral specimen, Haeckel already made extensive arrangements before his arrival in El Tor and ordered a great quantity of wooden boxes and big glass jars. The transportation of marine species required special practices, logistics and knowledge of their needs.[21] The fact that in the end only twelve boxes with both wet and dry specimens arrived in his hometown of Jena, as he noted with regret,[22] shows the scale of his ambition as a collector.

Figure 4: Ernst Heackel: Arabische Korallen (Arabian Corals), 1875, title page (scan: Petra Löffler).

Naturalists can prove themselves experts by collecting specific specimens and identifying new species. The zoologist Carl Benjamin Klunzinger, for instance, who also travelled to El Tor, praised professional collecting as a serious scientific activity. He documented his collecting activities in Bilder aus Oberägypten, der Wüste und dem Rothen Meere (Images from Upper Egypt, the Desert and the Red Sea), published in 1877 with 22 drawings. Extensive collecting of specimens was primarily intended to benefit scientific teaching and object lessons. But corals die quickly in the air and lose their colour. To depict their diverse forms and vivid colours, the explorer and painter Eugen Baron Ransonnet-Villez developed a special diving apparatus and made underwater drawings on site. Nevertheless, the colourful depictions of reef colonies that adorn the publications of Ransonnet-Villez (1863) and Haeckel are idealised images that underline the necessity of visual representations to advance scientific knowledge (figure 5).[23]

Figure 5: Eugen Baron Ransonnet-Villez: Reise von Kairo nach Tor zu den Korallenbänken des rothen Meeres (Journey from Cairo to Tor to the Coral Banks of the Red Sea), 1863, plate I.

Regimes of circulation

What did Haeckel do in Jena, where he had held a professorship in zoology since 1865, with all the corals he had appropriated? His collection was initially used for the morphological classification of a phylum whose diversity he had always admired. Some particularly splendid specimens became showpieces in his Villa Medusa. Some are also currently exhibited in the Haeckel Museum in Jena. Others ended up in the Phyletic Museum, which Haeckel founded in 1908. There, 128 coral specimens are still kept, among them 25 from El Tor.[24] He gave other pieces to the Natural History Museum in Berlin, which opened in 1889. Thereupon a lively correspondence began between the natural scientists, in which the exchange of collection objects was a recurring topic. On 25 November 1897, for instance, Karl Möbius, the director of its zoological collections at the time, thanked Haeckel in a short letter for sending corals and jellyfish to Berlin. Many such letters that Haeckel wrote contain long lists of the specimens exchanged and testify to the great interest in their circulation (figure 6). To this day, Haeckel’s corals from El Tor are kept in the archive cabinet 98/93 at the Natural History Museum.[25]

Figure 6: List of marine invertebrates’ specimens given to Ernst Haeckel by the Berlin Museum of Natural History in exchange with coral specimens (Letter from 10/17/1897 with a note by Karl Möbius from 10/18/1897) (source: Berlin Museum of Natural History)

In order to demonstrate the political significance of the natural sciences, large natural-history collections were important prestige projects for the newly founded scientific institutions, such as the afore mentioned Berlin Museum of Natural History or the Phyletic Museum in Jena. [26] These collections were intended to illustrate nature’s diversity and general order in detail. In short, they served to open the great book of nature and make it scientifically readable. To present the taxonomic order of species, it seemed necessary for biologists to collect as many specimens as possible and to exchange them with other researchers, even if this exchange dissolved the original collection. Haeckel’s collection is only recognisable today through inventory lists. As natural-history objects disconnected from their natural habitat, these specimens only attain scientific significance within the taxonomic scheme as developed by Carl Linné in the 18th century, which remained the prevailing mode of ordering biological objects until the end of the 19th century.[27] Showcases in natural history museums and the storage system in their repositories still represent this Western ‘order of things’. In addition, museum displays try to reanimate the vivid natural habitat of coral reefs by creating dioramas or VR experiences for their visitors even today. In times of anthropogenic climate change, however, coral reefs are suffering from the heating and acidification of the ocean and will soon be extinct, many marine scientists suspect.[28] The discovery of new species and variants has been a crucial task in biology as a discipline of Western science for hundreds of years and was, as I have demonstrated, intricately connected to colonial claims. Now marine biologists search for corals that are more resistant to global warming and its effects and to extract them from their marine habitats to breed new species. Calling the invention of corals in the laboratory – in Darwin’s footsteps – ‘assisted evolution’, they involuntary add a new chapter to the marginalised colonial history of the natural sciences.[29] [1] Ernst Haeckel, Arabische Korallen (Berlin: Verlag von G. Reimer, 1875), 23, All translations from Haeckel’s Arabische Korallen (Arabian Corals) are by the author. [2] Marion Endt-Jones, Coral: Something Rich and Strange (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013). [3] On the making of scientific objects and their biographies, see: Igor Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), 64–91 and ; Lorraine Daston, ed., Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000). [4] See: David Livingstone, Putting Science in Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). [5] I draw here on Bruno Latour’s claim that living and non-living entities are entangled in networks and able to act: Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 101; See also: Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays in the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 1999). [6] Ehrenberg published his findings on the coral reef communities of the Red Sea in 1834. At the same time, from 1832 to 1836, Charles Darwin made his circumnavigation on the HMS Beagle and researched the formation and distribution of coral reefs around the world, see: Charles Darwin, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs: Being the First Part of the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle (1832-1836) (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1842); He also collected coral specimens as evidence for his hypothesis of how the different reef types formed. They are now in the holdings of the Natural History Museum in London, see: Hayley Dunning, ‘Charles Darwin’s Coral Conundrum’, Natural History Museum, 23 January 2023, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/charles-darwin-coral-conundrum.html. [7] Haeckel, Arabische Korallen, 23–24. [8] Haeckel, 24. [9] Haeckel, 29. [10] Haeckel, 30. [11] Haeckel, 30. [12] Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge/London: Havard University Press, 1991), 7. [13] Haeckel, Arabische Korallen, 31. [14] Walter D. Mignolo defines coloniality as ‘the underlying logic of the foundation and unfolding of Western civilization from the Renaissance to today of which historical colonialisms have been a constitutive, although down-played, dimension’: Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2011), 2. [15] In the 1880s, marine biologist Johannes Walther visited El Tor again to undertake a survey on the geological formation of the fringing-reef-rich Red Sea. From Suez, he took the route through the desert with camels. In his report, Walther thanked the German ‘consulate agent’ in El Tor, Hannén, and his sons for their assistance with coral diving: Johannes Walther, Die Korallenriffe Der Sinaihalbinsel: Geologische Und Biologische Betrachtungen (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1888), 471. [16] At the time of the publication of Arabian Corals, ‘more than one thousand different living coral species, and the fossilised skeletons of more than three thousand extinct species’ were already known: Haeckel, Arabische Korallen, 3. [17] On the discovery of the reef-building activity of corals in the 18th century by explorers such as Johann Reinhold Forster or Louis-Antoine Bougainville, see: Alistair Sponsel, ‘From Cook to Cousteau: The Many Lives of Coral Reefs’, in Fluid Frontiers: New Currents in Marine Environmental History, ed. John R. Gillis and Franziska Torma (Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2015), 137–61. [18] In his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (General Morphology of Organisms), Haeckel defines ecology as ‘the general science of the interdependence among organisms’: Ernst Haeckel, Generelle Morphologie Der Organismen: Allgemeine Grundzüge Der Organischen Formenwissenschaft, Mechanisch Begründet Durch Die von Charles Darwin Reformirte Descendenztheorie, Vol. II: Allgemeine Entwickelungsgeschichte der Organismen (Verlag von G. Reimer, 1866), 236, Authors Translation. [19] Haeckel, Arabische Korallen, 20. [20] Haeckel, 20,35. [21] See: Mareiken Vennen, Das Aquarium: Praktiken, Techniken Und Medien Der Wissensproduktion (1840 – 1910) (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2018), 235–63. [22] Haeckel, Arabische Korallen, 35. [23] For a deeper understanding of the importance of visual representations in Haeckel’s work, see: Olaf Breidbach, Ernst Haeckel. Bildwelten Der Natur. (Munich/Berlin/London/New York: Prestel, 2006), 187–94. [24] For information on coral specimens in the Jena Phyletic Museum collected by Haeckel at the Red Sea coast, I thank the preparator Bernhard L. Bock, who also provided photographs. [25] For this information I thank the curator of the marine invertebrates collection, Carsten Lüter, and the research assistant Fiona Möhrle for providing the exchange of letters. [26] See: Susanne Köstering, Natur Zum Anschauen: Das Naturkundemuseum Des Deutschen Kaiserreichs 1871-1914 (Cologne/Weimar/Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2003); And: Carsten Kretschmann, Räume Öffnen Sich: Naturhistorische Museen Im Deutschland Des 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2006). [27] See: Kretschmann, Räume Öffnen Sich: Naturhistorische Museen Im Deutschland Des 19. Jahrhunderts, 92; Since the middle of the century aquariums and dioramas of watery environments became an attraction of many natural history museums and zoological gardens in the global North (and of wealthy homes in the case of the former) seeking to mimic the lively and colorful natural habitat of marine species and their ecology. See: Natascha Adamowsky, The Mysterious Science of the Sea, 1775-1943 (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2016); And Endt-Jones, Coral: Something Rich and Strange, 7–16. [28] See, for instance: J.E.N. Veron, Corals in Space and Time: Biogeography and Evolution of the Scleractinia. Ithaca; NY: Cornell University Press, 1995. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); And Sean D. Connell and Gillanders Bronwyn, eds., Marine Ecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 328–49. [29] See: Petra Löffler, ‘Colonizing the Ocean: Coral Reef Histories in the Anthropocene’, in Earth and beyond in Tumultuous Times. A Critical Atlas of the Anthropocene, ed. Réka Patrícia Gál and Petra Löffler (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2021), 185–213.
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Adamowsky, Natascha. The Mysterious Science of the Sea, 1775-1943. Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2016. Breidbach, Olaf. Ernst Haeckel. Bildwelten Der Natur. Munich/Berlin/London/New York: Prestel, 2006. Connell, Sean D., and Gillanders Bronwyn, eds. Marine Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Darwin, Charles. The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs: Being the First Part of the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle (1832-1836). London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1842. Daston, Lorraine, ed. Biographies of Scientific Objects. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Dunning, Hayley. ‘Charles Darwin’s Coral Conundrum’. Natural History Museum, 23 January 2023. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/charles-darwin-coral-conundrum.html. Endt-Jones, Marion. Coral: Something Rich and Strange. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013. Haeckel, Ernst. Arabische Korallen. Berlin: Verlag von G. Reimer, 1875. ———. Generelle Morphologie Der Organismen: Allgemeine Grundzüge Der Organischen Formenwissenschaft, Mechanisch Begründet Durch Die von Charles Darwin Reformirte Descendenztheorie. Vol. II: Allgemeine Entwickelungsgeschichte der Organismen. Verlag von G. Reimer, 1866. Kopytoff, Igor. ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’. In The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 64–91. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Köstering, Susanne. Natur Zum Anschauen: Das Naturkundemuseum Des Deutschen Kaiserreichs 1871-1914. Cologne/Weimar/Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2003. Kretschmann, Carsten. Räume Öffnen Sich: Naturhistorische Museen Im Deutschland Des 19. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2006. Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017. ———. Pandora’s Hope: Essays in the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 1999. Livingstone, David. Putting Science in Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Löffler, Petra. ‘Colonizing the Ocean: Coral Reef Histories in the Anthropocene’. In Earth and beyond in Tumultuous Times. A Critical Atlas of the Anthropocene, edited by Réka Patrícia Gál and Petra Löffler, 185–213. Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2021. Mignolo, Walter D. The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2011. Sponsel, Alistair. ‘From Cook to Cousteau: The Many Lives of Coral Reefs’. In Fluid Frontiers: New Currents in Marine Environmental History, edited by John R. Gillis and Franziska Torma, 137–61. Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2015. Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge/London: Havard University Press, 1991. Vennen, Mareiken. Das Aquarium: Praktiken, Techniken Und Medien Der Wissensproduktion (1840 – 1910). Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2018. Veron, J.E.N. Corals in Space and Time: Biogeography and Evolution of the Scleractinia. Ithaca; NY: Cornell University Press, 1995. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995. Walther, Johannes. Die Korallenriffe Der Sinaihalbinsel: Geologische Und Biologische Betrachtungen. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1888.
citation information:
Löffler, Petra. ‘Haeckel’s Corals: On the Extraction, Collection and Circulation of Scientific Objects’. Global Dis:Connect Blog (blog), 18 April 2023. https://www.globaldisconnect.org/04/18/haeckels-corals-on-the-extraction-collection-and-circulation-of-scientific-objects/.
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Looking back on global dis:connect’s first annual conference: Dis:connectivity in processes of globalisation: theories, methodologies, explorations

peter seeland
  The global:disconnect annual conference took place from 20 to 21 October 2022, and it sought to clarify methodological and theoretical questions as well as to reflect on our research in general. By investigating global dis:connections, the Centre is inaugurating a new research programme. It emphasises the roles of delays and detours, of interruptions and resistances, of the active absence of connections in globalisation processes and investigates their social significance. One of the starting premises is that connectivity and disconnectivitity are not dichotomous; they are, rather, mutually constitutive in a relationship we call ‘dis:connectivity’. Fundamental methodological questions about how to research dis:connectivity remain to be answered. The central terms and how to apply them also demand attention. Multi-perspectival research on dis:connectivity fosters interdisciplinary dialogue on these questions. The conference also served as a space for just such a dialogue. Artists and scholars interacted, with each side gaining the benefit of exposure to the other. The conference comprised three thematic panels — absences, detours and interruptions —to structure and concretise the discourse.
Image: Ben Kamis
Richard M. Kabiito opened the event with the panel on absences. With a paper on Globalising Ugandan art: remixing the contest between tradition and modernity, Kabiito posed the question of absence and dis:connectivity in postcolonial Uganda and its culture. He described the estrangement and absence from African tradition left behind by colonialism. He construed the dis:connective relationship between tradition and modernity, between the indigenous and the foreign, as an identity crisis that a new African art of a ‘New Africa’ is facing. Moreover, Kabiito contributed artistic methods to the methodological discourse. Through art from Uganda, which is ‘a living modern art deeply rooted in tradition’, this absence and estrangement can be uncovered and overcome. Thus, artistic practice contributes to cultural decolonisation and functions as a method of dealing with absence and dis:connectivity. Kabiito connected art and research conclusively with a transdisciplinary method, one able to profoundly affect the culture of a ‘New Africa’. Gabriele Klein continued with a talk about The dancing body is absent/present. Methodological and theoretical aspects of digitalisation in dance. She described the approach to dance in dance studies as intrinsically dis:connected. Dance fades in its physicality after the performance. It seems simultaneously absent and present in the memories of the spectators, but it also appears transformed and present in other media. Questions about the absence of corporeality especially in relation to digital media pose epistemological problems for dance studies. Here, Klein focused on social media platforms such as TikTok, in which dance is represented in many forms and can be accessed globally. She proposed a praxeological method that respects the differences between dance and dance studies and includes the new, young generation of digitally influenced choreographers with a global reach. She concluded that digital media can partially overcome absences, but researchers need to reflect more than ever on their use of medium and methods. The ensuing discussion revealed changes in dance through digital and global social media. Contrary to the expectation that more possibilities for participation would flourish on digital media, Klein observed a standardisation of dance in the digital and thus a dwindling of diversity. Later, the artist Aleksandra Domanović spoke about cultural dislocation in her presentation From yu to me to turbo culture: presence and absence in internet technology and culture in the former Yugoslavia. The absence of a state that has dissolved with all its institutions but is present in the past of its former citizens results in a crisis of identity. They are simultaneously connected and disconnected to Yugoslavia and its culture. The identity crisis is especially apparent in the phenomenon of Turbo Culture, in which Yugoslavian architecture, public sculpture and cultural assets have been rapidly replaced by non-local structures. Thus, Turbo Culture erected monuments of Bill Clinton as well as Hollywood figures like Rocky Balboa in the former Yugoslavia. In her art, Domanović deals with these aspects of the disconnected and the absent. She sees her art as a means of pointing out this identity crisis marked by absence and dis:connectivity. Meha Priyadarshini then spoke about Fashion and its absent histories: the case of Madras fabric in the Caribbean. She notes aspects of absence in the history of Madras fabric, which colonial powers exported from India to Euro-American and African-diasporic markets. The importers never reflected on its foreign cultural heritage and traditional Indian origins. Madras fabric, with its specific colour and pattern, revolutionised the fashion industry but is dis:connected from its origins. To this day, the fashion industry is largely unaware of the origins of Madras textiles and profits uncritically from other cultures. The research of Madras fabric is complicated by this absence and dis:connectivity. No original Madras fabric has survived. Methodologically, Priyandarshini addressed this absence of historical consciousness through the open-access textile research project Subaltern Histories of Global Textiles: Connecting Collections. So, it is one aim to regrow historical connection of Madras textile to its origins, which could draw attention beyond academia to what patterns we wear our shirts and skirts. The first panel ended with the artist lecture by Parastou Forouhar and Cathrine Bublatzky. Bublatzky provided the theoretical framework and led the talk with her questions. Forouhar’s art deals with the absence and deracination of home. Her artwork Butterflies (2008) shows a butterfly collection, with each butterfly representing memories of her native Iran. The poetic encoding of memories of a changed homeland can thus be understood as an artistic method of facing absence and dis:connectivity. In her installation Written Rooms, Forouhar writes illegible Farsi texts with which Iranians are connected and disconnected at the same time; they are in familiar script but illegible nonetheless. The absences and dis:connectivity in relation to one's homeland thus become clear. Her art is a method of facing and experiencing absences and dis:connectivity. Sujit Sivasundaram opened the second panel on detours. He talked about Detours in the history of Islam in the Indian Ocean: Muslim Colombo. Originally a Muslim port city, Colombo has been a junction of cultural and economic connections for centuries. In such a globally connected city, the Muslim minority has been repressed, and their history has been erased since colonial occupation. Sivasundaram chose detours as a method of coming to terms with this marginalisation. Through the detour of material remains, such as architecture, clothes and artefacts, he explored the lives of minorities. The Colombo Grand Mosque served to demonstrate his method. Detour, as a methodological supplement, yields insights into dis:connectivity. Kerstin Schankweiler spoke about Global contexts of art in the GDR, in which detours played a decisive role. The German Democratic Republic (i.e. East Germany), where mobility was strongly controlled, opened up culturally to its so-called ‘brother nations’ via the detour of socialist internationalism. Bureaucracy and regulations extended this ideologically conditioned detour. Mail art, which overcame the Iron Curtain via the postal service, also dealt with dis:connectivity through postal diversions. The artistic relics of socialist internationalism and mail art depict detours as a way of dealing with dis: connectivity in the history of the GDR and in German-German history. Promona Sengupta talked about Time travel for all: decolonising the time-space continuum. She understands the idea of space that can be traversed and conquered as a colonial concept that shapes today's understanding. Similarly, Sengupta understands the linear concept of time as a colonial idea that supports capitalist productivity and is thus kept alive. These concepts lead to estrangement from the natural flow of space and time through colonialism and capitalism. New methods are needed to overcome them, methods that allow a non-capitalistic and non-colonial approach to space and time. Time travel, which reverses such understandings of time and space, is one example. In her conclusion, Sengupta recommended methods that question all-embracing concepts and open research to new perspectives. The lecture Rethinking urban materiality: time as a resource by Anupama Kundoo opened the third panel on the topic of interruptions. Her presentation revealed the interruptions in industrialisation, which replaced hitherto dominant local building traditions in local economies with local materials, with foreign experts and materials. Such changes actually reduce efficiency in many cases and uproot people from their buildings. Indeed, the building becomes a consumer in the global economy. She concluded by arguing for local industries and economies to create efficient architecture. Valeska Huber presented a paper entitled ´The Limits of my Language mean the Limits of my World´: language barriers and ideas of global communication in the 1920s, in which she reflected critically on English as a global lingua franca and thought about more inclusive alternatives to overcome linguistic barriers in global communication. Huber introduced the Vienna Circle of the 1920s, in which Maria and Otto Neurath, among others, developed Isotype, a pictorial language that is supposed to function across cultures and languages. Marie Neurath’s own projects were primarily responsible for Isotype’s global dissemination. Huber proposed that extending this idea could disrupt the Anglosphere and lead to more inclusive global communication and research. Thus, interruptions and dis:connectivity in global communication could be overcome. Peter W. Marx closed the panel by addressing The elephant in the room: (dis:)connecting encounters in the early modern period. Marx established dis:connectivity as the proverbial elephant in the room of global history studies. This was followed by a genealogy of the presence of elephants (and how it was documented by contemporary artists) in northern Europe from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. Marx’s genealogy showed historical interruptions and connections in the complex discourse around the elephants. From humanisation and fantasy to a symbol of power and violence, the discourse around elephants in Europe has also represented transcultural military and dialogical contact since Hannibal. Fabienne Liptay closed the conference with a screening of Atlantiques (2009, Mati Diop) and Atlantique (2019, Mati Diop). Across an interval of 10 years, the films deal with the topic of migration from Senegal across the Mediterranean to Europe. Characters meet their fates in transit. They are uprooted from their homeland and at the same time bound to it. Dis:connectivity is not just an abstract research topic, but it touches people's lives directly and concretely.  
The global dis:connect team.
The speakers introduced new perspectives on dis:connective research on globalisation, including some methodological suggestions and approaches. Artistic practice uncovered dis:connectivity in several aspects, making it tangible and offering ways to deal with it. On a theoretical level, several participants emphasised the importance of critical reflection on one's own perspective and situatedness as a researcher. There were also proposals without a ripe, ready method, but set out demands, priorities and innovations for a methodology of global dis:connectivity. Indeed, this could be an initial step towards more developed methods. The ‘elephant in the room’ was certainly methodology. The dialogue and interplay between art and research invigorated the conference, resulting in a special climate of interdisciplinarity and multi-perspectivity. Minds open to novelty and awareness of the lack of a full-fledged methodology are a fine basis for further research. Facing this elephant in the room was perhaps one of the main achievements of the conference.   Continue Reading

A conversation with Tom Menger about colonial warfare: ‘There were great similarities between the empires’

This interview originally appeared in Einsichten, a journal about research being conducted at the LMU. We are grateful for their permission to repost it.
Germans often have a romanticised picture of the country’s colonial past. Many are unaware how brutal German colonial rule was, and many do not know that there were close ties between the colonial powers when it came to violence. Knowing this side of colonial history is important for how we shape the present, says historian Tom Menger. There are tour operators that advertise trips to Namibia – former German South West Africa – with slogans such as ‘Like vacationing at home, only more beautiful’ or ‘Nostalgic cities with a strong German flavour’. Was there something romantic about German colonialism? Menger: Not at all, I would say. Although this image does exist, it has little to do with reality. It was after the First World War in particular that the romanticisation of German colonialism took off. Maybe Germany losing its colonies in the First World War was part of the reason why Germans began to cultivate a romantic, nostalgic image of it. But the fact is that colonialism was always very strongly characterised by violence, sometimes by massive violence. What kind of violence? Menger: There were very many forms of violence. There was everyday violence, so to speak, such as the whippings to which workers on plantations were subjected. There was forced labour and so-called ‘punitive expeditions’. There were military campaigns, such as the German suppression of African resistance during the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. In this regard, I would highlight a form of violence that most people tend not to think of when it comes to colonialism: hunger wars  and devastation – the massive and systematic destruction of villages and fields, of harvests and food supplies. These were attempts to strip resisting populations of their means of subsistence as a way of eliminating their ability to resist. Were the methods employed in such colonial wars different than those practiced in conflicts in Europe? Menger: Definitely. In addition to the hunger wars  and devastation, there were massacres that were typical of many colonial wars. People were kidnapped, including women and children – it was common for whole villages to be taken away and interned. Sexual violence was often an everyday feature of war. And there was extreme violence as a sort of spectacle: mutilation, beheadings, displaying the bodies of the killed. This was designed to send a message to others.
Seeking to learn from other empires: the German colonial officer Glauning translated into German this British manual for military expeditions in Africa.

How to burn down a village

What was this message that the violence was meant to communicate? Menger: It was about demonstrating one’s superiority to the enemy, and it was conceptualised in baldly racist terms. In English it was called the ‘moral effect’, and it was one of the points discussed in the handbooks of colonial warfare. Concepts such as the ‘laws of war’ have been around for a long time. Did the colonial powers knowingly violate this law? Menger: We’re talking about a time when Europeans did in fact attempt to lay down rules of war. Work on the Geneva Convention began in 1864, while the Hague Conventions go back to 1899. The guiding principle behind these regulations was that the civilian population should be protected, and armies should attack only the opposing army. So there was already a relatively clear sense of what was legitimate and honourable in war and what was not. This does not mean that European wars in this period weren’t destructive. But some things that were frowned upon in Europe were common practice in colonial wars. There was the notion that you fight a different kind of war against people seen as ‘savages’, for whom the rules of war need not apply. Were there really manuals on how to conduct war in the colonies? Menger: Yes, such handbooks were usually penned by the practitioners of colonial war; that is to say, veterans with long experience of this kind of war. They wrote about all sorts of things connected with war: from logistics to actual combat, about tactics and strategy. The manuals also contained practical guides to things like the best way to burn down a village. Really? Menger: Yes. Some manuals  described which parts of a village tended to burn better than others. They recommended setting fire to the roof first when burning a hut. And that you should check which way the wind is blowing. And how to make sure you don’t end up standing in the middle of a burning village with no way out. All these things were candidly described in these manuals. These manuals have been around for over 100 years. Haven’t they been exhaustively studied already? Menger: Interestingly, no. Scholars have analysed some of them, but in their full breadth they have long remained unexplored. They are actually a very rich source for research into colonial violence.

Wissmann‘s famous colonial handbook, published 1895. Already on its first page, it recommended its readers to study the British colonial wars.
The era of colonialism was also an era of nationalism, where the countries of Europe sought to differentiate themselves from each other and highlight their distinctiveness. Were Germany, Britain, or France any different from other colonial nations in their conduct of war? Menger: Precisely this question is at the heart of my investigation. The answer is that there are great similarities in terms of warfare. The main differences come at the level of rhetoric, as the colonial powers strove to create a flattering self-image. Did the colonial powers share the same ideologies? Menger: They certainly shared the same racist attitudes. And springing from this, they had the same conception of how to treat their colonial subjects. Moreover, the exchange of information between colonial nations on subjects like warfare was important. In the early days of German colonial rule in the 1880s, for example, there were people like Hermann von Wissmann, who founded and moulded the colonial army in German East Africa, the largest of the German colonies. Wissmann had previously acquired experience in the service of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo. Incidentally, the Belgian Congo, as the colony later came to be called, is something of a misnomer, as British, French, and Dutch and other actors also played roles there. Colonial rule was always a very transnational enterprise. The historians Jonas Kreienbaum from the University of Rostock and Christoph Kamissek use the term ‘imperial cloud’ in this context. It describes the phenomenon very nicely, I think. ‘Cloud’ as in the internet cloud? But 130 years ago? Menger: It’s about the metaphorical idea that there is a knowledge base that can be accessed in a certain way from various empires. It is not limited to national borders. Although it’s often unclear where, by whom, and when this knowledge is accessed, it’s there and it spreads, like in the online cloud. Many people know precious little about the violence Germany exercised as a colonial power. Is that a problem? Why should people engage with the subject? Menger: It’s a phenomenon that helped shape the present. Our world of nation states and our global dependency dynamics. Understanding this legacy is a positive thing. If we accept that a culture of remembrance is valuable because we want to live in a democratic civil society, then it’s important to engage with our own history – including injustices that were committed in the past. This is something Germany has done quite successfully with the history of the Third Reich. And I think it’s worthwhile to come to terms with colonial injustices as well. Furthermore, there are growing numbers of people living in Germany for whom the violence of the colonial past is not something they can just ignore. For many immigrants – from Africa, for example – it is part of their own history, or at least the history of their ancestors. In this context, too, it’s important to have a shared culture of remembrance. There are some people who think that German historians and politicians have focused quite enough on violence during the Nazi dictatorship. Won’t people switch off if we start focusing on violence in the German colonial period as well? Menger: I’ve no doubt that there will be resistance. But it's not a valid argument, I think, to say that we’ve faced up to the Nazi period, so now we’re done. After all, when a society has successfully come to grips with one era of history, why should it not do the same for other periods?
citation information:
Menger, Tom. ‘A Conversation with Tom Menger about Colonial Warfare: “There Were Great Similarities between the Empires”’. Global Dis:Connect Blog (blog), 3 July 2023. https://www.globaldisconnect.org/03/07/a-conversation-with-tom-menger-about-colonial-warfare-there-were-great-similarities-between-the-empires/.
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