European Colonial Arrogance and Nazism

I just finished reading a fascinating and troubling historical book on Germany’s colonial past in Namibia and on how the arrogant ideas and attitudes that characterize Europe’s colonial endeavour motivated Nazi genocidal action, particularly in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European territories they conquered: The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), by David Olusoga (an Anglo-Nigerian historian and producer, working for the BBC) and Casper W. Erichsen (a Danish historian, who is the director of a Namibian NGO dealing with HIV and AIDS).

Important social changes in Germany at the end of the 19th Century (a rapidly growing population that resulted, for example, in slums in Berlin), as well as the rise of anthropological views that fed on social Darwinism, fueled a desire of both the military and the imperial administration (although chancelor Bismarck was first reluctant) to look for vital space (Lebensraum) by colonizing African countries, the population of which was considered to be less developed and advanced. Because of the resistance of the Herero and the Nama peoples in Namibia, the original perspective of bringing culture and education, rapidly turned into agressive warfare to enslave and anihilate these people – in line with what had happened to the Indians in North America and with what the British were doing in South Africa, where they invented the first concentration camps in their war with the Boers. The first part of the book tells us the story of these wars, the concentration camps and the genocide that took place.

The second part of the book analyses in various ways (some of the military and the civil servants who had worked in colonial Africa played a role in the origins of the Nazi party; racist social Darwinism that had constituted the ideology behind imperial colonisation was further developed as an anthropological science; the colonial idea of concentration camps evolved into annihilation camps as Auschwitz or Treblinka; underdeveloped people, especially the Slavic peoples, were enslaved at the service of industry, as had been the case with the Herero’s and the Nama’s in Namibia; Hitler and other Nazi leaders considered their activities in Eastern Europe and Russia as colonisation in line with what the British Empire had done in India and with how the USA had treated the Indians; …) how the ideas and attitudes that determined the colonial ambitious of imperial Germany in Africa came to influence the Nazi hunger to expand Germany’s vital space by annihilating populations that were considered to consist of lesser human beings (Untermenschen). The authors want to show that part of Nazi arrogance and violence was rooted in European colonial attitudes and views. By doing so, they explain that Nazism is not a phenomenon sui generis, but the extreme symptom of some destructive and murderous European colonial ideas. That is certainly something that should make us think and reconsider the importance of the history of European colonialism.

I can only recommend this book: it is fascinating and shocking at the same time. It should make theologians as myself think about the responsibilities they have in dealing with ideas that determine social and societal behaviour.

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