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Colonial Racism: Noble and dangerous savages


At first, the Europeans look arrogantly at the "natives", then full of fear. To date, colonial racism has two faces.

In the summer of 1896, Berliners were able to visit the world of the German colonies at the Treptower carp pond, where the Soviet War Memorial now stands. The visitors entered the 60,000 square meter site of the First German Colonial Exhibition through a gate made of mangrove wood and covered with African masks. Behind them they not only wandered about among exotic plants, bamboo huts and wooden sacred buildings, but also encountered the "natives" brought to Berlin from all German colonies.

These people lived in the exhibition grounds in replicated hut villages and should spend their day as possible as in their homeland. If weather and decorum allowed it, they wore their traditional clothes. They were supervised by Berlin policemen, who in turn were running in white linen suits and tropical helmets.

In general, in contrast to other, privately organized international shows, efforts were made to overcome the strict separation between visitors and residents and to recreate the reality of colonial everyday life. Thus, the inhabitants of the colonies could move freely outside their show times on the site. Some even brought German songs, which meant that visitors met Maasai warriors who sang salvation in the wreath of winners . Conversely, the Germans were able to enter the huts and participate in their celebrations and dances.

Nonetheless, a strict disciplinary regime was hidden behind this unusual freedom of movement. Treaties regulate everyday life down to the last detail, and the Africans were under police and medical observation and at any time had to be prepared for photographs, absurd body measurements and other "scientific" examinations. In case of misbehavior they were threatened with rationing of food or deprivation of liberty. They were also punished when they imitated Prussian officers with wooden monocles.

But the show was not just about the presentation of the new subjects, but also the great task of colonization itself was to be brought closer to the visitors. So almost all the actors were represented in their own halls: the colonial associations, the missions, the tropical doctors, the security forces and the colonial women. As usual at that time, the Berlin colonial exhibition was a spectacle similar to a fair. You could drive in a tram "through the colonies" or rent pedal and electric boats to meet on the carp pond the rowing boats of Africans. Particularly popular were the appearances of the "natives", who demonstrated their dances and hunting techniques, their food culture or their drum telephony. To amuse the spectators, people from the colonies were degraded into exotic objects.

Nevertheless, the Berlin exhibition tried to show a rather peaceful, productive and experimental colonialism and to disguise its brutal claim to power. This was also due to the fact that in the mid-1890s, the violence with which colonial expansion took place became increasingly obvious. Only then did they begin to realize how much death and destruction formerly celebrated explorers and colonial heroes had left. In the year of the exhibition, under great public interest, disciplinary proceedings were brought against Carl Peters, the founder of German East Africa, who had to answer for abuse of power and arbitrary application of the death penalty. In addition, 1896 went by the European press, which excesses of violence had come on German and British expeditions in Africa - the stuff for Joseph Conrad's famous novel Heart of Darkness.

"The colonial policy," wrote Carl Peters ten years earlier, "wants nothing more than the increase in strength and enrichment of life of the stronger, better race at the expense of the weaker, lesser." Compared to this genocidal logic, the Berlin exhibition sought a bright, friendly image of colonialism.

However, no historical phenomenon really follows the George Lucas logic of the light and dark sides of power, let alone colonialism. Especially here it is important to understand the connection between everyday life and violence, culture and inhumanity, civilization and barbarism - not only in 1896 in Berlin-Treptow.

The comparatively brief, but all the more intense phase of German colonial policy between 1884 and the First World War was an integral part of the European world conquest, which had begun in 1492 with the accidental discovery of America. European expansion not only shaped the distribution of wealth, poverty, and trouble spots in the world, it also produced the still valid narrative of the civilizational, cultural, and technical superiority of the West, which explains its supremacy. To this day - and especially loudly - this narrative is repeated and at the same time warned against endangering superiority through too much cultural mixing.

The matter is historically rather the reverse: Europe's civilizational superiority did not justify its global expansion, but only global expansion established Europe's self-image as the spearhead of the "modern age". It is only in retrospect that Columbus's wanderings represent the beginning of a new epoch.

Only two decades later, with Magellan's circumnavigation, was the approximate extent of what mankind would have to share in the future. Accordingly, global zones of influence and areas of interest were staked, first between Spain and Portugal, then between England and France. Although it would take a long time for all continents to be tapped, all expansion was already globalization - and all "discovery" was political conquest and economic exploitation.

The fact that all the new non-European areas were inhabited led to a discussion lasting several centuries, first Christian, then enlightened, about the status of these inhabitants: were they natural beings? Potential Christians? Noble savages?

For the European enlighteners of the eighteenth century, who developed ideas of universal equality from the tradition of natural law and thereby criticized the absolutist ruling state, there was no question that the inhabitants of foreign lands were also human beings. But at the same time they had to explain why these people have been treated as "subhumans" for almost 300 years, why they were deported and enslaved to millions like the Africans.

Not least to smooth this contradiction, the Enlightenment invented civilizational hierarchies: Yes, the inhabitants of non-European countries were human, but people of a lower stage of development, which had yet to be civilized to truly be part of the European concept of humanity. This was one of the most convincing narratives for justifying imperial colonialism over the next 150 years. For example, the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was convinced in 1837 that "the Negro" was "capable of no development and education." Africa is "not a historical part of the world, it has no movement and development."

Source: zeit

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