Our contributing editor Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly reviews a book that impressively explores the roots of German concepts about race and race relations and their impact on the German perception of people of African descent in the course of history
Schwarze Deutsche. Der Diskurs um Rasse und nationale Identität 1890 – 1933 (Black Germany. A discussion about Race and National Identity) is an academic exploration of the historical roots of German concepts about race and race relations.
The author, Fatima El-Tayeb, meticulously outlines the interwoven academic discourses in race theories from their beginnings at the dawn of enlightenment until the period of the Weimar Republik. She then dwells on their impact on practical German politics, from the colonial period of the German empire, through the change to a democratic system and to the threshold of National Socialism. Thus she depicts the continuity of racist concepts as well as their impact on different levels.
El-Tayeb proves that right from the beginning in the 17th century German scientists, side by side with other Europeans, played a major role in establishing the then new scientific branches of social anthropology, as well as eugenics and ethnography. It was the German researcher Blumenbach, who in 1775 established his carrier by parting humanity into “race” categories, which primarily were based on character. Not to forget philosophers like Kant (1775) and Hegel who postulated in their own right and as examples to many, that Black people were inferior and that Africa stood outside the civilised world.
More sciences supporting racial ideologies followed. Thus the discipline of physiognomy set out to measure facial features and skulls, relating the findings to constructed features of character set in a hierarchical racial system. Racist sciences created the very arguments of (inter-)national politics, based on racial dominance of the inventors of the system.
All the while the concepts about race were based on a strict dualism between Black and White. While the positioning of all other groups (for example Asians, Amero-Indians, Southern Europeans, the construed Hamites or Semites) might vary, the extreme and absolute positions of White occupying the top of the ladder and Black being relegated to the very bottom remained invariable.
Black people(s) were defined as being without intellect, incapable of cultural achievements, in need of a guiding (white) hand and mastermind. In order to keep up this racist ideology the continent of Africa was the only one being divided into a “proper” and an “improper” part. Geographically Africa was divided into a European (today Maghreb), a sub-desert and into a “Hamitic” (Egypt) sphere. Only the sub-Saharan area was (and to some still is) regarded as the “real”, the Black Africa: obscure, unknown (to Europeans), ready to be used as a perfect platform of projection.
Consequently obvious remnants of Egyptian or Zimbabwean civilisations were declared to have been created by non-Africans, either by invaders or by inhabitants of non-African origin. The scientific approach gave new impetus and credibility to race hierarchy, making good use of the then already existing categorisation of Europeans as being “White” and Africans “Black”.
German colonial politics mainly pondered upon the African continent to exert absolute domination, including expulsion, extinction and enslavement of whole populations. Germans saw themselves endowed with the moral right to impose their colonial rule on territories four times bigger than Germany itself with a total of twelve million inhabitants. Interesting enough, one of the justifications of colonising then was the under-population in Africa.
By the turn of the 20th century, racist ideology was such a common place in everyday thought, that even reformatory societal forces as might be expected in the Social Democratic party or in the churches, had taken in the hierarchy and its values to such a degree, that they either openly favoured racist practices or could not effectively oppose them. In the end reality was to be adapted to the needs of the ideology, even if this meant that all humans, who by their mere existence, proved the ideology to be false, needed to be physically eliminated.
In this respect the question of race mixing became another main concern. It was argued, that a person of mixed descent inherited only the negative characteristics and therefore was inferior to both parents, or at least always inferior to the white parent. Although the arguments were dealt on the biological level, it was clear that submission and dominance were to be maintained and that these individuals were a threat to that social system.
Thus the major concern about “mixed marriage” was the social status of the partner regarded as inferior and of their offspring. In the colonies as well as on European ground the population concerned was termed, regarded and treated as “basta(a)rds”, i.e. less than humans and good for extinction if they were not useful to the system of domination.
Mythically, the idea of a German national character was linked to the notion of “German blood” which was unexceptionally linked to the concept of “White race”. A Black German or Afro-German in this context could only be regarded as an oxymoron, i.e. too impossible to be true.
After Germany had been defeated in the First World War and thereby “lost” all its colonies, France sent troops with a number of soldiers from her African territories to occupy the Rhineland. Within a short time the image of Germany turned from that of an aggressor (after all they had started the war) to that of a victim of the worst, i.e. “Whites” being dominated by “Black” troops.
Thus Germany gained a lot of international White supremacist sympathy, and a big campaign was effectively launched coining the offspring of Black soldiers and White German women as the Black shame and as a result of rape only! Existing race prejudices especially against Black people(s) were nourished and a mixture anxieties of sexual as well as racial aggression were revived not only among (white) Germans but among all people of European descent.
The social and political changes from the German empire to the democratic system of Weimar Republik had no impact whatsoever on the predominant racist perceptions. Living proofs contradicting the concept of “purity” and “White Germanness” were physically eliminated through forced sterilisation, expulsion, deprivation of German nationality, forced labour and extinction in concentration camps. Racist attitudes at no times swelled or spilled over. They were at the very bottom of all “White” concern and feelings, only at times the consequences could be more seen and felt than at others.
In her outlook El-Tayeb draws the line to today’s scientific developments. Until today the tradition of academic disciplines like social anthropology, ethnography and others, all established in the line of modern enlightened thought and claiming objectivity and thereby unfailingness, has not been broken yet. Today the modern science of genetic takes the place of eugenics. Social anthropology is followed by a science named social biology, which defines all social behaviour through genes and completely disregards environmental and social components of influence.
It is awesome that still today postulations by socio-biologists are being openly discussed and evaluated. More than hundred years of denying social and historical facts make it necessary, to basically and completely re-evaluate German self-image and concept.
Although academic in her approach, the author’s language is fluent and easy to understand. While being partial all the time she stays on the much acclaimed line of objectivity, in underlining each single of her arguments with a number of authentic documents. All the while she makes sure, not to fall in the trap of using discriminatory language by describing racist theories.
Fatima El-Tayeb: Schwarze Deutsche. Der Diskurs um Rasse und nationale Identität 1890 – 1933. ISBN: 3593367254, 2001