Césaire’s Boomerang Effect on the Streets of Berlin
I took part in the anti-colonial tour of the city offered by Revolutionary Berlin within the framework of Bard College Berlin’s class African Narratives of Migration (fall 2020) taught by Fatin Abbas. The tour showed the remaining traces of Germany’s colonial past in Berlin, and it certainly provoked many thoughts in me as a person coming from a former European colony in South America. The following text is a reflection on those ideas.
On February 4, 1976, Michel Foucault gave a lecture at the Collège de France under the title “Society must be defended.” He discussed how European imperial states put into practice a series of social experiments in their colonies that they would later bring back to the metropolis to refine their internal tactics of social control. In this regard, he said:
“that while colonization […] transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.”
26 years earlier, the Martinican thinker and poet Aimé Césaire made the case in his book Discourse on Colonialism that a racist and violent socio-political ideology such as Fascism was the natural consequence derived from the European bourgeoisie’s tolerance and embrace of the racism and violence inherent to colonialism. Césaire sees this moral relativism in Europe as a social disease that progressively degrades humans. Every day Europeans ignored, tolerated, accepted, or celebrated an injustice perpetrated in another continent on another human, they decivilized themselves, they gradually became the actual barbaric society they defined themselves in opposition to. Césaire wrote:
“One fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: ‘How strange! But never mind –it’s Nazism, it will pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.”1(My emphasis.)
How is it expressed in material reality the moral relativism that enabled Europe’s racist violence? Traces of the heyday of European imperialism are still to be found today in former metropoles. Civic initiatives such as Revolutionary Berlin have taken the work of tracking down those traces of history and educating people, in this particular case, about the historic connections between Berlin –and Germany as a whole– and colonialism. The tour discusses the biographies of Carl Peters and Karl Hagenbeck, among others, since in the Afrikanisches Viertel, Wedding, there is a street named after the former, and the famous zoo of Hamburg is named after the latter.
Naming a public space of a city, such as a street, a plaza, or a park, is a recognition, an homage that society confers on a respected member, on someone whose life has been devoted to the benefit of society, a figure that reflects the values of their culture and of their time.
Carl Peters was the founder of the Society for German Colonization in 1884. His role in the establishment of the German empire in East Africa was crucial. He was known for having a local concubine named Jagodja who he killed because she had an affair and then burned down her village as a retaliation. His brutality toward the local population cost him his position as Imperial High Commissioner since it provoked an upheaval that German troops had to fight. It is worth noticing that what cost Peters his position was not the killing of Jagodja or the burning of the village, but the financial costs of the military equipment German troops had to use to control the upheaval. Years later, during the Nazi era, Germany’s expansionist and colonialist ambitions revived, and Peters was revived as a misunderstood colonial hero. Peters’ racist violence was praised and exalted by Nazis. His example was inspiring and according to the spirit of the time. Statues were erected, propaganda films were made, and streets were named after him, including Petersalle, the avenue where the Revolutionary Berlin tour ends.
The aim of the Nazi narrative was to normalize and bring home the violence Germany and other imperial states had been exercising outside of Europe. Germany had by then already committed genocide in German South-West Africa against the Herero and Nama (1904-8), and a prototype of the concentration camp was put into practice and perfected there. The annihilation of an entire community was employed as a German military strategy of control, domination, and dispossession. We can find, as Césaire suggests, the germ of the Holocaust in German-occupied territories of Africa.
Around that time in Germany, Karl Hagenbeck created the Tierpark in Hamburg-Stellingen, or as it is known today, simply Tierpark Hagenbeck. In his essay “Please, Don’t Feed the Natives,” Walter Putnam writes:
“In 1874, Hagenbeck […] decided to bring groups of Samoan natives and Landplanters to be exhibited alongside exotic animals at his Stellingen zoo. It was a huge success, so he followed up in 1876 with an exhibit of Nubians from the Sudan and thus discovered a formula for gaining back an audience eager to take in the latest and most sensational live display.”
Putnam observes in his essay how human zoos enforced white supremacy and racism against non-Europeans. This “ethnographic” show presented Germans as benevolent civilizers in their colonies at the same time it fabricated an exotic Other. Human zoos like Hegenbeck’s “were so successful because they presented the unique possibility of seemingly unmediated, direct witnessing of that Other.” However, these “cultural encounters” were not bilateral exchanges from which both cultures gained something. These were constructed in a precise manner to convey the message to the German audience that there were natural hierarchies of races and peoples. Germans exited Hagenbeck’s “ethnological” exhibit as masters of the world, at the top of a natural racial hierarchy where Africans, and later the Jews, were at the bottom. In his book Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon noted this connection between Black and Jewish people made by European racism. He alerts people of African descent through the words of his philosophy professor who once told him: “Whenever you hear someone insulting the Jews, pay attention; he is talking about you.”
The brutality of people like Carl Peters and the racism of people like Karl Hagenbeck is representative of a greater narrative in the nineteenth century that shaped the self-perception, values, and ideologies of European societies at the turn of the twentieth century. As a natural consequence, the barbaric complicity of the bourgeoisie with the injustices carried out by colonialism backlashed; it had a boomerang effect, as first noted by Césaire and then by Foucault. The expansionist ambitions, the concentration camps, the annihilation of entire populations, and the delusion of a superior race, came back to their place of origin and gave place to the bloodiest episode in Europe’s history yet.
Aimé Césaire, and Joan Pinkham. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press, 2001. P. 36.
The biographical information about Carl Peters was taken from the Revolutionary Berlin tour, which has been published in book format by Pluto Press. See: Revolutionary Berlin. A Walking Guide by Nathaniel Flakin.
Tens of thousands were killed by German troops. Three quarters of the Herero and half of the Nama population were wiped out in what is today’s Namibia.
Conrad, Sebastian, et al. German Colonialism: a Short History. Cambridge University Press, 2012. P. 160.
Putnam, Walter. “Please, Don’t Feed the Natives”: Human Zoos, Colonial Desire, and Bodies on Display. FLS, Volume XXXIX, 2012. Pp. 81-82.
Putnam, Walter. P. 58.
Fanon, Frantz, et al. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008. P. 101