Nina Berman. Impossible Missions?: German Economic, Military and Humanitarian Efforts in Africa. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 271 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-1334-0.
Reviewed by Daniel T. Bullard (York University, Toronto )
Published on H-German (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Impossibilities Abroad: German Interventions in Africa
Nina Berman presents an ambitious, informative study of the German relationship with Africa spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her analysis builds upon her previous work Orientalismus, Kolonialismus und Moderne: Zum Bild des Orients in der deutschsprachigen Kultur um 1900 (1997) and endeavors to untangle the webs of interaction that developed between Germans and Africans. Berman's book progresses through case studies of engineer Max Eyth, doctor Albert Schweitzer, pilot Ernst Udet, writer Bodo Kirchhoff, and German tourists in order to uncover how the best German intentions to assist Africa's development and modernization along European lines have ultimately hindered Africa's peoples. German efforts were thus "impossible missions," constrained by European preconceptions from truly facilitating improvement in Africa. The scope and ambition of the book are revealed in its ability to examine German relations with Africa, the role of development in this association, and how Germans constructed themselves through this interaction. This well-argued, interdisciplinary work brings together disparate examples that will appeal to cultural historians, military historians, social historians, scholars of science, historians of transnational interactions, and historians of both Germany and Africa.
The major arguments of Berman's text should be seen as a larger effort to provoke her readership to reconceptualize certain ideas about globalization and cultural inequality. One of the central tenets of her book is that purportedly humanitarian ideals have often caused the very same disparities created by explicitly racist interference in Africa. All of the individuals in her case studies are linked by a common faith in German "progress," a desire to "modernize" Africa, and the notion that German initiatives could help to develop what they regarded as backwards Africa. Berman proves how, despite their efforts to modernize Africa, German interventions have had an ambiguous effect upon the continent. A second thesis lies in Berman's argument that German views of Africa have been and are disconnected from material reality in Africa. An unthinking reliance upon colonial attitudes and an ignorance of Africa's past within Germany manifested itself in views of Africa that starkly diverged from reality, and these in turn shaped individual actions on the continent. Berman is also very successful in uncovering her subjects' portrayals of Africa by using primary sources like Eyth's Im Strom unserer Zeit (1904-05), Schweitzer's autobiographical works, Udet's Fremde Vögel über Afrika (1930), Kirchhoff's Herrenmenschlichkeit (1994), and personal reflections of repeat visitors to Kenya. The uniting of these dissimilar examples further reinforces the ways in which meanings within German interventions have changed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The combination of these arguments points at a larger contention that Europe has retained colonial perceptions of Africa that have allowed inequality to continue, as well as dooming all German attempts to assist Africa to be ultimately incomplete.
This argument fits into an exciting field of historiography about Germany and Africa, and fills a decided vacuum in studies of German-African interaction. Much of Berman's argument about German technological domination and its role in relations with the African continent is deployed very successfully from the works of Samir Amin, Michael Adas, and Achille Mbembe. Her book also engages with some literature on "postcolonialism" in a discerning critique of its inability to resolve the complex webs of interaction between Africans and Europeans.
Berman's book is presented in a clearly structured format of two sections, detailing the archetypes of German interventions in Eyth, Schweitzer, and Udet, and their later incarnations in the forms of Kirchhoff and the tourists. The ability of this book to draw several new case studies together in one volume is particularly welcome. But, while the evolution of Berman's arguments and sections is clear and helpful, the analysis of Udet's portrayal of Africa is somewhat disconnected from her linking theme of development in the other case studies. The aviation pioneer may have introduced East Africans to flight, but his assistance to Africans ended there, and thus this section seems somewhat incongruous in comparison to other chapters. Additionally, the book progresses through a clear analysis of the first four case studies, but the last chapter on repeat visitors to the Diani Beach region of Kenya seems dissimilar when measured up to the previous German interventions. Though the 138 tourists she sampled certainly represent some of her themes of modernization and inequality, there is also significant difference from other sources insofar as the tourists provide a more dispersed empirical base through their individual responses to her questions. Their gifts given to Kenyans also represent a separate form of support from the evidence and argument of Berman's other chapters.
The empirical support for the book is the result of detailed secondary-source research, as well as primary-source interviews for the last study. With the exception of these answers from the tourists, little of the evidence presented here will be new to scholarship, nor is Berman's argument entirely unique, but it is backed up by comprehensive information and is strongly argued. With regard to the presentation of her data, occasional awkward phrases have slipped past the copyeditor, but all of her material is arranged in a logical analysis. The book is augmented by a helpful index that allows the reader to understand Berman's work of synthesis, although a bibliography would have allowed the reader to more easily grasp her thoroughness in researching this book. The addition of a few maps would have similarly provided a key piece of substantiation for her conclusions.
Given the breadth of her argument, some issues could be raised with aspects of Berman's particular studies. Though it is always difficult to extrapolate conclusions from the study of regions as disparate as Egypt, Gabon, East Africa, Somalia, and Kenya, Berman profitably articulates the variety of frameworks for interaction. While a difficulty emerges between advocating "thick description" (p. 18) of her topic at the same time as examining five different examples in the space of a single book, Berman tackles a significant challenge with appreciable ability. One question, however, becomes evident from Berman's choice of subjects. All of her research subjects are united by the lack of a desire to understand Africa, but the reader may ask if this is a fair cross-section of German interaction. The tradition of German ethnographic and scientific study of Africa calls into question the suggestion that Germans did not seek to come to terms with Africa and its cultures. Additionally, a slight blurring occurs between nationally German and German-speaking individuals in the case study of repeat visitors to Kenya that could have been clarified by more precise explanation. Finally, Berman's larger argument about the importance of context in analyzing the actions of Germans in Africa is conclusively demonstrated, but the level of detail provided sometimes obscures her real purpose of discussing their respective interactions with Africans and Africa. Some readers may find themselves yearning for more detail about Udet's African travels or Schweitzer's medical developments, but discovering more information on the German film industry or Schweitzer's ethical views. This remark is not made in order to challenge Berman's point that her subjects' background is vital to understanding their actions, but rather to note the need for a greater amount of discussion of African interactions.
This book is to be particularly commended for a variety of profitable avenues of inquiry. Berman is very successful in demonstrating that direct racism did not completely determine, nor can it solely explain, German relations with African peoples. Similarly, Berman's provision of contextual detail about her respective African examples is skillful in demonstrating the difference in African contexts that continues to trouble attempts to comprehend a single homogenous Africa. Of particular deftness is Berman's ability to weave German visions of African together with evidence of how these representations clashed with reality. In addition, the wide variety of case studies brings together several themes very effectively and allows a juxtaposition of different chronologies and situations to bring these themes into high relief. Berman's dissection of the ambiguities that followed European interventions in Africa is particularly convincing. When looking at a figure as celebrated as Schweitzer, she shows how the "representative European bringing culture, religion, and technology" had a much more contradictory position with regard to Africa than is sometimes thought (p. 96). Moreover, Berman shows how his postwar celebration as a counter to National Socialist racism obscured the reality of his paternalistic view of Africans. This example dexterously represents the postwar challenges in Germany and the difficulty of representing someone who has come to be seen a highly paradoxical figure for subsequent European humanitarianism in Africa. Berman's blend of comprehensive exposition of German-African interaction and analysis of theoretical perspectives of her respective subjects makes her book engaging for novice and expert alike. For this reason, this book will contribute much to research of German-African intersections and the nature of cross-cultural exchange.
A final important aspect of Berman's work lies in its indication of the paths ahead for future exploration. The book will also contribute to greater understanding of the diverse, and sometimes obscure, forms of oppression that structure European relations with other peoples. Arguing for Europe's responsibility for African difficulties, and backing up her argument with solid case studies, Berman paves the way for future studies to engage with her conclusions. Concomitantly, Berman's study of repeat visitors and their assistance to Kenyans seems a particularly fruitful avenue of investigation and certainly stimulates further thought on current issues of tourism, social status, inequality, German postwar normalization, and global networks of exchange. As a final point, the juxtaposition of the views of German repeat visitors to Kenya and German conceptions of foreigners in their own country opens a fascinating dynamic that will hopefully spur further investigation.
The subtle amalgamation of ideas of modernity, development, humanitarianism, colonialism, and global inequality in Berman's examination of specific iterations of German intervention make her book an impressive read. Berman's analysis of first-person views of Africa stands as a necessary and welcome addition to the study of German interactions with the world. In its totality, Berman's book brings together a wealth of information and argument, and as such represents a powerfully argued analysis of issues with considerable importance to our globalizing world.
. Samir Amin, Eurocentrism (New York: Monthly Review, 1989); Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); and Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Daniel T. Bullard. Review of Berman, Nina, Impossible Missions?: German Economic, Military and Humanitarian Efforts in Africa.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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