Press author Christian S. Davis offers a past and present look at how military actions abroad can influence the character of the participating nation

by Emily on February 23, 2012

Guest blogger Christian S. Davis is the author of Colonialism, Antisemitism, and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany, available now from the University of Michigan Press. In his book, Davis explores the relationship between the colonial and antisemitic movements of modern Germany from 1871 to 1918. Here, he discusses the unease he felt when comparing his research to current events that were unfolding as he was writing.

The spring of 2004 was a disheartening time to read a newspaper or to watch the news on TV; beginning in April, revelations concerning the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib filled the media, accompanied by graphic photos [WARNING: images may be disturbing].

At the time, I was working on what would eventually become my book, Colonialism, Antisemitism, and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany, and I remember seeing disturbing parallels between the stories of abuse in Iraq and what I had uncovered concerning German actions and attitudes in colonial Africa before 1914. As Americans, we had ostensibly sent our forces abroad to end a cruel, despotic, and dangerous regime and replace it with something more humane, but at Abu Ghraib, our men and women practiced torture characterized by sadism. Similarly, colonial officials in places like German Cameroon and German East Africa had murdered, tortured, and sexually abused local people, despite supposedly being part of a greater European civilizing mission. Stories of the horrific abuse filled the German press in the 1890s, scandalizing the reading public—not unlike what had happened in 2004 in the U.S.A. Much like the Americans at Abu Ghraib, there was also an inexplicable willingness of some German perpetrators to document their own atrocities—not with digital photos, of course, but through frank descriptions of their violent actions in writings meant for public consumption, like in published memoirs and essays.

Although few people defended what occurred at Abu Ghraib, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the larger War on Terror wore on, the idea that it was okay to torture America’s enemies underwent a sort of normalization. We had prosecuted Japanese interrogators after World War II for waterboarding their prisoners, but waterboarding became standard procedure at American detention camps like Gitmo, and prominent politicians and political pundits came to openly defend “enhanced interrogations.” A no-holds-barred us-vs.-them mentality stemming from the events of 9/11 had clearly changed the rules in America of what was acceptable to do, think, and say. This, too, reflected the situation I was uncovering in colonial-era Germany. The bloody uprising of the Herero people against German rule in Southwest Africa in 1904 resulted in the first German-led genocide of the twentieth-century. The uprising led to the demonization of black Africans in German literature and the press, and the concept of “race-war” became familiar to the German imagination. What is more, the very existence of German colonial racial states emboldened German antisemites to articulate their fantasies of creating a racial hierarchy at home, one where Jews would be relegated to the position of an inferior race.

All this is not to say that our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same as Germany’s in colonial Africa. But as I worked on Colonialism, Antisemitism, and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany in the late 2000s, the applicability in today’s world of the lessons of that particular German past became increasingly apparent. Military adventures abroad can dramatically alter the character of the participating nation, even when only a few of its people are directly involved. This was the case for Imperial Germany, where only a small number of Germans set foot in the colonies or took part in the colonial wars of racial subjugation and extermination. Similarly, a disproportionately small percentage of Americans have been directly involved in America’s foreign wars since 9/11.

Decades from now, historians will be in a position to evaluate the effects of the Iraq and Afghan wars on the soul of the American nation.

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