A History of Imperial Genocide, From Conrad to Lebensraum

Is the True Meaning of Colonial Genocide Too Close to Home

Henry Morton Stanley, who was an explorer of central Africa and claimed the Congo for the Belgian king, was considered an influence for Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Photo by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr.

Henry Morton Stanley, who was an explorer of central Africa and claimed the Congo for the Belgian king, was considered an influence for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Photo by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr.

It is almost impossible to discuss European imperialism without making at least a passing reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As a historical novel, it provides the perfect summary for the psychological, political, and historical ramifications of imperialism. Nothing conjures up more temptation than encounters with the far away and unfamiliar. But discussion of exoticism is seldom unaccompanied by meditations on moral corruption. And what is Heart of Darkness if not a meditation on this corruption?

The plot revolves around the destiny of a certain Kurtz, an ivory trader and commander of an African trading post, who uses his charisma and the superiority of European technology to reign over the native peoples as a demigod. A sort of colonial Faustus, Kurtz has succumbed to the temptations of tyranny. It is not for this that the other traders hope for his downfall, but because of the wealth he has accumulated as a result of his despotism. In this sense, Kurtz is but the reflection of the seedy underbelly of imperialism, the logical extreme of the white man’s burden: he is an embarrassment.

Well-intentioned conquests

This is the essence of what came to be known as the “New Imperialism” of the late 19th century, a movement characterised by lofty ideological crusades that never amounted to much more than the reductive social Darwinism they were founded on.

This New Imperialism distinguished itself from previous periods of colonisation as a period in which overseas territories were partitioned by nation-states, not simply for economic reasons, but for deeply political ones. If the European nations were busy carving the African and Asian continents up, it was not simply in hopes of acquiring raw materials, but to protect their interests while achieving national glory through conquest.

But preserving the fruits of conquest often meant taking up arms against a region’s indigenous population. Uprisings against imperial rule were put down violently and remorselessly with ruthless efficiency, everywhere from French Algeria to German Namibia.

In light of this heightened potential for atrocity, it was necessary for those at the forefront of imperialistic endeavors to concoct lofty justifications for the actions they were committing. One of the most enduring of New Imperialism’s rationalisations was the concept of humanitarianism, by which uncivilised people could be brought to appreciate and enjoy the fruits of Western civilisation.

Evangelisation was a manifestation of this, whereby Christian missionaries would attempt to save the souls of indigenous peoples by converting them to Christianity, sometimes by force. The violence was not simply physical. An important component of missionary work was to convince native peoples that Christians, and by association, Westerners were inherently superior, both morally and intellectually.

Another well-known facet of this imperialism was the idea of the “white man’s burden”, a term first coined by Rudyard Kipling in his eponymous poem written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Today, there are two different interpretations of Kipling’s poem. One is the explicitly racist view that whites have a duty to rule over and educate those of other races and ethnic groups until those peoples are capable of taking responsibility for themselves. The other interpretation is equally insulting and paternalistic, but this time, more subtle in its racism. According to this interpretation, Kipling only meant to say that the rich have a responsibility to ameliorate the plight of the poor, even if they must do so by force. Reading these two points of view side by side, one finds it difficult to understand where they diverge.

It is not surprising then, that Western imperialism would intertwine itself with Social Darwinism, a theory that stipulates that in any conflict between nations or peoples, only the fittest can survive. Social Darwinism had grown into a serious intellectual movement during late 19th century. Thinkers who subscribed to its tenets sought to apply evolutionary theory to politics and sociology, with results ranging from radical laissez-faire capitalism and eugenics to pseudo-scientific skull measurements meant to demonstrate the superiority of one race over another.

With the dawn of a new Imperialism, Social Darwinism found a new avenue in which to express itself, wherein the superior Europeans could exploit lesser peoples. It was for this reason Westerners, with the exception of certain Christian missionaries, never made any substantial attempts to integrate themselves into their host culture.

The conquerors approach: conquest of paradise, prologue to genocide or both? Photo by National Maritime Museum.

The conquerors approach: conquest of paradise, prologue to genocide or both? Photo by National Maritime Museum.

This is the process that Sven Lindqvist describes in his 1992 travel book and history of colonial genocide Exterminate All the Brutes. The book takes its title from a comment made by Conrad’s Kurtz, written in the margin of Kurtz’s report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The allusion to Kurtz is apt, but not simply because of what Kurtz represents for students of Africa’s colonial history.

Lindqvist’s thesis is daring precisely because it seeks to link the abuses visited upon Africans, with those imposed on Europeans by other Europeans. Social Darwinism was the dark side of the New Imperialism, the tragic repercussion of paternalistic humanitarianism embodied by Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Little did these Europeans know that this deadly combination of utopianism and scientific racism would soon rear its head in the heart of Europe, as the Shoah.

And just as Kurtz became the scapegoat for the atrocities committed in the name of Western civilisation, Germany would be singled out as the sole source of an evil that had begun its work long before 1939. Lebensraum, or “living space” – the Nazi Party’s policy of territorial expansion in the name of the Aryan Race – was part of the imperialist tradition.

Like the Americans who annexed western North America or the Belgians who took the Congo, Hitler’s express intention in invading the rest of Europe was not to murder its native populations. Rather, the slaughter of Jews and Slavs was, like the slaughter of Africans by the imperial powers, a “practical way of reducing the consumption of food and making way for future German settlement”.

This similarity, along with the widespread collaboration of their own citizens with the occupying German forces, is of course very difficult for former imperial – and current neo-imperial – powers to digest. Germany remains ingrained in the Western consciousness as the single bearer of the terrible guilt of European racism, an explosive diversion that serves to veil Western hypocrisy in a cloak of self-righteous moralising.

A neo-colonial mentality

Such crimes remain relevant to the 21st century.  In his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins reveals the details of his career as one of many economic consultants who worked to convince the leaders of developing nations to accept gargantuan loans that would leave them indebted to the United States, thereby ensuring that those countries would comply to American political demands with unquestioning loyalty. Today such activities continue under the auspices of well-paid economic and political “experts” who advocate policies that enrich a small number of elites in developing countries while keeping many others around the world in poverty.

Once again these crimes are carried out in the name of “development” and “democratisation”. They are the products of a colonial mentality that depends on a sense of superiority legitimising brutal interventions. As we see in Lindqvist’s book, it is not enough to reassure oneself by condemning the most egregious expressions of imperialistic domination. Instead, we should seek to link violence – physical and psychological – to the assumptions proffered by the status quo. This is more than another exercise in postcolonial analysis. It is a prerequisite for the fostering of a world in which the words justice and equality are more than insipid mantras, but elements of political policy.