Today on the Western Front,’ the German sociologist Max Weber wrote in September 1917, there ‘stands a dross of African and Asiatic savages and all the world’s rabble of thieves and lumpens.’ Weber was referring to the millions of Indian, African, Arab, Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and labourers, who were then fighting with British and French forces in Europe, as well as in several ancillary theatres of the First World War.
Faced with manpower shortages, British imperialists had recruited up to 1.4 million Indian soldiers. France enlisted nearly 500,000 troops from its colonies in Africa and Indo- China. Nearly 400,000 African Americans were also inducted into US forces. The First World War’s truly unknown soldiers are these non-white combatants.
Other anti-imperialists, such as Mohandas Gandhi and W.E.B. Du Bois, vigorously supported the war aims of their white overlords, hoping to secure dignity for their compatriots in the aftermath. But they did not realise what Weber’s remarks revealed: that Europeans had quickly come to fear and hate physical proximity to their non-white subjects – their ‘new-caught sullen peoples’, as Kipling called colonised Asians and Africans in his 1899 poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’.
These colonial subjects remain marginal in popular histories of the war.
For the past century, the war has been remembered as a great rupture in modern Western civilisation, an inexplicable catastrophe that highly civilised European powers sleepwalked into after the ‘long peace’ of the nineteenth century – a catastrophe whose unresolved issues provoked yet another calamitous conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, in which the former finally triumphed, returning Europe to its proper equilibrium.
In many books and films, the pre-war years appear as an age of prosperity and contentment in Europe, with the summer of 1913 featuring as the last golden summer.
But today, as racism and xenophobia return to the centre of Western politics, it is time to remember that the background to the First World War was decades of racist imperialism whose consequences still endure. It is something that is not remembered much, if at all, on Remembrance Day.
At the time of the First World War, all Western powers upheld a racial hierarchy built around a shared project of territorial expansion. In 1917, the US president, Woodrow Wilson, baldly stated his intention ‘to keep the white race strong against the yellow’ and to preserve ‘white civilisation and its domination of the planet’. Eugenicist ideas of racial selection were everywhere in the mainstream, and the anxiety expressed in papers like the Daily Mail, which worried about white women coming into contact with ‘natives who are worse than brutes when their passions are aroused’, was widely shared across the West. Anti-miscegenation laws existed in most US states. In the years leading up to 1914, prohibitions on sexual relations between European women and black men (though not between European men and African women) were enforced across European colonies in Africa. The presence of the ‘dirty Negroes’ in Europe after 1914 seemed to be violating a firm taboo.
‘These savages are a terrible danger,’ a joint declaration of the German national assembly warned in 1920, to ‘German women’. Writing Mein Kampf in the 1920s, Adolf Hitler would describe African soldiers on German soil as a Jewish conspiracy aimed to topple white people ‘from their cultural and political heights’. The Nazis, who were inspired by American innovations in racial hygiene, would in 1937 forcibly sterilise hundreds of children fathered by African soldiers.
This was the prevailing global racial order, built around an exclusionary notion of whiteness and buttressed by imperialism, pseudo-science and the ideology of social Darwinism. In our own time, the steady erosion of the inherited privileges of race has destabilised Western identities and institutions – and it has unveiled racism as an enduringly potent political force, empowering volatile demagogues in the heart of the modern West.
As we remember the first global war, it must be remembered against the background of a project of Western global domination – one that was shared by all of the war’s major antagonists. The First World War, in fact, marked the moment when the violent legacies of imperialism in Asia and Africa returned home, exploding into self-destructive carnage in Europe.
When historians discuss the origins of the Great War, they usually focus on rigid alliances, military timetables, imperialist rivalries, arms races and German militarism. The war, they repeatedly tell us, was the seminal calamity of the twentieth century – Europe’s original sin, which enabled even bigger eruptions of savagery such as the Second World War and the Holocaust.
In this orthodox narrative, which is punctuated by the Russian Revolution and the Balfour declaration in 1917, the war begins with the ‘guns of August’ in 1914, and exultantly patriotic crowds across Europe send soldiers off to a bloody stalemate in the trenches. Peace arrives with the Armistice of 11 November 1918, only to be tragically compromised by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which sets the stage for another world war.
In one predominant but highly ideological version of European history – popularised since the Cold War – the world wars, together with fascism and communism, are simply monstrous aberrations in the universal advance of liberal democracy and freedom. In many ways, however, it is the decades after 1945 – when Europe, deprived of its colonies, emerged from the ruins of two cataclysmic wars – that increasingly seem exceptional. But neither these decades of relative stability, nor the collapse of communist regimes in 1989, were a reason to assume that human rights and democracy were rooted in European soil.
Instead of remembering the First World War in a way that flatters our contemporary prejudices, we should recall what Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism – one of the West’s first major reckonings with Europe’s grievous twentieth-century experience of wars, racism and genocide. Arendt observes that it was Europeans who initially reordered ‘humanity into master and slave races’ during their conquest and exploitation of much of Asia, Africa and America. This debasing hierarchy of races was established because the promise of equality and liberty at home required imperial expansion abroad in order to be even partially fulfilled. We tend to forget that imperialism, with its promise of land, food and raw materials, was widely seen in the late nineteenth century as crucial to national progress and prosperity. Racism was – and is – more than an ugly prejudice, something to be eradicated through legal and social proscription.
The resurgence of these supremacist views today in the West – alongside the far more widespread stigmatisation of entire populations as culturally incompatible with white Western peoples – should suggest that the First World War was not, in fact, a profound rupture with Europe’s own history. Rather it was, as Liang Qichao, China’s foremost modern intellectual, was already insisting in 1918, a ‘mediating passage that connects the past and the future’.
But in order to grasp the current homecoming of white supremacism in the West, we need an even deeper history – one that shows how whiteness became, in the late nineteenth century, the assurance of individual identity and dignity, as well as the basis of military and diplomatic alliances.
Such a history would show that the global racial order in the century preceding 1914 was one in which it was entirely natural for ‘uncivilised’ peoples to be exterminated, terrorised, imprisoned, ostracised or radically re-engineered. Moreover, this entrenched system was not something incidental to the First World War, with no connections to the vicious way it was fought or to the brutalisation that made possible the horrors of the Holocaust. Rather, the extreme, lawless and often gratuitous violence of modern imperialism eventually boomeranged on its originators.
In this new history, Europe’s long peace is revealed as a time of unlimited wars in Asia, Africa and the Americas. These colonies emerge as the crucible where the sinister tactics of Europe’s brutal twentieth-century wars – racial extermination, forced population transfers, contempt for civilian lives – were first forged. Contemporary historians of German colonialism (an expanding field of study) try to trace the Holocaust back to the mini-genocides Germans committed in their African colonies in the 1900s, where some key ideologies, such as Lebensraum, were also nurtured. But it is too easy to conclude, especially from an Anglo-American perspective, that Germany broke from the norms of civilisation to set a new standard of barbarity, strong-arming the rest of the world into an age of extremes. For there were deep continuities in the imperialist practices and racial assumptions of European and American powers.
For example, the German colonisation of South West Africa, which was meant to solve the problem of overpopulation, was often assisted by the British, and all major Western powers amicably sliced and shared the Chinese melon in the late nineteenth century.
At the end of the war, Germany was stripped of its colonies and accused by the victorious imperial powers, entirely without irony, of ill-treating its natives in Africa. But such judgements, still made today to distinguish a ‘benign’ British and American imperialism from the German, French, Dutch and Belgian versions, try to suppress the vigorous synergies of racist imperialism.
This excerpt from Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire by Pankaj Mishra has been published with permission from Juggernaut.