In April 1917 Demba Mboup and his comrades in the French Colonial Corps, part of General Charles Mangin’s Sixth Army and General Denis Duchêne’s Tenth Army, faced the heavily fortified positions of the Seventh German Army under General Hans von Boehn on the Chemin des Dames – the Ladies’ Road, so called after its use by the two daughters of Louis XV in the eighteenth century. In March 1814 Napoleon’s retreating soldiers had fought along the same road against the invading Austrian and Russian armies. It was the key to the German defensive position on the Western Front.

The French commander General Robert Nivelle was confident that he would be the man who achieved the long-awaited breakthrough on the Western Front. The French built 300 miles of new railway lines to supply the offensive with 872 trainloads of munitions. Altogether more than a million men were massed in readiness for the assault, stretched along a 25-mile front. Days of artillery barrages were supposed to soften up the Germans. Then, at 6 a.m. on 16 April, the colonial troops advanced up hills that had become mudslides in the rain and sleet. Mangin had placed the Senegalese in the first wave of the attack. But he almost certainly had an ulterior motive: to spare French lives. According to Lieutenant Colonel Debieuvre, commander of the 58th Regiment of Colonial Infantry, the Africans were ‘finally and above all superb attack troops permitting the saving of the lives of whites, who behind them exploit their success and organize the positions they conquer’.99

From the German trenches, Captain Reinhold Eichacker watched in horror:

The black Senegal negroes, France’s cattle for the shambles. Hundreds of fighting eyes, fixed, threatening, deadly. And they came. First singly, at wide intervals. Feeling their way, like the arms of a horrible cuttlefish. Eager, grasping, like the claws of a mighty monster. Thus they rushed closer, flickering and sometimes disappearing in their cloud. Strong, wild fellows, showing their grinning teeth like panthers. Horrible their unnaturally wide-opened, burning, bloodshot eyes.

On they came, a solid, rolling black wall, rising and falling, swaying and heaving, impenetrable, endless.

‘Close range! Individual firing! Take careful aim!’ My orders rang out sharp and clear.

The first blacks fell headlong in full course in our wire entanglements, turning somersaults like the clowns in a circus. Whole groups melted away. Dismembered bodies, sticky earth, shattered rocks, were mixed in wild disorder. The black cloud halted, wavered, closed its ranks and rolled nearer and nearer, irresistible, crushing, devastating!

A wall of lead and iron suddenly hurled itself upon the attackers and the entanglements just in front of our trenches. A deafening hammering and clattering, cracking and pounding, rattling and crackling, beat everything to earth in ear-splitting, nerve-racking clamor. Our machine guns had flanked the blacks!

Like an invisible hand they swept over the men and hurled them to earth, mangling and tearing them to pieces! Singly, in files, in rows and heaps, the blacks fell. Next to each other, behind each other, on top of each other.100

Eleven days before the battle, the Germans had in fact obtained detailed plans of the attack from a captured French NCO. They were well protected from the French bombardment by a complex of deep quarries known as the Dragon’s Grotto, which they used as bomb shelters. And when the infantry advanced, the Germans were ready with state-of-the-art mobile machine guns. On the first day alone, the attacking forces suffered 40,000 casualties. By 10 May, one in five French soldiers had been either killed or wounded. For Demba Mboup, who was disabled by shrapnel, it was a revelation of the distinctly uncivilized reality of European life in time of total war. So disillusioned were the Africans that some of them joined in the massive mutiny that subsequently swept through the French ranks and forced the government to replace Nivelle. In August, 200 men of the 61st Battalion of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais – known as the Battalion Malafosse, after their commanding officer – refused to take up positions along the Chemin des Dames. As one of them succinctly put it: ‘Battalion Malafosse has no good. No rest, always make war, always kill blacks.’101 Several of the mutineers were court-martialled, and four sentenced to death, though none of the sentences was actually carried out.

Though Blaise Diagne protested about the wasteful use of his countrymen, he was soon back in Senegal in search of fresh recruits, this time armed with a guarantee that fighting meant not just citizenship but a Croix de Guerre. On 18 February 1918 Clemenceau defended the resumption of military recruitment before a group of senators, making clear exactly how the French saw the Senegalese:

Although I have infinite respect for these brave blacks, I would much prefer to have ten blacks killed than a single Frenchman, because I think that enough Frenchmen have been killed and that it is necessary to sacrifice them as little as possible.102

In all more than 33,000 West Africans died in the war, one in five of those who joined up. The comparable figure for French soldiers was less than 17 per cent. By contrast, the mortality rate among British Indian troops was half that for soldiers from the United Kingdom.103

War is hell. When the bard of empire Rudyard Kipling visited a French section of the Western Front in 1915 – not long before his own son’s death at the Battle of Loos – he encountered the reality of the great war for civilization:

‘The same work. Always the same work!’ [one] officer said. ‘And you could walk from here to the sea or to Switzerland in that ditch – and you’ll find the same work going on everywhere. It isn’t war.’

‘It’s better than that,’ said another. ‘It’s the eating-up of a people. They come and fill the trenches and they die, and they die; and they send more and those die. We do the same, of course, but – look!’

He pointed to the large deliberate smoke-heads renewing themselves along that yellowed beach. ‘That is the frontier of civilization. They have all civilization against them – those brutes yonder [meaning the Germans]. It’s not the local victories of the old wars that we’re after. It’s the barbarian – all the barbarian [sic]. Now you’ve seen the whole thing in little.’104

Yet war can also be a driver of human progress. As we have seen, the impressive advances of the Scientific Revolution were helped not hindered by the incessant feuding of the European states. The same was true of the clash of empires between 1914 and 1918. The slaughterhouse of the Western Front was like a vast and terrifying laboratory for medical science, producing significant advances in surgery, not to mention psychiatry. The skin graft and antiseptic irrigation of wounds were invented. The earliest blood transfusions were attempted. For the first time, all British soldiers were vaccinated against typhoid, and wounded soldiers were routinely given anti-tetanus shots.105

Not that these advances helped the tirailleurs, however. If they were not killed in the trenches, they died in enormous numbers from pneumonia. Why? According to French doctors, they had a racial predisposition to the disease.

Europeans had come to Africa claiming that they would civilize it. But even the French, with all their good intentions, failed to implant more than a very limited version of Western civilization there. Elsewhere, the challenges of inhospitable terrain and tribal resistance brought out the destructive worst in Europeans, most obviously but by no means uniquely in the German colonies. Methods of total warfare first tried out on the likes of the Herero were then imported back to Europe and combined to devastating effect with the next generation of industrialized weaponry. And in a final bitter twist, Africans were lured to Europe and sacrificed in one of the war’s stupidest offensives.

The legacy of the war in Africa was as profound in Europe as it was in Africa. General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had played his part in the genocide against the Herero, also led the campaign against British forces in East Africa. With the end of the war, Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Germany, but it was not long before he and his veterans saw action again. As their fatherland descended into revolution, they marched into Hamburg to snuff out the threat of a German soviet republic. Civil war raged not only in the big German cities but also along Germany’s eastern frontier, where so-called Freikorps led by veterans like Franz Xavier Ritter von Epp and Hermann Ehrhardt waged war on the Bolsheviks and Slav nationalists as if they were African tribes in all but the colour of their skins. For Epp and Ehrhardt this came naturally; both had been officers in the wars against the Herero and Nama.106

Although the racial theorist Eugen Fischer ended up on the losing side, the First World War proved surprisingly fruitful for his chosen field. As colonial troops found their way into German prisoner-of-war camps, they furnished racial science experts like Otto Reche with a convenient new supply of specimens.107 Fischer’s Human Heredity and Race Hygiene, co-authored with Erwin Baur and Fritz Lens and published in 1921, swiftly became a standard work in the rapidly expanding field of eugenics. Adolf Hitler read it while he was imprisoned after the failed Munich coup of 1923 and referred to it in Mein Kampf. For Hitler, few ideas were more horrific than that Senegalese soldiers stationed in the Rhineland after the war had impregnated German women. This was the notorious ‘Black Shame’ that produced the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ – fresh evidence of the conspiracy to pollute the blood of the Aryan race. Given that he was now director of the new Kaiser William Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, founded in Berlin in 1927, Fischer’s influence was as far-reaching as it was malign. He later served as one of the scientists on the Gestapo’s Special Commission Number Three that planned and carried out the forced sterilization of the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. Among his students was Josef Mengele, responsible for the notoriously inhuman experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz.108

For the many ex-colonial soldiers who joined the ranks of the Nazi Party – their old uniforms provided the SA with their first brown shirts – it was entirely natural that the theories born in the concentration camps of Africa should be carried over to the Nazi ‘colonization’ of Eastern Europe and the murderous racial policies that produced the Holocaust. It was no mere coincidence that the Reichsmarschall in charge of the Luftwaffe was the son of the Reichskommissar of South-West Africa. It was no coincidence that Hans Grimm, the author of People without Space (1926), had spent fourteen years in southern Africa. It was no coincidence that the man Hitler appointed as provincial governor of Posen in 1939, Viktor Böttcher, had been a civil servant in the German Cameroons. He was one of many Nazi functionaries who sought ‘to perform now in the East of the Reich the constructive work they had once carried out in Africa’. The Nazis always intended to regard the territories they annexed in Eastern Europe ‘from a colonial viewpoint’, to be ‘exploited economically with colonial methods’.109

The main difference that most struck contemporaries was that, in Eastern Europe, the colonized were the same colour as the colonizers. ‘No nation belonging to the white race has ever before had such conditions forced upon it,’ wrote Eugene Erdely, one of the earliest commentators on Nazi imperial rule. Yet the Nazis had no difficulty with that, thanks to the warped ingenuity of their own racial theories. To Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief, the Slavic peoples were all ‘Mongol types’ who had to be replaced with ‘Aryans’ in order to create a new ‘blond province’ in the East. To Hitler, Russians could easily be equated with ‘Redskins’. If Auschwitz marked the culmination of state violence against racially defined alien populations, the war against the Herero and Nama was surely the first step in that direction.

Some empires are worse than others. It is a simple point that blanket critiques of imperialism nearly always overlook. To get a flavour of the French Empire’s mode of operation in the inter-war era it is worth watching La Croisière noire, a documentary made in the 1920s by the Citroën car company. When Georges-Marie Haardt and Louis Audoin-Dubreuil set off in halftrack automobiles on the Expédition Citroën Centre-Afrique on October 1924, they were not just trying to sell more cars. This was a bid to publicize France’s benign rule in Africa, extending even into ‘l’inconnu de la forêt équatoriale’. A celebration of ‘civilization’s conquests’, the film juxtaposes scenes of ‘white sorcerers’ amazing Africans with their technical prowess with glimpses of the ‘strange little gnomes’ (pygmies) in the forest. It ends with the tricolore flying proudly over the entire African continent, from Algiers to Dakar, from Brazzaville to Madagascar. It would not be hard to mock this classic expression of French imperial aspiration.110 Yet that aspiration was not without its results. In Senegal, as we have seen, colonial rule was associated with a sustained improvement in life expectancy of around ten years, from thirty to forty. Algeria and Tunisia also saw comparable improvements.111 Better medical care – in particular reduced infant mortality and premature infertility – was the reason why populations in French Africa began to grow so rapidly after 1945.112 In Indo-China it was the French who constructed 20,000 miles of road and 2,000 of railways, opened coal, tin and zinc mines and established rubber plantations.113 In 1922 around 20,000 Vietnamese were granted French citizenship – still a tiny minority in a population of 3 million, but not a trivial number.114 In French West Africa the franchise was extended to a million Africans in 1946 and a further 3 million five years later.115 Sleeping sickness, which had been the scourge of Cameroon under German rule, was largely eradicated under French rule.116

The Timing and Pace of Health Transitions in the French Empire







Beginning of transition

c. 1945


c. 1940

c. 1930

c. 1795

Years gained per annum






Life expectancy at beginning






Life expectancy in 1960






Life expectancy in 2000






Passed 65 in year

c. 1985




By contrast, the Belgians ran the worst of all African empires in the Congo,117 while the Third Reich deserves to be considered the worst of all the European empires – the reductio ad absurdum and ad nauseam of the nineteenth-century notion of the civilizing mission, because its actual effect on the territories it briefly controlled was to barbarize them. The aim, as Himmler conceived it in September 1942, was that ‘the Germanic peoples’ would grow in number from 83 million to 120 million and would resettle all the land Germany had conquered from Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union. They would go forth and multiply in splendid new provinces with names like Ingermanland. Autobahns and high-speed railways would connect a ‘string of pearls’ – fortified German outposts – as far as the Don, the Volga and ultimately even the Urals. In Himmler’s words, the German conquest of ‘the East’ would be ‘the greatest piece of colonization which the world will ever have seen’.118

In reality, the Nazi Empire turned out to be the least successful piece of colonization ever seen. Launched in 1938, the campaign to expand beyond Germany’s 1871 borders peaked in late 1942, by which time the empire encompassed around one-third of the European landmass and nearly half its inhabitants – 244 million people. Yet by October 1944, when the Red Army marched into East Prussia, it was gone, making it one of the shortest-lived empires in all history, as well as one of the worst. This fleeting duration is, of course, primarily to be explained in military terms. Once the Third Reich was embroiled in a war with not only the British Empire but also the Soviet Union and the United States, its empire was surely doomed. Yet there is a secondary, endogenous explanation for the Third Reich’s failure as an empire.

From the point of view of simple demographics, there was in fact nothing implausible about the project of putting 80 million Germans in charge of the European continent. In theory, it should have been easier for Germany to rule Ukraine than it was for Britain to rule Uttar Pradesh. For one thing, Kiev was nearer to Berlin than Kanpur was to London. For another, the Germans were genuinely welcomed as liberators in many parts of Ukraine in 1941. And not only there. All over the Western Soviet Union there were ethnic minorities whom Stalin had treated with suspicion and violence in the 1930s. Most assumed that German rule would be an improvement on Russian rule. Yet the Germans wholly failed to exploit these advantages.

The ‘arrogant and overbearing Reich Germans’, strutting around in their snazzy uniforms, alienated even the ethnic Germans they were supposed to be freeing from foreign oppression. Worse, they took positive pride in starving the newly subject peoples. ‘I will pump every last thing out of this country,’ declared Reichskommissar Erich Koch, when put in charge of the Ukraine. ‘I did not come here to spread bliss …’ Göring boasted that he ‘could not care less’ if non-Germans were ‘collapsing from hunger’.119 A clear indication of what such inhumanity implied was the treatment meted out to Red Army prisoners of war in the wake of Operation Barbarossa. By February 1942 only 1.1 million were still alive of the 3.9 million originally captured. Herded together in barbed-wire stockades, they were simply left to the ravages of malnutrition and disease. Nor were the Nazis content to starve the conquered. They also relished inflicting violence on them, ranging from impromptu beatings (which could be administered either for failing to give the Hitler salute or for presumptuously giving it, according to taste) all the way to industrialized genocide. This was indeed Hereroland writ large.

A few Germans saw the folly of this. In the words of Gauleiter Alfred Frauenfeld in February 1944:

The principle of ruthless brutality, the treatment of the country [Ukraine] according to points of view and methods used in past centuries against coloured slave peoples; and the fact, defying any sensible policy, that the contempt for that people was not only expressed in actions against individuals but also in words at every possible and impossible occasion … all this bears testimony to the complete lack of instinct with regard to the treatment of alien peoples, which in view of its consequences can only be called … disastrous.120

It was, as an official at the Ministry for the East put it, a ‘masterpiece of wrong treatment … to have, within a year, chased into the woods and swamps, as partisans, a people which was absolutely pro-German and had jubilantly greeted us as their liberator’.121

Added to arrogance, callousness and brutality was downright ineptitude. As early as 1938 a Wehrmacht staff officer remarked on the ‘crass extent’ of ‘the State’s inability to govern’ in the newly acquired Sudetenland. Alfred Rosenberg’s Ministry for the East (Ost-Ministerium) was soon nicknamed the ‘Ministry for Chaos’ (Cha-Ost-Ministerium). The SS aspired to establish some kind of centralizing grip on the empire, but Himmler and his lackeys messed up even the resettlement of 800,000 ethnic Germans. Otto Ohlendorf – who, as a loyal Einsatzgruppe commander, was responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews – lamented that Himmler’s speciality was ‘organizing disorder’.122 Yet ultimate responsibility for the dysfunctional character of the Nazi Empire lay not with Rosenberg or Himmler, but with their master. It was, after all, Hitler who was in charge of the Third Reich. (Of 650 major legislative orders issued during the war, all but 72 were decrees or orders issued in his name.) It was Hitler who argued, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union, that ‘In view of the vast size of the conquered territories in the east, the forces available for establishing security in these areas will be sufficient only if, instead of punishing resistance by sentences in a court of law, the occupying forces spread such terror as to crush every will to resist among the population.’ It was Hitler whose preferred method for pacifying occupied territory was ‘shooting everyone who looked in any way suspicious’. In the eyes of Werner Best (one of those rare figures in the Third Reich with a semi-sane conception of imperial rule), Hitler was a latter-day Genghis Khan – a specialist in destruction, whose empire of barbarism could not hope to endure.123

In many ways, then, the Nazi Empire was the last, loathsome incarnation of a concept that by 1945 was obsolete. It had seemed plausible for centuries that the road to riches lay through the exploitation of foreign peoples and their land. Long before the word Lebensraum was coined, as we have seen, European empires had contended for new places to settle, new people to tax – and before them Asian, American and African empires. Yet in the course of the twentieth century it gradually became apparent that an industrial economy could get on perfectly well without colonies. Indeed, colonies might be something of a needless burden. Writing in 1942, the economist Helmut Schubert noted that Germany’s real future was as ‘a large industrial zone’, dependent on ‘a permanent and growing presence of foreign workers’. Germanization of the East was an impossibility; Easternization of Germany was far more likely as the shift of labour from agriculture to industry continued. The exigencies of the war economy vindicated this view. By the end of 1944 around 5 million foreigners had been conscripted to work in the factories and mines of the old Reich. By a rich irony, the dream of a racially pure imperium had turned Germany itself into a multi-ethnic state, albeit a slave state. The replacement of East European slaves with Turkish and Yugoslav ‘guest workers’ after the war did not change the economic argument. Modern Germany did not in fact need ‘living space’. It needed living immigrants.

The French Empire was never so irredeemably barbaric as the Nazi Empire. If it had been, it would surely have been impossible to revive so much of it after the Second World War – and even to reaffirm the old assimilationist ambition by rebranding it as a ‘French Union’. Even the ten years between the Brazzaville Conference of 1944 and the twin blows of defeat at Dien Bien Phu and revolt in Algeria exceeded the total duration of Hitler’s extra-German imperium. Nevertheless, the world wars were the terrible nemesis that followed the hubris of the mission civilisatrice, as all the European empires applied the methods against one another that they had pioneered (albeit with varying degrees of cruelty) against Africans. Medical science, which had seemed like a universal saviour in the war against disease, ended up being perverted by racial prejudice and the pseudo-science of eugenics, turning even some doctors into killers. By 1945 ‘Western civilization’ did indeed seem like a contradiction in terms, just as Gandhi had said. The rapid dissolution of the European empires in the post-war years appeared to be a just enough sentence, regardless of whether or not the majority of former colonies were ready for self-government.124

The great puzzle is that, somehow, out of this atrocious age of destruction, there emerged a new model of civilization centred around not colonization but consumption. By 1945, it was time for the West to lay down its arms and pick up its shopping bags – to take off its uniform and put on its blue jeans.

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