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Scientific racism's roots in colonization

Cai Nebe
April 2, 2024

German anthropologists used Germany's colonial conquest in Africa to promulgate racist theory, and create racial hierarchies. While popular at the time, scientific racism became a justification for widespread oppression.

A sign on a beach demarcates a "Whites only" area in South Africa during the 1970s
South Africa's notorious apartheid laws, which until 1990 were also prevalent in the former German colony of Namibia, were rooted in scientific racism ideas developed during colonialismImage: AP

How did violence contribute to racist theories in the German colonies?  

By the early 1900s, Germany's colonial troops had broken resistance in mainland Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo and Namibia through unimaginable violence and terror.

From 1905-1907, the Maji Maji uprising and subsequent scorched earth policy in Tanzania killed over 300,000 people.

The first genocide of the 20th century in Namibia killed up to 80% of Ovaherero people and 50% of Nama people.

Colonialism brought colonialists and intellectuals into constant contact with non-Europeans, and casual racism borne through subjugation took a sinister and scientific tone. 

Why did Germany seek to legitimize its rule through racial theory? 

Racism, and the idea that there were differences between people who looked different, was an accepted theory in scientific communities in the early 1900s. 

The issue was that real, scientific justification for racism was hard to come by. After all, how could one say races were fundamentally different, if people had been mixing since the beginning of time?

Portrait of German anthropolgist Eugen Fischer
Eugen Fischer made his name by theorizing on race and creating racial hierarchies. His ideas were attractive to both the German colonial administration and the Nazi regime in later yearsImage: akg-images/dpa/picture-alliance

In 1908, anthropologist Eugen Fischer arrived in German South West Africa to study a community known as the Rehoboth Basters.

This community still exists in Namibia today, and was descended from Europeans and local African people in the Cape, before trekking north to central Namibia. They spoke a form of Dutch, practiced a largely European way of life, were Christian, and had mixed ancestry.

But Fischer's goal was to find genetic markers and prove the heredity of "racial characteristics" and thus to establish the construct of "race" in biology. Because if he could scientifically prove there were differences between races, then one could intellectually justify different roles in human society. Or in the case of colonialism, show why the white race was justified in subjugating so-called lower races.

Moder Rehobath Basters parade on horseback through the town of Rehoboth
The Rehoboth Baster community in Namibia, which traces its roots to the Cape, came into the crosshairs of race scientists like Eugen Fischer because of the groups mixed heritageImage: NAMPA/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Through studying Baster children, taking skull measurements, noting hair and eye color and other aspects, Fischer concluded there were racial differences between humans, and he believed people of "mixed" backgrounds were superior to the indigenous population but still subordinate to the colonialists.

So, he advocated "racial segregation" within society. As a result, unions between white and Black people were banned throughout the German colonies. 

Did intellectual acceptance of scientific racism benefit colonialism?

Fischer and his peer's theories on race were accepted as real science, and fueled such interest in the subject that the demand for skulls and bones of killed people in Tanzania and Namibia surged, all in the name of research to find proof of why Europeans were "better" than colonized people. 

Conveniently for imperial medical authorities, colonized people were not different enough for them to be excluded from medical experimentation and forced sterilization committed by German doctors on them. But it did absolve German officials from the inhumanity of it, because the repressive colonial system gave anthropologists easy access to African bodies to measure, count and analyze. 

Eugen Fischer's theories and recommendations around so-called "racial purity" were practiced in Africa, and promoted actually as a form of public health. 

How scientific racism tried to justify colonization

Fischer's theories influence Nazism

Adolf Hitler reportedly read Fischer's work "The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene" in prison, and the ideas about racial purity and racial hierarchy strongly influenced Hitler's infamous book outlining his Nazi ideology, "Mein Kampf," a title which translates as "My Struggle."  

Fischer's work would ultimately go on to influence the racist and antisemitic Nuremberg laws of 1935, which paved the way for the Nazis to eliminate Jews, LGBTQ+ people and other groups from German society.

Were there similarities between Nazi and colonialist ideas regarding race? 

Racist intellectual trajectories, and Imperial Germany's use of prison camps in the colonies, brutality and other factors have led a number of academics to propose that German colonial abuses in Africa informed Nazi policy up to and during World War II. Both systems relied on violence and had a distinct racial doctrine.

A Nazi-sponsored university event in 1933 shows Eugen Fischer and other academics pictured alongside Nazi officials
The Nazi regime in Germany turbocharged funding and interest in scientific racism in German universities, from which academics like Eugen Fischer benefitedImage: picture-alliance/akg

Many of Nazi Germany's foremost proponents of German racial purity had been active in the colonies, including Fischer. Another was Ernst Rodenwaldt, who also started out as colonial doctor in Togo and Cameroon where he implemented racial purity policies.

Rodenwaldt is regarded as a fanatical proponent of racial separation, and defending pure German blood from mixing with so-called lower peoples, which by now had expanded to include Jews, Black people, Roma and Eastern Europeans. 

Even after World War II, Fischer and Rodenwaldt — despite their connections to the Nazi regime, influence on racial theory, and involvement in human experimentation — remained respected academics, and neither really had to answer for their work which ultimately caused the deaths of millions. 

Racism in early color photography

How did racism continue in Namibia after Germany left?

South Africa governed Namibia as a mandate from 1919, and duly implemented apartheid legislation from the 1940s onwards. Fischer's pioneering efforts to ban miscegenation were echoed in apartheid laws banning unions between races, like the Immorality Act and Mixed Marriages Act. These laws would remain in force until 1990, when Namibia became independent from South Africa.

Above all, racial theory sought to legitimize power and violence of Europeans and their descendants over colonized people, and had little to do with public health.

And while German colonial officials were neither the first, only or last European colonial power to practice this level of racial theory, the shadows cast by these brutal policies linger over Africa and Europe to this day.

Shadows of German Colonialism is produced by DW, Germany's international broadcaster with funding from the German Foreign Office (AA). Consulting was provided by Lily Mafela, Kwame Osei Kwarteng and Reginald Kirey.

Edited by: Keith Walker