Colonial Science in the German Empire

This working group discusses the practice and politics of science within the German colonial empire. We take as our focus the years in which Germany was a colonial power, 1884-1919, while also looking back to the context of mid-nineteenth century trade, mission and exploration, and to neocolonial offshoots after 1919 such as the boom in "Afrikawissenschaft" under Nazism. We will question how German scientists and organizations erased, absorbed, or constructed Indigenous knowledge as a counterpoint to their own work; how their practices interacted with those of other European empires; and how colonial practices shaped knowledge production in major German metropoles. The group is geared particularly towards early-career scholars, and it should also address fundamental methodological issues and stakes of studying "science" in the German colonial context: how do we write colonial history as history of science and vice versa? How can these histories adequately take into account the perspectives and knowledge practices of the colonized? How do we navigate the colonial legacies in science in our own time? How does (neo)colonial science play out today?
The working group is intended to open new research questions, disseminate resources, build networks and foster scholarship. Our monthly virtual meetings will alternate between reading sessions and workshops. Each reading session will focus on the colonial entanglements of a different scientific field, including geography, medicine, biology, anthropology, ethnology, linguistics and archaeology. Such a wide range of topics precludes any of the conveners from claiming expertise in all of them. One of the aims of this group is therefore to generate conversations between fields that would otherwise be shut off from each other; to this end we will solicit expert moderators from established as well as junior peers to introduce and/or lead discussions. The workshop sessions will be devoted to research presentations by up to two group participants per session, and we welcome brief proposals from participants throughout the year.

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Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

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Upcoming Meetings

  • Monday, January 24, 2022 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST


  • Monday, February 28, 2022 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST


  • Monday, March 28, 2022 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


  • Monday, April 25, 2022 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


  • Monday, May 23, 2022 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


  • Monday, June 27, 2022 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


Past Meetings

  • November 22, 2021

    Kenny Cupers (University of Basel), "Rooting Life in Land"

    Recommended supplementary reading:

    Itohan Osayimwese, "Introduction", from ibid., Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)
    Kenny Cupers, "On the Coloniality of Architectural Modernism in Germany", kritische berichte 3.2021

  • October 25, 2021

    Edna Bonhomme,  Title TBA

  • September 27, 2021

    Hanin Hannouch (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz / Max-Planck-Institut), "Gustav Fritsch ca. 1900: Doing Racial Science Through Three-Color Photography"
    Readings attached:
    Annette Lewerentz, "Der Mediziner Gustav Fritsch als Fotograf"
    Michael Hagner, "Aspects of Brain Localization in Late 19th Century Germany"

  • July 12, 2021

    *Please note special date*
    Matthew Vollgraff (The Warburg Institute), "In the Hall of Culture: Global Art History in the Deep Time of Empire" [work in progress]

    Optional reading:
    Andrew Zimmerman, “‘What Do You Really Want in German East Africa, Herr Professor?’ Counterinsurgency and the Science Effect in Colonial Tanzania,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no. 2 (2006), 419—461.

  • May 24, 2021

    Zoé Samudzi (University of California San Francisco), draft article entitled “The Black[ened] Bastard”

    Supplementary reading:
    Fatima El-Tayeb, "'Blood Is a Very Special Juice': Racialized Bodies and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Germany," International Review of Social History, Vol. 44, Supplement 7 (1999), 149-169.

  • April 26, 2021

    Moritz von Brescius (University of Bern), "When was the Postcolonial in German History? Ernst Fickendey, Imperial Careering and Plantation Cultures Between Europe and the Tropics" [work in progress]
    Recommended supplementary reading: 

    Florian Wagner, "Inventing Colonial Agronomy. Buitenzorg and the Transition from the Western to the Eastern Model of Colonial Agriculture, 1880s-1930s," in Ulrike Kirchberger and Brett M. Bennett, Environments of Empire. Networks and Agents of Ecological Change (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 103-128.
    Michael B. Miller, "When East Met East: Dutch East Indies Planters and the Ukraine Project (1942–1944)," Central European History 53 (2020), 613–635.

  • March 22, 2021

    Katherine Arnold (London School of Economics), "Desire and Desiderata" [chapter from her forthcoming dissertation]
    Lynn Nyhart, "Introduction: The Biological Perspective and the Problem of a Modern Nature," in Modern Nature: The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany, 1-34.
    Recommended supplementary reading:
    Paula Findlen and Anna Toledano, "The Materials of Natural History," in Emma Spary, Helen Anne Curry, James Andrew Secord, Nicholas Jardine (eds.), Worlds of Natural History, 151-169.

  • February 22, 2021

    Race, Colonial Medicine, Tropical Hygiene
    With Sarah Ehlers (Deutsches Museum /Technische Universität München)
    Main readings: 
    – Sarah Ehlers, “Medical Missions – Racial Visions: Fighting Sleeping Sickness in Colonial Africa in the Early Twentieth Century” in Health and Difference. Rendering Human Variation in Colonial Engagements, ed. Alexandra Widmer and Veronika Lipphardt (Berghahn, 2016), 91–110.
    – Manuela Bauche, "Von der Unmöglichkeit, klare Grenzen zu ziehen. Rassismus und Medizin in den deutschen Kolonien" in Das Phantom "Rasse". Zur Geschichte und Wirkungsmacht von Rassismus, ed. Naika Foroutan, Christian Geulen, Susanne Illmer, Klaus Vogel, Susanne Wernsing (Vienna: Böhlau, 2018), 115–127.

    Optional readings: 
    – Hans Pols and Warwick Anderson, "The Mestizos of Kisar: An insular racial laboratory in the Malay Archipelago" in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 49:3 (2018), 445–463.
    – Wolfgang Eckart, "The Colony as Laboratory: German Sleeping Sickness Campaigns in German East Africa and in Togo, 1900-1914" in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences  24:1 (2002), 69–89.

  • January 25, 2021

    Introduction: Scientific Knowledge and German Colonialism

    • Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory. Empire, Development and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 (University of Chicago, 2011), Introduction, 1-30.
    • *Stephan Besser, “Die Organisation des kolonialen Wissens. 10. Oktober 1902: In Berlin tagt der erste Deutsche Kolonialkongreß” in Mit Deutschland um die Welt: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Fremden in der Kolonialzeit, ed. Alexander Honold and Klaus R. Scherpe (Metzler, 2004), 271-78.

    *For those who do not read German, we have provided a (quite serviceable) machine translation of Stephan Besser's text "The Organization of Colonial Knowledge".

    Group Conveners

    • jacobinoire's picture

      Edna Bonhomme

      Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and writer who holds a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Princeton University and a Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University. The core of her work interrogates contagion, epidemics, and toxicity through decolonial practices and African diaspora worldmaking. She is currently based in Berlin, Germany.


    • a__christensen's picture

      Alice Christensen

      Alice Christensen teaches in German Studies at the University of Reading (AY 2020/21). She was previously a Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia. She is researching various aspects of the institutionalization of 'tropical medicine' in Germany in the years around 1900. She is also working on a book about the history of thinking about temperature in German literature, philosophy, and scientific periodicals between 1830 and 1930.


    • Hanin Hannouch


    • radigue's picture

      Matthew Vollgraff

      Matthew Vollgraff is a Research Associate at the Warburg Institute, University of London, where he is a member of the "Bilderfahrzeuge" Project. His current research deals with the relationship between ethnographic museums, colonial anthropology and the scientific study of art in the late Wilhelmine Empire.



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