Environing Empire

My interest in environmental history (Umweltgeschichte) guides my most recent research. After a publication wrestling with Umweltgeschichte environmental justice as a concept within the context of the anti-nuclear movement in post-WWII Germany (see Global Environment, 10/2012), my work now focuses on environmental dynamics in the German empire. More specifically, I am interested in interactions between colonialists and nature in colonial Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia).

Environing Empire in German Southwest Africa

My current research project focuses on German environmental history in colonial Southwest Africa (1884-1915). In 2014 I began looking into the German settler community during colonial rule. That year, and thanks to a summer research grant from Northern Arizona University, I was able to complete preliminary archival research: I accessed the colonial collections of the National Archives (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin-Lichterfelde, Germany, and spent time in the National Archives and the National Library in Windhoek, Namibia. I returned to various archives and libraries over the last years and also spent time in London and Basel – apart from presenting some of my findings at conferences and in publications.

A short vignette around the nationalization of trout in German Southwest Africa appeared on the Environment & Society platform Arcadia. Here I discuss German efforts to establish trout in Southwest Africa. The story links to similar efforts in South Africa and can arguably tell us much about German colonial fantasies.

My recent article titled “Water, Sand, Molluscs” has been published in Environment and History. The coastal town of Swakopmund, meant to become the German colony’s main entry point, is in the center of my analysis. I again highlight the role of environmental factors shaping the German empire and the other way around.

During my time in Namibia, I stumbled upon a variety of intriguing legacies of German colonialism. The result was a side-project that resulted in a chapter in an edited volume titled Archiving Settler Colonialism (Routledge, 2018). My chapter focuses on the genre of German settler colonial ‘reprints’ or ‘republications’ as these appear in Namibia today. I contend that this is a literary genre that aims to sustain existing settler hegemonies to this day.

My most recent article focuses on dowsing or water divination in German Southwest Africa. Part of a larger debate around the role of folk traditions within the empire, I follow administrator Mr. von Uslar as he looks for water at the edges of the empire – and disrupts all kinds of narratives. That article has been published in German History in the December 2020 issue.

The larger book project titled Environing Empire: Nature, Infrastructure, and the Making of German Southwest Africa is completed as well. Thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) I was able to spend almost four weeks in Namibia in the summer of 2019; that particular summer stipend also allowed me to spend time writing. The book manuscript is forthcoming with Berghahn in spring 2022. As part of The Environment in History series, it highlights the role of “environmental infrastructures” (Emmanuel Kreike) in the making of Germany’s first and arguably most important colonial possession. Along the way, my volume deconstructs settler narratives framed around struggles with nature.