German Imperial Biographies: Soldiers, Scientists, and Officials and the "Arendt Thesis"

German Imperial Biographies: Soldiers, Scientists, and Officials and the "Arendt Thesis"

Eric D. Weitz, University of Minnesota Jürgen Zimmerer, University of Sheffield
German Historical Institute
Washington DC
United States
Vom - Bis
04.05.2006 -
Juergen Zimmerer

In that classic work of the mid-twentieth century, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that there was an inextricable, causal link between the establishment of European overseas colonial empires in the late nineteenth century and the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazis in the twentieth. Imperialism came home to Europe, she argued, through the rapid spread of racial anti-Semitism beginning in the late nineteenth century, and reached its final stage in the attempted annihilation of the Jews.

While largely ignored for many decades, more recently Arendt's insights have been continually referenced. In book after book, the extremes of racial politics in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, are located in the earlier imperial experience outside of Europe. Arendt, it seems, had written transnational history avant la lettre.

Yet Arendt offered little empirical evidence and failed to specify the institution and cultural mechanisms by which ideas and practices developed in the imperial realm were transmitted back to Europe and became the bases for policies instituted decades later. To understand the ways in which Germany's colonial past shaped discourses, mentalities,and politics in Germany, we need to examine the personnel active in the imperial realm before 1919 and their roles in subsequent decades and especially in the Nazi era. If any group carried the direct experience of "handling" populations in the imperial realm back into Europe in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it would be the multitudinous soldiers, civilian officials, and scientists who moved back and forth between the two worlds.

German Imperial Biographies will bring together a small group of graduate students and established scholars who are conducting empirical research on German personnel in the imperial realm and their subsequent career paths into the Weimar and Nazi eras. We will also examine institutional memories in military academies, the foreign and colonial services, colonial schools, and colonial trading firms, which helped bridge the decades between the end of the German imperium in Africa, China, and the Pacific and the establishment of the new one in Europe during World War II. This conference is not primarily about the imperial imagination, although that issue will no doubt figure into the proceedings. It is a workshop whose central aim is to test the Arendt thesis by exploring the biographies and activities of the practitioners of imperialism and the mechanisms by which racial ideas and strategies were transmitted across generations.
The one-day workshop will consist of discussion of pre-circulated papers, which will be posted on a password-protected site of the GHI website. The workshop will be followed by the GHI conference, "Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and the Environment," and participants are invited to join in that event as well. For more information, see:

Transportation and accommodation will be covered.

To apply for participation, please send by email a one-page abstract and a two-page (maximum) c.v. to both: and

Eric D. Weitz

Department of History
University of Minnesota
614 Social Sciences
267 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Jürgen Zimmerer

Department of History
University of Sheffield
387 Glossop Road
Sheffield, S10 2TN

Deadline: November 15, 2005
Notification: December 15, 2005

Sponsored by:
German Historical Institute, Washington, DC
Center for German and European Studies and the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota
Joint Initiative in German and European Studies/DAAD,University of Toronto



Jürgen Zimmerer

Department of History
University of Sheffield
387 Glossop Road
Sheffield, S10 2TN

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