The last thirty years have witnessed a surge of scholarly interest in the history of the German colonial empire, and also in the impact of colonialism back upon the German metropole. Germany's engagement with colonialism, we have learned, fed into radical nationalist politics. It steered Germans' view of globalization. It manifested widely in commercial imagery. And it constructed and spread durable notions of racial difference that fed into racism. Jeremy Best acknowledges all of this, but wants us to pause for a moment and reconsider. His well-researched and tightly-focused book, Heavenly Fatherland, offers a very different view of German engagement overseas, as seen through the lens of missionary work. Best argues convincingly that the world of German missionaries, glimpsed in the publications of Missionswissenschaft, reveals a very different way that Germans engaged with the colonies. These missionaries tended towards the internationalist rather than nationalist. They tended towards the inclusively-local and communitarian in their global engagement, rather than embrace a globalism that glorified industrial capitalism. And they tended to be (Christian) universalist rather than racially-differentiating or outright racist. Best's argument is focused, coherent, and nuanced: he is certainly not re-mystifying missionaries' activities. Instead, he takes missionaries' writing and thinking seriously. Since, as Best writes, "missionaries were one of the most important groups creating German colonial culture in the metropole," (p. 9) the larger contours of Germany's colonial project may indeed be due for some revision.
Heavenly Fatherland is organized thematically, rather than chronologically. This makes for a methodical argument, where each chapter presents a single strand of missionaries' theological and pragmatic positions, which collectively construct a larger worldview. This thematic structure does lead to a large amount of repetition, however, where topics as broad as the impact of German pietism or the technological contours of turn-of-the-century globalization, or as narrow as the Kolonialrat's efforts to grant German colonial governors control over the teaching activities in mission schools in 1904, are introduced and reintroduced across multiple chapters. Yet the thematic structure allows him to drill down on key issues at the intersection of theology and practice that have too often been overlooked.
The first chapter maps the ideology of Germany's Protestant mission movement from the 1870s through 1900, paying close attention to its self-conception (and self-representation), but also with a glimpse into the way that groups such as the Berliner Missionsgesellschaft operated on the ground in German East Africa. Overall, missionaries were skeptical of nationalism (German or otherwise) and remained internationalist in both ideology and practice. Missionaries were also quite wary about becoming entangled in German domestic politics, especially the loud, hyper-nationalistic politics of the colonialist lobby. The second chapter turns more specifically to language, showing how the missionaries' engagement with local languages stemmed both out of theology and out of the desire to bring the word of God to everyone in a way that would be understandable. This engagement with local language in turn led missionaries to embrace a notion of the Volkskirche, or locally-grounded church, with services and schooling in the local vernacular (rather than in the language of the German colonizer).
Chapter three delves into the missionaries' distance from commerce, and in particular, their aversion to capitalism (writ large) with its ruthless exploitation of labor. Missionaries thus resisted being pressed into service by colonialists to "educate the Negroes to work" on plantations. Indeed, missionaries in Germany and in East Africa alike had little interest in becoming a tool of the colonial state, evading colonialists' schemes to re-orient missions' educational efforts. The following chapter, however, shows the limits of missionaries' ability to distance themselves from the colonial state: in the face of increasingly bitter competition with (German) Catholic missions in East Africa after 1908, the colonial state resurfaced as the only way to regulate or negotiate a compromise between the Protestants and their Catholic rivals.
The penultimate chapter, "Tending the Flock," turns to Germany itself as the field for the missionaries' activities. Best shows that the various mission societies and their Missionshilfsvereine had a strong local presence – indeed, a local presence that "matched, if not outstripped" that of the German Colonial Society. (p. 144) They also "presented a more cosmopolitan vision of German culture's place in the world and a less racialized vision of colonized people." (p. 144) The final chapter of the book begins, intriguingly, with a conference that never was: the World Missionary Conference of 1920, which would have cemented German missionaries' prominence in the broader international effort to promote and transmit the idea of Christian universalism to the colonized world. The First World War, however, cut short any and all internationalist thinking, at least as far as German participation was concerned.
Cumulatively, then, Jeremy Best's book offers a cogent and cohesively-argued corrective to our view of the history of Germany's engagement with the world around 1900. While the roots of the strident nationalism, imperialism, and racism of 1930s Germany have been decisively traced back to the Kaiserreich, Best shows us that there was a strong alternative: an internationalist, Christian universalism "bent on the unification of people into a grand community of Protestant faith." (p. 219) Jeremy Best does not idealize the worldview of the missionaries here: he readily concedes the personal and cultural biases and prejudices that suffused it. Yet Best's recapitulation of missionary thought does indeed, as he argues, "force a re-evaluation of the history of German racism and its colonial connections." (p. 217) In this, Best's book is eye-opening.
Best engages closely with recent historiography, remaining in conversation with scholars of colonialism, globalism, and the history of racism. Other issues of interest, however, are largely ignored. What role did the alure of the exotic and desire for overseas adventure play in the missionary worldview, for instance? Or on the topic of gender, did missionary writers, even as they resisted rhetoric about race, also resist gendered rhetoric about the "woman question?" Or did they embrace it uncritically? Finally in what ways might interactions with Africans on the ground have contributed to shifts in the larger worldview or even theological underpinnings of Missionswissenschaft back in the German metropole?
One element that could be drawn out further are the chronological correlations between shifts in the writing of missionaries and major shifts in colonialism, globalism, and racism. Missionary thinking right changed around 1900–1905: missionary writers in Germany and missionaries in East Africa both became less skeptical of nationalism, and less distant from the colonial state. This shift seems to correlate (as Best recognizes, but does not draw out fully) with other major shifts around this time. In anthropology, 1905 saw a shift to more racial and racist thinking. In political culture, the years 1900 to 1908 saw escalating nationalism with battleship-building, colonial wars in Southwest and East Africa, and the hysteria of the 1907 elections. In commercial culture, colonial imagery became prominent after 1900 and racializing imagery after 1905. Even the Protestant missionaries' own turf war with the Catholic missionaries from 1908 through 1914, which Best describes, seems to somehow echo (or have some sort of affinity with) the escalating tensions among the European powers more broadly in the same years. One wonders, then, how truly insulated the missionaries were from these colonialist, nationalistic, and racializing trends? Given these seismic shifts between 1900 and 1910, would the missionary movement really have been able to preserve its internationalist, universalist, and culturally-relativist mindset into the 1920s, but for the raging furnace of the First World War? Whatever the answer, Jeremy Best's Heavenly Fatherland offers an insightful new perspective on Germany's overseas engagement - one that makes us seriously rethink many of the broader characterizations about the nationalism, colonialism, and racism of the Kaiserreich.