S. Press: Blood and Diamonds

Blood and Diamonds. Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa

Press, Steven
Cambridge, MA 2021: Harvard University Press
Anzahl Seiten
352 S.
€ 31,50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jonas Kreienbaum, Historisches Institut, Universität Rostock

In April 1908, Zacharias Lewala was working on the new rail line in the Namib desert connecting Lüderitz Bay to the interior of German Southwest Africa, today’s Namibia. Shovelling around sand, Lewala, a migrant labourer from the neighbouring Cape Colony with some mining experience, detected a rough diamond that he showed to his foreman. By June, German officials had confirmed the rumours of diamond strikes in their colony and started to set up an industry to mine the precious stones. In the years up to the outbreak of World War I, Southwest Africa became the major producer of diamonds alongside British South Africa, with an output of 1,5 million carats in 1913 alone. In his new book “Blood and Diamonds”, Steven Press, Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University, attempts to chart “the rise and fall of Germany’s colonial diamonds as a means to reassess Germany’s overseas empire” (p. 3). His major reassessment, as he highlights in the introduction, is to question the generally accepted conviction that “German colonialism [was] economically inconsequential.” (p. 4) Focussing on the economics of empire, a field that has largely been ignored during the recent boom in research on German colonialism. Press’ study, this much can be said from the very outset, is an important addition to the historiography.1

The first two chapters provide the background for understanding the conditions of the diamond rush after 1908. First, Press takes the reader from the dubious contract that German merchant Adolph Lüderitz concluded with a local Nama chief in the early 1880s, which put him in possession of what would become the diamond region, to the genocidal war Imperial Germany fought in the colony from 1904 to 1908. Then he expands on the set-up of the global diamond industry dominated by the “British imperial venture” (p. 43) De Beers, with its major mining deposits in South African Kimberley, that closely collaborated with a London syndicate to sell and market its stones.

Sections 3 to 5 deal with the diamond rush of 1908 and how Bernhard Dernburg, Germany’s colonial secretary at that time, organized the diamond industry. To keep De Beers out of Southwest Africa, Dernburg declared large parts of the Namib Desert a “Forbidden Zone” where only the German Colonial Corporation, backed by major German banks, was allowed to mine. He created a central selling organization called “the Regie” that functioned as a “state-approved, national cartel” (p. 88). Finally, he partnered up with the Belgian city of Antwerp that had the capacity to cut and polish German roughs and market them in the United States, by far the most important market for diamonds in the early 20th century.

Chapter 6 focusses on the labourers mining diamonds in the Namib sands. After Germany’s genocide against Herero and Nama in the preceding years, the Germans mainly had to rely on African migrant workers from the Cape or the Ovambo kingdoms in the north of the colony.2 Press describes the horrible living and working conditions that resulted in the prevalence of sickness and very high mortality rates, especially among Ovambos. He even suggests a certain continuity of genocidal violence, comparing death rates in the wartime concentration camps and the diamond fields. However, looking at the camp death rates in more detail would have revealed that in individual camps, like Shark Island, mortality was much higher than the aggregate figures that Press cites suggest and significantly higher than in the mines.3

Section 7 deals with the fever for colonial investment that caught stock exchanges in 1909 and the bursting of the bubble in 1910. Chapter 8 describes the illicit trade with Southwest African diamonds that probably absorbed half of the colony’s production and meant a severe loss of revenues for the colonial state. While colonial officials mainly blamed Jews and Africans, it was predominantly white settlers, who felt betrayed by Dernburg’s distribution of diamond revenue, that engaged in smuggling.

The last three chapters focus on the end of Dernburg’s diamond system. In section 9, Press follows Matthias Erzberger, Reichstag member for the Catholic Centrum Party, who publicly accused the colonial secretary of privileging the interests of high finance over those of ordinary Germans. Attacked from all sides, Dernburg resigned in 1910, freeing the way for reform that would lead to the inclusion of German diamond mining into De Beers international cartel in 1913 (chapter 10). When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Imperial Germany first used diamond sales to help finance its war machine. By the end of the war, when it became increasingly clear that Germany would lose its colonies, German diamond producers finally sold their interests and rights to Ernest Oppenheimer. He would soon become the dominant figure in the global diamond industry (chapter 11).

Steven Press has produced an important and well written study. Based on research in more than a dozen archives in Europe, Africa, and North America, he paints a convincing picture of the rise and fall of German colonial “conflict diamonds” (p. 245). This broad archival base allows him to study his object in both metropole and colony and follow its transnational and transimperial connections to Kimberley, London, Antwerp, or New York. This is impressive. At times, however, the author displays a tendency to overemphasize the importance of diamonds. While he convincingly shows that diamond exports were far more important economically for Imperial Germany than historians have so far acknowledged (pp. 89–91), it is, for instance, less compelling to suggest that the genocidal policy against Herero and Nama was related to diamonds as the “very people Trotha pledged to annihilate figured as obstacles to a perceived fountain of mineral wealth.” (p. 51) Overall, “Blood and Diamonds” is a very welcome and convincing contribution enriching German colonial history by addressing its long neglected economic side.

1 Recently the conference Colonial Capitalism in Action has tried to address this lacuna: https://www.hsozkult.de/event/id/event-94656 (16.10.2021).
2 Press here contributes to a newly evolving Namibian Labour history. See the recent theme issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies 47 (2021), 1.
3 Mortality on Shark Island peaked at a monthly death rate of 18 percent. At that rate, all inmates would have died within less than six months. On mortality rates, see Jonas Kreienbaum, A Sad Fiasco. Colonial Concentration Camps in Southern Africa, 1900–1908. Translated from the German by Elizabeth Janik, New York 2019.

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