Sebastian Beese’s dissertation presents his ambitious work on the experiences of the German engineers and technicians who built the German colonial railroad infrastructure in German East Africa and Southwest Africa, as well as the negotiation processes underlying the railroads’ construction. Moreover, he offers a succinct analysis of the emergence and changing status of the profession of colonial engineering. His research is guided by the questions of how different individuals and groups within this profession benefitted from the German occupation of Africa, and what consequences their colonial work had for their position in Germany after the First World War. Beese focuses particularly on the expert technicians working as civil servants at different hierarchical levels of the colonial administration and, to a lesser extent, the employees of private companies. Overall, they are presented as a bourgeois and homogeneous group for whom the colonies seemed to offer a chance for advancement.
Dirk van Laak’s work1 readily unlocks itself as a major inspiration for Beese’s work. Beese furthers van Laak’s research by exploring the meaning of Erschließung (the opening, connecting, and exploitation of the colonies) “for its own sake” (p. 4) among engineers but also, more importantly, its lived practice for the technicians working in the colonies. In his quest, Beese finds a fitting theoretical perspective in Bourdieu’s work; his study is at its strongest when he applies this analytical toolkit to the available sources. Bourdieu’s praxeological concepts reconcile structural and individual agency and help Beese to examine how technicians moved within the field of colonial technology. Beese’s main sources come from the German colonial state, which he researched in archives in Dar es Salaam, Berlin, Dresden, and Stuttgart, complemented by other sources such as autobiographical reports. Overall, Beese’s work is important within the disciplines of colonial history and history of technology as it helps to fill gaps in the research on German technical experts in the colonies.
In the first part of the thesis, Beese explores the engineers’ social status and self-perception and examines their reasons for colonial service (for example, to acquire prestige). This is followed by a discussion of the engineers’ shared ideology of Erschließung and how it determined the planning of railway routes. Beese also summarizes the organization of the construction projects and the difficulties involved. From there, he focuses on the dynamics of the different forms of capital as described by Bourdieu and introduces his concept of physical capital as playing a decisive role in a colonial career. Physical capital relates to the “tropical fitness” of the engineers and thereby furthers Bourdieu’s concept of “incorporated cultural capital” (pp. 126–7). Beese also examines how income opportunities impacted the advancement of colonial careers, concluding that the institutional conditions of colonial service increasingly resembled structures within Germany.
Next, Beese discusses the functions of hierarchy and order, taking into account that conflicts appear more acute in colonial situations since they are spaces of contestation. Here, he investigates power struggles and the relative positioning of different actors in the field with respect to their administrative titles, academic patents, and colonial experience. He underlines the importance of the rarely-challenged educational patents that guaranteed lucrative positions and concludes that formal titles were often more important in making decisions about construction than factual argumentation.
The second and shorter part of the thesis deals with the career paths of German colonial engineers after the First World War and their attempts to formally institutionalize their profession ex post facto. This part includes important historical groundwork, especially regarding the activities of professional lobby groups that had strong technocratic orientations. Beese particularly considers the example of AKOTECH and its publications, but also looks at exhibitions of colonial technology focused on export opportunities. He also considers attempts to set up professional training programs for colonial or tropical engineering, from the early attempts by the Polytechnikum in Köthen in 1905 to those of the Kolonialtechnische Arbeitstagung in Stuttgart in 1940. This part of the thesis is different in scope, as Beese no longer links career paths to specific infrastructure projects but rather to the institutional and discursive settings surrounding colonial revisionism. As a consequence, his focus widens from detailed and convincing work based on Bourdieu’s theories to larger discussions on the continuities between German colonialism and National Socialism. Beese finds that engineers did not have a particular affinity for or adapt their colonial thinking to Lebensraum ideology. However, his sources are arguably too thin to make a substantial contribution here.
To emphasize the potential of Beese’s work, let me highlight two constellations of ideas: 1) the activities of private companies and individual trans-imperial connections, and 2) how these activities connect to the relative weight that was attributed to colonial experience, academic degrees, and government titles. Beese carefully works out how the rationales and interests of the state technicians and employees of private companies (specifically Lenz & Co. and Holzmann) who built colonial railroads related to one another. Illustrative episodes, such as when private railroad companies relegated government technicians to second-class coaches, show how conflicts over status erupted around the supervision of academically trained engineers by government overseers whose main claim to expertise lay in their colonial experience. These conflicts were heightened by the function of railroads as central sites of colonial segregation.
As noted above, the relationship between experience and title stood at the center of many conflicts. Higher government posts were especially dependent on academic accolades. A notable exception that nevertheless confirms the rule was the career of the master builder Gottfried Redecker in Windhuk. Born in the protectorate, his rise through the ranks of the colonial state hierarchy was repeatedly challenged by status-conscious officials. However, he retained his position and his responsibilities were reduced only symbolically. Following Ariane Komeda’s recent dissertation, which describes two of Gottlieb Redecker’s most important constructions as colonial “contact architecture”2, Beese places Redecker within his professional context in an exemplary fashion. Redecker remained in his post until 1921 and therefore into the era of British rule. However, Redecker could not extend his career as far as the German-British engineer Clemens Gilmann (Clement Gilman), who had worked for Holzmann before rising to the position of head engineer of the Tanganyika railway during the British mandate. Both careers offer the potential to utilize a more inter-imperial approach to build on Beese’s recurring comparisons to British cases.
In my view, Beese’s attention to colonial engineers working in British contexts in addition to those working for companies are threads worth pursuing beyond the German colonial state and into the inter-war period. These foci could align well with the precise application of Bourdieu’s concepts pursued in this dissertation. While Beese acknowledges this potential in his conclusion, he could have already made inroads by extending his source list, which remains closely tied to the German state. Other researchers can now build on Beese’s significant contribution. Overall, this work is an important addition to the literature on German colonialism because it brings an often-overlooked group of actors into view and does so in a theoretically sound and often empirically creative manner.
1 Dirk van Laak, Imperiale Infrastruktur. Deutsche Planungen für eine Erschließung Afrikas. 1880–1960, Paderborn 2004.
2 Ariane Komeda, Kontaktarchitektur. Kolonialarchitektur in Namibia zwischen Norm und Übersetzung, Göttingen 2020.