African Colonial Prisoners of the Germans
A Pictorial History of Captive Soldiers in the World Wars
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, June 2016, 216 pages
Book Review published on: May 25, 2017
Although African Colonial Prisoners of the Germans is primarily a pictorial history, it begins with a very brief history chapter to provide context surrounding the origin of African colonial soldiers and how they found themselves eventually fighting in European wars. The content chosen for this short history is decidedly gloomy. However, this book is not fundamentally a written history, and the history portion lasts a brief nineteen pages before author Paul Garson moves to the main event: photographs from the author’s personal collection.
The photographs are very interesting indeed. The content includes photos that are mostly posed tableaus of people, along with some illustrations and advertisements. There are some shots of troops (prisoners) marching or engaged in activities, but most photos show scenes of stationary subjects. The photographers’ intent appears to be an attempt to document something unique in their own experiences. Numerous pictures come from the diaries of German soldiers who have encountered something significant that they want to remember later in life. In this century, with our global communications and cosmopolitan views, it may not feel very unique to meet others with a different skin tone or culture. Clearly, as shown by the existence of these photographs, these picture takers felt the need to pose a photo and document when they had been near an African soldier. On the first page of the history portion, the author explains that for German soldiers living outside major cities, few “had ever seen, much less interacted with, a black person.” It seems natural for them to want to document such a rare event.
Other, less flattering photos illustrate the way colonial troops are depicted as a cultural group. There are plainly denigratory scenes where white soldiers are photographed in black face and grass skirts to ridicule the “savage” nature they desire to attribute to African colonial troops. The author asserts as much and explains that propaganda was often written that alludes to brutal behaviors like cannibalism, or the cruel use of knives (the Coupe-Coupe) to sever an enemy’s head.
More often though, the photos reflect an air of novelty rather than one of animosity or hostility. It is clear that many of the posed subjects are not smiling and are not happy to be photographed as some kind of a “novelty.” However, many others appear to relish the invitation to have their picture taken and are mugging and smiling for the camera.
Overall, the book is what it says it is, a pictorial history book. However, the book title itself is slightly misleading. Many of the photographs within are not photographs of prisoners but actually photos of victorious African colonial troops. Two things would have helped to make this book more substantial. First, the pictures are mostly depicted without estimated dates and they do not appear to be in any chronological or categorical order. Second, the book could have been improved with a greater emphasis on documenting the historical assertions made by the author in referencing where in the literature of African history he found his information. The reader is left to trust that the author is an African historical scholar and has evidence to support the statements he made regarding the culture and history of the African colonial period.
Book Review written by: Harold A. Laurence, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas