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Masochism and the German Colonial Imagination

Sabine Wilke
Chair and Professor, Germanics, University of Washington


In 2000 I began working on a study tentatively entitled “White Women in Furs and African Women in Atlas Silk: Intersections of European Male Masochism and German Colonialism.” For this work I received a local grant for a quarter-long residency in the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities in 2001, a subsequent grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 2003, and a senior fellowship from the German Fulbright Commission in 2004.

Over the years the study expanded from a focus on German involvement with Africa to include other regions in the world as well, most significantly the Pacific (and China to a lesser extent). In the finished manuscript, which appeared in German as Masochismus und Kolonialismus: Literatur, Film und Pädagogik (Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 2006), I study the discursive dimension of modern German literary and cultural documents of the late 19th and 20th centuries which, I argue, is informed by the history of German and European colonialism and should be interpreted with the help of postcolonial theory.

The book explores the central function of colonial images for the construction of German cultural modernity and offers a systematic investigation of the construction of the white woman as the cruel woman in furs in the masochistic imagination and the role of (male) masochism in the context of German colonial discourse. I argue that the history of modern German culture is deeply intertwined with references to the colonial past—actual as well as fantasized—on a rhetorical as well as metonymic level that necessitates the revision of the traditional cultural-historiographical trajectory mapped out for German culture of the late 19th and 20th centuries which was made possible only on the basis of repressing the essential role played by masochism in the sexually fantasized encounter between colonizer and colonized. In its section on colonial pedagogy the book relies on invaluable material borrowed from the Center for Research Libraries collections.

While the introductory chapter of my study deals with the significance of the female African servant in the tradition of literary masochism as it was inaugurated by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella “Venus in Furs” (1869), chapter two turns to a discussion of the principles displayed in the pedagogical literature that was used in the training of colonial settlers and administrators. In 1898, representatives from trade, banks, and industry succeeded in establishing the “German Colonial School Witzenhausen” in northern Germany as a place where prospective settlers and administrators were trained for their future tasks in the colonies. I was able to show that the real focus of the pedagogical principles used in instruction had more to do with constructing a certain kind of person, i.e., someone who would accept orders from above and, at the same time, be an authoritative leader vis-à-vis the natives that work for him.

My thesis is that the figure of the masochistic male and the cruel woman analyzed in the introduction on the example of Sacher-Masoch’s novella were translated programmatically into pedagogical ideals for the new settler types. For women, in particular, the entrance into the colonial institute and the training received there prepared them for tasks and experiences abroad that would not have been considered an option at home in their bourgeois households. But these freedoms came with the prescribed role of the cruel woman who was feared by the masochist male settler and handled with great suspicion as will be shown in the next chapter on the example of literary reflections of life in the colonies.

The archival research necessary for chapter two relied heavily on the CRL materials, specifically the Verzeichnis der Vorlesungen and the Bericht über das. . . Studienjahr from the Hamburgisches Kolonialinstitut und Allgemeines Vorlesungswesen, among other things. An English-language version of this chapter was published as “Hegelian Dialectics, Hermeneutics, and Masochism: The Colonial Pedagogy of Imperial Germany” in Imperialisms: Historical and Literary Investigations 1500–1900. Ed. Elizabeth Sauer and Balachandra Rajan. Palgrave, 2005. 105–22.

The other chapters investigate a series of literary texts from the colonial period and the postwar era, specifically literary texts that engage in colonial fantasies, and show how the paradigm of an alliance between masochism and colonialism continues to determine contemporary drama and fiction. Even the postwar German writer is enmeshed in “triangulated visions” in which the liberal German author envisions a non-hegemonic mode of encounter with the non-German of the Third World without critically investigating their own culture’s involvement with the history of European expansionism and colonial fantasizing.