Joanna Raisbeck is a Stipendiary Lecturer in German at Wadham College and The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, with research interests in German Romanticism and the so-called ‘Sattelzeit’.
The question of race in German literature before the late twentieth century is in general overlooked on undergraduate syllabuses. There are excellent resources that help readers explore Black history in the German-speaking countries, such as Black Central Europe, and there are other ongoing projects that investigate the legacies of colonialism in German Studies, such as the newly-launched Decolonial Discourses & German Studies, based at Oxford, but it has never been clearer that these are questions that need to be integrated into German Studies teaching.
I have research interests in the period around 1800, and during this period there is one event that acts as a focal point for discussions about race in German literature: the Haitian Revolution. It began in August 1791, when enslaved people of the French West Indian colony of Saint-Domingue rose up against French colonial rule. The conflict lasted over a decade, involved various other colonial powers such as the English and Spanish, and culminated in the expulsion of the remaining French population in 1804. Saint-Domingue declared independence from France in 1804 and was renamed the Republic of Haiti after an indigenous Taíno name.
As Susanne Zantop has argued, the Haitian Revolution served as a symbolic point of identification for German readers in the period – they identified with the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. It recalled the idea of liberation from aristocratic rule of the French Revolution, which had been met with enthusiasm among German intellectuals before the Terror. Equally, it evoked revolutionary movements in German-speaking lands, such as the failed attempt to create a state founded on the ideals of the French Revolution in Mainz in 1793.
Literature of the period therefore uses the Haitian Revolution to act out an uneasy negotiation of the role of violence in pursuit of emancipatory ideals, and – unlike in the case of the French Revolution – this necessarily involves negotiating the question of race as part of the project of human emancipation. Approaching texts of the period can throw up interpretative challenges, because the terminology that is used so commonly at the turn of the nineteenth century is now deeply offensive and cannot be extricated from the power abuses and violence perpetrated by systems of white supremacy and colonialism.
I would like to briefly highlight how one lesser-known text negotiates the question of race: William der N**** (1818) by Caroline Auguste Fischer. In the past, I have taught Fischer’s text as a way of thinking about ideas of revolution and autonomy. But it also shows how these ideas become complicated by constructions of race, and it is from this angle that I am incorporating it into my teaching this year.
For Fischer, the success of the Haitian Revolution heralds the inevitable emancipation of black slaves across the entirety of America. But this project of emancipation never becomes reality for Fischer’s characters. The ideals of equality that they espouse do not match up with the social hierarchies that the characters both chafe against and uphold without question. What Fischer’s text does, then, is to show how emancipatory ideals stand in tension with power structures that complicate and undermine them. For example, the paternalistic English nobleman Sir Robert is a dedicated abolitionist, yet still buys William, an African sold into slavery, and intends to educate him so that he can become a freedom fighter. The text dryly, even critically, describes how Sir Robert socialises William to feel responsibility for all enslaved Black people in the Americas. Emancipation is also not staged in the text itself – William departs at the end, promising only to return when his work as a liberator is done.
Sir Robert’s actions throw up the problem of white paternalism, one which is not expressly questioned in the text. The implication is that enslaved peoples would require the appropriate education to secure their own freedom. Revolution, it is implied, cannot be successful without the civilising values associated with European colonial powers.
Racism is more explicitly addressed, but it is presented as very much William’s burden: racism is individualised and presented primarily through its psychological effects, in this case William’s self-hatred. On the day when William and Molly are to be engaged, William catches sight of himself in a mirror alongside Molly and Sir Robert: ‘Ach, seine Gestalt erschien ihm wie die eines aufgerichteten Thieres, neben der des herrlichen weißen Mannes und der des himmlischen Mädchens’. William sees and judges himself through white eyes, and the text itself presents him focalised primarily through white characters. Through his suffering William is made an object of pity for a presumed white readership.
So, with these caveats in mind, how does Fischer envisage emancipation? By the end, William himself is a successful revolutionary leader on the other side of the Atlantic, one who rejects assimilation into European culture until the point when emancipation can be achieved for all non-white people. And yet: William entrusts Sir Robert with educating his Black child and thus endorses Sir Robert’s paternalism. At the end, the text is caught between the intractable hierarchies of the present and the future possibility of autonomy for William and all enslaved people. Fischer still upholds the hope that motivates the idea of emancipation. This becomes clear in William’s final appearance, one which ends the text: he is elevated to a Christ-like figure and is even referred to as a saviour. In William, therefore, the appeal of human emancipation remains undimmed while the racial structure of European society is unaffected – and this tension has just as much potency today.
Todd Kontje, ‘Passing for German: Politics and Patriarchy in Kleist, Körner and Fischer’, German Studies Review 22 (1999), 67-84
Susanne Kord, ‘The Pre-Colonial Imagination: Race and Revolution in the Literature of the Napoleonic Period’, in Un-Civilizing Processes? Excess and Transgression in German Society and Culture: Perspectives Debating with Norbert Elias, ed. by Mary Fulbrook (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 85-115
Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997)
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