I’ve mentioned on occasion that, where I teach, the full-time faculty in my discipline is entirely African. We recently had a faculty retreat and, before we got underway with the matters at hand, we discussed various items. One of them was the subject of Americans keeping lions as pets, which the Africans found understandably unbelievable.
My colleagues are both East and West African. One of them is from Tanzania, so I took the opportunity to ask her whether any of her family had fought with Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck during World War I. No, she said, but some of her in-laws had ancestors that had. The Africans were surprised that I even knew about the subject. Since most of you don’t either, some explanation is in order.
During the nineteenth century Africa was divided up amongst the various European colonial powers, including Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Germany. Since the German Empire wasn’t united until 1871, they were on the trailing edge of colonial formation, but in characteristic fashion they caught up. The most significant colony was German East Africa, which became Tanganyika and then merged with Zanzibar to become Tanzania.
The British (primarily) managed to dispatch most of Germany’s African possessions without much trouble, but German East Africa was another matter. At the start its colonial governor, Heinrich Schnee, was inclined to keep the place neutral, as were his counterparts in British Kenya. But both militaries were itching for action, and pretty soon the British invaded German East Africa.
It was an ill-advised move. von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander, had put together a Prussian-trained and disciplined army of Africans. In addition, his strategy became not so much to hold the colony (impossible at any rate) but to tie down British troops and supplies against their being used against the Fatherland in France and Italy. In that he was successful; outnumbered consistently, he ran the British (whose forces died more from disease than in battle) all over East Africa, only surrendering in Zambia when the Kaiser threw the towel in back home.
von Lettow-Vorbeck’s success with African troops against the greatest colonial power in the world made a deep impression in East Africa, doubtless inspiring the independence movements that followed after World War II. It was a supremely “yes, we can” moment for the region, one which, sadly, has not been replicated on these shores the last three and a half years.
But recalling German rule in Africa brought up a discussion of which European power’s colonial legacy was the best. The British came out the worst in the discussion; the impression was that the British objective was to take the money and run (which sends to the bottom a lot of self-serving Anglophile “good bull” I was raised on). The French came off better, which explains why a country like Algeria, whose war of independence with France was exceptionally bitter, still conducts its higher education and much of its life in the language of Bossuet and Chateaubriand. But an interesting wrap was put on the discussion when my Kenyan department head stated that, had they been a German colony rather than a British one, they would have been further down the road, i.e., towards development and participation in the world at large.
The two World Wars and all of that went with them have obscured the fact that the Germans’ ability to build a successful, efficient society and economy are amazing, especially considering the overhead of their social welfare system. The Germans’ biggest problem always has been that they know that fact; had they presented a more humble face to the rest of humanity, much of the bloodshed and hostility they have experienced might have been avoided. von Lettow-Vorbeck’s experience demonstrated that the German ethic was transferable, when properly implemented and with the right people. (I think that Volkswagen, for example, is having an interesting time doing this with the Scots-Irish in Tennessee).
That transferability is in some ways the crux of the Eurozone’s problem. De Gaulle felt that the purpose of European union was to keep the Germans down, the French in and the British out, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Germany is the economic engine of Europe; in some ways the Euro is the mark on steroids. Unfortunately the German ethic never “trickled down” to places such as Italy and Greece, who themselves took the money from the currency unification and ran. Unfortunately the crash of 2008 ended the fun, and now Europe lurches towards the crisis that could be the undoing of a lot more than the Eurozone.
The basic problem is that the Eurozone is a disparate collection of civilisations, with different ethics and different ways of doing things. With separate currencies coexistence is possible; with one it is not. This country isn’t immune to such disparities, but has one federal government to go along with the currency. It hasn’t hurt that the Southern states, the economic laggards of the Union, have traditionally taken a parsimonious “didn’t take ’em to raise” attitude towards social welfare, which progressives may find intensely distasteful but at least hasn’t put them in hopeless debt and exorbitant taxation.
At this point, for the status quo to work, the laggards on the other side of the pond have two choices: either allow the Germans to send some present-day fiscal von Lettow-Vorbecks to bring things back into order, or cut loose. The Africans might find German leadership an inspiring memory, but places like Greece and Italy, birthplaces of Western civilisation, don’t. This may explain in part why Africa, for its problems, is on the uptick and Europe isn’t. (The memory of the last time the Germans actually did this doesn’t help either).
Cutting loose, however, has inspired a shame-honour reaction amongst the Eurocrats that would do the Middle East proud. In addition to shattering their careerist dreams, jettisoning one or more countries from the Eurozone would be an abject admission of failure, another setback in their attempt to fill the God-shaped void in their lives (a void identified by the Frenchman Pascal, whose name adorns the SI unit of pressure) in the wake of the failure of Marx, Freud, Sartre and the like.
The Germans, however, are a reminder of a simple fact that escapes the entitlement-mentality immersed West: if you want a successful economy, you must organise yourself, your people, your politics and your finances properly. Failure to do so will result in…failure. That is what we’re facing these days, and the sooner we come to grips with this, the sooner we’ll be moving down the road again ahead of the can rather than behind it.