Eugenics and Colonial photography
Contribution such as Stefan Kühl’s The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (1994), Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak (2003), and Nicolas Bancel (ed.) The Invention of Race. Scientific and Popular Representations (2014) have provided powerful evidence of the American eugenics movement being a precursor to and direct influence of Germany’s Holocaust. But research on this topic has been rather confined or limited by for example past debates about ‘uniqueness,’ ‘singularity’ or ‘unprecedentness’ of the Holocaust, that have assumed a rather circular character. Charged with a moral overtone previous debates have been highly essentialized.
Likewise, the debate about a possible continuity and discontinuity between German colonialism and the Holocaust has a rather highly contentious character (Langbehn 2011). To address both debates, I will consider the role of photography around 1900. In my presentation I delineate how photography must be seen in its specific historical context such as military control and policing, commercial exploration, missionary work or (pseudo)scientific documentation. The latter aspect – (pseudo)scientific documentation – will receive particular attention by way of linking colonial photography to the eugenics movement in the USA and Germany. In the analysis of colonial photography I will argue that the findings of the eugenics movement informed and shaped colonial photography. Second, I will connect my findings with some of the arguments by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996). Goldhagen had argued that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” in the Holocaust because of a unique and virulent “eliminationist anti-Semitism” in the German political culture, which had developed in the preceding centuries. I will address the question if and/or how colonial photography has served as a precursor to what Goldhagen described as an eliminationist mindset. After all, “photographs are volatile, fertile, open, and available to uses that the photographer may not have intended” (Pinney 2003).