Views from the Other Side: Colonial Culture and Anti-Colonial Sentiment in Germany Around 1800

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It is received wisdom that Britain and France played the leading role in overseas expansion in the eighteenth century while the German lands lacked both a central political authority and colonies of their own. We know from the work of scholars such as Susanne Zantop that German intellectuals were fascinated by encounters with non-European cultures, and German genres of travel writing, popular drama, and the philosophy of history all manifest an obsession with thinking about forms of cultural difference. In many cases, such efforts are wrought with ambivalence. The German world traveler Georg Forster is torn between the passionate admiration for a paradise-like Tahiti and the judgment of Tahiti as uncivilized. August von Kotzebue, Germany's most popular playwright around 1800, wrote dramas set in the New World and other exotic locales. In his Bruder Moritz (1791, Brother Moritz), the protagonist seeks to educate the child-like Arabs at the same time as he criticizes his aunt's racial condescension as lacking empathy. In Johann Gottfried Herder's philosophy of history, sympathy for the slaves in European colonies is accompanied by a belief in European cultural superiority. In all these examples, there is more at stake than the fantasies of German colonial rule that Zantop called our attention to a decade ago. My dissertation targets precisely the equivocal nature of the German colonial imagination around 1800 and suggests a different reading strategy.

Postcolonial scholarship has critiqued the ways in which visions of European cultural and racial superiority supported the expansion of colonialism. Recently, scholars have also foregrounded how European culture gave rise to a critique of colonial atrocity. My dissertation, however, stresses the co-existence of both Eurocentrism and the critique of colonial violence and understands this seeming contradiction as a response to the challenge from cultural and colonial difference. I identify emotion or the mode of sentimentalism as the channel through which the alleged cultural otherness questions both colonial violence and European superiority with universal claims. In my analysis, non-Europeans are not only the colonized or the oppressed but also regain their agency in co-constructing a distinct vision of global modernity.

The dissertation concerns itself with both canonical works and popular culture. I first explore Georg Forster's highly influential travelogue Reise um die Welt (1777/1778, A Voyage Round the World), documenting the interplay between Enlightenment anthropology and the impact of South Pacific cultures. Kotzebue's cross-cultural melodramas imagine different orders of love, sexuality, and marriage and challenge the noble form of bourgeois tragedy as theorized by Friedrich Schiller. Contested by Immanuel Kant, Herder's universal history inaugurates a new logic of organizing different cultures into an organic ongoing process of historical development and, at the same time, articulates cultural relativism as a paradigm shift. My reading strategy through cultural and colonial difference unearths the pivotal roles which the impulses from the non-European world played in the construction of German culture around 1800.

By acknowledging both Eurocentrism and anticolonial critiques in these German texts, this dissertation stresses the impact of cultural otherness on the architecture of German thought through sentimentalism and provides both historically and theoretically differentiated understandings of the German colonial imagination in the global eighteenth century.






Zhang, Chunjie (2010). Views from the Other Side: Colonial Culture and Anti-Colonial Sentiment in Germany Around 1800. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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