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Analyses et comptes rendus

Press Steven. — Blood and Diamonds: Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa

Douglas Yates
p. 412-415
Référence(s) :

Press Steven. — Blood and Diamonds: Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2021, 336 p., index, ill.

Texte intégral

  • 1 M. Wallace with J. Kinahan, A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990, New York, Columbia U (...)

1Germany’s African Empire—in what are today Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Togo—is less frequently anthologized than its British and French counterparts. Even Namibian history under German colonial rule (1884-1914) is less well-published than its protectorate period under South Africa (1914-1991) and not only because oral interviews of living personae have compensated historians for glaring gaps in written/archival records. To procure some attention, it seems that academic books focusing on African history today have to go cross-disciplinary, or across the Atlantic or the Pacific, to garner some attention. So when a straight history book such as Marion Wallace’s A History of Namibia1 came out in 2011, it was hardly surprising that it went largely unnoticed by the general public and even by many scholars who study Africa.

2Blood and Diamonds, the new book by Stanford historian Steven Press, seems to have miraculously escaped this marginalization of Namibia’s colonial past, covering the thirty-year period of “German Southwest Africa” with original German-language sources he mined in Berlin and Frankfurt (whose German Colonial Society lent its images), English-language sources in America (the main market for Southwest’s stones), South Africa, and London (capitals of De Beer’s global diamond cartel), as well as the national archives of Namibia, publishing his highly readable story of German colonialism with Harvard University Press.

  • 2 E. Ames, M. Klotz & L. Wildenthal (eds.), Germany’s Colonial Past, Lincoln, University of Nebraska (...)

3He has focused his attention on how the discovery and exploitation of major diamond fields in Lüderitz Bay was not only an integral part of Germany’s “scramble for Africa” but also its now-infamous genocidal campaigns against the Herero and Nama, and even the rise of its anti-Semitic national socialism. Building on the “From-Windhoek-to-Auschwitz’” school of modern German historiography, he shows how German colonialism in Southwest Africa was not just an antecedent but a precursor to the Holocaust.2

4Now if the bloody story of Germany’s colonial diamond business has less shelf-presence in that school of historiography than the Herero genocide, this lacuna has something to do with unpleasant post-colonial realities. For more than one-hundred-and-twelve years after German decolonization, Professor Press laments, the archives of the diamond-rich “Forbidden Zone” (Sperrgebiet) remain sealed to the public. Namibia still depends on its diamond revenues, and would like to distance its blood-stained stones from that other easily boycotted “conflict minerals” category. So it is not especially eager to publicize any violent abuses perpetrated by its still powerful corporate benefactors.

  • 3 Global Witness, A Rough Trade: The Role of Companies and Governments in the Angolan Conflict, 1999 (...)

5His title Blood and Diamonds is, of course, a play on “blood diamonds,” a trope for “conflict minerals” in the resource-curse literature first coined by Global Witness in their landmark report on the key role that diamonds played in fuelling the Angolan civil war, turning De Beers’ marketing slogan to sell discoloured pink stones into a pejorative.3

6In recent years this militant literature has focused almost exclusively on a few States in postcolonial Africa, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Democratic Republic of Congo, with De Beers and Antwerp—“through whose venues an estimated 84 percent of the world’s rough diamonds passed at some point in 2018” (p. 245)—playing a spuriously wholesome leadership role in the struggle against nasty “conflict diamonds.” Diamonds mined in Namibia under German colonial rule have not been included… until now.

  • 4 E. Kehr, Schlachtflottenbau und Parteipolitik 1894-1901, Berlin, Ebering, 1930.

7Press’s title also invites historians working on the German Empire in Africa to reconsider certain myths about its bottom-line unprofitability and its public relations disaster caused by the diamond-price collapse, arguments frequently used to dismiss Southwest as a chapter in German history not worth writing about. Press shows how Germany resembled its rival colonial powers in Africa, especially Britain and France, by creating its own diamond cartel, imitating De Beer’s monopolistic practices, and tinkering with its colonial laws to capitalize on this boom in mineral wealth. So apart from his clear wink-and-nod to “blood diamonds,” Blood and Diamonds is also “a coupling whose wording is akin to phrases familiar in German historiography” (p. 9) like historian Eckart Kehr’s “iron and rye” denoting an alliance of plutocratic industrialists and agrarian Junkers who ruled the German Empire4 and/or Bismarck’s “iron and blood” speech. As a result of Southwest’s diamond boom, he concludes, German thinking about the potential of colonialism underwent a transition: “A sizeable portion of Germany’s population and leadership still thought enhanced colonial control in Africa would enrich them” (p. 233).

8To show how the diamond boom was an integral part of Germany’s “scramble for Africa,” Press offers a narrative history about: the foundation of the German African Empire in 1871 and the role diamonds played in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to legitimize shady property claims by adventurer Adolf Lüderitz to the diamond-rich Forbidden Zone; how the creation in 1885 of a tax-exempt German Colonial Corporation for Southwest Africa (the “Company”) to buy out Lüderitz led to a veritable Belgian-German diamond consortium (the “Régie”) to compete with the British Empire’s diamond cartel run by De Beers. By 1912, Press shows, six large German firms owned 96 % of all diamond production in Southwest Africa. Visitors, even State officials, needed the Régie’s written authorization to enter the Forbidden Zone. Moreover, their Régie was empowered to evaluate the prices of any diamonds coming out of Southwest, the right to stockpile stones in order to protect that artificial price, the right to raise quotas, control the marketing and cutting of stones. Possession of any stones not registered by the Régie was a crime. “The Régie thus functioned as a State-approved national cartel, a sign of the State’s embrace of monopoly capitalism” (p. 88).

9A fertile part of Press’s history of this diamond boom is the triangular connections of Southwest Africa, Belgium, and the United States. For if the German people hoped to profit from the diamond trade, in the end, private businesses garnered most of the profits. Not only were diamond mining firms untaxed, but so were their chains of vertically integrated operations from uncut rough diamonds produced in Africa, to wholesale dealers (“sight-holders”) and cutters in Antwerp, to retailer jewellers in America: “Ultimately, by the time each diamond found its way into display cases of American retails shops [which accounted for some 75 % of world consumption in the 1900s] prices had risen as much as twenty times the value assigned at the moment of extraction from Africa” (p. 90).

10Meanwhile, the colonial State needed revenues from diamond taxes to drill for water, the scarcest natural resource. However, the “Corporation” did not pay taxes. Even a 5-marks-per-carat tax on other, smaller, independent prospectors was diverted to pay for railroad construction. In fact, there are numerous indicators that Southwest suffered from a “resource-rush curse.” Inflation caused by the diamond boom made the cost of living grow twice as high as in mainland Germany, labour shortages caused by an exodus of workers leaving their jobs to prospect, especially low-wage public sector jobs, and influx of foreign prospectors from South Africa and other European nations reduced ethnic Germans to a minority in their own settler colony. These combined with pressures on feeble fresh-water supplies to bore a deep well of hatred against the Régie and anyone else who got in the German settlers’ way.

11Those critical actors—local white settlers—who had first discovered diamonds in the colony in 1908 while shoving sand around construction on the rail line from Lüderitz Bay provide neglected parts of the tale. At first, diamonds lay strewn about “like apples under a shaken tree” that one had “simply to stoop down to pick up” noted an official in 1908 (p. 59). Such primitive mining techniques that anyone could use caused concern for bankers, the existing diamond cartel, and the imperial State in Berlin, and they motivated the colonial legislation creating a “Forbidden Zone” where, precisely, local white settlers could not enter. A sentiment of poor white German exclusion was later recuperated by the Nazis.

12Genocidal campaigns against the Herero and Nama are contextualized in Press’s history. (In 2021, Germany formally recognized the atrocities against those people as a “genocide” and promised work towards genuine reconciliation in remembrance of its victims, pledging $1,3 billion of aid. However, no mention was made of any role played by the diamonds.) Press’s story shows how General Lothar von Trotha and his 14,000 Germans soldiers who committed this genocide were ordered to “exterminate” and to build the “concentration camp” at Shark Island because diamonds were found on Herero and Nama lands. “In the process of civilization,” wrote Bernhard Dernberg, a Jewish banker in charge of the newly created Colonial Office, “some native tribes, just like some animals, must be destroyed if they are not to degenerate and become encumbrances to the State” (p. 34).

13The rise of Nazi anti-Semitic national socialism, finally, is exquisitely woven into the story of blood and diamonds in German Southwest Africa. By the 1930s, Press notes, a common complaint was: “Like Oppenheimer and the diamond business, Jews allegedly figured as mysterious, secretive, scheming, cosmopolitan, and corrupting” (p. 239). Sex between white men and non-white women in Southwest was behind the Reichstag’s racist 1913 jus sanguinis citizenship law. Ernest Oppenheimer, a Jewish-born mining entrepreneur who ran Anglo-American, purchased Southwest diamond mines, under South African rule, and established De Beers’ world diamond business monopoly. Those 14,000 white settlers who lived in Southwest by 1910 later blamed the Dernbeg and Oppenheimer, Jewish dealers and cutters in Antwerp, and Jewish jewellers in America, for loss of the “German” diamonds. “Germany’s moment as a diamond power had the effect of confirming many German anti-Semites’ worldview, and of propagating a part of that worldview for the masses” (p. 239).

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1 M. Wallace with J. Kinahan, A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990, New York, Columbia University Press, 2011.

2 E. Ames, M. Klotz & L. Wildenthal (eds.), Germany’s Colonial Past, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

3 Global Witness, A Rough Trade: The Role of Companies and Governments in the Angolan Conflict, 1999, <>.

4 E. Kehr, Schlachtflottenbau und Parteipolitik 1894-1901, Berlin, Ebering, 1930.

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Douglas Yates, « Press Steven. — Blood and Diamonds: Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa »Cahiers d’études africaines, 250 | 2023, 412-415.

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Douglas Yates, « Press Steven. — Blood and Diamonds: Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 250 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 27 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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