Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Book Review - "Exterminate all the brutes" by Sven Lindqvist

"Exterminate all the brutes" by Sven Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate

London: Granta Books, 1997                                                    ISBN 1862070172

This is a book of investigation - Lindqvist became fascinated by Conrad's Heart of darkness, and specifically the line "exterminate all the brutes" written by the character Kurtz, in his report about the natives. Lindqvist is driven to find out why Conrad wrote the story, and why he had Kurtz write that sentence.

This leads Lindqvist on a physical journey through the Sahara, and a historical journey back through the literature of colonialism, to try and divine where and how Europeans came to treat the natives so brutally. By searching back through the literature of pioneering writers of anthropology and biology, he shows us how the originally shocking idea that creatures could become extinct gradually came to be used as justification for Europe's brutal expansion into America, Africa and Australia. The concept that 'inferior' races were destined to die out, so it didn't matter - in fact it was merciful - to help them on their way gradually took hold of the European polity through the application of biological theories to political outcomes.

The skill in Lindqvist's book is in the layout: by the time he is elaborating these theories for the reader he has already shown that the destruction of African, Australian and American peoples had little to do with natural selection and a lot to do with institutionalised brutality, theft of land, and superiority of weaponry. These people were done to death, they didn't die out. Particularly nasty examples of this are shown in the treatment of Tasmanian Aboriginals, the Herero people of Southern Africa and the tribes of the Sudan.

Conrad not only had first-hand experience in the Congo, but at the time of writing Heart of darkness he was well aware thanks to his circle of friends and reports in magazines that his story would resonate as a protest against the "civilization" of the barbarous races.

Lindqvist intersperses his many short chapters with views of the towns he visits (In Salah, Tamanrasset, Agadez, Zinder) and the people in those towns. At first these vignettes seem random, but after a time the reader realises that Lindqvist is showing us the innate humanity of these people, making what happened to them all the more barbaric.

The final part of the book shows us that all this "scientific" racism led almost inexorably to the theory of Lebensraum, that had such a horrific effect on the 20th century. Lindqvist makes two points here - the first is that Hitler, in using this theory to justify his activities, was looking backwards rather than forwards, as the idea that a country needed land to become great had been shown to be wrong by Germany, which had grown to be a great power without colonial territory. The second point is that we don't have to look to far back into human history to find the precursors to the Nazi insanity, and it comes from the history of England, France, Germany, America and other places. The Third Reich was the final most horrific flowering of a process that begun when Georges Cuvier posited that species could become extinct.

To end this review with some quotes: the book begins "[t]his is a story, not a contribution to historical research. It is the story of a man travelling by bus through the Saharan desert and, at the same time, traveling by computer through the history of the concept of extermination. In small, sand-ridden desert hotels, his study closes in on one sentence in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "Exterminate all the brutes."

Why did Kurtz end his report on the civilizing task of the white man in Africa with these words? What did they mean to Conrad and his contemporaries? Why did Conrad make them stand out as a summary of all the high-flown rhetoric on Europe's responsibilities to the peoples of other continents?"

And a quote from the end of the book: "Imperialism is a biologically necessary process that, according to the laws of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races. Things of that kind could be said. But the way it actually happened, what it really did to the exterminators and the exterminated, that was at most only implied.

And when what had been done in the heart of darkness was repeated in the heart of Europe [Nazi genocide], no one recognized it. No one wished to admit what everyone knew."

"Everywhere in the world where knowledge is being suppressed, knowledge that, if it were made known, would shatter our image of the world and force us to question ourselves - everywhere there, Heart of Darkness is being enacted."

"You already know that. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions."

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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