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Doctoral dissertation project of Tom Menger

The origins of colonial violence: colonial perpetrators in European comparative perspective, c. 1890–1914 (working title)

The European fin de siècle (c. 1890-1914) is generally known as a peaceful period: war or mass violence were largely absent on the continent. In the European colonies overseas, however, the picture was radically different. There, colonial powers waged an endless series of smaller and larger wars, wars that were marked by extreme violence and a general disregard for the supposedly European values of humanitarianism and ‘civilised warfare’. The exact reasons for this escalation of violence remain underexplored. While the existing literature has offered predominantly abstract and structural explanations, we still know little about the immediate perpetrators, the European colonial officers ‘on the ground’ committing or overseeing the exercise of extreme violence.

By zooming in on these lower-level European soldiers operating in the colonial context, this doctoral projects adopts an innovative approach, seeking to explain the extreme violence of fin-de-siècle colonial warfare on another level. It studies from up close how these men turned into perpetrators, and how and when colonial violence escalated. It looks at the processes of brutalisation and routinisation, the influences of situational factors, questions of conscience and morality as well as the individual internalisation of imperialist and racist ideologies. To study colonial soldiers explicitly as perpetrators, it draws on concepts and theories that have been developed in historical perpetrator studies, which will be applied to the colonial sphere for the first time.

The project will be mainly based on a close study of perpetrators’ ego-documents, such as diaries or letter collections. The dissertation is not limited to the study of one colonial power, but rather adopts a comparative perspective and studies ego-documents from German, British and Dutch colonial officers. The main focus will be on three case studies: the Maji Maji War in German East Africa (1905-1907), the Matabele and Mashona Wars in British Rhodesia (1896-1897) and the last phase of the Aceh War in the Dutch East Indies (1896-1904). The aim is to avoid the national fragmentation that has marked much discussion of colonial violence, while simultaneously remaining attentive to relevant variations in imperial practices and discourses.


Short biography

Tom Menger (1991) studied European Studies and History at the University of Amsterdam and graduated with a Research Master in History in 2016. His master thesis ‘The origins of colonial violence: The perpetrator’s view. A study on colonial soldiers and their ego-documents in German East Africa, 1890-1908’ was awarded the Otto von der Gablentz Thesis Prize in 2017. During his studies, he was a research intern in the project ‘Dutch military operations in Indonesia, 1945-1950’ of the KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) and a guest student at Freiburg University in the winter semester 2015/2016. He also gained NGO experience as secretary and coordinator of several committees of an Amnesty International student group in Amsterdam. In 2017, he was awarded a two-month grant by the German Institute of Amsterdam (DIA) to prepare a doctoral project in Cologne. As of April 2017, he is an a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities fellow. His doctoral project is supervised by Prof. Ulrike Lindner.

Contact: tmenger(at)uni-koeln.de



‘Review of: Stefan Ihrig, Justifying genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler’, Skript Historisch Tijdschrift 39 (2017) 85-87.

‘Dekolonisatie als keuzeproces. Review of: Martin Thomas, Fight or flight. Britain, France, and their roads from Empire’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 129 (2016) 683-685.


Conference papers and presentations

‘“Räuber, Mörder, Brandstifter, Saatenvernichter und Sklavenhändler (...)”. Daders van Duits koloniaal geweld in Oost-Afrika 1890-1908 [Perpetrators of German colonial violence in East Africa 1890-1908]’, 11 October 2017, presentation given at the DIA/Jonge Historici anthology ‘Duitsland in de wereld [Germany in the world]’, SPUI25, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

‘Junior colonial officers in German East Africa as pawns and producers of imperial space and imperial circulations, c. 1890-1914’, 22 November 2017, presentation given at the workshop ‘The production of imperial space. Empire and circulations’, Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po, Paris, France.

‘Extreme violence in colonial warfare: a study of European perpetrators in East Africa, Rhodesia and the East Indies, c. 1890-1914’, 7 September 2017, annual conference of the International Commission of Military History, Douala, Cameroon.


Cover photo: Dutch colonial soldiers stand next to a tramline in Aceh, Dutch East Indies, 1896. Foto by nvt (Wereldkroniek), via Wikimedia Commons // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad