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Doctoral dissertation project of Tom Menger

Shared expertise. Knowledge, practice, and the European practitioners of extreme violence in the British, German and Dutch colonial wars, c. 1890-1914 (working title)

The fin de siècle period saw the highpoint of European imperial expansion. The empires that arose came to cover large parts of the globe, with imperialism accelerating especially in Africa and Asia. Everywhere, expanding empires became engaged in an endless series of smaller and larger colonial wars. These wars were generally marked by several forms of extreme violence which heavily transgressed the accepted rules and laws of European warfare.

Historians seeking to explain the transgressive violence have often sought to explain this violence with national cultures of violence and national particularities. Looking at the British, German and Dutch empires, this project instead argues that a surprisingly unified body of knowledge stood behind colonial warfare in all European empires. Heavily influenced by racial thinking, it was this body of knowledge, and not structural constraints nor a general military extremism, which made colonial warfare in this age distinct and which co-determined its extreme character.

Drawing especially on manuals of colonial warfare as sources, my research first studies the content of this knowledge, focussing on a number of key notions legitimising and generating extreme violence as well as more practical knowledge. Furthermore, I study the development of this body of thought. As the British and the Dutch fought their colonial wars over the course of the nineteenth century, joined from the 1880s onwards by the Germans, they accumulated knowledge on colonial war-making, both formal and informal, which was increasingly codified from the 1890s onwards. Knowledge accumulation happened within relatively small groups of practitioners of colonial warfare and was largely based on practical experiences. This was also very much a process of exchange and circulation within and between empires. Therefore, this study is explicitly trans-imperial; it tracks such transfer processes in written knowledge production, in the mobility of human actors, and also in contact between Europeans and indigenous populations.

The project covers five case studies: the wars of the British Empire in Rhodesia and Sierra Leone in 1896-7 and 1898, the colonial wars in German South West and German East Africa 1904-1908 and 1905-1907, and the Aceh War in the Dutch East Indies 1871-1904. These cases not only serve to demonstrate how knowledge on colonial warfare reflected in practice but also to trace the employment of some very similar, typically colonial practices of violence in all of them. It will again be shown how all these arose out of ingrained colonial knowledge of the actors involved rather than from specific national military traditions or from a slow ‘coming to terms’ with the situation.

Covering thus both theory and practice, and with the broad empirical base hitherto lacking in such endeavours, my doctoral project advances an explanation for the extremes of fin-de-siècle colonial warfare rooted in a common colonial body of knowledge rather than in theories of national exceptionalisms.


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. In 2018, as part of his mobility phase, he spent twelve months in London as an associate PhD at Queen Mary University. His doctoral project is supervised by Prof. Ulrike Lindner.




‘Leidde het Duitse kolonialisme tot de Holocaust? Volkerenmoord in Namibië’ [‘Did German colonialism lead to the Holocaust? Genocide in Namibia’], Onderzoek Uitgelicht 7:6 (2018):

‘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

‘Knowledge on violence: the British Empire in an age of global colonial warfare, c. 1890-1910’, 27 February 2020, paper given at the conference ‘Colonial Knowledges: Environment and Logistics in the Creation of Knowledge in British Colonies from 1750 to 1950’, University of Manchester.

‘Shared expertise. Knowledge, practice, and the European practitioners of extreme violence in the British, German and Dutch colonial wars, c. 1890-1914’, 30 April 2019, presentation given at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) to the Theme Group ‘Comparing the Wars of Decolonization’, Amsterdam.

‘The production and transfer of knowledge on extreme violence in the German, British and Dutch colonial wars of the fin de siècle’, 25/27 February 2019, project presentations given at the Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH), The Hague, and at the University of Amsterdam (Seminar of the Modern History Research Group), Amsterdam.

‘Practices of comparing in British and German manuals of colonial warfare around 1900’, 30 November 2018, paper given at the workshop ‘Comparing Militaries in the Long Nineteenth Century’, University of Bielefeld.

‘“Not very uplifting work”. German officers first encountering and practising colonial violence in East Africa, c. 1890-1907’, 11 September 2018, paper given at the workshop ‘Exploring the (post)colonial encounter. Performance, language, and violence’, co-organised by the University of Southampton and German Historical Institute London, University of Southampton, United Kingdom.

‘Learning processes of extreme violence in colonial warfare in the British, German and Dutch Empires, c. 1890-1914’, 8 June 2018, project presentation at the GRAINES summer school, Sciences Po Reims.

‘“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

a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713600.

Call: H2020-MSCA-COFUND-2015 | Proposal: 713600 – artes EUmanities