Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Not So Great War

In the centenary year of the commencement of World War One much history is being remembered and re-told. Much is being ignored. A million people died in East Africa alone during the First World War. Many Africans fought in Europe, defending the interests of their colonial masters. Today, their sacrifice has been largely forgotten.

During the conflict, some 2 million people from across Africa were actively involved in the military confrontations, as soldiers or bearers, in Europe and in Africa. At the start of the war, some Africans volunteered to take part, encouraged by the prospect of a modest income. From 1915, the Europeans began conscripting thousands of African men. The French alone sent 450,000 African soldiers from their colonies in West and North Africa to fight against Germany on the frontline in Europe.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, English and French troops prepared to seize the four German colonies in Africa (German East Africa, German South-West Africa, Togoland and Cameroon). Fighting was particularly brutal in German East Africa where German General Lettow-Vorbeck adopted a guerilla strategy, drawing more and more areas into the war. More than 200,000 bearers transported weapons, ammunition and food for the troops. The myth of the "faithful Askari" (the Swahili word for 'soldier') still exists today in German history books. In reality these men had been torn from their roots and were looked down on by local populations. Back home, they were missed in the fields. Harvests suffered or were plundered and destroyed by troops passing through to ensure there would be no food left for their pursuers.

The colonial administrative area of Dodoma in what is now Tanzania lost 20 percent of its population in 1917/18 gives some indication of the deprivation and misery. Historians estimate that a million people died in East Africa as a direct result of the war. The outbreak of Spanish flu, which spread rapidly among the weakened population shortly after the war ended, accounted for a further 50,000 to 80,000 deaths. "The war changed some regions to such an extent that they needed decades to recover, if indeed they did recover," sums up Jürgen Zimmerer, history professor at Hamburg University.

One reason why the “Great War” plays little or no role in the African view of history is the fact that it is generally seen as just one episode in the long history of colonial conquests and acts of brutality inflicted on the people of Africa. During the 75 years that Belgium ruled the Congo, up to ten million people died. 

"It is just one war among many," Zimmerer says. "Colonialism was so brutal that a number as large as one million does not attract the attention that it should - or would in a European context." Europe also takes this view and generally ignores the suffering of millions of Africans in the First World War. In Zimmerer's words, the war in Africa "is generally treated as just a minor skirmish in which hardly anyone was hurt."

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