A colonialist complains about Black musicians in the Prussian army (1909)

In the midst of conducting a lengthy report on military finances, the conservative Reichstag deputy Eduard von Liebert discovered something unsettling in the Prussian army: Black musicians. He considered this matter important enough to bring before his colleagues. In his report (excerpted below) he decried an apparent absence of race pride, arguing that the historical use of Black musicians was no longer acceptable.

Liebert’s comments are unsurprising given his background. He had made his name, quite literally, upholding white supremacy in the German colonies: he was raised to the nobility for his service as a military commander and governor in East Africa. His term as governor (1897-1901) was marked by profound resistance and harsh repression, which ultimately led to his recall. Upon returning to Germany he became a leading member of the Pan-German League, a radical nationalist association known for its antisemitism and racism, and the German Colonial Association, the leading colonialist pressure group.

Although perhaps unsurprising in this context, Liebert’s commentary and the general endorsement it seems to have received from his colleagues are noteworthy. They suggest the extent to which a colonialist “scientific” racism had supplanted earlier models of thinking about racial difference. As the comparisons with the United States and Great Britain suggest, this was taking place through conversations that crossed the Atlantic, informed by the segregationist regimes being constructed in the US South and in African colonies.

Jeff Bowersox


I would like to touch on a third matter that also concerns music. It has come to my attention –I wish that it weren’t so — that a Prussian cavalry regiment has a Negro as a timpanist and a Prussian infantry regiment has a Negro — whether as a choirmaster or drum major, I don’t know.

(Hear! Hear!)

If this is true, I would consider it an outrage. Because the commander in question surely must have no racial feeling nor racial pride at all.

(Quite right!)

I was pleased when recently the deputy Dr. Goller introduced the race question, which normally we have to tiptoe around. I would actually like to know if anyone could expect an Englishman or an American to serve under a colored — it just doesn’t happen! That would lead to rebellion, to mutiny. It would surely upset our German soldiers.

(Quite right!)

The Great Elector and the first Prussian King kept such people as attendants, as minions in a pretty uniform. That was 200 years ago, but now the times are dramatically different.

We know too well the good side, but also the dark side of the Ethiopian race and must not place them over, or even alongside, our own soldiers.

Source: Verhandlungen des Deutschen Reichstags (1907/1909), Bd. 235, 225. Sitzung (16 March 1909), 7511. Translated by Jeff Bowersox.

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