The thing about empire building is that when you’re done building one, you’ve got to figure out what to do with it. This generally involves the “extraction of resources.” We tend to think of this in terms of things like gold, oil, or rubber. But people can be “extracted” as well. The French empire of the later nineteenth century offers a case in point. Having found themselves in a very nasty war with the Germans, the French decided that it might be useful to enlist their African and Southeast Asian colonials in the fighting. As Richard Fogarty demonstrates in his excellent new book Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), this effort to draft the colonials led to no end of paradoxes. France was the home of Republicanism, and Republicans are supposed to be keen on liberté, égalité, fraternité. But the colonials weren’t at liberty–they were subjects. Neither were they equal–they enjoyed few of the rights of the native French. And of course they weren’t brothers–rather they were “children” of France. Yet the French felt free to ask their colonial underlings to undertake the highest act of civic sacrifice, namely, to fight and die for la Patrie. Would this sacrifice earn them liberté, égalité, fraternité? No. In fact, it didn’t earn them much but a hellish trip to what looked like the end of the world. For, as Fogarty shows, French racism trumped French Republicanism throughout the war (and after, one might add). The colonial soldiers were segregated, stereotyped, and often used as cannon fodder. Some French felt bad about this. But most didn’t. After all, the colonials needed to be “civilized” in order to enjoy the fruits of Republicanism, and presumably the French believed that asking them to die for their would-be motherland would help accomplish this feat. All it probably did was engender bitterness, as the French were to discover some decades later when their empire slipped away.
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