“Askari experiences of war varied greatly according to when and where they fought”
Dr. Michelle R. Moyd is an associate professor for history at Indiana University. Her research focuses on the social and cultural history of soldiers in the colonial army of German East Africa, today’s Tanzania. Currenty she is working on her first book project, which examines the identity, motivation and loyality of the askari, the soldiers of the colonial army.Your research focuses on the social and cultural history of soldiers in the colonial army of German East Africa, today’s Tanzania. How did the askari feel and tell about the First World war?
There is no one way to capture how the askari felt about the war. Those who had been with the Schutztruppe before the war began had connections to the organization that likely made them view the war as a feature of their professional lives. On the other hand, those who were conscripted during the war had far less investment in the Schutztruppe organization, and therefore probably felt quite differently about the war and their roles in it. Askari experiences of war varied greatly according to when and where they fought, which officers or NCOs led them, and when they joined the Schutztruppe.
The askari left behind very few materials for historians to access their point of view. Instead, most of what we know about askari experiences during the war comes to us through written German, British, Belgian and other Europeans who witnessed their performance in the East African campaign. Although all historical sources must be interpreted carefully, the layers of mediation in the production of sources about the askari make it extremely difficult to know much about their interior lives, what they thought the war was about, or what they hoped would happen after the war. Still, by layering many different kinds of sources and interpreting them, and situating these materials within the larger historical context of the war in Africa, we can make educated guesses about askari experiences and outlooks during that time.
What are the sources you work with?
I work with a variety of sources, including archival documents produced by the Schutztruppe, the colonial government, the British War Office and Foreign Office, and personal papers. I also use photography and other pictorial sources, which provide some evidence, but often without much context or detail to help with situating them more exactly. I also make extensive use of memoirs written by Europeans who experienced the war in East Africa. As already mentioned, one must use these materials with caution, but their styles often yield interesting perspectives on the askari that are not otherwise available.
I have the impression that research about African colonial soldiers and their perspectives and experiences are not part of the big debates about the First World War (at least not in Europe). How does contemporary Tanzania commemorate the war?
I saw recently that Tanzania has made some efforts to commemorate the war, but I do not know much about these initiatives. My general sense is that this part of Tanzania’s colonial past is not as widely understood or remembered as events from the British period. Legacies of the German period are not immediately recognizable in present-day Tanzania, and with all of the First World War’s veterans now dead, preserving the memory of the war is more difficult than ever.
Want to know more? Join us at the WeberWorldCafé “Narrating the First World War – Experiences and Reports from a Transregional Perspective” and ask Dr. Moyd in person!