The Gas Chamber during Colonialism

For some time already, I have been interested in the invention and concept of the gas chamber. I am particularly troubled by the idea that this was exclusively a German invention. The argument in the conventional academic literature is that the gassing of air unfolded as a result of the thriving of chemical industry in early 20th century Germany. Huge companies such as BASF, Bayer among others took on a large industrial role in the state-led economic development of pre-WWI Germany. Key here, of course, is the tragic figure of Fritz Haber. Haber, who was of Jewish descent, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber-Bosch process and played a pivotal role in the development of chemical warfare.

This mode of narration, although insightful to some degree, misses a more thorough mode of historicization of the development of chemistry in 19th century Europe. Why is this relevant? I deem it relevant for multiple reasons, some of which I am currently working on in several publications. The first and the one I will write about in this post revolves around the use of chemical warfare in Europe’s colonial setting. It is often forgotten, I would argue for convenient political reasons, that European colonizers engaged in atmospheric violence in territories far away from their own soil.

British troops used gassing, for instance, as a means to discipline populations in India and Palestine. Italy’s colonial violence in Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War was especially brutal (see video below). These atrocities were only brought to light in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethiopia had to wait until as late as 1997 for an Italian apology from then-president Scalfaro. I am currently most interested in the experiences of France, which already at the time of the French Revolution entertained the idea of a gaseous cleansing the Vendees region. The Vendees at the time performed as a testing ground for France’s later colonial wars. About a decade or so ago the French Historian Claude Ribbe wrote a book entitled Napoleon’s Crimes: A Blueprint for Hitler (in French less polemical: Le Crime de Napoléon) which posits the controversial argument that gas chambers were used as a means to exterminate the rebellious black slaves from the French colonies of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Ribbe’s conclusion created (and continues to create) a great stir in France’s political establishment and academic circles. The historic claims have been disputed and politicians have been quick to condemn the book’s argument.

I am not interested in scrutinizing the facts of the work as such, and I see no point in comparing one genocide with another. I find myself largely in agreement with the position that there is strong evidence to suggest that such techniques were used. In fact, I feel quite confident that these were not the only gas chamber experiences at the time. The asphyxiation of Algerians in the French-Algerian colonial war is another example of an early gas chamber. This part of history is completely ignored in French history books. The French Governor-General of Algeria at the time [1845] ]argued that the so-called Enfumades, which imposed “cruel extremity”, were necessary to set a “horrifying example” that could “strike terror among these turbulent and fanatical montagnards” (Bugeaud in Brower 2009: 23).

What I find most interesting, or what I would argue is the idea that Germany’s extermination programme finds its roots in the particularities of Europe’s history. This is perhaps a controversial thing to say, but I think that the gas chamber cannot be said to have been an exclusively German experience because that would ignore the wider historical context in which this metaphysical horror could occur. Why is this important? I am not sure yet of all the possible political ramnifications of this reconsideration or re-narration of history. However, considering the backlash that Ribbe’s publication caused, they could potentially be huge. An inconvenient truth seems to be simmering underneath. Everyone familiar with Europe’s post-WII history, its philosophy and current status in the world knows how important the experience of the gas chamber is. One of the possible consequences, one which is certainly significant, but not the whole story, is the possibility of rethinking German guilt and the enabling of a move towards a reflection on Europe’s own implication in the emergence of the industrial extermination camp.

What for me is at stake is less explicitly political. I am interested in the breath. How it is possible that the practice of gassing was regulated in the West (culminating in the Hague treaties of 1899 and 1907) but deployed as a means to discipline and exterminate bodies in the rest of the world? The fact that some breaths are considered to be more worthy of legal protection than others remains a truth accepted by anyone familiar with more contemporary forms of police tactics.


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