Relations between German colonists and both Herero and Hottentot tribes grow dangerously strained in the former South West Africa (now Namibia) in the early 20th century—and a 34-year-old “Veterinary Lieutenant (i.e., “horse doctor’) identified as Gottschalk arrives, with vague hopes of becoming both a helpful and a civilizing influence (“. . . at some point there will be eyes in this wilderness reading Goethe, ears listening to Mozart”).
Excerpts from Gottschalk’s diary express his opposition to genocidal policies carried out in attempts to seize African lands, and are juxtaposed against the tale’s semidocumentary materials. These latter include (rather dry) “Battle Reports” describing campaigns led by uncompromising Teutonic commanders General von Trotha and “daredevil” Colonel Deimling, and (much more interesting) “Regional Studies,” which retell stories of earlier “conquests” (e.g., the misadventures of the hopeful, hapless English missionary Goth, and the failed entrepreneurial efforts of “energetic” surveyor Treptow).
Portrayals of native African heroes (like the eponymous Herero leader and his Hottentot counterpart Witbooi) are elliptical and fragmentary, but succeed nevertheless as components of a syndrome of ironic contrasts between the African peoples and their putative superiors.
That contrast is succinctly stated in a scientific report alleging that Hottentot society cannot be civilized, because within it “competition is negated by the principle of mutual aid . . . [as lived by] a human type that devotes all its intelligence . . . to the single goal of living comfortably.”
The thickness of detail and mastered research are thus efficiently harnessed to Timm’s theme: the devastating consequences of collisions between what are conventionally called civilization and primitivism.