Since the end of World War II, great scholarly attention has been paid to German perceptions of Russia, spurred in part by interest in the Nazi geopolitical concept of Lebensraum. This long history sets a high bar for any new work to significantly contribute to our understanding of this subject, and yet that is exactly what James E. Casteel has achieved in Russia in the German Global Imaginary: Imperial Visions and Utopian Desires, 1905–1941. Applying a postcolonial analytical framework to German perceptions of Russia/the Soviet Union, Casteel convincingly argues that “Russia became a site onto which Germans projected their ambitions and expectations for the future as well as their worst anxieties about modernity” (6). While noting the strong continuities of anti-Russian prejudice that persisted across the Wilhelmine, Weimar, and Nazi periods, especially a belief that Russia unduly exemplified “despotism” and was culturally and economically “backward” (11–12), Casteel also shows how at times Russia was simultaneously seen as a key imperial rival and a potential model for future German development. During the Great Depression, for example, some German travelers were particularly fascinated with Stalin’s Five-Year Plan and its ability to modernize and develop the country during a period of global economic stagnation (104). As Casteel eruditely notes, Germans saw Russia as both “Asiastic and Europeanizing, barbaric and civilizing, backward and modernizing all at the same time” (10, emphasis in the original). One of the strengths of the book is its ability to convey new knowledge about various individuals and organizations despite a long history of academic interest in the subject. Of course, Casteel touches on the impact of well-known German intellectuals and organizations that have frequently been the object of historians’ interest. The first two chapters deal with familiar figures such as Johann Gottfried von Herder, Karl Marx, Friedrich Ratzel, and so forth (surprisingly, Karl Haushofer only receives one mention, though the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg is thoroughly discussed). But the bulk of the book is refreshingly focused on lesser-known people and organizations. For example, while historians have gone to great lengths to document German fantasies of colonizing the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Belarus, Casteel has a chapter devoted entirely to German visions of economic development/exploitation of Siberia. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad awakened interest in this territory’s economic potential, elucidating comparisons to the American colonization and conquest of the “Wild West.” Another fascinating chapter surveys German travel literature from the interwar period, revealing a wide and at times unexpected variety of opinions on the Soviet project of modernization. For example, while not entirely eschewing dominant cultural perceptions of Russian backwardness, even non-Communist Germans were occasionally fascinated by the construction of what Casteel terms “an alternate vision of modernity to that of America” (92). At the same time, those Germans took note of Soviet uses of violence, in many cases accepting it as a tool necessary for modernizing and colonizing the USSR. The final chapter in the book focuses on German attitudes toward ethnic Germans living in Russia, showing how these Volksdeutsche were often used to project fantasies and anxieties about German imperial ambitions. Casteel’s work is an excellent example of an intellectual history, giving a clear overview of continuities and ruptures in patterns of German intellectuals’ thinking about Russia. But, like most intellectual histories, it also suffers from a narrow focus on academics and the literary discourse they inhabit. Russia in the German Global Imaginary surveys a wide body of documents produced by activists, bureaucrats, and academics. However, it largely ignores the avalanche of visual images produced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through film, advertising, magazines, and so on. It would be interesting to see how popular culture represented Russia during this period, and in what ways these productions mirrored or deviated from patterns uncovered in academia. How did working-class Germans perceive Russia, and were they more open or resistant to the cultural stereotypes and fascinations expressed by Casteel’s mostly bourgeois characters? It would also be interesting, given the state of global politics, to see what role Russia and Russians played in the development of this discourse. As Casteel rightly notes, the German-Russian cultural relationship was not a one-way street. These might be too many questions to answer in a single volume, but they are still important elements for trying to gain a complete picture of “Russia in the German global imaginary.” This minor criticism aside, Casteel has produced an excellent and highly informative study on the subject of German views of Russia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that should interest a wide range of students and scholars. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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