While the German invasion of Poland in 1939 marks the official start of World War II, one of the early flashpoints was Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia four years prior. This introduced the threat of fascism to European peace and order by disrupting the colonial power balance in Africa, according to historian Andrew Denning of the University of Kansas. In his recent study, Denning examines plans by the Axis powers to draw Africa into the global conflict and how those plans eventually unraveled.

Denning looked at how German technocrats in the 1930s created revisionist plans to “untangle” Africa. Nazi bureaucrats and colonial interest groups helped produce these projects but also aimed to further fascist imperial goals. Though never implemented, the proposals indicate how interwar empire-building connected Nazi Germany to other European powers. Studying unrealized plans is important, Denning notes, as they reveal how ideologies shaped societies and the type of utopias people envisioned. Despite the Nazis’ dystopian outcomes, many Germans thought they were building a utopia.

The plans emerged as most of Africa was controlled by European nations following the “Scramble for Africa” of the 1880s, which produced a colonial patchwork across the continent. Nazi and Italian fascist officials wanted not to conquer all areas but to reorder them to better reflect the 1930s power balance. This would leave Germany and Italy with much larger territories. Curiously, they believed this could foster greater European cooperation.

Skeptics of the Nazi regime found opportunity in African planning. Scientists, engineers, geographers, chemists and agronomists eagerly participated, pursuing what they saw as rational colonial development paths. Proposals included continent-span infrastructure like roads, rails and air links. But reflecting the Nazi agenda, experts rarely considered effects on Africa’s 130 million people. Planners occasionally mentioned Africans as needed labor but seldom addressed how locals might benefit or be harmed.

Denning was most surprised to learn Nazi African ideas closely mirrored those of other nations. German infrastructure-focused colonialism paralleled plans by fascists and Europeans in the 1920s-30s. Like them, the Third Reich sought to merge Europe and Africa into “Eurafrica”, shifting from raw resource extraction to reciprocal development benefiting both regions, though tilted toward Europe.

Had the Axis won, Denning speculates Africa might see massive infrastructure projects disregarding territorial borders in German-Italian collaboration – benefiting Europeans but not Africans. While we can only speculate on history, Denning’s study sheds light on imperialism’s enduring legacies across the turbulent 20th century.


Sources

The University of Kansas | Andrew Denning, Unscrambling Africa: From Eurafrican Technopolitics to the Fascist New Order. The Journal of Modern History, vol.95, no.3. doi.org/10.1086/726159


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