Folk Dance and Safari – Some Thoughts on Hans Grimm’s Photographs from South West Africa

By Daniel Berndt

Whether we think of photographs being capable of conveying historical events truthfully or not, they make evident to what extent our perception of the present is shaped by images of the past. Photographs not only have a considerable effect on our ways of thinking and seeing, but also affect both what we remember and how we remember it. [1] This is why writers often use photographs as mnemonic devices, but also as sources of inspiration. A good example in this context is Hans Grimm (1875-1959), author of Volk ohne Raum (1926). While Kurt Tucholsky described Grimm’s most successful novel as “a load of Protestant hogwash from the woods and called it the “Bible of Teutonism”[2], Volk ohne Raum was nonetheless one of the best-selling novels of the Weimar Republic and its title later became one of the catchphrases of the National Socialist Party’s so called “Lebensraumpolitik” – its politics of expansion.

Hans Grimm, 1932 (Photo: Robert Frei)

Grimm’s literary estate, which is today part of the collection at the German Literature Archive (DLA) Marbach, includes a great number of photographs. In addition to studio portraits, family photos, as well as pictures taken during the annual Lippoldsberger Dichtertreffen, to which Grimm invited the preeminent authors of so-called Blut- und Bodenliteratur [3], there are several boxes of photos, which were taken in South Africa and the former German colony of South West Africa, now Namibia, between 1897 and 1928. Amongst them are images of Africans washing diamonds, working in mines or on farms, as well as portraits of German merchants like Albert Voigt and his brother Gustav (who was the mayor of Windhoek, the present-day capital of Namibia), snapshots of German children performing a German folk dance under palm trees, pictures of Grimm on safari, proudly presenting the game he had hunted, and pictures of the missionary and anthropologist Heinrich Vedder surrounded by a group of locals.

These pictures are interesting because they tell us about an episode in Grimm’s life as much as they give us an idea of Grimm’s approach to writing his South West Africa books Volk ohne Raum, Das deutsche Südwest-Buch (1929), and Lüderitzland: Sieben Begebenheiten (1932). Furthermore, these photos allow us to scrutinize the link between pictorial representation, history, literature, and political ideology since they are also valuable testimonies in the effort to unearth Germany’s colonial past.

Shop window display at Rückert-bookshop in Schweinfurt, Germany, 1930’s

German colonial rule in Africa was of comparatively short duration. After taking possession of South West Africa in 1894, Germany was forced to relinquish its African colonies following its defeat in 1918. Despite the brevity of this period, Germany’s colonial rule in Africa – particularly in South West Africa  – was characterized by an unprecedented degree of brutality. When, in 1904, the local tribes of the Herero and Nama revolted against German rule, the German emperor’s protection force took uncompromising action. In response to the first Herero uprising, the leading officer General von Trotha issued a Vernichtungsbefehl, an order of extermination. The tribesmen were driven off into the Omaheke desert and cut off from all water supply, effectively condemning thousands to certain death. These events have gone down in history as the first genocide of the 20th century.[4] When shortly afterwards the Nama started a guerilla war against their German “rulers”, many of them were captured and detained in concentration camps where over half of the captives died.

At this point, Grimm himself wasn’t in South West Africa. After an unfinished degree in literature at Lausanne and a commercial apprenticeship in London, Grimm initially moved to South Africa, where he lived in Port Elizabeth and East London until 1908. After a brief spell in Germany he returned to Africa in 1910, this time as the foreign correspondent in South West Africa for the Berlin newspaper Tägliche Rundschau. For a few months, Grimm reported on the German settlers’ hardships, the local flora and fauna, as well as on the newly-discovered diamond fields. Neither the concentration camps nor the Herero genocide were ever mentioned in his reports. He also never hinted at the “deathly silence” which lingered over the colony until 1915 [5]. Far from voicing any criticism of the violence to which the local population was subjected, in his stories [6] Grimm vehemently insisted on the notion that Germany needed “more space”, which was best procured in the form of colonies in Africa. According to Grimm, Germany suffered from an acute “shortage of space” which could only be helped by territorial expansion. He was convinced that the Germans were “a hardworking and kind people, provided that they have the same amount of space to live and breathe in as everybody else.”[7]

By reproducing racial stereotypes and exotic clichés and by emphasizing the opposition between what was foreign and what was “genuinely German” [8], Grimm’s stories helped to create a particular notion of German identity that was largely based on this differentiation – a mind-set that gained popularity in the years of the Weimar Republic. His emphatic descriptions of German colonists “civilizing” the “primitive Natives”, laced with a pinch of adventure and romance, were meant to cater to his German readers’ sense of national pride which was still smarting from the crushing defeat in World War I. In doing so, Grimm’s books responded to the deeply-felt collective need for a new and positive image of German national identity.

“Volkstanz” (Folk dance), South West Africa, 1920’s


Heinrich Vedder with locals in front of a school, Tsumeb, ca. 1910

The rising National Socialists used Grimm’s power of feeding as well as shaping this collective need to their advantage. Although their politics of expansion differed considerably from Grimm’s own, since their expansionist plans were centered on acquiring “space” in Eastern Europe rather than overseas, Volk ohne Raum became their “party book.” [9] And in 1933, when the NSDAP gained complete power, Grimm was made a member of the Reichschrifttumskammer, a sub-section of Goebbels’ Reich Chamber of Culture.[10]

Grimm’s amplification of the “Myth of Deutsch-Südwest,” which heroized the German military, played a considerable role in spreading the Nazi’s war-driven ideology of the Germans’ racial superiority (Herrenrasse). In the Third Reich, an excerpt taken from Volk ohne Raum titled Der Zug des Hauptmanns von Erckert was made required reading at schools. In many places it even remained part of the curriculum until well into the 1950’s, substantiated by a drawing found in Grimm’s estate. The drawing dates from 1955 – only two years after Grimm had run as a candidate for the far right Deutsche Reichspartei in the Bundestag elections – and was made by a pupil at a school in Hamburg-Schnelsen. It shows Grimm, well-groomed with a moustache and metal-rimmed glasses, sporting a bow-tie, and reads: “This is how I imagine what the poet Hans Grimm looks like.”

The child’s drawing bears a surprising resemblance to the real Grimm. In fact, in almost all of his photographs no matter on which occasion they were taken, Grimm looks similarly stiff, wearing a bow-tie or tie. And in his pictures taken in South West Africa, Grimm is always neatly dressed, standing in awkwardly rigid poses.

Kid’s drawing, 1955

Hans Grimm on Safari, South West Africa, 1920’s

Hans Grimm in front of Friedrich von Erckert’s grave, 1920’s

Most of these pictures were taken in the late 1920s at a time when Grimm was no longer working as a foreign correspondent but had already become a best-selling author in Germany. We see Grimm mostly as a private man, yet there are moments when he clearly stages himself as the author of Volk ohne Raum, deliberately staging a connection between his person and his work for the camera. In one particular picture, Grimm poses in front of the grave of Friedrich Erckert – the same man who, in 1908, had provided the German Schutztruppe with camels for the violent repression of the Nama uprising, to whom Grimm pays tribute in Der Zug des Hauptmanns von Erckert.

We see Grimm in a white shirt and tie, standing in front of the fenced-in memorial. He faces the camera with a somewhat clumsy expression which is accentuated by the suspenders he is wearing. He looks at us from a slanted angle, which suggests that the photographer is kneeling on the ground, and which has the effect that we as viewers are forced to look up at him. In the picture Grimm comes across as a “pilgrim” of sorts, paying tribute to the memory of one of the central figures of Germany’s colonial past. The photo establishes a visual parallel between Grimm, the private man, the author of Volk ohne Raum, and Erckert. In having photographic proof of his presence in Africa, Grimmretrospectively visualizes his own connection to the past. He establishes a visual connection between his efforts and those of his hero Erckert. Thus, this portrait can be seen as emblematic for Grimm’s time in Africa, his perspective on the past and the memory of Erckert and Germany’s colonial past.

Aside from more snapshots and portraits of Grimm on safari or of him visiting German farmers in the late 1920s, the South West Africa convolute of his photographic estate also contains a number of landscapes and ethnographic photographs of an earlier date. Grimm collected these photos and used them as material for his books. But he also thought of them as documents of historic value. After all, Volk ohne Raum was meant “to blur the line between fiction and empirical fact” [11]. The incorporation of eyewitness accounts and various statistics was meant to give his novel an “aura of plausibility and historic-political proof” [12]. Which is why it is more than likely that he considered photographs to be historical source material and that he used them accordingly when writing his novels. Also, many of the South West Africa pictures in Grimm’s estate have been marked with little notes connecting each picture to one or the other of his literary works. These cross-references suggest that Grimm was planning an exhibition. Considering the fact that the photographs have stayed in their original order in envelopes, it appears that this project was never realized.

Reverse side of photograph of locals, ca. 1910


Diamond-washers, South West Africa, 1920s


Hans Grimm with the Gutsche family and an African boy, 1928

Due to their problematic representation of the locals –as “primitive Bushmen”, as laborers working “under German supervision”, or, like the little boy on a picture depicting Grimm and the Gutsche family standing in front of a car, as marginal figures in their own country – the photographs in Grimm’s estate demand critical reflection. This even more so in regard to the cultural institution and its collection they are now a part of. [13] The transfer of these photographs from a private collection to a public archive has changed their status: originally used as “notes”, personal memorabilia and work material, they have become historical documents that can be consulted by the public. That is, they are not only evidence for the activity of the probably most prominent “nationalist” writer in the darkest period of German (literary) history. As part of a historical and historicizing collection, Grimm’s photographs from South West Africa are also signifiers of the developments at the intersection between imperialism and National Socialism. [14]

In this context, they raise issues that go far beyond Grimm and his literary output, concerning the connection between photography and colonial literature on the one hand, and photography’s role in reproducing racial stereotypes and legitimizing imperialism on the other. How do we address or show photographs like those from Grimm’s estate without consolidating the hegemonial order they helped to establish? And in how far do photography and literature supplement each other producing ideologically charged images?



[1] Cf. Cadava: Eduardo Words of Light. Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton/ New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1997, p. 92.

[2] Tucholsky, Kurt: “Grimms Märchen”, in Tucholsky, Kurt: Gesammelte Werke, Band II, Gerold-Tucholsky, Mary and Raddatz, Fritz J. (eds.), Reinbeck: Rowohlt 1960, pp. 1217-1224, here p. 1217.

[3] Grimm arranged these informal get-togethers at his home on a yearly basis between the 1934 and 1939. Revived in 1949 the meetings took place every year even after Grimm’s death well into the 1980s.

[4] As early as the Whitaker Report, which was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Commission in 1985, the Herero massacre was explicitly cited and designated a genocide. It was not until 2015, however, that the German government officially acknowledged this war of extermination as “a war crime and a genocide”.

[5] Cf. Drechsler, Horst: Südwestafrika unter deutscher Kolonialherrschaft. Der Kampf der Herero und Nama gegen den deutschen Imperialismus (1884-1915), Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1966, p. 16 and 18. According to a census in 1911, roughly 15,130 of 80,000 Herero survived the colonial wars. Only 9,781 survived of the 20,000 Nama.

[6] Cf. Parr, Rolf: “Nach Gustav Frenssens Peter Moor. Kolonialisten, Herero und deutsche Schutztruppen bei Hans Grimm und Uwe Timm”, in Miller, Norbert and Sartorius, Joachim (eds.): Sprache im technischen Zeitalter (Hic sunt leones. Der deutsche Kolonialismus in Südwestafrika in der Literatur), booklet 168, December 2003, pp. 395-414, here p. 406. See also Brehl, Medardus: Vernichtung der Herero. Diskurse der Gewalt in der deutschen Kolonialliteratur, Paderborn: Fink 2007, p. 135.

[7] Grimm, Hans: “Über mich selbst“, in id.: Über mich selbst und über meine Arbeit, Lippoldsberg: Klosterberg-Verlag 1975, p. 43.

[8] Cf. Gümbel, Annette: Volk ohne Raum. Der Schriftsteller Hans Grimm zwischen national-konservativem Denken und völkischer Ideologie, Darmstadt: Historische Kommission für Hessen, pp. 42-56.

[9] Grimm, Hans: “Worte zu „Volk ohne Raum”, in id.: Über mich selbst und über meine Arbeit, Lippoldsberg: Klosterberg-Verlag 1975, p. 65.

[10] Due to political differences, Grimm lost this position in 1937. Cf. Vordermayer, Thomas Bildungsbürgertum und völkischer Ideologie. Konstitution und gesellschaftliche Tiefenwirkung eines Netzwerks völkischer Autoren (1919-1959), Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter 2016, pp. 320-327.

[11] Vordermayer, Thomas: Bildungsbürgertum und völkischer Ideologie. Konstitution und gesellschaftliche Tiefenwirkung eines Netzwerks völkischer Autoren (1919-1959), Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter 2016, p. 133., Cf. also Grimm, Hans: “Zum Erckertzug”, in id.: Über mich selbst und über meine Arbeit, Lippoldsberg: Klosterberg-Verlag 1975, p. 77.

[12] Ibid.

[13] On the relationship between the archive and colonial photography, see e.g.: Edwards, Elizabeth and Morton, Christopher: “Introduction”, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Morton, Christopher (eds.): Photography, Anthropology and History. Expanding the Frame, Farnham: Burlington 2009, pp. 1-24.

[14] Cf. Von Bismarck, Beatrice: “Fotografie, Agentenschaft und kuratorische Begegnung. Herausforderungen des ethnologischen Archivs”, in Berndt, Daniel, Bialek, Yvonne and Von Flemming, Victoria (eds.): (Post-)Fotografisches Archivieren. Wandel, Macht, Geschichte, Marburg: Jonas Verlag 2016, pp. 55-66, here: p. 64.




Daniel Berndt is a research associate in the project Bildpolitik: Das Autorenporträt als ikonische Autorisierung at Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach (DLA) since 2017.

A german version of this paper was first published on the blog of the Forschungsverbund Marbach Weimar Wolfenbüttel. It was published on TRAFO with kind permission by the author and the Forschungsverbund MWW.


Daniel Berndt, Folk Dance and Safari – Some Thoughts on Hans Grimm’s Photographs from South West Africa, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.10.2017,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2017, 16. Oktober). Folk Dance and Safari – Some Thoughts on Hans Grimm’s Photographs from South West Africa. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 24. Juni 2024, von

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Eine Antwort

  1. 27. Dezember 2021

    […] Folk Dance and Safari – some thoughts on Hans Grimm’s photographs from South West AfricaNamibianaWikipedia […]

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search