Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Problem with Peter Moor

Evaluating and interpreting primary source material is essential to historical inquiry.   The perspectives of participants in a colonial war such as was fought in 1904 in German Southwest Africa (DSWA) can be profoundly revealing, but one should be wary of accepting them uncritically.  Personal narrative by its very nature is unique to the individual and reflects the time and circumstances in which it is written.  Military after-action reports are likewise drafted with personal and cultural biases, not to mention political considerations.  Even methodical official campaign histories - bloodless prose and all - still embody the values and attitudes of Imperial Germany.  Other accounts, such as testimony about German atrocities in Southwest Africa collected by the British authorities after WWI , were used to support the colony's assignment as a League of Nations mandated territory to the Union of South Africa. 

All can be valuable sources, but all need to be evaluated in context, and some are more reliable than others. As with any scientific method, it is vital to test and revisit one's own assumptions as well as those of the past.  Sometimes, as my Great Uncle Archie was known to observe; "Maybe it ain't so." 

My interest in the documentary evidence from the German-Herero War places particular emphasis on the material culture of the participants, as I am trying to represent them in miniature for the gaming table as accurately as scale, sculpting, and my painting skills allow.   I am not fluent in German, so my ability to access near-contemporary written evidence  is limited to what I can parse with a basic understanding of the language and what is available in translation.  Photographs can be very helpful, but there is nothing quite like a first-person account for revealing the small details that can add authenticity, and sometimes even provide evidence that is unavailable elsewhere.

Many with an interest in this period of history cite one account in particular that has the added virtue of being available in English translation.  This is "Peter Moor's journey to Southwest Africa; a narrative of the German Campaign."  The original "Peter Moors Fahrt nach Südwest" (1907) was written by Gustav Frenssen and translated into English by Margaret May Ward in 1908.  The English version is accessible in its entirety online, and the usually reliable website German Colonial Uniforms quotes Peter Moor as evidence for elements of the material culture of the Schutztruppe and Seebataillon in DSWA.  

The problem with Peter Moor is that he doesn't exist.  No one by that name is known to have served with either the Seebataillon or with the Protection Force in DSWA as Frenssen's tale alleges.  The Peter Moor of the story is a literary conceit, a composite character based on research, perhaps, but in the end still a work of historical fiction, as a contemporary review in the New York Times makes clear. While there are a number of small and tantalizing details offered in the "narrative" that lend it verisimilitude, the final paragraph of the book reveals that this is not a first person account, but at most an imaginative retelling by a non-participant. 

"When I was sauntering along the Jungfernstieg in my worn-out, dirty cord uniform, with dark, sunburned face, a middle-aged man came up and joined me, and asked me all sorts of questions as we went along.  In the course of the conversation it came out that I had heard of him in my father's house; for he had known my father from childhood.  I related to him all that I had seen and experienced, and what I had thought of it all.  And he has made this book out of it."

At least one other part of the Peter Moor story does not ring true as personal narrative.  That is the chapter entitled "A Dangerous Mission" that takes place during the Hamakari campaign as the various German  sections were converging on the Waterberg.   Moor is dispatched, together with a blonde Berliner, a young Alsatian soldier and a Mecklenberger riding a particularly bad horse, to bring a letter of instruction "to the westerly division, which, as it was the last to arrive from Germany, was still somewhat behind in the march."  Frenssen describes Moor's dramatic escape from ambush as the sole survivor of his four-man patrol, eventually finding his way to a heliograph station, and from there to the headquarters section beneath its identifying gas balloon.

All this is stirring stuff, to be sure, but quite unsubstantiated by the exacting records kept by the Germans of their casualties during the war.  There was indeed a patrol that was wiped out on August 6th, 1904, less than a week prior to Hamakari, but it was a nine-man patrol lead by a German nobleman - Leutnant Hans Bodo
Freiherr von Bodenhausen. They were attacked and destroyed by Hereros under Hosea Komombumbi Kutako near Osondjache to the northwest of the Waterberg.  Peter Moor's adventure seems to have been based on this episode.  While Moor would not have been the first veteran to have exaggerated his service in the telling, the fact that Frenssen is the author of the Moor narrative and that it is was recognized in its time as a novel makes it clearly a work of fiction.

This is a shame, because Peter Moor's Journey is filled with the sort of detail that shows that Frenssen did considerable research to make it believable and may, in fact, have consulted actual participants or their writings.  One recognizes the Landungskorps sailor in his stained uniform guarding the railway, the hapless Eastern Section under "The Old Major" von Glasenapp at Owikokorero and Owiumbo, and the general chronology of the campaign.  If we are to evaluate the veracity of the historical details provided in the Peter Moor text, and whether it has any value as documentary evidence in the light of modernity, we need to know something first of the author.  What was his agenda?  Can he be trusted?

Frenssen lived between 1863-1945.   His fictional works were very popular in his day, both for his vivid descriptions of regional and rural life that made him a leading figure in the
Heimatkunst  or "Homeland Art" movement,  and for his strong nationalism and support for German colonialism.  One sees evidence of these aspects of his writing in the Berliner, Alsatian and Mecklenberger of Peter Moor's "lost patrol".   A number of Frenssen's works beside Peter Moor were translated into English where they found a wider audience.  Frenssen was even nominated in 1914 for the Nobel prize in literature.
Frenssen (at left)  and his wife with members of the Nazi-dominated Eutiner poetry circle

He was also a disturbed and enigmatic figure: a Lutheran pastor who came to reject Christianity; a introvert who wrote engagingly about common people but was obsessed with racial hygiene; a Kulturpolitiker as well as a novelist who shifted firmly into Nazi propaganda; and one whose books were banned in occupied Germany after the war.  He was neurotic, insecure, and  according to an article by Frank X. Braun  published in 1947, came to see Adolf Hitler as "a second and greater Bismarck."

It is possible to respect the art and reject the artist - how else can one appreciate the music of Wagner?  A text like Peter Moor, regardless of how subsequent readers may interpret it, through whatever cultural or critical lens, cannot be so easily divorced from authorial intent.  It can be treated  as an artifact, as an example of colonial zeitgeist, but it is not a soldier's narrative and it is not a credible source of historical documentation for the material culture of the Germans and their adversaries during the 1904 war in Southwest Africa.   Other participant accounts, mostly in German, will have to serve.

[Dr. Talya Leodari, my fianc
ée, contributed to the development of this post.]


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