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Imported Racism: German Advertising and Imperialism

New assistant professor of history David Ciarlo studies advertising and imperialism in 20th-century Germany.

Date: 6/7/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Kim Burdett
While spending a year in Zimbabwe volunteering for a human rights organization in the mid 90s, new Assistant Professor David Ciarlo hitchhiked to Namibia and stumbled upon a locale that would have a long-lasting influence on his career.

The place was Swakopmund, a Namibian coastal city founded in 1892 by German colonists in what was then South-West Africa.

“It was a German town in the middle of Namibia,” Ciarlo explains. “Many of the people in town still spoke German. So my friend and I drank German beer and ate German Sachertorte. And the whole time I thought, ‘This is so strange.’”

“We got a lift out of town with a German-speaking white Namibian. He lived hours outside of town because his wife was Ovambo [a native Namibian tribe]—and even in 1995, he still had to hide that from his employer.”

David Ciarlo.
History Assistant Professor David Ciarlo will publish 'Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany' this fall.

Seeing German culture juxtaposed against the African backdrop, sometimes in tense ways, was striking enough to set the stage for his future research endeavors. Now an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Cincinnati, Ciarlo specializes in the cultural and social history of modern Germany, and the history of imperialism and racism in Europe.

“Because of my Zimbabwe experience, I knew I wanted to focus my research on colonialism and imperialism,” he says. “From there, I decided to study Germany’s culture of colonialism.”

While in graduate school on a Fulbright fellowship to Berlin, Ciarlo dug up an interesting find. “It was a book from 1916, right in the middle of the First World War. This clerk at the German patent office had published this book of ’humorous’ trademarks, but some of them were the most viciously racist things you could imagine—and he’s publishing these as funny!”

Considering the black population in Germany during that period was almost nonexistent, Ciarlo found racist advertising in the country baffling. Suddenly his quest to find answers to Germany’s imperialistic ambitions took on a new meaning.

Poring over advertising from the late 19th century, Ciarlo saw two themes the Germans were emulating from foreign markets: imperialism from the British Empire and racism from the United States.

“Because in the 1880s the U.S. was the symbol of everything modern, and Great Britain was the symbol of majestic empire, the German advertisers ended up impressed by these themes and borrowed them for their own advertising.”

Even without the malevolent connotation of racism in Germany, pioneering advertisers imported U.S. racism to sell their own products as modern. This would have long-term impact.

“Decades later when Germans were managing their own colonial empire, they responded to an uprising of the Herero in present-day Namibia with extreme racism—and the racism led to genocidal brutality,” Ciarlo says. “The Germans have a difficult history.”

This intersection between imperialism and advertising became the basis for his new book. This fall “Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany” will be published by Harvard University Press.

Much of this work will be discussed fall quarter, when Ciarlo and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, assistant professor in the history department who researches colonial Latin America, co-teach a course called Commodities of Empire.

“Each week we’ll discuss a different commodity. We’ll spend a week each on coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar and rubber,” he says. “We’ll talk about colonialism, economics and cross-cultural borrowings for of all these things you can get from the grocery store.

"Each one of these commodities actually has a fascinating and forgotten imperial history behind it," he adds. "I’m really excited about teaching it; it’ll be very cool.”

Ciarlo earned his master’s degree in history from UC in 1994 and his PhD from University of Wisconsin in 2003.

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