Authors: Peter J. Hempenstall; Paula Tanaka Mochida
Series: Quellen und Forschung zur Südsee. Reihe B: Forschung 2
Publisher: Harrassowitz Verlag
Soft-cover, 24×17 cm, 285 pages, 13 bw-photos
This new and innovative biography portrays the life of Wilhelm Heinrich Solf, a man who lived from Bismarck to Hitler (1862-1936), and whose life was deeply entangled with the ups and downs of Germany's domestic and in particular foreign and international policies. Solf went from carving out a name for himself as a liberal - and successful - colonial Governor to becoming the imperial colonial minister of the Kaiserreich before World War I. During the war he struggled to influence the Kaiser's ruling circle away from its aggressive military policies towards a negotiated peace, rising to become imperial Germany's last Foreign Minister. He was appointed Weimar's ambassador to Japan, and turned out to be the Republic's most successful and cultured diplomat overseas, restoring the relationship between the two former enemies.
On his return to Germany, Solf became involved with several political attempts to forestall Hitler's rise to power. He and his family worked against the Nazi's antisemitic policies. In fact the'Solf circle' became an important opposition group. Solf's legacy resounds not only in the Pacific, but in Japan and Germany where he stood ground as an internationalist and humanist during an era of nationalism and militarism. Rediscovering Solf's life is a testimony to the other side of German history.
In the history of colonial empires in the Pacific Islands during the early twentieth century, Wilhelm Solf is a hero. As governor of Germany's tiny, but highly valued colony of Samoa he has been set apart from the normal run of European adventurers. While French military governors harass and fence in their colonial subjects and the English erect caste barriers between themselves and the colored world, indeed while his compatriots in Africa shoot and hack their way into power, Solf demonstrates in the eyes of historians that respect for native cultures, participation in their rituals and persuasion rather than force can deliver peace and economic development.
Solf is highly visible in the history of the Pacific, his reputation solid, only the light and shade varying in retelling his heroic tale. But outside the Pacific, and in the renderings of Germany's past during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he is invisible, lost to all intents and purposes in the shadow of the behemoths that stalk German history - the Third Reich of the Nazis, and the Sonderweg that supposedly led directly to it. Wilhelm Solf went from carving out a name for himself as a liberal - and successful - colonial governor during a period when Germany's colonial empire was known more for its military brutality, to becoming virtually the imperial colonial minister of the Kaiserreich before World War I. During the war he struggled to influence the Kaiser's imperial circle away from its aggressive military policies towards a negotiated peace, rising to the position of last State Secretary of the Foreign Office, in effect Foreign Minister, of the Kaiser's Germany.
Solfs fortunes sank with the declaration of the Weimar Republic, but he did not sink without trace. He became Weimar's ambassador to Japan and enjoyed a decade of resurrection as the Republic's most successful and cultured diplomat overseas, restoring the relationship between the two former enemies. On his return to Germany in 1929, already sixty-six years old, Solf became involved with several political attempts to forestall Hitler's rise to power, his last years he and his family became involved against Nazi anti-Semitic policies and were identified with liberal opposition groups. After Solfs death his wife, Hanna, and daughter, Lagi, continued this work and almost paid for it with their lives during World War II. Despite this personal history, if Solf is noticed at all it is to relegate him to the periphery of more important circles of actors and to dismiss his influence. It was this disjunction in the historiography that provided the thrust for this biography.
We came to the life of Solf through thirty years of separate attraction. Peter learned about him as a graduate student exploring Germany's colonial empire in the Pacific, Paula as a Masters student in education, drawn to his internationalism, his scholarship in Asian languages and religion, and his anti-Nazi activities. It led to a correspondence. Peter had always planned a biography, but it was not till 1996, thirteen years after first exchanging letters that it was decided to attempt a biography together. The project seemed straightforward in the beginning. Here was a life whose Pacific lineaments we knew already: Solf the colonial Superman, straight and forthright and upright. We had discovered that his life was already weighed, carefully tended by Solf himself before he died, made ready for the writing by commissioning a biographer during the 1930s. It was a life fiercely defended by his wife but judged more sharply by both contemporary history makers (such as Kaiser Wilhelm II) and later German historians. The biography of the 1930s seemed to have been abandoned and, when it was finally written in the 1960s, was congratulatory and confined to Solfs official life and philosophy. Ours would be a work of revision, with greater attention to his Pacific achievement and his interior life.
The process of co-writing produced immediate difficulties. There was of course the predictable discovery of entangled contexts to the life of a man who had lived across the period from Bismarck to Hitler. And much of the history written by German professionals was a highly structuralist consideration of impersonal forces that was suspicious of Great Men, especially any member of the Wilhelmine upper middle class who had worked on the inside of the imperial bureaucracy during World War I. The monsters and heroes were well represented - Bethmann Hollweg, the Kaiser, Friedrich Ebert, Stresemann - but in fact little of a sensitive nature existed on the life and workings of the vast number of such elites at the heart of German political life. Biography was - and seemingly remains - more an English than a German fetish.
We had grown into a conviction of the rewarding ways biography can complicate history. True, it can elevate individual agency too far above the messy encounters that constitute the relation between an individual and reality. But structuralist history confines the individual in a straitjacket of cultural and material forces that do not acknowledge the power of self-consciousness in human action. Such historians are often superficial in their judgment of what motivates historical personalities. We found ourselves at one with Goethe who said the biography of a man should report his encounter with the cosmos and how it is reflected back. Good historical biography explores the connections between agency and structure, exposes the entanglements of person, events, subjectivities and myth; the key is not to let the story of a person free-float. Our intention is to do all these things, and in so doing to add to the conversational communities in both German and Pacific history.
The logistics of producing a co-authored biography, and its ultimate worth were frightening issues to contend with. Co-authored biographies are rare. We were outsiders in more ways than one - a Pacific historian and Australian with one biography to his credit, and a Japanese American librarian in Hawaii, trying to climb inside the life of a German of the cultured upper Though much of the writing could be done across the distance between Hawaii and Australia, periodic sessions of intensive work together were essential if the biography were to be more than a series of disconnected essays on separate parts of Solfs life. Those sessions took place over four years, in Newcastle, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Honolulu, Hawaii. The authors wrestled with questions of partnership in the enterprise - how to avoid one's becoming merely a cheerleader to the other's team, how to mesh styles. Almost immediately we saw that his wife, Hanna's, attempts to have a biography written began and ended his story; the themes of loss and redemption begged to be considered. The substance of Solfs life is told in chapters written by one or the other author, then subjected to critical scrutiny and amendment by the other in order to make the phases and writing mesh together; this entailed a massive copying and checking project to ensure we were both working from a full and identical set of records.
Between the chapters are 'conversations', the product of a continuing dialogue, both at a distance and eyeball to eyeball, about the lineaments of Solfs life and the praxis attached to the art of biography. Writing a biography together became a dangerous liaison between, on the one hand, a conventionally trained historian, absorbed by standards of evidence and explanation but caught up in Pacific struggles to represent the past of other cultures mmiddle class. Could it be done from one side of the earth to the other, one side of a culture to another, one side of the head to the other?
Much of the research was done separately, and most of it completed before we met. Paula had developed friendships with the Solf family, who opened their homes to her family, shared documents in their possession and gave the project enthusiastic support. Peter too met members of the family, interviewed one of Solfs sons, and was given access to the family archives. Both authors circled the globe searching for sources and walking in the places Solf himself had trod. Samoa, Germany, Japan, India; only Africa, where Solf began his career in colonial service and visited briefly again twice before the world war, remained unvisited.
Though much of the writing could be done across the distance between Hawaii and Australia, periodic sessions of intensive work together were essential if the biography were to be more than a series of disconnected essays on separate parts of Solf s life. Those sessions took place over four years, in Newcastle, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Honolulu, Hawaii. The authors wrestled with questions of partnership in the enterprise - how to avoid one's becoming merely a cheerleader to the other's team, how to mesh styles. Almost immediately we saw that his wife, Hanna's, attempts to have a biography written began and ended his story; the themes ofloss and redemption begged to be considered. The substance ofSolfs life is told in chapters written by one or the other author, then subjected to critical scrutiny and amendment by the other in order to make the phases and writing mesh together; this entailed a massive copying and checking project to ensure we were both working from a füll and identical set of records. [...]
1. The Painful Search for Immortality
- Conversation l - Joining Hanna 's Mission
2. 'Reading in the Pages of the Great World'
- Conversation 2 - Angles to Values
3. 'The Work of My Life'
- Conversation 3 - Colonial Übermensch?
4 'A Wider Scope of Mind'
- Conversation 4 - Hidden Contours
5. 'Because There is no Longer any Tree ...'
- Epilogue: Between Histories
- Conversation 5 - Wars and Rumors
6. 'Like Eating Artichokes'
- Conversation 6 - Redemption Deferred
7. 'Our Heroes are Buried'
- Post Script: Hanna's Story
- Endnotes and Sources
- Selected Bibliography