The Ester Republic

the national rag of the people's republic of independent ester

book review, Volume 3 number 5, May/June 2001
book reviews

Exterminate All The Brutes
review 2001 by David A. James

Exterminate All The Brutes
by Sven Lindqvist. The New Press. 179 pp. $12.00.

"You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions."

With these words Sven Lindqvist both opens and closes Exterminate all the Brutes, a meditation on nineteenth-century European colonialism and the genocide that followed in its wake. Lindqvist, a Swede who grew up during World War Two, has been haunted his entire adult life by the words that form the title of his book. Drawn from Joseph Conrad’s 1898 classic Heart of Darkness, they form, in Lindqvist’s view, the essence of Europe’s attitude toward those subjugated in the expansion of national empires. In a book that is part travelogue, part history, and part literary criticism, the author heads deep into the Sahara Desert for a personal encounter with the underside of Europe’s era of world dominion.

Armed with suddenly advancing technology in weaponry, the European powers and America were, in the late nineteenth century, suddenly able to assert their will over native peoples to an extent previously unheard of. Lindqvist tells a story of wholesale violence and destruction, and of those who found themselves in the way of European progress and who paid for this misfortune with their lives and their cultures. Without moral restraint, and with little more than a whimper of protest back home, Europeans engaged in a scorched-earth policy across the continents, leaving millions of corpses behind them. Believing themselves chosen by God to rule the world, they took without asking, and destroyed even those who attempted to cooperate. All this was done in the interest of "opening up markets" (how familiar these words sound).

In science, Lindqvist notes, Europeans found further justification for their racism. Though much of what Charles Darwin discovered was initially shunned, the notion that superior species should displace inferior ones fit nicely into the ideology of imperialism. In European and American circles it became fashionable to believe that whites were the superior race, and many proclaimed it a favor to other races that they were slowly but efficiently being killed off. They had, in European eyes, outlived their usefulness. Even Darwin accepted this notion, according to Lindqvist, though to his credit he did express dismay at the treatment of South American Indians by the Spanish.

Turning to Conrad, a fierce critic of imperialism, Lindqvist demonstrates how the Heart of Darkness character of Kurtz, who deep in the Congo engages in complete and uncontrolled carnage, represents Europe of the time. Rare among his fellow countrymen, Conrad understood the utter immorality of what England and the Great Powers were doing. Another critic, notes Lindqvist, was H.G. Wells, whose science fiction classic War of the Worlds was a thinly disguised commentary on colonialism. The invading Martians kill the residents of London indiscriminately, the British victims lacking the technology to fight back—a situation identical to that in Africa where the British mowed down everyone in their path.

The ultimate theme of this book is Lindqvist’s belief that the Holocaust was not truly unique in European history, but rather was the culmination of European policy towards outsiders. For Hitler, fueled by anti-Semitism, the Jews were in the way of his plans for expansion. And like the Africans, Aborigines, and Native Americans before them, they needed to be eliminated. As Lindqvist puts it, "Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested." The policy was only seen as a horror when it was applied to other Europeans.

Today, little has changed. Even if we won’t admit it, we all know the sort of oppression on which our economic system rests. Lindqvist reminds us "(j)ust as educated Frenchmen in the 1950s and 1960s knew what their troops were up to in Vietnam and Algeria. Just as educated Russians in the 1980s knew what their troops did in Afghanistan, and educated South Africans and Americans during the same period knew what their "auxiliaries" were doing in Mozambique and Central America respectively. Just as educated Europeans today know how children die when the whip of debt whistles over poor countries. It is not knowledge that is lacking. The educated general public has always known what outrages have been committed and are being committed in the name of Progress, Civilization, Socialism, Democracy, and the Market…. Everywhere in the world where knowledge is being suppressed, knowledge that, if it were made known, would shatter our image of the world and force us to question ourselves—everywhere there, Heart of Darkness is being enacted."

Lindqvist has studied history well. Few authors are able to apply its lessons to present realities with such force and moral conviction. This brief and highly disturbing book deserves a far wider audience than it has thus far received.

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David A. James