Diamonds have long been bloody. A new history shows how Germany’s ruthless African empire brought diamond rings to retail display cases in America—at the cost of African lives.
Since the late 1990s, activists have campaigned to remove “conflict diamonds” from jewelry shops and department stores. But if the problem of conflict diamonds—gems extracted from war zones—has only recently generated attention, it is not a new one. Nor are conflict diamonds an exception in an otherwise honest industry. The modern diamond business, Steven Press shows, owes its origins to imperial wars and has never escaped its legacy of exploitation.
In Blood and Diamonds, Press traces the interaction of the mass-market diamond and German colonial domination in Africa. Starting in the 1880s, Germans hunted for diamonds in Southwest Africa. In the decades that followed, Germans waged brutal wars to control the territory, culminating in the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples and the unearthing of vast mineral riches. Press follows the trail of the diamonds from the sands of the Namib Desert to government ministries and corporate boardrooms in Berlin and London and on to the retail counters of New York and Chicago. As Africans working in terrifying conditions extracted unprecedented supplies of diamonds, European cartels maintained the illusion that the stones were scarce, propelling the nascent US market for diamond engagement rings. Convinced by advertisers that diamonds were both valuable and romantically significant, American purchasers unwittingly funded German imperial ambitions into the era of the world wars.
Amid today’s global frenzy of mass consumption, Press’s history offers an unsettling reminder that cheap luxury often depends on an alliance between corporate power and state violence.
[A] deeply researched, often horrifying…study of the country’s entanglement in the diamond trade.
An excellent history…Looks at the story through the prism of diamonds…His careful economic history makes clear the importance of diamonds to the survival of the colony and to Germany’s economic reach at the time.
Through the rigor, subtlety, and elegance of his work, Press has produced one of the most thought-provoking recent books in this field.
Steven Press has written a disturbing, brilliant book. Courageous and deeply researched, Blood and Diamonds brings out the full measure of transnational intrigue, cutthroat capitalist competition, and sheer callousness at the center of this long-hidden, disheartening human catastrophe. A stunning new history.
Empirically rich and elegantly written, Blood and Diamonds will be received as an important landmark in the history of German colonialism and more broadly as an examination of the entanglements between colony and metropole. Press aptly combines meticulous scholarship with remarkable narrative talent.
Steven Press’s history of conflict diamonds from Namibia under German rule shows German colonialism in a new light and in a broader context, extending into the Nazi era and beyond. Diamonds were a colonial fantasy with all-too-real consequences of premature death for African workers and of Germans’ renewed anti-Semitism and willingness for war. Fluently written, provocative, and hugely informative.
Absorbing…Press masterfully interweaves the history of diamonds and empire with international economics and consumption, racism and genocidal violence, and the complexities of metropole-colony relations…An insightful, fascinating, and important book.
Press shows that the diamond wealth flowing from German Southwest Africa was crucial to both the development of German colonialism in Africa and Germany’s broader global engagement.
An engaging examination into an important aspect of German colonialism in the pre-WWI period.
- 2022, Winner of the David Barclay Book Prize
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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