Leopold and George

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 23, 2006

When, some years ago, I read Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism and Heroism in Colonial Africa“:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Leopold’s_Ghost, I was shocked not only by the historical analysis of Belgian Colonialism in the Congo, but even more about the fact that I had never learnt these things at school or university. While, partly thanks to the internet, nowadays many more Belgians know about the attrocities that King Leopold committed in the Congo, there is still a lot of denial about Belgium’s colonial role in Africa.

According to Adam Hochschild, there are “striking parallels between King Leopold in Congo and George W. Bush in Iraq”:http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-hochschild22dec22,0,2727390.story?coll=la-opinion-center. I expect that people will differ in their opinion whether this is an exaggeration or not, but at least I hope that the American kids (now and in the future) will get a more self-critical account of the US’s role in Iraq than what I learnt about Belgian’s role in the Congo.
(hat tip to “Political Theory Daily Review”:http://www.politicaltheory.info/)



Tom Riel 12.23.06 at 6:38 am

It’s almost too bad that Mr. Hochschild is right because his opinion piece is truly awful.


Steve LaBonne 12.23.06 at 9:02 am

…I hope that the American kids (now and in the future) will get a more self-critical account of the US’s role in Iraq than what I learnt about Belgian’s role in the Congo.

Not a chance, apart from what a few maverick teachers might do on their own. There’s a well-organized and quite effective right wing lobby that stands ready to protest any honest admission in school curricula that the US has ever been anything but the best and wisest of nations. There is certainly not a lot of honest teaching going on about Vietnam, except possibly in the sub rosa fashion already alluded to.


Giles 12.23.06 at 9:54 am

Looks more like a stikingly bad parralel drawn in a strikingly badly written article to promote, I suspect, a strikingly bad book.

Which is a shame a the story of the Congo deserves more promince than it currently gets.


Zeno 12.23.06 at 10:34 am

Available on-line for those who want to check it out: King Leopold’s Soliloquy, Mark Twain’s take on the atrocities in the Belgian Congo.

I wonder if Hochschild has seen that in addition to King Leopold’s Ghost.


Number2 12.23.06 at 10:49 am

Steve. You’re full of it. its you left wingers that have desroyed the American public school system. Don’t want to hurt the kids feelings do we? We hear constantly how Bush is Hitler incarnate. Sub rosASS


Scott Martens 12.23.06 at 12:23 pm

No, American school children learn a complete pack of lies about the Mexican War – a case where the US was by any civilized modern standard in the wrong. The nonsense I was told by my liberal teachers in the New Jersey school system – about how Mexico could never develop the west properly, so it was right for the US to steal it from them – compares to the Belgian occupation of Congo in quantities of horse manure, even if it doesn’t compare in murderous consequences.

Iraq, like Vietnam and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, will become another noble cause undertaken too naively and lost through excessive moral scruples when compared to America’s unscrupulous enemies. Lord knows, we can’t let the children understand that their country might do something stupid or wrong.


radek 12.23.06 at 1:56 pm

Ay, that’s a really bad comparison. The war in Iraq is stupid and has been ran incompetently but it’s not comparable to Leopold’s Congo. For one thing the Belgians held on to the Congo for something like 70 yrs. You think that’s gonna happen with Iraq? Or even that Bush wants that to happen? And last I checked there weren’t hundreds of thousands of Iraqis with their hands cut off, nor deaths in excess of 8 million (yup, that’s a million there).

I liked the book too but this totally drops my respect for Hochschilds. It’s ridiculous hyperbole like this that enables hawks to point to anti-war people and say, “see, they don’t know what they’re talking about”. All in all this is just a different version of the “Bush is Hitler” meme which does a lot of disservice to those who are anti war.


John Emerson 12.23.06 at 2:05 pm

Not a fun thread so far, except for Scott’s contribution. Hochschild’s piece was nothing special, but it’s pretty clear that his main motive was the entirely laudable one of clearing his own name. I’d hate to go through life being thought of as one of George W. Bush’s favorite authors. (What he actually read was probably one of his two-page typed executive summaries, of course. Cliff’s Notes are unnecessarily exhaustive.)

When I was finished up college in 1979, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was one of several writings depicting gross injustices which we were forbidden to give a political reading to. “Benito Cereno” and “Billy Budd” were two others. Symbolic, psychological, religious, or formal readings were the only ones allowed. I haven’t reread these pieces in years, but I remain convinced that the utter moral blindness of the civilized authorities in face of their victims (including a white victim in Billy Budd’s case) is a central theme in all three. I have no idea whether tha canned English-Department interpretation has changed yet; judging by the squealing about academic leftism, on would suspect that it has.

I had a friend who studied the Civil War at Boston College during the 60s, and he was appalled at the neutral or even pro-Confederate bias he found. Apparently nothing he read was saying that although the Civil war was brutal and bloody, putting an end to slavery had to be done one way or another.


dsquared 12.23.06 at 5:02 pm

There’s probably scope for a general piece here on “domestic atrocities which are taught to schoolchildren in a wholly misleading fashion”. I know that Irish schoolchildren are apparently not taught, as I was, that Oliver Cromwell was an upstanding moral paragon, father of British democracy, if he had a minor flaw it would have been that he was a bit of a killjoy when it came to maypoles.

The Belgian Congo, of course, is one of the major entries in the Black Book of Capitalism.


sglover 12.23.06 at 6:30 pm

I read Hochschild’s book a few years ago, and it’s the source of probably 95% of what little I know about Congo. While Leopold’s adventures aren’t the first analogy I’d think of when it comes to Iraq, I didn’t think the op-ed was so far off the mark. And in an age when a Krauthammer or a Hanson or a Kristol or a… routinely pluck op-ed pieces from their own colons, Hochschild’s offers little to complain about.


John Emerson 12.23.06 at 6:41 pm

For the record, Steve and Zeno’s contributions were fine too. But too much crap.


Randy Paul 12.23.06 at 11:27 pm


Michaela Wrong’s book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is another excellent book with a great deal about the Mobutu era as well. I also recommend her book about Eritrea, I Didn’t Do It for You.


Dan Simon 12.24.06 at 2:54 am

The most ludicrous part of the column wasn’t Hochchild’s comparison of Abu Ghraib with the millions slaughtered in the Congo–that sort of damnation-by-comparison-with-something-vastly-worse is so commonplace that a guy named Godwin even coined a law about it. No, the silliest part of the analogy compares Leopold’s plunder of the Congo with the windfall earned by Halliburton et al. in Iraq. Perhaps if the occupation of Iraq had earned, rather than cost, the US billions of dollars–or if the fortune Belgian businessmen made off the Congo had come at the expense of the King’s treasury rather than millions of Congolese slaves–then the analogy might have been more apt. But it didn’t, and it isn’t.

And yes, school history classes tend to be somewhat chauvinistic in outlook, glorifying the home country’s past, downplaying its warts, and viewing the rest of the world from a decidedly home country-centric perspective. (Growing up in Canada, I was amazed at the importance that history classes gave to…well, to Canadian history, actually. Of course, if studying the minutiae of Canadian history sounds pointless, wait till you hear about Quebec history….)

Assuming, then, that Iraqi Kurdistan retains its autonomy for a long time to come–what do you think schools there will teach their pupils about the US military action in Iraq?


Barry 12.24.06 at 2:55 am

Radek: “Ay, that’s a really bad comparison. The war in Iraq is stupid and has been ran incompetently but it’s not comparable to Leopold’s Congo. For one thing the Belgians held on to the Congo for something like 70 yrs. You think that’s gonna happen with Iraq? ”

Probably not, but the incompetancy of the administration will have a lot to do with that.

“Or even that Bush wants that to happen?”
Yes, he does – dressed up, of course, with updated pieties.

“And last I checked there weren’t hundreds of thousands of Iraqis with their hands cut off, nor deaths in excess of 8 million (yup, that’s a million there).”

Well, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. And cutting hands off is so outmoded, in an era of cordless drills.


Barry Freed 12.24.06 at 4:28 am

Just wait till they get cordless Sawzalls and such.

BTW, would someone kindly flush “Number2”?


dsquared 12.24.06 at 7:39 am

ahhh Dan Simon. Season’s Greeting to you sir. Perhaps you’d care to start the New Year off with a clean slate by confessing what a total ass you made of yourself over the Qana Ambulance “Hoax” and apologising to me and the other commenters on the relevant CT thread for your behaviour?


Brenden 12.24.06 at 10:11 am

Luckily the state funded Jr colleges in California have not been influenced by right winged propaganda. I had to read King Leopold’s Ghost in my English 1A class. I was equally shocked when I found out how millions of Africans where murdered and tortured in the 20th century. Comparing Geore Bush to Leopold is a little bit extreme however. Leopold is in the same league with Stalin, Hitler and Mao Tse Tung–in my opinion


Chris Clarke 12.24.06 at 12:15 pm

I know Adam Hochschild in real life, a little, and the impression of him I have gained over the last decade is that of a passionate yet meticulous writer who abhors unsubstantiated accusations.

And so I was interested to find this thread before I’d seen the LA Times piece in question. Could it be that Adam had tossed off an ill-considered piece that was worthy of such dismissal?

And then I read the LA Times piece.

You would think, after the last few years, that I would have developed the mental calluses necessary to shrug off blatant, disingenuous bad-faith arguments the likes of which Dan Simon displays above. But it’s especially depressing given that we can actually click over to read the piece to find out how badly Simon has misrepresented Hochschild’s arguments. (At this point, I’m williing to grant Radek and Tom Riel and cetera the possibility that they read the piece too quickly.)

Come on, people. Hochschild is carefully drawing very specific, limited parallels here. Accusing him of saying “Iraq = Congo” just makes you look stupid.


JamesP 12.24.06 at 12:19 pm

Of course, Cromwell’s brutality in Ireland is to some extent an invented nineteenth-century nationalist myth itself, as has been explored very interestingly lately.


radek 12.24.06 at 12:36 pm

Welp, I reread the article and I still think’s pretty bad and too heavy on hyperbole. But I think John’s explanation that “he just wanted to clear his name” makes a lot of sense and goes a long way towards an excuse.


Tom Riel 12.24.06 at 1:16 pm

I didn’t imply that his arguments are wrong, I agree with them, I just think his tone is smug and unworthy of the argument he’s putting forward.


Smitty Irving 12.24.06 at 4:49 pm

The most compelling difference is King Leopold was called out by one of the biggest media figures of his age (Mark Twain, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy”) whereas nearly all the big media figures of this age were prominently displayed on the website “MediaWhores Online” … . Pretty much tells you all you need to know … .


Dan Simon 12.24.06 at 5:20 pm

ahhh Dan Simon. Season’s Greeting to you sir.

Likewise, of course, Daniel. Regarding the ambulance incident, three points:

1) I’ll avoid completely derailing this discussion with a long, detailed refutation of the HRW report. Let it suffice to say that I find much of it so laughable that it’s hard for me to believe that even you, who are predisposed to take it seriously, are able to do so.

2) Most of my arguments centered on refuting your claim–the centerpiece of your post, in fact–that the IDF had admitted culpability in the incident. I demonstrated to any reasonable person’s satisfaction that you were simply wrong about that.

3) The reason this story received so much attention in the first place is that it demonstrated the staggering credulity of the foreign press corps in Lebanon when offered stories of dubious credibility. Far from refuting that charge, the HRW report simply follows the press’ lead, asserting, for example, that “There have been no credible allegations that the Lebanese Red Cross violated professional ethics by taking any kind of active role in the conflict”. Hmm…


snuh 12.24.06 at 5:22 pm

For one thing the Belgians held on to the Congo for something like 70 yrs. You think that’s gonna happen with Iraq? Or even that Bush wants that to happen?

as regards bush’s desires, on available evidence, the answer would be yes.


abb1 12.24.06 at 5:27 pm

I don’t understand why comparing American leaders to infamous butchers invariably requires a comparable number of victims, while some official enemy leaders who sometimes aren’t responsible for as much as a single death (like Mr. Ahmadinejad of Iran, for example) are constantly compared to Hitler without any protest whatsoever. Something’s wrong here.


Dan Simon 12.24.06 at 5:30 pm

You would think, after the last few years, that I would have developed the mental calluses necessary to shrug off blatant, disingenuous bad-faith arguments the likes of which Dan Simon displays above. But it’s especially depressing given that we can actually click over to read the piece to find out how badly Simon has misrepresented Hochschild’s arguments.

Let’s see…I referred to “Hochchild’s comparison of Abu Ghraib with the millions slaughtered in the Congo”–and Hochchild said, “As a reader of history, you must have been interested, I’m sure, in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal.” I said that Hochchild “compares Leopold’s plunder of the Congo with the windfall earned by Halliburton et al. in Iraq”–and Hochchild said,

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question, for extra credit: Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you’re right again.

I’m looking for the misrepresentation, but I just can’t seem to find it. Perhaps you could be more specific?


nicteis 12.24.06 at 11:41 pm

Coincidentally, I read this just after encountering the passage in Pynchon’s Against the Day which compares King Leopold to Louis XV. I’m confident old Thomas had still a third mad monarch in mind as he wrote (pp. 544-545):

La Mayonaisse has its origins in the moral squalor of the court of Louis XV — here in Belgium the affinity should not be too surprising. The courts of Leopold and Louis are not that different except in time, and what is time? Both monumentally deluded men, maintaining their power through oppression of the innocent… Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, which allows them to continuet the great damage they are inflicting on the world te rest of us must live in.


Tom T. 12.25.06 at 12:13 am

Gotta love group blogs. Right after Henry’s post to the effect that “public discourse should be carried on with respectful acknowledgment of one’s opponent’s merits,” we get “George Bush is the new King Leopold!”

On the substance of Ingrid’s point, maybe it’s because I was in Montessori and private schools in the 70s and 80s, but my experience was nothing like Steve’s or Scott’s. I can’t remember what was grammar school vs. high school, but here’s my general recollection. The American Revolution was taught as a heroic time, but also a conservative action to protect property rights, poisoned by slavery. The War of 1812 was a failed misadventure. The Mexican War and the Spanish-American War were pure imperialism (as was the Monroe Doctrine in practice, if not in original intent). The Civil War was fought incompetently, and it was pointed out that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and that the Eman. Proc. freed only the slaves in the states then outside federal authority (i.e., it did nothing). Certainly there was no hint of the Lost Cause. In junior high we read Freedom Road (this is all coming back to me now) and learned a bit about the rise of the Klan, but not too much about Jim Crow in general after that. We definitely learned about Army massacres of Indian tribes. For WWI, I seem to recall that it was mostly blamed on Europeans, but we touched upon Wilson’s stroke and Congress’ rejection of the League of Nations. I recall learning about Palmer raids. The Depression was covered without much exploration as to why it occurred and a lot of admiration for Roosevelt. WWII and everything after it was a big rush at the very end of the year, so it was mostly a blur. Discussion of WWII was generally very pro-American, but we hit upon Japanese internment camps. It was mentioned that the decision not to bomb the rails to Auschwitz and the decision to drop the atomic bomb were controversial, but without taking the time to explore those issues. No time to discuss Vietnam or the civil rights era at all.


radek 12.25.06 at 2:39 am

abb1; Well, the link between Ahmadinejad and Hitler might have something to do with, oh I dunno, the fact that he organized a conference on Holocaust denial. But overall you’re right that this comparison gets abused on all sides and you have my personal permission to slap the next person who compares Ahmadinejad do Hitler or Leopold. And there are protest and a lot of “oh please!” in those cases. What else was all’em people making fun of Bush (very appropriately) for using the phrase “evil doers”?

As far as quality of history education. High school it depends on the teacher. The text books are basically concerned with not offending anyone, left or right so it’s your familiar vapid empty boring as hell mush.

College it depends on the department. There’s basically three types of history departments in the US, at least if you’re talking state schools. Civil War, Anglophile and folks who do Sociology or Cultural Studies but in a historical context (NTTIAWWT). First one is likely to be conservative, second one is just selective about the material included (History of Sweden: The Swedes were Vikings. Then Carolus Gustavus invaded Germany. Then he decided to form a welfare state and Swedes have lived happily ever after. The End. Now for a day by day account of the Hundred Years War…and that’s just within the European part of history) and the third liberal. If your historical interests are in something else you gonna get a pretty dumb down version except maybe for one or two classes taught by the specialists.


abb1 12.25.06 at 2:50 pm

Radek, I understand the basis forAhmadinejad – Hitler analogy. I’m just using it to demonstrate a deficiency the ‘Leopold killed millions and Bush only hundreds of thousands’ argument.


brendan 12.25.06 at 4:13 pm

To Tom T:

Well your education in history was obviously a lot better than mine. But I went through six years of what we call ‘secondary’ education (between the ages of 12 and 17): i did history in every year up to what was then called CSYS, which was the highest qualification possible before going onto colllege or University.

And I was not taught for one day, one hour or one minute about the British Empire. Despite the fact that to outsiders (not least Americans) it is the single most important fact about British history, and that without this knowledge almost all of British domestic history makes no sense.

Nor were we taught about the other European Empires either (except Hitler’s: of course). So, nothing about the Conquistadores in South America, about the attempted genocide of the Aborigines in Australia, about the genocide in Tasmania (and in the Canary Islands), about what happened to the Native Americans in North America, about what the British got up to in Kenya, about what the Germans got up to in Africa, about what the Belgiums got up to in Africa, about what the French got up to in Algeria….I could go on.

And absolutely no hint about what the British got up to in the Middle East. Never ever ever. So I am not in the slightest bit surprised about the fact that the Belgians are not taught about Leopold.

Merry Christmas.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.26.06 at 4:37 am

I don’t think that the quality of the history education kids get only depends on the teacher. If the teachers have never been taught the issue themselves, or if there is no material easily available (both problems indicating that there is a collective taboo on the topic), then how can a teacher teach something she doesn’t know about herself?

In the last two years from secondary education, my history teacher was the best teacher I ever had. She was brilliant — very intelligent, a very good teacher, and always eager to teach all events from all perspective, giving us the information so that we could try to develop critical thinking about the events ourselves. We did learn a lot about Hitler and the WWII, and it was critical for all sides – we saw Nacht und Nebel (a film shot with the liberation of one of the KZs, I think Auschwitz), I remember learning ‘alternative’ readings for why the Americans dropped the Bomb on Japan, about collaboration in the low COuntries, about the Belgian King not resisting Hitler, about the holocaust and the plausibility of the claim of Europeans that they “didn’t know” about it, and about the resistance. The same for other big historical events that we studied.

But for the Congo, no such thing. From what I recall, we learnt something –very vaguely– about the economic importance of the colony, and that there were “incidents” with hands being cut off. But that was it. Nothing about the genocide/massacres, nothing about Leopold’s Mad Tyranny.

Of course, I may have a strongly distorted recollection. Perhaps I should write to my teacher (if I can trace her down) and ask her.

In any case, I have yet to meet a Belgian my age who has learnt about what really happened in the Congo from School.


Greg Hunter 12.26.06 at 1:22 pm

I fail to see how Hochschild’s is incorrect or exaggerated. Bush and his policies far exceed the accomplishments of Leopold, my God we elected the idiot and we have “checks and balances in place” as well as a supposedly educated populace to prevent this kind of process. The only reason Bush failed is that the military did not kill on the grand scale required to make it a profitable venture. Leopold’s adventure almost bankrupted his country until the Rubber venture got going and Iraq was on the same trajectory as the Haliburtons and the KBR stood to make much more profit if Iraq was a success not an abject failure in the Return on Investment department.

If we allow Bush to surge and destroy all opposition, we can still make Iraq our Congo and that is the lesson the Bush takes from the book. Hell look at Belgium today, it is still living off the Congo adventure that is why no school kid learns about it, too much hypocrisy. The capital and infrastructure allows Belgium to maintain its high standard of living long after the 1.1 billion is gone.

From a US perspective we need to control Iraq’s oil, because like any good addict we could not possibly fathom life without our drug.


jasper emmering 12.27.06 at 7:19 am

First, I doubt that Hitler would have liked to attend a conference on Holocaust denial.

Second, for what it’s worth, history classes in the Netherlands did pay attention to Dutch atrocities in the Indies and elsewhere (when I went to school in the 1980s). Not all of them, but the worst ones (at least I hope those were the worst ones). Enough to make you see that colonialism was really, really bad for the locals.

The one taboo left has to do with the Indonesian war of indepencence (the “police actions” as the Dutch called them at the time). A lot of the veterans are still alive, and even some of the politicians of that time. So even when everybody understands that (1) this war was morally wrong to begin with and (2) it was a dirty war with lots of war crimes committed in the field, I don’t know if the terms “war crimes” and “gone unpunished” have made the schoolbooks yet. As I recall my teacher put things far more bluntly than my history book did.

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