The social democratic interpretation of racial tensions

The referenced review reports on the specific political and ideological context in which both the production and the reception of the “lecture film” Die erwachende Sphinx, this time with Ross’s personal comments in the Wiener Urania, were situated. At the same time, it gives an example of a particular transformation of racial topoi that can be labeled as symbolic.

The article in Das Kleine Blatt, the popular daily of the Viennese social democrats, construes the technological, social, and cultural progress among Africa’s indigenous populations as an inevitable development in the wake of Africa’s Europeanization. This progress wil bring the long-desired emancipation from white, primarily capitalist subjugation. The arguments by author Jakob Meth, one of the leading social democratic journalists, imply that the revolt of black workers is a just punishment for the continent’s economic exploitation by unscrupulous profiteers. The review presents the “lecture film” by Ross as a manifesto against slavery and as a call to eliminate discriminatory economic and social policies as well as child labor.1

In this argumentative model the notion of race loses its traditional semantic determinants, such as blood, color, alleged mental capacities, and, to a lesser extent, physiognomy. Instead it is used as a rhetorical figure to underline socioeconomic considerations.2 The film sequences that depict educated, young people marching towards and then away from the camera are, for the reviewer, a symbol of a physically strong and awakening Africa.

Besides this specific use of the notion of race, there is an additional aspect that makes the German and the Austrian context so different. While a review in a right-wing daily of the Berlin premiere welcomed Ross’s affirmation of a colonial project and his implicit distancing from his republican past during the German revolution of 1918 and 1919, Jakob Meth drew attention away from the nationalist overtones of Ross’s arguments and recalled his engagement in these historical events.

Katalin Teller

J. [Jakob] m. [Meth]. Erwachende Sphinx. Das Kleine Blatt: 1928 Mar 13;  73; 3-4.

Topic: Race
Case: Speaking engagements


1 Vorwärts, the official daily of the German social democrats, appreciated the film’s and the lecture’s criticism of exploitation, but finds fault with their sketchy political agendas. R. Die erwachende Sphinx. Vorwärts [Berlin]: 1927 Nov 27; [n.d.]. See Library.

2 Other Vienna reviews are similar: M-r. Die erwachende Sphinx. Arbeiter-Zeitung: 1928 Mar 17;  41 (77); 6. See Library. K. Die erwachende Sphinx. Wiener Zeitung: 1928 Mar 13; 225 (61); 5. See Library.

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