Echoes of the Great War: The recordings of African prisoners in the First World War

Anette Hoffmann


Apart from army registers, some (often anonymous) photographs and the files of anthropometric examination, the involvement of thousands of African soldiers in WWI and their presence in POW camps in Europe seems to have left few traces in European archives. Vis-à-vis a mass of autobiographic texts on the Great War, written by Europeans and Americans, there are very few published accounts of African soldiers that would allow for their historical experiences and views to be included in historiographies of WWI. A collection of sound recordings produced with African prisoners of war in German camps by a group of German linguists, musicologists and anthropologists between 1915-18 offers a notable documentation of their presence. Yet, similar to the anthropometric registration, these recordings were not designed to accommodate the soldiers’ accounts, but to create a collection of language recordings. If these cannot be considered as ‘authentic voices from the past’ and unmediated accounts of WWI, how do we understand and theorise these hitherto untranslated voice recordings, their form and content?

This essay understands the recordings not as ‘voices’ but as echoes, that is, as mediated, often effaced reverberations of accounts of the self and the war. The notion of echo in this essay grapples with issues of extraction, attenuation, limitation, distance and distortion, or outright effacement, that is the result of the form and the mediation of those speech acts, the belatedness of listening to them, as well as, the gaps in meaning and intelligibility the recordings entail. By conceptualising the recorded voices and their translation as echoes, I seek to understand the status of the recordings, the effects of this linguistic practice and gain a sense of the situation in the camps, so as to position these subaltern articulations in their mediated, distorted form as part of the colonial archive.



Africa, First World War, prisoners of war, speech, translation, recording, echo

Full text: Hoffmann_p.7-23 (PDF, 898 KB)


Biographical note

Anette Hoffmann is a senior researcher in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where she works on the sound recordings of African prisoners of the First World War. She obtained her doctorate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (University of Amsterdam) in 2005 with a dissertation on praise poetry in Namibia. Her work on the Namibian voice recordings that were produced together with life-casts and anthropometric photographs in 1931 is the basis of her exhibition What We See that has been shown in Cape Town, IZIKO Slave Lodge (2009), at the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna (2010), as well as in Basel (2009), Osnabrück (2011) and Berlin (2012). In collaboration with Regina Sarreiter and Matei Bellu, she produced an installation with sound and text, with the title Unerhörter Bericht über die deutschen Verbrechen in den kolonisierten Gebieten und über das fortwährende Wirken der Gewalt bis in die Gegenwart that is currently shown in the exhibition Acts of Voicing in Stuttgart (Württembergischer Kunstverein). Her recent publications include What We See. Reconsidering and Anthropometrical Collection from Southern Africa: Images, Voices, and Versioning (2009); Sensible Sammlungen. Aus dem Anthropolgischen Depot (with Margit Berner and Britta Lange, 2011); Was Wir Sehen. Bilder Stimmen Rauschen. Zur Kritik anthropometrischen Sammelns (with Britta Lange and Regina Sarreiter, 2012).

An earlier version of this material was presented on the occasion of the project conference ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ (20 -22 November 2012, Museum of Ethnology/Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna). To view the film footage on the Open Arts Archive,, follow this link: