Origin of a Poison

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

alison frank johnsonWhen it was first manufactured in Germany in the 19th century, cocaine had a different reputation from the one it carries today. Derived from South American coca leaves and called a “wonder drug” by Freud, it was used as an anesthetic that enabled delicate operations such as eye surgeries.

Cocaine’s subsequent slide into infamy was a global process that illustrates the complicated historical relationship between the German and Austrian Empires, according to Harvard history professor Alison Frank Johnson. Johnson presented a lecture at Bowdoin as part of this year’s “Germany In Europe” Campus Week, an annual initiative sponsored by the German Embassy and the Bowdoin College German Department with additional funding from the History Department.

By the early 20th century cocaine was increasingly recognized as an addictive substance and seen as being linked with criminal activity. Yet it still made its way from Germany to far-flung countries such as India, where it was being integrated into everyday use, sometimes without the knowledge of those consuming it. Casting this phenomenon as a public health disaster, Indian physicians and social workers waged an anti-colonialist campaign — not against Germany, but against the Austrian Empire, because cocaine arrived in India via Austrian smugglers who worked for the Lloyd Austrian shipping company.

Austria was forced to bear responsibility for the the German product, and its international reputation suffered a blow. “This story shows the integration of these two empires, but also the weakness of a commercial empire that tries to build itself on prestige,” Johnson said. “Germany benefits from a trade for which Austria ends up paying the price.”

“Johnson’s work on Austrian identity and the Austrian Empire provides insight into topics that tend to get lost in Europe’s history,” said Associate Professor of German Birgit Tautz, who introduced the talk. This historical perspective is relevant today, Tautz said, in understanding Germany’s current role as a bridge between Western and Eastern Europe.

Following the lecture, Associate Professor of Government Laura Henry drew parallels between Johnson’s story and Germany’s current relationship with Greece. “You can make a similar argument that Germany’s strengths and Greece’s weaknesses are co-constituted,” Henry said. “We’re hearing some interesting echoes of the past.”

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