Study Guide

Exterminate All the Brutes

by Sven Lindqvist

Exterminate All the Brutes Essay - Critical Essays

Exterminate All the Brutes

In EXTERMINATE ALL THE BRUTES, Sven Lindqvist presents a haunting mixture of travelogue, literary interpretation, and historical analysis, the purpose of which is to expose the roots of twentieth century holocaust in the ideology and practices of nineteenth century colonialism.

Originally published in Sweden in 1992, the book uses Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS (1902) as a vehicle for a rather unique inquiry. According to Lindqvist, the most potent darkness in Conrad’s novel is not that of primitive Africa or some inner recess of human nature abstracted from history. It is that of the European colonialists themselves. Pointing out that the word “Europe” itself is rooted in a Semitic word for darkness, Lindqvist argues that nineteenth century imperialism sought not to improve the lives of various native peoples, but rather to hasten their extinction. Thus, for Lindqvist, Kurtz’s final recommendation in HEART OF DARKNESS, “exterminate all the brutes,” represents one essence of European thought.

Lindqvist enriches his analysis by linking colonial practices to evolutionary theory and social Darwinism. The discovery of natural selection with its long history of mass extinctions of species could easily be used to justify the disappearance of less fit branches of the human family. This mindset later became the basis for Nazi genocide. Thus, for Lindqvist, the roots of Nazi atrocities lie in the mainstream practices of European and American expansion, both of which involved the wholesale decimation of native peoples.

Interspersed throughout the book are surreal accounts of Lindqvist’s travels in North Africa. Along with Joan Tate’s graceful translation from the Swedish, this provides literary depth and an air of intrigue as we discover, with horror, that the fingerprints on the smoking gun of holocaust are our own.