It is hard to excuse, let alone justify, many of Schweitzer’s attitudes towards Africans, even allowing for the passage of time. For sure, he records his first impressions in 1913 with searing honesty and eminent sympathy for the plight of the locals. But more striking and less understandable is his evident refusal, half a century later, to accept that they could change with time and education.
Aficionados of Schweitzer are unsurprisingly twitchy about acknowledging his racial attitudes, fearing that they unfairly cast a stain over his extraordinary overall achievements. “We are going through a process of trying to come to terms with it,” says a leading light in the Reverence for Life movement. “He was a man of his time who used the language of his time.”
Schweitzer’s prime reason for coming as a doctor to Africa should be remembered as well. “Who can describe the injustice and the cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the Black Africans] have suffered at the hands of Europeans?” Though he did not specify the genocide of the Herero people by his fellow Germans in 1905 in South West Africa (later Namibia), he plainly regarded it with horror.
Although Schweitzer’s language is paternalistic in the extreme, he admired the local Africans’ psychological insights.
Conversations I have had in the hospital with old natives about the ultimate things of life have deeply impressed me. The distinction between white and coloured, educated and uneducated, disappears when one gets talking with the forest dweller about our relations to each other, to mankind, to the universe and to the infinite…. On the whole I feel that the primitive man is much more good-natured than we Europeans are; with Christianity added to his good qualities, wonderfully noble characters can result. I expect I am not the only white man who feels himself put to shame by the natives.
He once said, “Nowhere but in Africa could I have discovered the idea of Reverence for all Life.”
While Schweitzer refers often to the enmity between Gabon’s different tribes, he notes how the locals were aghast at the scale of the Europeans’ slaughter of each other in the First World War. Moreover, despite his calling as a pastor, Schweitzer was wary of imposing European cultural values on the locals. A visiting doctor in 1961 recalled “a lively discussion at the dinner table with his statement that only those who, through their own action and behavior, were able to convey the very best of Christian civilization to the Africans, had any justification in trying to influence their way of life.” It is notable that, though Schweitzer held regular services, preaching the gospels through interpreters, there is no church within the grounds of the village or hospital. He never sought to dissuade the locals from polygamy.
Admirers of Schweitzer are habitually incensed by what they see as the tendency of his detractors to call out the comments and thoughts that cast him in a bad light, while skating over his overall achievements. “The idea that he was a racist really rubs me the wrong way,” says an American doctor whose grandfather was a close colleague of Schweitzer’s. Confessing to a naïve idealism when she first visited Lambaréné, she points to the enduring differences in cultures: “We do function in a different way.” Is that a racist observation? “You can take a phrase and go in any direction with it and cherry-pick his faults,” says a leading scientist at CERMEL.
Much of his rudeness to the local Africans can be put down not to racist malice but to his autocratic and volatile temperament amid the severe frustrations of trying to build a village and a hospital from scratch, not to mention the climate—the boiling heat, the sudden torrents of tropical rain, the mosquitoes. The Africans, Brabazon noted, often yelled back at him. He was also short-tempered and rude to white people. In his fiery youth, it is recorded, he struck his sister and hit a nephew. Once, in Lambaréné “he hit one of his nurses a considerable whack with a pick handle” for disobedience. “Schweitzer had no time for politeness,” wrote Brabazon. “I hate good manners,” Schweitzer once said.
The accusations lodged by Cameron, one of the most brilliant foreign correspondents of his day, deserve special attention, for his essay is among the most damaging to Schweitzer’s reputation. Though the anecdotes and exchanges illustrated some of Schweitzer’s less attractive features, they should also be seen through the prism of a liberal anti-imperialist jarring against an old man who had made a habit of swiping at anything that smacked of fashionable virtue-signaling. Besides, Schweitzer was a tease who liked to shock liberal opinion-makers, often with a wink.
Take his disparaging comment that Cameron records him making about Gandhi, for whom the journalist had a special regard. After Cameron mentioned that Gandhi had taught him how to eat a mango, Schweitzer said: “There was the classic tragedy. Gandhi was killed in the end by the very forces of the past he had spent his life trying to evoke. A great educator, misled into politics.” Yet Schweitzer deeply respected the Hindu basis of Gandhi’s beliefs and had written copiously about them. His curt remark was probably prompted by a desire to rile up the younger man.
The silly dig at politics was revealing, however. Schweitzer had little time for formal politics; he tended to mock high-flown international rhetoric and to look warily at organizations such as the United Nations, though he had mutually respectful exchanges with Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Schweitzer could be naïve, too, when compelled to engage in worldly affairs—for instance, when he was persuaded to endorse East German propaganda as part of his campaign against nuclear weapons.
Cameron’s anti-colonial credentials may have provoked in Schweitzer an adversarial desire to raise his hackles. The doctor’s notorious comments about Malan may fall under a similar rubric, for Schweitzer was known on other occasions to have fiercely condemned apartheid. Yet at the same time he plainly thought that hurriedly granting self-government to Africans, a process then in train across the continent, was unwise; indeed, he thought it “morally indefensible to leave Africans in the lurch,” as one of his modern defenders puts it.
As for telling Cameron that he had never sat at a table with a Black man, this, in Brabazon’s words, was “totally at variance with the facts,” since “Africans sat, lay, and sprawled in Schweitzer’s presence all the time.” Still, Brabazon himself seems to labor his explanation for the doctor’s refusal to eat with his Black staff in a more formal setting: for one thing, “it was a matter of hierarchy and discipline”; for another, the Africans “refused to eat from any pot but their own—a refusal that had its origin in fear of poisoning but had become an unbreakable social custom.” But when African officials came to the hospital as visitors they did eat in the staff dining room like any other guest. Schweitzer exaggerated. Cameron took him too literally.
Whereas it is generally white commentators who are most strident in denouncing Schweitzer for racism, it seems that Africans with a link to Lambaréné express a more nuanced view. Surely, in the first flush of postcolonial indignation, educated Africans tended to be damning in their assessment. Aristide Mba, a Gabonese academic now in America, calls him “a joke.” Others have deemed him “an anachronism.” A senior figure of color at the World Bank recently judged him “a racist who took bad care of his patients.”
But others sound more tolerant. The late Ali Mazrui, a Kenya-born scholar of Swahili descent noted for his pan-African views, was the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In accepting the chair, he made subtle distinctions between three different types of racism: “malignant racism (racial hostility or contempt for others), benign racism (racial ethnocentrism without aggression) and benevolent racism (racial paternalism and altruistic ethnocentrism).” Schweitzer, he reckoned, was a racist of the benevolent kind.
In Docteur Schweitzer, une Icône Africaine, Augustin Émane, who was born at Lambaréné and now teaches labor law at Nantes University in France, quotes a number of Africans who knew the doctor. Their overriding judgment is that Schweitzer was a disciplinarian who asserted his superior status but nonetheless respected them as people. “Of course we were very critical of Schweitzer as a colonialist, a racist,” says Émane of his days as a young man born soon after independence. “But when I took a real interest in his life and talked to people who knew him, my opinion changed a bit…. He was a just man.” Regarding the notorious “African as younger brother” phrase, Émane says that in colonial times few whites would accept the “brother” epithet at all, however qualified. “Brother,” by the standard of the era, was progressive.
Quite often Émane’s witnesses recall how Schweitzer was “feared,” especially when he was in a bad temper. An old woman who remembers him from when she was a girl says you were expected to look humbly at the ground when he spoke. Several of Émane’s sources mention that he sometimes “slapped” his staff (“Parfois il a usé de la gifle”) but add that, once the doctor’s anger had subsided, laughter would resume. “Respect” is a word that crops up repeatedly. Most Africans with links to Lambaréné insist he respected the local people, even amid bursts of anger, frustration, and abuse.
Maman Sophie, a famous figure in Lambaréné, speaks in grateful awe of Schweitzer’s achievements as founder of the hospital where she worked for thirty-four years. “He respected everyone—animals, children, all human beings.” She airily dismisses the charge of racism. “You must know that in those days there were no évolués,” meaning educated Africans who had assimilated with whites.
Another phrase that echoed repeatedly during a recent visit to Lambaréné was that “he was a man of his time” (“Un homme de l’époque”). Not a single local Gabonese said bluntly, “He was a racist,” preferring to use euphemisms, often expressed with a smile. Most of the people who had personal links with Lambaréné expressed pride in their association with “Le Grand Docteur,” as he was invariably addressed. “L’esprit de Shezzair,” as locals pronounce his name, was frequently intoned, always with reverence. “Reverence for Life” was often mentioned, as if it gave Lambaréné a special cachet.
“He was like a God,” says Praxedt Ndolo, daughter of Joseph Azowani, Schweitzer’s longest serving medical orderly, the Black man with whom he probably had the closest relationship. Incidentally, Ndolo went out of her way to explain why her father was not buried alongside Schweitzer: he preferred interment in his own village of birth. It has been suggested that there was racial segregation even in the little cemetery where Schweitzer and a dozen of his closest companions now lie, in graves marked by modest little wooden crosses: indeed, all those buried are white.
Mickala, the hospital’s current director, sounds irritated by the racist tag. “Of course he was not a racist: he came here to do good, he looked after everyone, he worked for the love of the people here, he died here. He didn’t look at the color of their skin or at their religion—all were equal.”
Gabon’s current president, Ali Bongo, once told a visiting professor from America how, when he traveled abroad as a young man, almost no one had heard of Gabon, “but everyone had heard of Lambaréné and Albert Schweitzer—he put our country on the map.” In 2013 he led the way in celebrating the centenary of Schweitzer’s arrival. “Grand Docteur,” he declared, “you have not left us, you will not leave us! I am certain that your memory and the spirit you inspired will not perish and that your life’s work and brotherliness will live on in the Gabon of tomorrow.” Even more strikingly, seeing that Schweitzer had openly doubted the wisdom of granting Gabon independence, the country’s first president, Léon M’ba, who considered himself a close friend of Schweitzer, asked him to represent France’s African states at the United Nations Commission on the Rights of Man.
Was Schweitzer a racist? Even his most devoted followers find it hard to deny that some of his attitudes—even allowing for historical context—cannot be called anything else. Can a racist also be a virtuous and great man? Nowadays many would say that that is impossible. But most of the good people of Lambaréné evidently beg to differ.