King Leopold’s Ghost

King Leopold’s Ghost Themes

Themes and Colors
Imperialism Theme Icon
Publicity and Mass Communication Theme Icon
Racism and Human Rights Theme Icon
Indifference and Activism Theme Icon
Historiography and Bias Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in King Leopold’s Ghost, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

King Leopold’s Ghost describes a period of history during which the Western powers—European countries, along with the United States—exerted an unprecedented amount of control over the rest of the world. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Western powers controlled huge territories in Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia, exemplifying a form of statecraft known as imperialism. These imperialist powers claimed to be the rightful owners of the territories they controlled, and they…

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In addition to detailing the history of imperialism, King Leopold’s Ghost studies another important aspect of late 19th and early 20th century political history: the rise of mass communication. Throughout the 19th century, newspaper circulation grew enormously, as did the literacy rate in the Western world. Furthermore, telegraph networks connected different parts of the world, ensuring that news traveled fast. At a time when international mass communication was a relatively new invention…

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The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of widespread, normalized racism in Europe and America. Many of the most powerful people in the Western world believed that the native peoples of Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas were second-class human beings, or not human beings at all. Even some of the liberals of the era adopted a condescending attitude (an attitude that, by 21st century standards, would seem downright racist) when discussing…

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Throughout King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild tries to answer a profound question: why did millions of educated, “civilized” people who had heard about the cruelty in the Congo sit back and do nothing? Hochschild offers many different reasons: the racism of America and Western Europe at the time, the “mythology” of imperialism, the sophisticated publicity maneuvers of King Leopold II, etc. In the end, though, Hochschild keeps coming back to the same disturbing truth…

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King Leopold’s Ghost isn’t just a work of history; it’s a meditation on historiography, the study of how primary sources are interpreted, reinterpreted, and shaped into a supposedly “true” version of the past. In the course of examining the history of the Belgian occupation of the Congo, Hochschild asks a series of important questions. First, which people from the era of the Belgian occupation had the luxury of writing down their accounts of what happened…

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