German colonial empire

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German colonial empire

Deutsches Kolonialreich
Wappen Deutsches Reich - Reichsadler 1889.svg
Coat of arms
German colonial.PNG
German colonies and protectorates in 1914
Status Colonial empire
Capital Berlin
Common languages German
Oshiwambo, Bantu, Afrikaans, Swahili (East African colonies)
Tsingtao Chinese and Mandarin Chinese (Tianjin and Kiautschou Bay)
Papuan languages (German New Guinea)
Samoan (German Samoa)
28 June 1919
1912 [1] (not including Imperial Germany proper)2,658,161 km2 (1,026,322 sq mi)
An East African Askari soldier holding the German Empire's colonial flag Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DOA6369, Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari.jpg
An East African Askari soldier holding the German Empire's colonial flag

The German colonial empire (German : Deutsches Kolonialreich) constituted the overseas colonies, dependencies and territories of Imperial Germany. Unified in the early 1870's, the chancellor of this time period was Otto von Bismarck. Short-lived attempts of colonization by individual German states had occurred in preceding centuries, but crucial colonial efforts only began in 1884 with the Scramble for Africa. Claiming much of the left-over uncolonized areas in the Scramble for Africa, Germany managed to build the third largest colonial empire at the time, after the British and French. [2]

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

German Empire empire in Central Europe between 1871–1918

The German Empire, also known as Imperial Germany, was the German nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 until the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.

Otto von Bismarck 19th-century German statesman and Chancellor

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg, known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890 and was the first Chancellor of the German Empire between 1871 and 1890. In 1862, King Wilhelm I appointed him as Minister President of Prussia, a position he would hold until 1890, with the exception of a short break in 1873. He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. Following the victory against Austria, he abolished the supranational German Confederation and instead formed the North German Confederation as the first German national state in 1867, leading it as Federal Chancellor. This aligned the smaller North German states behind Prussia. Later receiving the support of the independent South German states in the Confederation's defeat of France, he formed the German Empire in 1871, unifying Germany with himself as Imperial Chancellor, while retaining control of Prussia at the same time. The new German nation excluded Austria, which had been Prussia's main opponent for predominance among the German states.


Germany lost control of its colonial empire when the First World War began in 1914 and many of its colonies were seized by the Allies during the first weeks of the war. However some colonial military units held out for a while longer: German South West Africa surrendered in 1915, Kamerun in 1916 and German East Africa in 1918. In the case of German East Africa, the defenders under the command of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had engaged a guerrilla war against British colonial and Portuguese forces and did not surrender until after the end of the war.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as, "the war to end all wars," it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the resulting 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Allies of World War I group of countries that fought against the Central Powers in World War I

The Allies of World War I or Entente Powers was the coalition that opposed the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria during the First World War (1914–1918).

German South West Africa former colony of the German Empire

German South West Africa was a colony of the German Empire from 1884 until 1919. With an area of 835,100 km², it was one and a half times the size of the mainland German Empire in Europe at the time. The colony had a population of around 2,600 Germans.

Germany's colonial empire was officially confiscated with the Treaty of Versailles after Germany's defeat in the war and each colony became a League of Nations mandate under the supervision (but not ownership) of one of the victorious powers. The German colonial empire ceased to exist in 1919. [3] Plans to regain their lost colonial possessions persisted through WW2, with many at the time suspecting that was a goal of the Third Reich all along. [4] Despite having a short in existence compared to other colonial empires, Germany's colonial ventures changed the places and people they came into contact with. The Germans participated in medicinal and scientific research in Africa, as well as attempting to build up an infrastructure there.

Treaty of Versailles one of the treaties that ended the First World War

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to an end. The Treaty ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to the war. The other Central Powers on the German side signed separate treaties. Although the armistice, signed on 11 November 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the League of Nations on 21 October 1919.

League of Nations 20th-century intergovernmental organisation, predecessor to the United Nations

The League of Nations, abbreviated as LN or LoN, was an intergovernmental organisation founded on 10 January 1920 as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Other issues in this and related treaties included labour conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. At its greatest extent from 28 September 1934 to 23 February 1935, it had 58 members.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.


German unification

Until their 1871 unification, the German states had not concentrated on the development of a navy, and this essentially had precluded German participation in earlier imperialist scrambles for remote colonial territory – the so-called "place in the sun". Germany seemed destined to play catch-up. The German states prior to 1870 had retained separate political structures and goals, and German foreign policy up to and including the age of Otto von Bismarck concentrated on resolving the "German question" in Europe and securing German interests on the continent. [5] However, by 1891 they were mostly united under Prussian rule. [6] They also sought a more clear cut "German" state, and saw colonies as a good way to achieve that. [7]

Unification of Germany Creation of a politically and administratively integrated nation state of German-speaking populations in 1871, in the form of the German Empire

The unification of Germany into a politically and administratively integrated nation state officially occurred on 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France. Princes of the German states, excluding Austria, gathered there to proclaim William I of Prussia as German Emperor after the French capitulation in the Franco-Prussian War. Unofficially, the de facto transition of most of the German-speaking populations into a federated organization of states had been developing for some time through alliances formal and informal between princely rulers, but in fits and starts. The self-interests of the various parties hampered the process over nearly a century of autocratic experimentation, beginning in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, which prompted the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, and the subsequent rise of German nationalism.

Imperialism Policy or ideology of extending a nations rule over foreign nations

Imperialism is a policy or ideology of extending a nation's rule over foreign nations, often by military force or by gaining political and economic control of other areas. Imperialism was both normal and common worldwide throughout recorded history, the earliest examples dating from the mid-third millennium BC, diminishing only in the late 20th century. In recent times, it has been considered morally reprehensible and prohibited by international law. Therefore, the term is used in international propaganda to denounce an opponent's foreign policy.

Colony territory under the political control of an overseas state, generally with its own subordinate colonial government

In history, a colony is a territory under the immediate complete political control and occupied by settlers of a state, distinct from the home territory of the sovereign. For colonies in antiquity, city-states would often found their own colonies. Some colonies were historically countries, while others were territories without definite statehood from their inception.

Scramble for colonies

Gross-Friedrichsburg, a Brandenburg colony (1683-1717) in the territory of modern Ghana GrossFriedrichsburg.JPG
Groß-Friedrichsburg, a Brandenburg colony (1683–1717) in the territory of modern Ghana
Kladderadatsch caricature, 1884. Bismarck is happy with other nations being busy "down there" Kladderadatsch 1884 - Die Sudsee ist das Mittelmeer der Zukunft.png
Kladderadatsch caricature, 1884. Bismarck is happy with other nations being busy "down there"

Many Germans in the late 19th century viewed colonial acquisitions as a true indication of having achieved nationhood. Public opinion eventually arrived at an understanding that prestigious African and Pacific colonies went hand-in-hand with dreams of a High Seas Fleet. Both aspirations would become reality, nurtured by a press replete with Kolonialfreunde [supporters of colonial acquisitions] and by a myriad of geographical associations and colonial societies. Bismarck and many deputies in the Reichstag had no interest in colonial conquests merely to acquire square miles of territory. [8]

High Seas Fleet Imperial German Navy fleet

The High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) was the battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy and saw action during the First World War. The formation was created in February 1907, when the Home Fleet (Heimatflotte) was renamed as the High Seas Fleet. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was the architect of the fleet; he envisioned a force powerful enough to challenge the Royal Navy's predominance. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, championed the fleet as the instrument by which he would seize overseas possessions and make Germany a global power. By concentrating a powerful battle fleet in the North Sea while the Royal Navy was required to disperse its forces around the British Empire, Tirpitz believed Germany could achieve a balance of force that could seriously damage British naval hegemony. This was the heart of Tirpitz's "Risk Theory," which held that Britain would not challenge Germany if the latter's fleet posed such a significant threat to its own.

Reichstag (German Empire) parliament of Germany from 1871 to 1918

The Reichstag was the Parliament of Germany from 1871 to 1918. Legislation was shared between the Reichstag and the Bundesrat, which was the Imperial Council of the reigning princes of the German States.

In essence, Bismarck's colonial motives were obscure as he had said repeatedly "... I am no man for colonies" [9] and "remained as contemptuous of all colonial dreams as ever." [10] However, in 1884 he consented to the acquisition of colonies by the German Empire, in order to protect trade, safeguard raw materials and export markets and take advantage of opportunities for capital investment, among other reasons. [11] In the very next year Bismarck shed personal involvement when "he abandoned his colonial drive as suddenly and casually as he had started it" as if he had committed an error in judgment that could confuse the substance of his more significant policies. [12] "Indeed, in 1889, [Bismarck] tried to give German South-West Africa away to the British. It was, he said, a burden and an expense, and he would like to saddle someone else with it." [13]

Before this, Germans had traditions of foreign sea-borne trade dating back to the Hanseatic League; a tradition of German emigration that existed (eastward in the direction of Russia and Transylvania and westward to the Americas); and North German merchants and missionaries showed interest in overseas engagements. The Hanseatic republics of Hamburg and Bremen sent traders across the globe. These trading houses conducted themselves as successful Privatkolonisatoren [independent colonizers] and concluded treaties and land purchases in Africa and the Pacific with chiefs and or other tribal leaders. These early agreements with local entities, later formed the basis for annexation treaties, diplomatic support and military protection by the German government. [14]

Acquisition of colonies

The German Colonial empire got its start around 1884, and in those years they acquired several territories. German East Africa, German South-West Africa, Cameroon, and Togo in Africa. Germany was also active in the Pacific annexing a series of islands that would be called German New Guinea. The northwestern region of New Guinea was called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, the Bismarck Archipelago to the islands east, this also contained two larger islands named New Mecklenburg and New Pomerania, they also acquired the Northern Solomon Islands. These islands were given the status of protectorate. [15]

Company land acquisitions and stewardship

The Congo conference 1884/1885 in Berlin laid the basis for the Scramble for Africa, the colonial division of the continent Kongokonferenz.jpg
The Congo conference 1884/1885 in Berlin laid the basis for the Scramble for Africa , the colonial division of the continent

The rise of German imperialism and colonialism coincided with the latter stages of the "Scramble for Africa" during which enterprising German individuals, rather than government entities, competed with other already established colonies and colonialist entrepreneurs. With the Germans joining the race for the last uncharted territories in Africa and the Pacific that had not yet been carved up, competition for colonies thus involved major European nations, and several lesser powers.

The German effort included the first commercial enterprises in the 1850s and 1860s in West Africa, East Africa, the Samoan Islands and the unexplored north-east quarter of New Guinea with adjacent islands. [16] German traders and merchants began to establish themselves in the African Cameroon delta and the mainland coast across from Zanzibar. [17] At Apia and the settlements Finschhafen, Simpsonhafen and the islands Neu-Pommern and Neu-Mecklenburg, trading companies newly fortified with credit began expansion into coastal landholding. [18] Large African inland acquisitions followed — mostly to the detriment of native inhabitants. In eastern Africa the imperialist and "man-of-action" Karl Peters accumulated vast tracts of land for his colonization group, "emerging from the bush with X-marks [affixed by unlettered tribal chiefs] on documents ... for some 60 thousand square miles of the Zanzibar Sultanate’s mainland property." [19] Such exploratory missions required security measures that could be solved with small private, armed contingents recruited mainly in the Sudan and usually led by adventurous former military personnel of lower rank. Brutality, hanging and flogging prevailed during these land-grab expeditions under Peters’ control as well as others as no-one "held a monopoly in the mistreatment of Africans." [20]

As Bismarck was converted to the colonial idea by 1884, he favored "chartered company" land management rather than establishment of colonial government due to financial considerations. [21] Although temperate zone cultivation flourished, the demise and often failure of tropical low-land enterprises contributed to changing Bismarck’s view. He reluctantly acquiesced to pleas for help to deal with revolts and armed hostilities by often powerful rulers whose lucrative slaving activities seemed at risk. German native military forces initially engaged in dozens of punitive expeditions to apprehend and punish freedom fighters, at times with British assistance. [22] The author Charles Miller offers the theory that the Germans had the handicap of trying to colonize African areas inhabited by aggressive tribes, [23] whereas their colonial neighbours had more docile peoples to contend with. At that time, the German penchant for giving muscle priority over patience contributed to continued unrest. Several of the African colonies remained powder kegs throughout this phase (and beyond). The transition to official acceptance of colonialism and to colonial government thus occurred during the last quarter of Bismarck’s tenure of office. [24]


Railway station in Luderitz, Namibia, 2006 Bahnhof Luderitz.jpg
Railway station in Lüderitz, Namibia, 2006
German Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg (2nd from right) on inspection tour in East Africa, shown on a courtesy visit with British officials at Nairobi in 1907 Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2007-0013, Reise Bernhard Dernburgs duch Deutsch-Ostafrika.jpg
German Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg (2nd from right) on inspection tour in East Africa, shown on a courtesy visit with British officials at Nairobi in 1907
Postcards depicted romanticized images of natives and exotic locales, such as this early 20th century card of the German colonial territory in New Guinea Postcard from New Guinea.jpg
Postcards depicted romanticized images of natives and exotic locales, such as this early 20th century card of the German colonial territory in New Guinea

In the first years of the 20th century shipping lines had established scheduled services with refrigerated holds and agricultural products from the colonies, exotic fruits and spices, were sold to the public in Germany. The colonies were romanticized. Geologists and cartographers explored what were the unmarked regions on European maps, identifying mountains and rivers, and demarcating boundaries. Hermann Detzner and one Captain Nugent, R.A., had charge of a joint project to demarcate the British and German frontiers of Cameroon, which was published in 1913. [25] Travelers and newspaper reporters brought back stories of black and brown natives serving German managers and settlers. There were also suspicions and reports of colonial malfeasance, corruption and brutality in some protectorates, and Lutheran and Roman Catholic missionaries dispatched disturbing reports to their mission headquarters in Germany. [26]

German colonial diplomatic efforts remained commercially inspired, "the colonial economy was thriving ... and roads, railways, shipping and telegraph communications were up to the minute." [27] Overhaul of the colonial administrative apparatus thus set the stage for the final and most promising period of German colonialism. [28] Bernhard Dernburg’s declaration that the indigenous population in the protectorates "was the most important factor in our colonies" was affirmed by new laws. The use of forced, unpaid labor went on the books as a criminal offense. [29] Governor Wilhelm Solf of Samoa would call the islanders "unsere braunen Schützlinge" [our brown charges], who could be guided but not forced. [30] Heinrich Schnee in East Africa proclaimed that "the dominant feature of my administration [will be] ... the welfare of the natives entrusted into my care." [31] Idealists often volunteered for selection and appointment to government posts, while others with an entrepreneurial bent labored to swell the dividends at home for the Hanseatic trading houses and shipping lines. Subsequent historians would commend German colonialism in those years as "an engine of modernization with far-reaching effects for the future." [32] The native population was forced into unequal treaties by the German colonial governments. This led to the local tribes and natives losing their influence and power and eventually forced some of them to become slave laborers. Although slavery was partially outlawed in 1905 by Germany, this caused a great deal of resentment and led eventually to revolts by the native population[ further explanation needed ]. The result was several military and genocidal campaigns by the Germans against the natives. [33] Political and economic subjugation of Herero and Nama was envisioned. Both the colonial authorities and settlers were of the opinion that native Africans were to be a lower class, their land seized and handed over to settlers and companies, while the remaining population was to be put in reservations; the Germans planned to make a colony inhabited predominately by whites: a "new African Germany". [34]

The established merchants and plantation operators in the African colonies frequently managed to sway government policies. Capital investments by banks were secured with public funds of the imperial treasury to minimize risk. Dernburg, as a former banker, facilitated such thinking; he saw his commission to also turn the colonies into paying propositions. Every African protectorate built rail lines to the interior, [35] every colony in Africa and the Pacific established the beginnings of a public school system, [36] and every colony built and staffed hospitals. [37] Whatever the Germans constructed in their colonies was made to last. [38]

Qingdao with German buildings, circa 1900 Bundesarchiv Bild 137-039348, Tsingtau, Deutsche Bauten.jpg
Qingdao with German buildings, circa 1900

Dar es Salaam evolved into "the showcase city of all of tropical Africa," [38] Lomé grew into the "prettiest city in western Africa", [39] and Tsingtao, China was, "in miniature, as German a city as Hamburg or Bremen". [40] For indigenous populations in some colonies native agricultural holdings were encouraged and supported. [41]

End of the German colonial empire

Conquest in World War I

December 1914: An Austrian lieutenant, Paul Fiedler, bombards a South African military camp at the railway station of Tschaukaib, German South West Africa Bombardement Tschaukaib 1914.jpg
December 1914: An Austrian lieutenant, Paul Fiedler, bombards a South African military camp at the railway station of Tschaukaib, German South West Africa

In the years before the outbreak of the World War, British colonial officers viewed the Germans as deficient in "colonial aptitude", but "whose colonial administration was nevertheless superior to those of the other European states". [43] Anglo-German colonial issues in the decade before 1914 were minor and both empires, the British and German, took conciliatory attitudes. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, considered still a moderate in 1911, was willing to "study the map of Africa in a pro-German spirit". [44] Britain further recognized that Germany really had little of value to offer in territorial transactions; however, advice to Grey and Prime Minister H. H. Asquith hardened by early 1914 "to stop the trend of what the advisers considered Germany’s taking and Britain’s giving." [45]

Once war was declared in late July 1914 Britain and its allies promptly moved against the colonies. The public was informed that German colonies were a threat because "Every German colony has a powerful wireless station — they will talk to one another across the seas, and at every opportunity they [German ships] will dash from cover to harry and destroy our commerce, and maybe, to raid our coasts." [46] The British position that Germany was a uniquely brutal and cruel colonial power originated during the war; it had not been said during peacetime. [47]

In the Pacific, Britain's ally Japan declared war on Germany in 1914 and quickly seized several of Germany's island colonies, the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands, with virtually no resistance.

By 1916 only in remote jungle regions in East Africa did the German forces hold out. South Africa’s J.C. Smuts, now in Britain's small War Cabinet, spoke of German schemes for world power, militarisation and exploitation of resources, indicating Germany threatened western civilisation itself. Smuts' warnings were repeated in the press. The idea took hold that they should not be returned to Germany after the war. [48]


Germany's overseas empire was dismantled following defeat in World War I. With the concluding Treaty of Versailles, Article 22, German colonies were transformed into League of Nations mandates and divided between Belgium, the United Kingdom, and certain British Dominions, France and Japan with the determination not to see any of them returned to Germany — a guarantee secured by Article 119. [49]

In Africa, the United Kingdom and France divided German Kamerun (Cameroons) and Togoland. Belgium gained Ruanda-Urundi in northwestern German East Africa, the United Kingdom obtained by far the greater land mass of this colony, thus gaining the "missing link" in the chain of British possessions stretching from South Africa to Egypt (Cape to Cairo), and Portugal received the Kionga Triangle, a sliver of German East Africa. German South-West Africa was taken under mandate by the Union of South Africa. [50] In terms of the population of 12.5 million people in 1914, 42 percent were transferred to mandates of Britain and its dominions. 33 percent to France, and 25 percent to Belgium. [51]

In the Pacific, Japan gained Germany's islands north of the equator (the Marshall Islands, the Carolines, the Marianas, the Palau Islands) and Kiautschou in China. German Samoa was assigned to New Zealand; German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and Nauru [52] went to Australia as mandates. [53]

British placement of surrogate responsibility for former German colonies on white-settler dominions was at the time determined to be the most expedient option for the British government — and an appropriate reward for the Dominions having fulfilled their "great and urgent imperial service" through military intervention at the behest of and for Great Britain. [54] It also meant that British colonies now had colonies of their own — which was very much influenced at the Paris proceedings by W.M. Hughes, William Massey, and Louis Botha, the prime ministers of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. [55] The principle of "self-determination" embodied in the League of Nations covenant was not considered to apply to these colonies and was "regarded as meaningless". [56] To "allay President [Woodrow] Wilson's suspicions of British imperialism", the system of "mandates" was drawn up and agreed to by the British War Cabinet (with the French and Italians in tow), [57] a device by which conquered enemy territory would be held not as a possession but as "sacred trusts". [56] But "far from envisaging the eventual independence of the [former] German colonies, Allied statesmen at the Paris Conference regarded 1919 as the renewal, not the end, of an imperial era." [56] In deliberations the British "War Cabinet had confidence that natives everywhere would opt for British rule"; however, the cabinet acknowledged "the necessity to prove that its policy toward the German colonies was not motivated by aggrandizement" since the Empire was seen by America as a "land devouring octopus" [58] with a "voracious territorial appetite". [59]


West German vice minister of workfare, Wilhelm Claussen (left), with Paul Armegee, transport minister of Togo, Bonn 1961 Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F011457-0004, Bonn, BMA, Minister aus Togo.jpg
West German vice minister of workfare, Wilhelm Claussen (left), with Paul Armegee, transport minister of Togo, Bonn 1961
Colonial postcard from Qingdao Tsingtau Postkarten ca 1900 Kiautschou.jpg
Colonial postcard from Qingdao

President Wilson saw the League of Nations as "'residuary trustee' for the [German] colonies" captured and occupied by "rapacious conquerors". [60] The victors retained the German overseas possessions and did so with the belief that Australian, Belgian, British, French, Japanese, New Zealand, Portuguese and South African rule was superior to Germany’s. [61] Several decades later during the collapse of the then existing colonial empires, Africans and Asians cited the same arguments that had been used by the Allies against German colonial rule — they now simply demanded "to stand by themselves". [62]

A Cameroonese tribal chief wearing German helmet, armour, and uniform in British Cameroons, during a funeral. This photograph was sought out and used by the Nazis in propaganda to show the existence of German culture in the ex-German colony to justify a return of Germany's lost colonies. Cameroon chief German armour.jpg
A Cameroonese tribal chief wearing German helmet, armour, and uniform in British Cameroons, during a funeral. This photograph was sought out and used by the Nazis in propaganda to show the existence of German culture in the ex-German colony to justify a return of Germany's lost colonies.

In the 1920s, some individuals and the German Colonial Society fought for the idea of colonialism. Settlement in Africa was not popular, and was not a focus for Hitler. Established in 1936, the Reichskolonialbund under Franz Ritter von Epp absorbed all colonial organizations and was meant to raise pro-colonial sentiments, public interest in former German colonies, and take part in political agitation. However, with the onset of World War II the organization entered a decline, before being disbanded by decree in 1943 for "activity irrelevant to the war".

There are hardly any special ties between modern Germany and its former colonies; for example, there is no postcolonial league comparable to the British Commonwealth of Nations or French Francophonie. In stark contrast with French and English, both of which are widely spoken across the continent by those of both African and European ancestry, the German language is not a significant language in Africa even within former colonies—although it is spoken by a significant minority of the population of Namibia. Germany cooperates economically and culturally with many countries in Africa and Asia, independent of colonial history.

Administration and colonial policies

Colonial governments

German Empire and its colonies, political diagramme German Empire and colonies.svg
German Empire and its colonies, political diagramme
Togo 1904: the way to the governor's palace Lome Togo Weg nach dem Gouverneurspalast 1904.png
Togo 1904: the way to the governor's palace
Hendrik Witbooi with the German governor Theodor Leutwein of South-West Africa (toasting to each other), 1896 Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2006-0137, Deutsch-Sudwestafrika, Witbooi bei dt. Verwaltungsbeamten.jpg
Hendrik Witbooi with the German governor Theodor Leutwein of South-West Africa (toasting to each other), 1896
The Askari colonial troops in German East Africa, circa 1906 Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DOA6364, Deutsch-Ostafrika, Polizeiaskaris.jpg
The Askari colonial troops in German East Africa, circa 1906

Bismarck’s successor in 1890, Leo von Caprivi, was willing to maintain the colonial burden of what already existed, but opposed new ventures. [63] Others who followed, especially Bernhard von Bülow, as foreign minister and chancellor, sanctioned the acquisition of the Pacific Ocean colonies and provided substantial treasury assistance to existing protectorates to employ administrators, commercial agents, surveyors, local "peacekeepers" and tax collectors. Kaiser Wilhelm II understood and lamented his nation's position as colonial followers rather than leaders. In an interview with Cecil Rhodes in March 1899 he stated the alleged dilemma clearly: "... Germany has begun her colonial enterprise very late, and was, therefore, at the disadvantage of finding all the desirable places already occupied." [64]

The German colonists included people like Carl Peters who brutalized the local population. [65]

Nonetheless, Germany did assemble an overseas empire in Africa and the Pacific Ocean (see List of former German colonies) in the last two decades of the 19th century; "the creation of Germany's colonial empire proceeded with the minimum of friction." [12] The acquisition and the expansion of colonies were accomplished in a variety of ways, but principally through mercantile domination and pretexts that were always economic. Agreements and treaties with other colonial powers or interests followed, and fee simple purchases of land or island groups. [66] Only Togoland and German Samoa became profitable and self-sufficient; the balance sheet for the colonies as a whole revealed a fiscal net loss for the empire. [67] Despite this, the leadership in Berlin committed the nation to the financial support, maintenance, development and defence of these possessions.

German colonial population

The Pennsylvania Dutch who emigrated to America in the 17th and 18th centuries were religious refugees from the Thirty Years War which devastated the German states 1616-1648 rather than colonial settlers. Germantown, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1684 and 65,000 Germans landed in Philadelphia alone between 1727 and 1775, and more at other American ports. More than 950,000 Germans immigrated to the USA in the 1850s and 1,453,000 in the 1880s, but these were personal migrants, unrelated to the German Empire (created 1871) and later colonial plans. The Empire's colonies were primarily commercial and plantation regions and did not attract large numbers of German settlers. [68] The vast majority of German emigrants chose North America as their destination and not the colonies – of 1,085,124 emigrants between 1887 and 1906, 1,007,574 headed to the United States. [68] When the imperial government invited the 22,000 soldiers mobilized to subdue the Hereros to settle in German South-West Africa, and offered financial aid, only 5% accepted. [68]

The German colonial population numbered 5,125 in 1903, and about 23,500 in 1913. [69] The German pre–World War I colonial population consisted of 19,696 Germans in Africa and the Pacific colonies in 1913, including more than 3,000 police and soldiers, and 3,806 in Kiaochow (1910), of which 2,275 were navy and military staff. [69] In Africa (1913), 12,292 Germans lived in Southwest Africa, 4,107 in German East Africa and 1,643 in Cameroon. [69] In the Pacific colonies in 1913 there were 1,645 Germans. [69] After 1905 a ban on marriage was enacted forbidding mixed couples between German and native population in South-West Africa, and after 1912 in Samoa. [70]

After World War I, the military and "undesired persons" were expelled from the German protectorates. In 1934 the former colonies were inhabited by 16,774 Germans, of whom about 12,000 lived in the former Southwest African colony. [69] Once the new owners of the colonies again permitted immigration from Germany, the numbers rose in the following years above the pre–World War I total. [69]

Medicine and science

North German missionary school in Togo, 1899 Missionar Pfisterer Norddeutsche Mission 1899.jpg
North German missionary school in Togo, 1899

In her African and South Seas colonies Germany established diverse biological and agricultural stations. Staff specialists and the occasional visiting university group conducted soil analyses, developed plant hybrids, experimented with fertilizers, studied vegetable pests and ran courses in agronomy for settlers and natives and performed a host of other tasks. [31] Successful German plantation operators realized the benefits of systematic scientific inquiry and instituted and maintained their own stations with their own personnel, who further engaged in exploration and documentation of the native fauna and flora. [71]

Research by bacteriologists Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich and other scientists was funded by the imperial treasury and was freely shared with other nations. More than three million Africans were vaccinated against smallpox. [27] Medical doctors the world over benefited from pioneering work into tropical diseases and German pharmaceutical discoveries "became a standard therapy for sleeping sickness and relapsing fever. The German presence (in Africa) was vital for significant achievements in medicine and agriculture. [38]

Rebellions and genocide

Survivors of the German genocide against Herero after an escape through the arid desert of Omaheke Surviving Herero.jpg
Survivors of the German genocide against Herero after an escape through the arid desert of Omaheke

Exposés followed in the print media throughout Germany of the Herero rebellions in 1904 in German South-West Africa (Namibia today) where in military interventions between 50% to 70%[ citation needed ] of the Herero population perished, known as the Herero and Namaqua Genocide. The subduing of the Maji Maji uprising in German East Africa in 1905 was prominently published. "A wave of anti-colonial feeling began to gather momentum in Germany" and resulted in large voter turnouts in the so-called "Hottentot election" for the Reichstag in 1906. [28] The conservative Bülow government barely survived, but in January 1907 the newly elected Reichstag imposed a "complete overhaul" upon the colonial service. [28]

Bernhard Dernburg, a former banker from Darmstadt, was appointed as the new secretary of the revamped colonial office. Entrenched incompetents were screened out and summarily removed from office and "not a few had to stand trial. Replacing the misfits was a new breed of efficient, humane, colonial civil servant, usually the product of Dernburg's own creation, the ... Colonial Institute at Hamburg." [29] In African protectorates, especially Togoland and German East Africa, "improbably advanced and humane administrations emerged." [27] However, Togoland saw its own share of bloodshed. The Germans used forced labor and harsh punishment to keep the Africans in line. [72] Although the lack of any true war led some in Europe to call Togoland Germany's "model colony." [72]

During the Herero genocide Eugen Fischer, a German scientist, came to the concentration camps to conduct medical experiments on race, using children of Herero people and mulatto children of Herero women and German men as test subjects. [73] Together with Theodor Mollison he also experimented upon Herero prisoners. [74] Those experiments included sterilization, injection of smallpox, typhus as well as tuberculosis. [75] The numerous cases of mixed offspring upset the German colonial administration, which was concerned with maintaining "racial purity". [75] Eugen Fischer studied 310 mixed-race children, calling them "Rehoboth bastards" of "lesser racial quality". [75] Fischer also subjected them to numerous racial tests such as head and body measurements, and eye and hair examinations. In conclusion of his studies he advocated genocide of alleged "inferior races", stating that "whoever thinks thoroughly the notion of race, can not arrive at a different conclusion". [75] Fischer's (at the time considered) scientific actions and torment of the children were part of a wider history of abusing Africans for experiments, and echoed earlier actions by German anthropologists who stole skeletons and bodies from African graveyards and took them to Europe for research or sale. [75] An estimated 3000 skulls were sent to Germany for study. In October 2011, after 3 years of talks, the first skulls were due to be returned to Namibia for burial. [76] Other experiments were made by Doctor Bofinger, who injected Herero who were suffering from scurvy with various substances including arsenic and opium. Afterwards he researched the effects of these substances by performing autopsies on dead bodies. [77]

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is the theory, "that human groups and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature." [78] According to numerous historians, an important ideological component of German nationalism as developed by the intellectual elite was Social Darwinism. [79] It gave an impetus to German assertiveness as a world economic and military power, aimed at competing with France and the British Empire for world power. German colonial rule in Africa 1884-1914 was an expression of nationalism and moral superiority that was justified by constructing an image of the natives as "Other". German colonization was characterized by the use of repressive violence in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’. Germany's cultural-missionary project boasted that its colonial programs were humanitarian and educational endeavors. Furthermore, the wide acceptance among intellectuals of social Darwinism justified Germany's right to acquire colonial territories as a matter of the ‘survival of the fittest’, according to historian Michael Schubert. [80] [81]

Colonial German physicians and administrators tried to make a case for increasing the native population, in order to also increase their numbers of laborers. Eugene Fischer, an anthropologist at the University of Freiburg, agreed with that notion saying that they should only be supported as necessary and as they prove to be useful. Once their use is gone Europeans should, "allow free competition, which in my (Fischer's) opinion means their demise." . [82]


TerritoryPeriodArea (circa)Current countries
German West Africa 1896–1918582,200 km² [1] Flag of Cameroon.svg  Cameroon
Flag of Nigeria.svg  Nigeria
Flag of Chad.svg  Chad
Flag of Guinea.svg  Guinea
Flag of the Central African Republic.svg  Central African Republic
Flag of Ghana.svg  Ghana
Flag of Togo.svg  Togo
German South West Africa 1884–1918835,100 km² [1] Flag of Namibia.svg  Namibia
German New Guinea

(including German Samoa)

1884–1918245,861 km² [1] Flag of Papua New Guinea.svg  Papua New Guinea
Flag of the Solomon Islands.svg  Solomon Islands
Flag of Palau.svg  Palau
Flag of Federated States of Micronesia.svg  Federated States of Micronesia
Flag of Nauru.svg  Nauru
Flag of the Northern Mariana Islands.svg  Northern Mariana Islands
Flag of the Marshall Islands.svg  Marshall Islands
Flag of Samoa.svg  Samoa
German East Africa 1891–1918995,000 km² [1] Flag of Burundi.svg  Burundi
Flag of Kenya.svg  Kenya
Flag of Mozambique.svg  Mozambique
Flag of Rwanda.svg  Rwanda
Flag of Tanzania.svg  Tanzania
Total2,658,161 km²


German colonies throughout history:
German Empire
Colonies of the German Empire
Prussian-Brandenburg colonies
"Little Venice" Deutsche Kolonien.PNG
German colonies throughout history:
  German Empire
  Colonies of the German Empire
  Prussian-Brandenburg colonies

In recent years scholars have debated the "continuity thesis" that links German colonialist brutalities to the treatment of Jews, Poles and Russians during World War II. Some historians argue that Germany's role in southwestern Africa gave rise to an emphasis on racial superiority at home, which in turn was used by the Nazis. Other scholars, are skeptical and challenge the continuity thesis. [83] However, only one colonial officer gained an important place in the Nazi administration. [84]

In 1844 Rhenish Aristocrats attempted to set up a German colony in the independent state of Texas. about 7400 settlers were involved. Around half of them died, the venture was a complete failure. A constant lack of supplies and land didn't help, and the next year Texas joined the United States. [84]

The limited successes of German colonialism overseas led to a decision to shift the main focus of German expansionism into Central and Eastern Europe, with the Mitteleuropa plan. Unlike the British or Spanish Empires, Germany left very few traces of its own language or customs. As of today, no country outside Europe uses German as its official language, although in Namibia, German is a recognized national language and there are numerous German placenames and architectural structures in the country.

German colonialism therefore turned to the European continent. [85] While a minority view during the Kaiserzeit, the idea developed in full swing under Erich Ludendorff and his political activity in the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Poland. Subsequently, after the defeat of Russia during World War I, Germany acquired vast territories with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and created several administrative regions like Ober Ost. Here also the German settlement would be implemented, and the whole governmental organisation was developed to serve German needs while controlling the local ethnically diverse population. While the African colonies were too isolated and not suitable for mass settlement of Germans, areas in Central and Eastern Europe offered better potential. [86]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Statistische Angaben zu den deutschen Kolonien". (in German). Deutsches Historisches Museum . Retrieved 29 September 2016. Sofern nicht anders vermerkt, beziehen sich alle Angaben auf das Jahr 1912.
  2. Diese deutschen Wörter kennt man noch in der Südsee, von Matthias Heine "Einst hatten die Deutschen das drittgrößte Kolonialreich[...]"
  3. Biskup, Thomas; Kohlrausch, Martin. "Germany 2: Colonial Empire". Credo Online. Credo Reference.
  4. Townsend, Mary (Jun 1938). "The German Colonies and the Third Reich". Political Science Quarterl. 53 (2): 186-206.
  5. (5)
  6. Biskup, Thomas; Kohlrausch, Martin. "Germany 2: Colonial Empire". Credo Online. Credo Reference.
  7. (3)
  8. Reichstag deputy Friedrich Kapp stated in debate in 1878 that whenever there is talk of "colonization," he would recommend to keep pocketbooks out of sight, "even if the proposal is for the acquisition of paradise." [Washausen, p. 58]
  9. Taylor, Bismarck. The Man and the Statesman, p. 215
  10. Crankshaw, Bismarck, p. 395
  11. Washausen, p. 115
  12. 1 2 Crankshaw, p. 397.
  13. Taylor, p. 221.
  14. Washusen, p. 61
  15. {Biskup, Thomas; Kohlrausch, Martin. "Germany 2: Colonial Empire". Credo Online. Credo Reference. }
  16. later Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and the Bismarck Archipelago
  17. Washausen, p. 67-114; the West and East Africa firms
  18. Haupt, p. 106
  19. Miller, Battle for the Bundu, p. 6
  20. Miller, p. 10
  21. Washausen, p. 116
  22. Miller, p. 9
  23. once the military command was able to harness this aggressiveness through training, the German Askari forces of the Schutztruppe demonstrated that fierce spirit in their élan and war time performance [Miller, p. 28]
  24. Miller, p. 7
  25. Detzner, Hermann, (Oberleut.) Kamerun Boundary: Die nigerische Grenze von Kamerun zwischen Yola und dem Cross-fluss.M. Teuts. Schutzgeb. 26 (13): 317–338.
  26. Louis (1963), p. 178
  27. 1 2 3 Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, p. 83
  28. 1 2 3 Miller, p. 19.
  29. 1 2 Miller, p. 20
  30. Churchill, Llewella P. Samoa 'uma. New York: F&S Publishing Co., 1932, p. 231
  31. 1 2 Miller, p. 21
  32. Gann, L.H. & Duignan, Peter. The Rulers of German East Africa, 1884–1914. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press. 1977, p. 271
  33. Hull, Isabel V., Absolute destruction: military culture and the practices of war in Imperial Germany, pp 3ff.
  34. A. Dirk Moses, Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History, p. 301
  35. Miller, p. 23, German East Africa Usambara Railway and Central Railway; Haupt, p. 82, Togoland coast line and Hinterlandbahn; Haupt, p. 66, Kamerun northern and main line; Haupt, p. 56, map of rail lines in German South West Africa
  36. Miller, p. 21, school system in German East Africa; Garfield, p. 83, "hundreds of thousands of African children were in school"; Schultz-Naumann, p. 181, school system and Chinese student enrollment in Kiautschou; Davidson, p. 100, New Zealand building on the German educational infrastructure
  37. Miller, p. 68, German East Africa, Tanga, shelling of hospital by HMS Fox; Haupt, p. 30, photograph of Dar es Salaam hospital; Schultz-Naumann, p. 183, Tsingtao European and Chinese hospital; Schultz-Naumann, p. 169, Apia hospital wing expansion to accommodate growing Chinese labor force
  38. 1 2 3 Miller, p. 22
  39. Haupt, p. 74
  40. Haupt, p. 129
  41. Lewthwaite, p. 149-151, in Samoa "German authorities implemented policies to draw [locals] into the stream of economic life," the colonial government enforced that native cultivable land could not be sold; Miller, p. 20, in German East Africa "new land laws sharply curtailed expropriation of tribal acreage " and "African cultivators were encouraged to grow cash crops, with technical aid from agronomists, guaranteed prices and government assistance in marketing the produce."
  42. Reinhard Karl Boromäus Desoye: Die k.u.k. Luftfahrtruppe - Die Entstehung, der Aufbau und die Organisation der österreichisch-ungarischen Heeresluftwaffe 1912-1918, 1999, page 76 (online)
  43. Louis (1967), pp. 17, 35.
  44. Louis (1967), p. 30.
  45. Louis (1967), p. 31.
  46. Louis (1967), p. 37.
  47. Louis (1967), pp. 16, 36
  48. Louis (1967), pp. 102–116
  49. Louis (1967), p. 9
  50. German South-West Africa was the only African colony designated as a Class C mandate, meaning that the indigenous population was judged incapable of even limited self-government and the colony to be administered under the laws of the mandatory as an integral portion of its territory, however South Africa never annexed the country outright although Smuts did toy with the idea.
  51. J. A. R. Marriott, Modern England: 1885-1945 (4th ed. 1948) p. 413
  52. Australia in effective control, formally together with United Kingdom and New Zealand
  53. Louis (1967), p. 117-130
  54. "New Zealand goes to war: The Capture of German Samoa". Retrieved 20 October 2008.
  55. Louis (1967), p. 132
  56. 1 2 3 Louis (1967), p. 7
  57. General J.C. Smuts is often identified as the inventor of the idea of "mandates" [Louis (1967), p. 7]
  58. Louis (1967), p. 6
  59. Louis (1967), p. 157
  60. Louis (1963), p. 233
  61. Louis (1967), p. 159
  62. Louis (1967), p. 160
  63. Washausen, p. 162
  64. Louis (1963), Ruanda-Urundi, p. 163
  65. German Colonialism: A Short History, Sebastian Conrad, page 146, Cambridge University Press, 2012
  66. As an example, in February 1899 a treaty was signed by which Spain sold the Caroline and Mariana Islands and Palau for 17 million gold mark to Germany
  67. Haupt, Deutschlands Schutzgebiete, p. 85
  68. 1 2 3 Henderson, William Otto (1962). Studies in German colonial history (2 ed.). Routledge. p. 35. ISBN   0-7146-1674-5 . Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  69. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Henderson, William Otto (1962). Studies in German colonial history (2 ed.). Routledge. p. 34. ISBN   0-7146-1674-5 . Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  70. Conrad, Sebastian (2012) German Colonialism: A Short History. Cambridge University Press, p. 158
  71. Spoehr, Florence. (1963) White Falcon. The House of Godeffroy and its Commercial and Scientific Role in the Pacific. Palo Alto, California: Pacific Books, p. 51-101
  72. 1 2 Lauman, Dennis (2003). "A Historiography of German Togoland, or the Rise and Fall of a "Model Colony". History In Africa. 30: 195-211.
  73. Mamdani, Mahmood. (2001) When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 12
  74. Cooper, Allan D. (2008) The Geography of Genocide. University Press of America, p. 153
  75. 1 2 3 4 5 Hitler's Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of European Blacks, Africans and African Americans During the Nazi Era (Crosscurrents in African American History) by Clarence Lusane, page 50-51 Routledge 2002
  76. "Germans return skulls to Namibia. On Friday, Germany will return the first 20 of an estimated 300 skulls of indigenous Namibians butchered a century ago during an anti-colonial uprising in what was then called South West Africa". Times LIVE. 27 September 2011. Retrieved 2 June 2013.
  77. Erichsen, Casper and David Olusoga (2010) The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. Faber and Faber, p. 225
  78. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Social Darwinism". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  79. Richard Weikart, "The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany, 1859-1895." Journal of the History of Ideas 54.3 (1993): 469-488 in JSTOR.
  80. Michael Schubert, "The ‘German nation’ and the ‘black Other’: social Darwinism and the cultural mission in German colonial discourse," Patterns of Prejudice (2011) 45#5 pp 399-416.
  81. Felicity Rash, The Discourse Strategies of Imperialist Writing: The German Colonial Idea and Africa, 1848-1945 (Routledge, 2016).
  82. Weikart, Richard (7 May 2003). "Progress through Racial Extermination: Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and Pacifism in Germany, 1860-1918". German Studies Review. 26: 273–294.
  83. Volker Langbehn and Mohammad SalamaRace, eds. the Holocaust, and Postwar Germany (Columbia U.P., 2011)
  84. 1 2 Biskup, Thomas. "Germany: 2. Colonial empire". Credo Reference. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  85. Germany subsequently tried to turn Europe into its colonial possession by practicing a migrationist form of colonialism that was reworked into the ideology of Lebensraum(...)Aime Cesaire pointed out that fascism was a form of colonialism brought home to Europe Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction Robert Young Published 2001 Blackwell Publishing page 2
  86. Helmut Bley,Continuities and German Colonialism: Colonial Experience and Metropolitan Developments Historisches Seminar, Universität Hannover 2004

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