German Empire Research Paper

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From about 1884 to 1919, the German Empire colonized areas in Africa (mostly) and Oceania. Although historians comparing Germany’s colonial policies have recognized origins of Nazi ideology in use in Africa, recent studies approach such generalizations with caution. Germany’s paternalist rule incorporated indigenous legal systems, provided security and stability, and sponsored anthropological studies that still figure as important reference works today.

Any discussion of the impact of the German Empire on world history has to begin with an apparent paradox: despite its short duration, approximately from 1884 to 1919, the German Empire has received historical attention that parallels that given other European empires whose colonial possessions were larger and longer lasting.

Chronology of Empire

In a narrow chronological sense, German colonialism can be divided into four phases: 1884–1890, 1890– 1906, 1906–1914, and 1914–1919. In 1884 the German government, under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, annexed areas in Africa and the Pacific Ocean. Bismarck was a reluctant colonialist who attempted to place the estimated high administrative costs of these colonies on a number of chartered companies. The majority of these attempts, however, failed. Eventually German authorities assumed administrative duties in the colonies. Increasing governmental involvement in colonial affairs led to the establishment of the Colonial Division within the German Foreign Office by 1890, which marks the beginning of the second phase of German colonialism. Four years later this division gained more independence through the appointment of a colonial director. Despite this appointment, the Colonial Division remained the stepchild of German foreign policy because few German civil servants desired colonial appointments. The prestige of the Colonial Division suffered further in the selection of its directors. Chosen less for their colonial expertise than for their loyalty to the Imperial Court, the directors had a high turnover rate and provided little stability for the division.

Violent indigenous uprisings in the German colonies of East Africa and Southwest Africa between 1904 and 1907 brought the colonies to broad public attention. Several hundred German settlers lost their lives, and thousands of German soldiers found themselves dispatched to the colonies in an attempt to regain control. Increasing violence and expenditures made the German colonial endeavor a favored target of the German Parliament (Reichstag). When, in late 1906, Chancellor Bernard von Buhlow requested further appropriations for the African colonies, a majority of delegates rejected his request. Disappointed, Buhlow dissolved the Reichstag and called for a new election. The press deemed the elections “Hottentot elections” (Hottentot was a rather derogatory name for the Herero Nama population of German South Africa) due to the colonial connotations. Buhlow’s broad coalition ultimately emerged from the election victorious to put forward a detailed program of colonial reform. This program involved the creation of an independent Colonial Office led by a secretary of state, improvement of colonial civil servant education, and economic self-sufficiency in the colonies. Buhlow’s choice for colonial secretary of state was Bernard Dernburg, a prominent banker.

The so-called Dernburg era ushered in the third phase of German colonialism, which stood under the rubric of “scientific colonialism.” In classical fashion Dernburg envisioned using colonial resources for metropolitan development. At the same time he sought to improve the lives of Africans and Pacific Islanders through the benefits of “higher” German civilization. In practice this meant improving infrastructure, especially railways for the African colonies, and increasing German economic investments. Dernburg’s program also invited establishment of colonial schools designed to train colonial civil servants (the most important of these schools was the Colonial Institute in Hamburg) and scientific stations throughout the colonies to further economic development. When Dernburg stepped down from his office in 1910, his two successors, Friedrich von Lindequist (1910–1911) and Wilhelm Solf (1911–1918), continued his program.

The fourth and last phase started with the outbreak of World War I. This war prevented any long-term success of Dernburg’s program, however, and ended German colonialism. Blockaded by the British Royal Navy, the German government was unable to assist its colonies. Nor did Germany ever intend its colonies to become a major battleground. Colonial troops, aptly called Protective Forces (Schutztruppen), existed only on the African continent. Hastily assembled settler militia and indigenous police forces proved no match for Australian, Japanese, and New Zealand contingents who occupied the German Pacific colonies by the end of 1914. In Africa the fighting continued beyond that time, although Togo, the smallest of the German African colonies, surrendered after only three weeks. By 1915 German Protective Forces surrendered to South African troops in southwest Africa. A year later fighting ceased in Cameroon. After 1916 only East Africa remained at war. Here a small, unintentionally racially integrated, rag-tag army continued a guerrilla campaign against a combined force of Belgian, British, and Portuguese soldiers until the end of the war. The leader of the East Africa campaign, Lieutenant- Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, returned to Germany to a hero’s welcome and was highly decorated for preventing the deployment of Allied troops to the western front in Europe. His loyal colonial Askaries (designation for indigenous soldiers or policemen in German East Africa) fared much worse because the government withheld soldiers’ wages until the 1960s. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 sealed the fate of German colonialism because all the German colonies became mandates under the newly formed League of Nations.

Comparative Geography of the Empire

With the exception of a small 643-square-kilometer enclave on the Chinese mainland administered by imperial naval authorities, most of Germany’s colonies were located in Africa and Oceania (islands of the central and south Pacific). Most of these colonies, including Cameroon, East Africa (today’s Tanzania), Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia), and Togo, were located in Africa. In Oceania the German Empire made up the second-largest colonial presence, after Great Britain. Germany occupied the northeastern corner of New Guinea, which is today part of Papua New Guinea, and the surrounding Bismarck Archipelago, as well as the northern Solomon Islands. Most annexations were made after the year 1884, with only a fraction of annexations—Micronesia and the western isles of Samoa in Oceania, as well as a small increase of existing colonies in Africa—made during the so-called New Course policy that followed Bismarck’s dismissal. All in all, Germany’s colonies contributed little to its economy. Investments in the colonies rarely accounted for more than 1 percent of German overseas trade, mainly because the colonies were deficient in resources. Southwest Africa provided some copper and diamonds after 1906, but the bulk of the economy remained tropical agriculture. Agricultural products could be quite diversified in Africa, including such products as cotton, rubber, and even ostrich feathers. In the Pacific, on the other hand, agriculture was closely tied to coconut plantations.

The differences in resource exploitation aside, historians recently proposed a closer understanding of variations in the German administration in Africa and the Pacific Islands. Frequent military campaigning and crackdowns on indigenous people were the norm in Africa and commanded considerable attention in the national and international media. Most telling of German administrative abuses are the operations against the Herero and Nama people in Southwest Africa (1904–1907) and the Maji-Maji rebellion in East Africa (1905–1907). Southwest Africa was Germany’s lone settlement colony (the German presence in the other colonies never surpassed a few hundred settlers) in the empire and attracted several thousand ranchers. Already strained relationships with the cattle- herding Herero further deteriorated when an introduced plague decimated the herds. German authorities used herd reductions as a welcomed excuse for further land alienation. When open warfare erupted by 1904, German Protective Forces brutally crushed the Herero. Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha issued the famed extermination decree, ordering his troops to fire upon every Herero, regardless of age or gender, who chose not flee to the desert. Although Berlin officials soon deemed Trotha’s policy excessive, it proved frighteningly effective. By 1907 the Herero population had been reduced by 75 percent. When the Nama, traditionally enemies of the Herero, rose up against the German overlords, they fared little better; their numbers were reduced by 50 percent.

For comparative purposes the German policies of extermination in Africa were in contrast to German administration of the Pacific Islands. Traditionally historians recognize in the German African colonial policy the origins of Nazi expansionism and extermination. Recent studies, however, are cautious about such generalizations. Violence and abuses did occur in the Pacific, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the relative remoteness of the Pacific colonies allowed for a number of administrative experiments. Governors ruled for unusually long periods in German New Guinea and Samoa, thus providing stability and continuity. Their paternalist rule incorporated indigenous language and legal patterns. They also encouraged anthropological studies in the Bismarck Archipelago, Micronesia, and Samoa, which sparked ethnographic (cultural study) monographs that still figure as important reference works today.

Contemporary Studies in German Colonialism

Traditionally studies of German colonialism have emphasized diplomatic history. Brisk attempts to gain a colonial “place in the sun” for Germany are frequently cited as one of the main conflicts leading to World War I. The best-studied examples of such conflicts are the two Morocco crises (1905 and 1911) in Africa and the tangle over the Samoan Islands in the Pacific (1889–1899). The Samoa conflict would ultimately result in a partition of the Islands, the western isles became the protectorate of German Samoa.

The German Empire has gained importance among scholars in the postcolonial realm. Although “Orientalist” scholars—who believe in the existence of a clear link between scholarship and colonialism— argue that the German Empire did not last long enough for German writers to develop a clear link between scholarship and colonial administration, recent investigations have indicated otherwise. Literary scholars argue that an absence of colonies did not prevent Germans from developing “colonial fantasies” that formed templates for future colonial rule. In essence, such “colonialism without colonies” placed Germany on an expansive path similar to that of other European powers.

Equally revealing are contemporary studies of the development of German anthropology during the imperial age. Shunning simple-minded explanations that anthropology and colonialism went hand in glove, these studies reveal the Germans’ intense interest in non-European peoples. Many German anthropologists perceived artifacts as important historical sources of information about so-called non-literate peoples of the world. These intellectuals argued for storage of these artifacts in museums specifically designed for this purpose. Consequently, German anthropological museums developed into premier institutions in the world. Their holdings surpassed those of similar museums in England and France, both countries with far greater colonial empires. Similarly, Germans developed a popular interest in Volkerschauen (commercial ethnographic exhibitions) that brought the empire home to the public. In short, despite its brevity, recent studies have rediscovered and reassessed the German Empire. Far from being marginal, German colonialism in Africa and the Pacific has important implications for world historians.


  1. Buschmann, R. F. (2009). Anthropology’s global histories: The ethnographic frontier in German New Guinea, 1870-1935. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  2. Farwell, B. (1989). The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. New York: W. W. Norton.
  3. Friedrichsmeyer S., Lennox, S., & Zantop, S. (Eds.). (1998). The imperialist imagination: German colonialism and its legacy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  4. Gann, L. H., & Duignan, P. (1977). The rulers of German Africa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  5. Hempenstall, P. (1978). Pacific Islander under German rule: A study in the meaning of colonial resistance. Canberra: Australian National University Press.
  6. Hiery, H. J. (1995). The neglected war: The German South Pacific and the influence of World War I. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  7. Knoll, A., & Gann, L. (Eds.). (1987). Germans in the tropics: Essays in German colonial history. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  8. Moses, J., & Kennedy, P. (1977). Germany in the Pacific and the Far East, 1870–1914. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press.
  9. Penny, H. G., & Bunzl, M. (Eds.). (2003). Worldly provincialism: German anthropology in the age of empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  10. Smith, W. (1978). The German colonial empire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  11. Zantop, S. (1997). Colonial fantasies: Conquest, family, and nation in precolonial Germany, 1770–1870. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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