18/1030: German Colonialism

Germany is not the first country one thinks of when considering colonialism, and yet its imperial and colonial exploits are just as interesting as Spain’s, Britain’s, Portugal’s, or France’s- even if the country is not even mentioned as a colonizing power by the 1969 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The world may not automatically think of Germany as a colonial power,  because it was relatively late in settling regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, and relatively early in leaving its colonies. Forced to rescind rights to the protectorates with the Treaty of Versailles, one can argue that the Germans didn’t manage to do a lot of damage in the regions they settled. While the other countries had been increasing their spheres of influence since before the 18th century, Germany did not really get involved until after the Industrial Revolution and late in the 19th century. Still, when it came time to talk about Africa, Germany was in the thick of things and Berlin became the site of the “Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa.” The country definitely took part in ethnocentrism and abusing the rights of others (not just the obvious examples) that frames its history.

Why do I choose to look at German colonialism today? Because while one cannot really call the new German literature I am looking at post-colonial (and one can argue there are no German post-colonial texts, since German speaking in the former colonies died out very quickly), the mentalities of colonialism still play a part in the social debates of Germany and its identity. Soon, the German History Museum, or Deutsches Historisches Museum, will host an exhibition called “German Colonialism: Fragments of past and present” (https://www.dhm.de/en/ausstellungen/german-colonialism.html) that will help visitors explore the levels of colonialism Germany participated in. If one considers the colonialism of the Prussian Empire and Nazi Germany, there are certain behaviors that make German behavior similar to the British or other empires.

Colonialism is often seen a symptom of imperialism, the spread of national interests. The Encyclopedia Britannica claims that the term has two meanings:

“Sometimes it is used to describe the compact settlement of a group of nationals of one country within the territory of another while the settlers remain loyal to the mother country. Thus writers refer to the German colonies in Brazil and Chinese colonies in Indonesia.  More frequently, however, colony refers to a nonself-governing territory and has become a term denoting disapproval and impatience among critics of European overseas policy. […] This status is said to be the result of colonialism or imperialism, processes increasingly considered immoral and illegal by many nations and the subject of constant bitter debates among governments after World War II.” (85)

“Critics of modern colonialism, and especially the people of Asian, African, and Latin-American countries […] consider a colony any territory that is under the overwhelming economic or political influence of another country. […] Further, they insist that colonial status involves the imposition of decisions by one people upon another, regardless of whether the territory inhabited by the subject people has been formally annexed or not.” (85).

“Independent observers prefer a third definition. A colony is any territory in which the conditions of life- social, economic, political- are defined in considerable measure for the whole population by a minority different than the local majority in the culture, history, beliefs, and often race. This definition would include the bulk of the territories considered legally as colonies but would exclude some of the more sweeping claims of anticolonists. It covers the relationships established by the Soviet Union over central Asia and the Baltic littoral, by Nazi Germany over the bulk of Europe during World War II and by Japan over east Asia between 1931 and 1945.” (85-6)


The last definition opens up an interpretation of colonialism that extends beyond the focus of the exhibit in the DHM, and it is the definition that I rely on to make a comparison between the English and German texts of my PhD study.

After all, I am completing a comparative study of German and English texts, and beyond the language of these texts, it is the national traditions, histories, and cultures that frame their differences. Most people are familiar with British colonialism and their empire. After all, “the sun never sets on the British empire,” so ‘clearly’ everyone has come into contact with the British. However, this has made studying English literature rather complicated, because what is deemed “English” is very broad. This is what post-colonial criticism thrives on.

Yet, my dissertation relies on the basis that I can apply post-colonial criticism to the German texts too, not in the least because of a culture that has equally been impacted by globalism and the resulting state of transnationalism citizens in both countries (Germany and England) feel. On the other hand, there are differences within these trends in both countries that need to be explored as well.

But let’s get some facts in:

These were the German colonies according to Wikipedia “German colonial empire” :

Territory Period Area (circa) Current countries
German West Africa 1896–1919 582,200 km²[1]  Cameroon
Central African Republic
German South-West Africa 1884–1919 835,100 km²[1]  Namibia
German New Guinea 1884–1919 247,281 km²[70][71][72]  Papua New Guinea
Solomon Islands
Federated States of Micronesia
Northern Mariana Islands
Marshall Islands
German East Africa 1891–1919 995,000 km²[1]  Burundi

This was the “German colonial empire” according to The New World Encyclopedia :

“The German colonial empire was an overseas area formed in the late nineteenth century as part of the Hohenzollern dynasty’s German Empire. Short-lived colonial efforts by individual German states had occurred in preceding centuries, but Imperial Germany’s colonial efforts began in 1883. The German colonial empire ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 following World War I when its territories were confiscated and distributed to the victors under the new system of mandates set up by the League of Nations. Initially reluctant to enter the race for colonies because of its tradition of expansion within the European space, Germany’s renewed attempt to conquer Europe in World War I resulted in loss of its overseas possessions. At various times, Germany (as the Holy Roman Empire) had included Northern Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, what is now the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Belgium and parts of Poland. Parallels have been made between use of death camps during the revolt in German West Africa 1904-1905 and Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” to what he called the “Jewish problem.” The colonial territories were ruled in the same way that Germany was governed, more or less from the top down. On the other hand, Germany’s disengagement from colonialism took place in such a way that protracted wars of independence were avoided. Germany’s history in the twentieth century resulted in reflection on the colonial experience receiving less attention than it has had in other former colonial powers. Instead, Germany’s role in two World Wars and the Holocaust has dominated thinking in terms of re-negotiating national identity.”

I find this summary of Germany’s colonialism interesting, since it points out that it does not dominate the “renegotiating” of national identity. For Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal, relationships with past and “present” colonies (I use “present” here as a way to acknowledge the continued power these former colonists have in the regions they controlled for so long) determine the way they can frame their own identity and frame their role in the world. For Germany, this framing is done in terms of its role in World Wars I and II, and the Holocaust.

I think this becomes very clear when one looks at the literature, and while that claim is supported by many others before me, it is useful to work through this understanding of British and German lit. and rephrase it for myself. In the meantime, readers will have gleaned a snippet of knowledge about German history.

Works Cited:

“Colony.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 6. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1969. 85-6. Print.

“German colonial empire.” Wikipedia 

“German colonial empire.”  The New World Encyclopedia

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality


One thought on “18/1030: German Colonialism

  1. Pingback: 228/1030: German Colonialism and other nationalist programs. Oh, and autobiography – Words

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