German Colonial Empire




European Union


European Hegemony

Africa colonies

How did the German Colonial Empire begin?
The Modern German state itself began only in the 19th century when Count Otto von Bismarck, prime minster of Prussia, put together the small German states that had been left by Napoleon, when he had abolished the hundreds of small states. This process was complete in 1871.

So Germany had no tradition of common action, and had had no tradition of trading with the rest of the world as a single state - of course, Hansa merchants had long traded with the rest of the European world, especially in the Baltic and to Britain. Some German states had taken part in the slave trade. However, no German colonies had arisen naturally in the course of trade, as had those of Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain. Nor had German trading companies occupied any non-European lands. Eastern Germany had been conquered from Slavs by Crusading knights - the Teutonic Knights, possibly an imitation of the Templars.

Bismarck, who created the German Empire, had no personal interest in colonies. Possibly he had noticed that by the middle of the 19th century the colonies were no longer very profitable. The urge to have colonies seems to have come from German merchants Kaiser Wilhelm II who envied the British Empire ruled by his relatives Queen Victoria and then his cousin Edward the seventh. He encouraged a popular demand for colonies. Thus there was formed a German Colonisation Society to urge German imperial expansion overseas and a Company like the earlier British East India Company to carry it out.

The first of the colonies was German New Guinea - Papua in1884. It was the Berlin Conference of 1884-9 that regulated European colonies, especially in Africa.

By the time Germany got interested in colonies much of Africa had already been divided up. What was left were two sites in West Africa: Togoland and Cameroon; a desert in the southwest that became German South West Africa and parts of East Africa, Zanzibar and the mainland opposite.

German occupation of its colonies was notably brutal. Namibia was the scene of massacres against the Herero people,the Nama people and others. (See David Olusoga) In Tanganyika there was a resistance (the Maji Maji rebellion) in the center of the country led by the peoples who had been affected by the invasion of Ngoni peoples spread out from the revolution led by Shaka the Zulu. Many of the perpetrators of the massacres became prominent Nazis after the first world war.

Zanzibar was a sultanate originally settled by the Sultan of Oman. It was disputed between Britain and the Germans. In 1890 the Germans ceded it to the British in exchange for Heligoland - an island close to the German coast and occupied by Britain since the Napoleonic war.

Germans were also interested in the Pacific region. They occupied Papua, part of modern Papua New Guinea. Spain sold them Micronesia in 1885 after their loss of Philippines to the US. They tried to make a protectorate in the Solomon Islands but exchanged them with Britain to take Western Samoa.

How did the German Empire end?
During the first world war the colonies were conquered by allied armies - the English and French. In Tanganyika there was an epic campaign by the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck who fought a guerrilla campaign almost to the end of the war. In the other colonies conquest was quicker. In West Africa Togo and Kamerun were occupied by British and French forces. In Papua it was Australian forces who occupied the German positions. In Samoa it was New Zealand forces that took the islands from German administration.

At the peace treaty all the German colonies were given to the victorious powers. In Africa they were divided between Britain, Belgium, France and South Africa. In the east Australia got Papua, New Zealand Samoa and Japan some of the Islands.

The Nazi regime dreamed of recovering the former colonies.

There is almost no legacy of the shortlived German colonial empire. There remained a few German settlers in Namibia who stayed on after the territory was taken over by South Africa. In the 1930s many of them were Nazi sympathisers - members of an overseas branch of the Nazi party - and cooperated with the Nazi sympathisers in the Afrikaner National party that took over South Africa and Namibia in 1948. The settlers had hoped for a Nazi victory and that Germany would resume control over the territory. Many of them cooperated enthusiastically with the apartheid system as applied by South African administrators who treated Southwest Africa as though it were an integral province of South Africa (despite its being a League of Nations Mandate, and later a UN Trust territory).

The author observed in the 1960s that the railways in Tanzania still ran on rails manufactured in 1912 by Krupp.

 David Olusoga-The Kaiser's Holocaust

Why does Amazon US not stock this title?
Kaiser's Holocaust

The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism

Was the German colonising behavior even worse than that of other European colonisers? How far did the activities of the colonial government feed the later Nazi philiosophy?
Review by Piers Brendon

Countries ruled by Germany until 1918


 Sudwestafrika (Namibia)





 Pacific Islands


Last revised 22/01/11




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