Thursday, July 26, 2012

Defending the German Empire

The roots of German colonial activity go back much farther than most might think. Prussia gained minor footholds in Ghana, Mauritania, Benin and the Caribbean but none lasted very long. As early as the Sixteenth Century efforts were also made to establish German colonies in what is now Venezuela by a private enterprise on land granted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (King Carlos I of Spain) in exchange for debts he owed them. Considerable exploration was done by Germans but it was all within the framework of the Spanish Latin American Empire and when the Germans clashed with Spanish officials the Emperor revoked their charter. There were also private efforts to establish German colonies in a number of other South American countries and, in 1844, there was the effort of the Adelsverein under Prince Karl von Solms-Braunfels to establish a German colony in Texas. It did not go as well as was hoped but still established the largest German community in the Lone Star state. However, major colonial efforts had to await the unification of the Second German Empire in 1870 under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Prince Otto von Bismarck. The “Iron Chancellor” was not very enthusiastic about colonial expansion (his focus remaining on Europe) but he seized on it as a good way to distract other powers and give Germany a stronger position at the bargaining table in any future European crisis.

Bismarck later regretted this, feeling the colonies were not worth their expense but by that time it was too late. Germany was already well on the way to becoming one of the major colonial powers of the world. The movement was given a significant boost with the coming to the throne of Kaiser Wilhelm II who was full of envy and admiration for the British Empire of his grandmother Queen Victoria and envisioned efficient, productive German colonies spread around the world under the protection of his High Seas Fleet. By the time serious efforts got underway they already had a great deal to build on thanks to the explorations of German private enterprise in Africa, the northeast coast of New Guinea and some Pacific islands. These included the Cameroon coast, the Tanzania coast and the Samoa islands. In 1888 there was even an effort to establish a German presence in the Caribbean near the Dutch island of Curacao to take advantage of American markets and establish a German naval presence in the region. However, it made the French and British nervous and so Germany decided to concentrate their colonial efforts on Africa and the Pacific. By the dawn of the Twentieth Century the German colonial empire was mostly established with the colonies of Togoland (Togo), Kamerun (Cameroon), German Southwest Africa (Namibia), German East Africa (Tanzania) in Africa, German New Guinea (including the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline Islands) and German Samoa. The German Empire also gained a foothold in China in Jiaozhou Bay (German-Kiautschou) which provided a base for the German Far East Naval Squadron and was the pride and joy of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In East Africa the German settlers established large plantations while others established a beer brewery in China (a tradition that continues today). However, in the early days, there was definitely a brutal element to German occupation, which is not uncommon when new peoples encounter each other. German civil and military officials wanted to set up orderly and efficient governments and immediately begin development. They had little time for dealing with natives and when the German presence was attacked colonial armies were deployed to eliminate all opposition. The most brutal of these were the expeditions against the Herero in German Southwest Africa and the Maji Maji in German East Africa. The armies sent to suppress these rebellions showed little mercy, if any, and all too often their brutality is all that is remembered today. It would be unfair, however, to use these incidents to paint the German Empire as a whole in a negative light. When the German public learned of the details of what had happened they were outraged and registered their anger in the next election which almost brought down the government. This had the effect of bringing the colonial administration to have a change of heart and from then on the native populations would be dealt with in a much more humane way.

As with other colonial powers, it was often the missionaries, Lutheran and Catholic, who spread the word about administrative misdeeds which then prompted the government to take corrective measures. On the whole, German colonization was remarkably successful. Roads and railroads were built, new towns established and linked by telegraph cables, local industries and businesses were established and soon a thriving trade had developed. German doctors went out into the wilderness to set up clinics and vaccinate the natives against deadly diseases and colonial police and military forces were established to keep the peace, the bulk of the manpower being provided by the natives themselves. In time, the bi-racial colonial army of German East Africa would be one of the greatest examples of the best of German colonialism and how successful it was. The only German colony in Africa where native Africans were not used for military or police duties was German Southwest Africa because, since their rebellion, the Germans never trusted the natives with weapons. However, in Togoland, the colony was so peaceful that no military force at all was needed, only a small, largely native, police force. Togoland, though often overlooked today, was also so prosperous that it was one of only two German colonies to become totally self-sufficient, requiring no support from taxpayers in Germany to sustain itself.

The Germans made it official policy to care for the natives under their protection, made forced or any unpaid labor by natives a criminal offense and genuinely determined to look after their welfare. The natives could be advised but never coerced. Slavery was wiped out, ranches and farm communities were established and both native Africans and German settlers profited from the development. Schools were established as were hospitals and rural clinics. Missionaries were also ever hard at work, converting the natives with varying degrees of success and building new church communities. Research laboratories were established, many plantations having their own, to develop new methods of pest control and new fertilizers to increase livestock and farm production. In China, the little town of Tsingtao became a model city with broad streets, German-style housing, electricity, a modern sewage system and purified drinking water. No other area in China had a higher concentration of schools or a more widely educated populace than German Tsingtao. Even the ardently republican Sun Yat-sen referred to Tsingtao under German rule as “a true model for China’s future”.

World War I brought the end of the German Empire but it also displayed, in a stunningly dramatic way, just how successful German colonialism had been. The military situation of all the German colonies was virtually hopeless at the outset of the conflict and although some offered very stubborn and determined resistance, they stood no realistic chance against the vastly superior forces arrayed against them. The sole exception was German East Africa where initial invasions were repulsed and where the colonial army remained undefeated and continued to resist throughout the war, only laying down its arms after being informed of the armistice in France. This was a testament to the skill of the local military commander, Major General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (possibly the greatest irregular warfare leader in history) and to the resourcefulness and tenacity of the uniquely bi-racial German colonial army. The fact that so many Africans were willing to endure years of hardship and danger in the German colonial army, with the odds so heavily stacked against them, until the bitter end without widespread desertion or even a single mutiny says a great deal about the degree of loyalty and cohesion in the German colonial empire.

The German East African army was innovative by the extent to which they integrated German and native African troops in the same units. They found that including a greater ratio of Europeans in African units increased their overall effectiveness by combining the tactical training of the Germans with the knowledge of the terrain and survival skills of the Africans with the result being a highly effective combat force which prevailed over everything the Allies threw at them. Prior to the war, agreements had been made to try to keep Africa uninvolved due to the fear of colonial officials from various countries of the effect on the African populace of seeing Europeans killing each other and using Africans to kill other Europeans. However, General von Lettow-Vorbeck was not about to sit idle and he determined to fight an aggressive war and force the Allies to divert an inordinate amount of men and material to use against him that could have been more decisively employed in more vital areas such as the western front. In that, he succeeded brilliantly and was able to survive for years, totally cut off from outside assistance, displaying a remarkable ingenuity in fabricating what was needed and sustaining his army almost entirely from living off the land and captured enemy stores. It remains one of the most astounding campaigns in military history and one marked by exceptional humanity and gallantry on both sides.

Years after the German colonial empire was gone, divided up among the Allies and even after the end of the colonial era entirely, African veterans of the German colonial army remained justly proud of their service and their numerous, hard won and brilliant victories over vastly superior enemy forces. Even the most avowed enemies of European colonialism have to admit that this had a positive impact on the people of German East Africa and Africans across the continent. It gave them a new sense of pride, of earned achievement and a confidence that they could hold their own and even triumph over non-African forces, be they European or Asian. When West Germany began to pay the pensions of the veterans of the German East African army, veterans came forward with many proud mementoes of their service and for those who lacked any tangible proof of their service, each was handed a broom stick and put through the manual of arms, in German, each one remembering every command exactly. After World War I the Allies simply confiscated the property of the Germans in the colonies and most returned to Germany. However, the legacy of Imperial Germany continues to this day. There is still at least one German-language newspaper and radio station in Namibia and they still make German-style beer in the Chinese city of Tsingtao. As with any country, the history of German colonialism was not always admirable yet there is much to be proud of, a great deal of beneficial development and progress occurred because of the German Empire.


  1. The German Empire was among the most interesting of the colonial empires. The Allies were indeed too harsh on them.

  2. Good post, sir, as so often previously as well.

    You mention the German Emperor's envy and admiration of the Royal Navy. I am not challenging this as a fact. However, there is another side to that, not often brought up -- at least according to Dutch historian J.H.J. Andriessen. According to said historian the Royal Navy bullied the German merchant fleet (I don't remember the exact wording). So building up the High Seas Fleet was in some sense necessary, and the purpose of the build-up was not necessarily to challenge the Royal Navy at war (no, I am of course not accusing this blog's host of thinking so, but it so often is assumed that I am mentioning it).

    On a personal note, my first encounter with (the knowledge of) the German colonial empire was through German East Africa or Tanzania, as likely was as I partly grew up in what was once British East Africa.

    1. I would not be surprised, Britain naturally objected to any competition to her maritime supremacy and Germany just as naturally resented that attitude. I think I have said in some past post as well that in terms of the naval arms race, British fears seem somewhat overblown when considering that, yes, the Imperial German Navy was the second largest in the world after Great Britain, but even then it was still less than half the size of the Royal Navy. Add to that the fact that Britain had allies with formidable navies whereas Germany's allies had only token forces.

  3. I never think of Germany as a colonial power. Probably a subconscious extension of my noting of Bismarck's opposition to such designs.

  4. Here is a link regarding Prince Karl von Solms' colony in Texas


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