German Colonial Empire

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On the eve of World War I, the German colonial empire consisted of a population of roughly fifteen million people spread over approximately one million square miles of territory. The principal German colonial possessions were its African holdings (German East Africa, Togoland, German Southwest Africa, and Cameroons) and its Far East territories (German New Guinea, Samoa, the Chinese leasehold of Kiaochow, and a number of small island groups). Defended in most cases only by a very small number of mercenary "protective forces," trained more for maintaining order than for actual combat, Germany's colonies lay largely exposed to the superior colonial forces of powers such as Great Britain and France.


Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Germany's enemies moved quickly against its colonies. On 6 August, French forces invaded Togoland from French West Africa, and were joined one week later by British forces. After two small engagements, the acting governor Major H. G. von Doering capitulated to the French tirailleurs sénégalais and the British West African Rifles on 26 August 1914. Although also outnumbered, German forces in nearby Cameroons were initially more successful in resisting the British and French troops; many German soldiers fought on for more than a year in the colony's interior before fleeing in February 1916 to neutral Spanish Guinea. The remaining troops in Cameroons surrendered on 18 February 1916 from inside the Mora mountain fort to a combined British and French force of more than twenty-five thousand troops.

Events followed a similar course in German Southwest Africa. After invading in September 1914, the South African troops made little progress at first as a result of a Boer rebellion within South Africa, and it was only in January 1915 that the South African leaders Louis Botha and Jan Christian Smuts were able to start prosecuting the war fully. Germany's five thousand men were no match for South Africa's forty-three thousand soldiers; by mid-May 1915, the South Africans had captured the colony's capital, Windhoek, and driven the Germans to the northeast. There the remnants of the "protective force" held out for more than two additional months. Nevertheless, on 9 July 1915, Governor Theodor Seitz surrendered unconditionally to the South Africans.

The fighting in German East Africa differed from the other colonial campaigns in its duration and scope. Led by the experienced colonial soldier Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, German forces began the war by invading Rhodesia, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo. Although Lettow-Vorbeck assembled the largest German colonial force, numbering at its peak more than twenty thousand men, the British and the Belgians fielded approximately 160,000 soldiers. Aware that they could not defeat such a larger army in open battle, Lettow-Vorbeck and his men retreated to the colony's interior and waged a guerrilla war. The combined strength of the British and the Belgians eventually forced the Germans to flee in November 1917 first to Mozambique and then to Northern Rhodesia, where they continued their guerrilla campaign. Lettow-Vorbeck finally surrendered on 25 November 1918, two weeks after the armistice ending World War I had been signed.


In the case of the Germany's Far East colonies, the threat came not from the European powers directly but from their allies and dominions. Long resenting Germany's presence in the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia immediately set about occupying Germany's colonies according to a prewar arrangement that awarded German Samoa to New Zealand and western New Guinea to Australia. On 29 August 1914, New Zealand forces took control of German Samoa. Australia's conquest of western New Guinea proved more difficult. Although Australia sent its entire fleet and an expeditionary force of more than fifteen hundred troops, unexpectedly strong German resistance convinced Australian commanders to negotiate a treaty of surrender that allowed, among other things, Germans to retain their property and to continue to participate in the colony's administration, though under Australian supervision. In return, Australia assumed control over not only western New Guinea but also the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands.

Seizing the opportunity to build its own empire, the Japanese on 15 August 1914 issued an ultimatum to Berlin demanding that Germany remove its warships from the Chinese area of Shantung and hand over the leasehold of Kiaochow. When Germany failed to agree to these terms by the deadline of 23 August, Japan declared war. Aware that its Chinese territories could not be defended, Germany unsuccessfully sought to convince the Chinese to allow Berlin, in accordance with terms of the original Kiaochow Treaty, to sell back the colony to China. The Germans also moved all available troops in China, about thirty-five hundred marines, to Kiaochow and put into uniform approximately two thousand German civilian army reservists. Such preparations, however, were no match for the Japanese forces. The Japanese quickly took control of the islands that made up German Micronesia and by October more than sixty thousand Japanese troops, as well as two British battalions, were amassed around the city of Tsingtao. On 31 October the final assault on Tsingtao began; eight days later, on 7 November, the Germans surrendered to the Japanese.


By the time the diplomats assembled at Versailles in 1919 to negotiate the peace settlement, Germany had lost all of its colonies. The Japanese controlled its Chinese and Micronesian possessions, the British Dominion powers administered the rest of the Far East territories as well as Germany's African holdings, and Belgium had taken possession of part of German East Africa. In an effort to balance the annexationist demands of Great Britain and, more importantly, its Dominions with the wishes of the United States that the postwar settlement prohibit imperialist seizures of territory, diplomats at the Paris peace conference devised the mandate system for the former German and Ottoman colonies. Individual countries that were mandataries of the League of Nations were given the right to govern the colonies with the task of preparing them for eventual independence. Because the territories differed greatly in terms of political, economic, and social levels of development, the diplomats divided the colonies into A-, B-, and C-mandates: A-man-dates were considered almost ready for independence and thus needed only minimal guidance and support from the mandatory power; B-man-dates, which included all of the German colonies with the exception of German Southwest Africa, were seen as far less developed and thus requiring greater control by the mandataries, and C-man-dates were viewed as the most primitive and were thus to be administered as de facto colonial possessions. Although some territories' borders were redrawn, the League of Nations' mandate system allowed Great Britain, France, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to extend their wartime control over the former German colonies into the postwar era.

See alsoColonialism; Germany; World War II.


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Charles Lansing