Africa: German Colonies
Africa: German Colonies
Germany was a late entrant into the race for colonies in Africa. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was initially not a colonial expansionist. His preoccupation was the unification of Germany and its attaining a preeminent role in European politics. However, following the unification of Germany in 1871, the issue of colonies began to preoccupy German society and leadership, and various lobbying groups exerted pressure on the government to be proactive in the acquisition of colonies in Africa, arguing that Germany needed colonies to maintain its economic preeminence. The leading lobbying groups, formed after the unification, included the West German Society for Colonization and Export (1881) and the Central Association for Commercial Geography and the Promotion of German Interests Abroad (1878). The government reluctantly agreed with their view and embraced the idea of colonization, primarily to further the nation’s economic interests.
Bismarck came to envision colonies as a stabilizing force in domestic politics by emphasizing nationalism and the greatness of Germany internationally. Bismarck was a pragmatist, however, and his drive to acquire colonies in Africa was largely a function of economic considerations in the emerging imperial world order, European diplomacy, and domestic politics. It is against this backdrop that Germany hosted the international Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. The conference constituted a watershed in African history, for it sanctioned European claims in Africa, though with the caveat that those powers that claimed possessions in Africa had to manifest a physical occupation of their areas for their claims to be legitimate.
This caveat was instrumental in the subsequent partition and physical occupation of Africa. Germany acquired South West Africa (present-day Namibia), German East Africa (present-day mainland Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi), Togo, and Cameroon. In establishing formal institutions and structures in support of colonial governance in these newly acquired territories, Germany’s policy was characterized by ruthlessness, a policy of racial supremacy, and economic dispossession of the indigenous populations. These features became more pronounced in colonies to which Germans emigrated and sought to establish a homeland. German South West Africa best exemplifies a colonial situation in which race constituted a group identity that had certain predetermined advantages.
The most vital link between metropolitan Germany and the colonies was the colonial governor, who had enormous powers in steering the colony according to the official policy emanating from Berlin. Under the governor were European civilian officials and the commanders of the armed forces in the colony. Although the commanders were answerable to the governor, they retained considerable power because they were subject to the High Command in Berlin. The military performed the vital function of maintaining a superiority of arms in the colony. A number of the officers also doubled as regional administrators. It was the responsibility of the governor to mediate the various competing interests within the colony. This was far from easy, especially because the interests of the settlers were sometimes in conflict with the official colonial policy or the rights of Africans. The Germans established a colonial administration that embraced both direct and indirect rule in proportions that varied from one colony to another, and even at times within the same colonial territory, depending on the local situation.
Below the European colonial administrators were African chiefs. These were local leaders who were appointed and made subject to the authority of the local German officials, who were invariably few in number. Their loyalty was primarily to the appointing colonial authority. They served at the pleasure of the colonial government and were responsible for functions ranging from collecting taxes and conscripting labor for colonial projects to being the public face of the government at the lowest local level. Yet their ability to rise up in the ranks of the colonial administration was restricted because Africans were disqualified from holding senior positions at the district level. Thus, race was a critical determinant of one’s status and level in the service of German colonial state.
The German policy was to construct an image of “Deutschtum” among the colonists. In other words, the colonies were to comprise a hardworking, parsimonious, Protestant agrarian class filled with staunch nationalist values and devotion to the Kaiser. In the settler colony of South West Africa, the intended result was the establishment of a new Germany with a culture, language, institutions, and structures that mirrored the homeland. Suffice it to note that this envisioned “new Germany” was incompatible with the interests of Africans. Its creation could only succeed at the expense of the indigenous populations. A corollary to this development was the promotion of German interests by sacrificing African political, economic, and sociocultural interests on the altar of racial prejudice.
German colonists were projected as members of a superior and enlightened race, while the native Herero and Nama communities were depicted as inferior, indolent, and destined to be permanent subjects of the Kaiser. The native people were treated as members of a collective group, and individual personality and capability were less significant than the community to which a person belonged. The rationale was to legitimize the supremacy of the colonists. The indigenous populations, meanwhile, were forced to conform to the new power hierarchy brought on by colonialism. This coerced conformity manifested itself in several ways that ranged from newly introduced colonial taxation and land alienation to forced labor and outright brutality.
Distaste for the new German colonial order provoked a sharp reaction from the Herero in 1904. The German response was extreme to the extent that it sought to exterminate the Herero. The Herero uprising of 1904 was ruthlessly suppressed, resulting in the deaths of nearly 60,000 out of a population of 80,000. The Germans not only shot the victims, they also poisoned their water holes, resulting in the deaths of thousands more. Those who survived were forced into work camps an became the subject of various medical experiments and examinations.
The Nama faced the similar fate, and such atrocities were visited upon communities in other German colonies. During the Maji Maji uprising (1905–1907), the communities in southern German East Africa were defeated when the Germans resorted to a scorched earth policy that caused a massive destruction of crops and killings on a large scale. The African deaths from this war are estimated at between 75,000 and 100,000. The Duala (1914) and Dagomba (1896) uprisings—in Cameroon and Togo, respectively—were similarly crushed.
The German use of brute force was based on the notion that might is right, and on the belief that the interests of German colonists reigned supreme. They claimed that their skin color entitled them to subjugate the Africans. In maintaining an ideology of order and racial superiority, their methods of choice varied from overt military and scorched earth campaigns to economic coercion and land seizure.
At the sociocultural level, the Germans strove to maintain racial purity by reining in the behavior of some of their own. The official positions of whiteness and right were not only intertwined, they were also forced on Africans to accept as the norm of colonial society. However, whites who cohabited with or married African women posed a major threat to maintaining racial superiority. It was argued that miscegenation undermined the perceived order of white superiority by creating a class of mulattoes who defied the established categorization of colonial citizenry as black or white. Cohabitation also lowered the status of whites in the colonies. Cohabiting with the Africans who were perceived to be their inferiors, and those whites who did so were perceived by the colonial authorities to be undermining their own race and all it stood for and represented among the colonized. Yet there were more European men than women in all of Germany’s colonies at any given time, and this situation encouraged cohabitation and miscegenation. The actualities of cohabitation and miscegenation debunked the myth of the German “gentleman” who shouldered the moral burden of maintaining the purity and superiority of the white race.
The case for racial purity was defended on the grounds of preserving class status and disallowing degeneracy. In order to guarantee class status, officials discouraged transgressions against the color divide by enacting legislation that forbade interracial marriages. Good Germans were supposed to behave well by marrying within their racial group. German colonialism espoused ideals of German manhood and womanhood in order to discourage interracial marriages. The result was that such marriages were stigmatized, and those involved were viewed as social deviants. Officials sought to ensure conformity to the norms of segregated society because it was seen as desirable in the maintaining of a status quo that was anchored in economic elitism, political hegemony, and a racially divided society.
The administration of justice in the German colonies was anything but impartial. The Germans nurtured and constantly reinforced a legal system that served the interests of the Europeans. The African was considered to be inferior before the law. As a result, race determined the way justice was dispensed. Punishment was meted out based on the color of one’s skin. German colonialism was replete with racism and was not based on equality before the law. In addition, Africans were subjected to degrading corporal punishments as well as arbitrary executions.
The policies in place in the colonies, especially the use of brute force, coerced labor, and the resultant loss of African lives, led to intense criticism of German colonial policy from within, especially as the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close. The debate on policy focused on how to manage the colonies for the benefit of Germany while protecting African rights to some extent. The colonial office desired to position itself as the mediator of conflicts in the colonies. This meant reducing the role of local governors who had hitherto wielded enormous powers in determining the outcome of the conflicts in areas under their jurisdiction. But even within the colonial office there were two viewpoints that were in play.
While some officials felt that a strong settler voice had to be encouraged for the purpose of promoting economic colonialism, others were of the view that humanitarian concern for African protection ought to be the paramount consideration. The latter group opined that if European settler colonialism was to succeed, colonial authorities had to avoid provoking unnecessary African resistance and ought to bring them into the orbit of the colonial economy as a plantation proletariat. It was felt that the establishment of a plantation proletariat would regularize and stabilize the working class by ensuring that it was well paid and its interests taken into account, albeit in the context of a polarized society in which Africans knew their role and place.
The intent to humanize colonialism and exploitation through paternalism was viewed as a shift from the previous blatant and overt brutality to a more considerate one in which the colonists would have their interests protected while the pecking order in the society would remain intact. Yet even under this emerging paternalistic policy, the African was still viewed as an inferior being that exhibited a “big child” mentality. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that Africans were described as capable of becoming reasonable facsimiles of Europeans, though it was believed they had to be guided for the foreseeable future by the colonial authorities to attain that desired level. Such preconceived ideas, based on racial prejudice, informed the evolution and development of German colonial policy.
The Germans soon embarked on the construction of railroads in their African colonial possessions. The railroads would link the coast with areas of high economic potential in the hinterland, an economic agenda aimed at boosting the economy of the colonies for the benefit of the metropolitan country. This physical infrastructure, however, was supposed to benefit Africans only indirectly, through their participation in the colonial economy as workers and not investors. The focus was on opening up the colonies for European settlement as well as economic investment. The development of physical infrastructure emphasized the polarized nature of colonial society, with both the colonizer and the colonized having a distinct role to play in the making of the colonial economy.
The development of social services was equally important in the planning and marketing of German colonialism as a benevolent and humane undertaking aimed at benefiting the Africans. The Germans developed public hospitals as well as educational institutions. But even in these two areas, the facilities were inadequate to cope with the large number of Africans who were gradually and consistently being drawn to Western educational and public health institutions. The German colonial government encouraged the participation of missionary societies as partners in providing health care and educational services. Through the development of such services, the government hoped that Africans would cherish the fruits of the German civilizing mission.
The redefining of German colonial policy in 1914 was relegated to the periphery of the mainstream events of World War I, although race continued to determine the position of Africans in political, economic, and social spheres during the entire war period. Africans aligned and identified themselves with their respective colonial powers during the war. In this regard, the war revealed the divide among the major Europeans, thereby forcing Africans to enlist in support of their European colonial power. Africans were relegated to the lower ranks and served under the command of German officers, a development that reasserted their position in colonial society. Nevertheless, Africans fought gallantly in support of the German cause. In German East Africa, under the command of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Africans and Germans put up determined resistance in confronting British and South African forces. Despite the fact that they were outnumbered, German and African troops in the region remained undefeated throughout the war.
World War I constituted a turning point in the history of German colonialism in Africa. One of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty that ended the war was that Germany had to surrender all its colonies. With the surrender of the colonies, German colonial policy, and its attendant negative connotations of race, came under review. German colonies were taken over by the League of Nations, as Trust Mandates, and by other competing powers.
In South West Africa, the Germans demanded political equality and the recognition of German as the third administrative language next to English and Afrikaans. The interests of the South African Afrikaners were not incompatible with those of the South West African Germans, as both groups wanted the establishment of a white-dominated society in this former German colony. A conflict pitting the two groups against one another, therefore, would be detrimental to the primary goal of establishing a white settler society in South West Africa. It was in this political context that Jan Smuts, the South African prime minister, entered into a direct negotiation with the German government, resulting in the signing of the 1923 London Agreement. This accord granted Germans concessions in a wide range of areas, including politics, language, education, immigration, culture, and economics. The importance of this development was that German privileges were still protected under the South African special mandate. The interests of whites, both German and Afrikaners, were privileged over those of the Africans.
In the other former colonies, however, the interests of Germans were not accorded special privileges. In German East Africa, for example, the British ruled the country as if it were any other British colony. South West Africa was thus a unique case, primarily because it was initially managed as a settler colony. In addition, the white-dominated society of South Africa, where Afrikaner interests were being promoted at the expense of those of the Africans, necessitated a more considerate and sympathetic policy that favored the German interests even after their defeat in the war. In sum, World War I marked the formal end of German colonialism in Africa.
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George O. Ndege