Germany's colonial past has left many traces in the historical archives. The aim of this project is to summarise these traces and to link them with information about the different places, actors and events.
When the German Empire set about becoming a colonial power in 1884, this had a serious impact on the societies of the conquered territories. In many places, integration into global markets intensified and modernisation was forced from outside. This was associated with the creation of administrative and cultural structures. Their effects extend to the present day. To put it bluntly, the existence of countries such as Namibia, Togo or Cameroon is based on political decisions made in Berlin's Wilhelmstrasse.
Colonialism in GermanyThe colonial movement also influenced many areas of society in the Empire. Museums and collections were filled with objects from overseas, travellers reported on their experiences and the churches intensively promoted the missionary work of the new compatriots. Above all, however, the colonies were subjected to bureaucratic administration and several hundred companies were active in them. All this found its expression in hundreds of thousands of documents, which today are kept in many different places and collections within and outside Germany. These could be, for example, individual postcards from overseas that have been preserved in a private relief. But they can also be complete holdings of authorities concerned with the administration of the colonies. Reports from missionaries are also included, as well as meteorological observation series, passenger lists of the Reichspostdampfer or documents on property issues.
An archive portal for everyoneIt is essential to ensure that all visitors to the pages of this archive guide find information that will help them. Depending on their previous knowledge, they will also have different requirements. Their questions will be of varying complexity. And they will not always be formulated in German.
This variety of requirements will be met. There are introductory texts on the topic. Different forms of search are possible. And there are translations of descriptions and key terms. These translations into English or French are machine-made and therefore certainly not perfect. But they give important hints on the content of the documents.
The project began in 2017 in close cooperation with the Federal Foreign Office. From the outset, the core idea was to draw attention to the diversity of traditions and places of custody. The result was a freely accessible thematic online portal. Its core is a database with descriptions of documents and holdings. Important holdings are listed online for the first time. Others are already described in other portals, but have been enriched here with additional information. Currently more than 64,000 units from almost 300 institutions are available in the database. They are linked by more than 5,000 terms.
Maps, maps and more maps ...In a special browser, 129 historical maps of the German colonies and the German Empire are integrated. A corresponding index contains the geographical coordinates of over 220,000 historical and current locations. You can search for them on the maps. In addition, document descriptions from the database that are relevant for a specific location can be displayed.
... and free overview dataThis Thesaurus, a directory of persons, organisations and events relevant to the subject, is in this form unique. What is new here is that all data in this directory are completely stored in the free semantic database Wikidata, where they can also be supplemented. It offers the possibility of a broad international cooperation on private and institutional level. Thus also those persons and events can find mention, which find otherwise hardly attention in the traditional historiography. A special Wikidata project European Colonialism invites to cooperation.
But not everything is possibleNothing is perfect! Errors happen and a desired completeness of data can never be achieved.
This is especially related to the limitation of the topic. There is no clear distinction between colonial history and "other" history. The existence of the colonies had far more effects in the German Reich than generally assumed. The colonies were a subject matter as well in the schools as in the variety theatres. Terms and concepts with a colonial reference were introduced into the German language. There they are still in use today. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 60,000 Germans during these years lived in the colonies. Most of them survived, too. Quite a few of them have been remembered by posterity mainly for their later works and deeds. The extent to which their stay in the colonies had an impact on this later career can hardly be estimated.
The European colonial empires of the 19th century developed in an atmosphere of emphasis on nationalist contrasts. In practice, however, this strict separation into colonial nations was rarely the case. Capital from different countries was also invested in different colonies. The markets in the colonies reflected only a small part of the global economic exchange. Neither did the movements of persons always follow the national idea. Thus German missionaries also worked in "foreign" colonies. Conversely, there were also "foreign" missions in German colonies. The same applies to scientific expeditions and employees in companies and authorities. In addition, the routes to the German colonies themselves led through other countries. One can perhaps still speak of "German colonies". A "pure German colonial history", on the other hand, can hardly be defined.
But the topic can hardly be narrowed down in terms of time either. Persons and companies from the Holy Roman Empire took part in European expansion as early as the 15th century. And whether colonial history really ended with the political independence of the former colonies is the subject of many debates. What is certain is that the effects of this history continue to this day in many successor states.
For the project presented here, however, this means that no claim can be made to the completeness of the data. Only the main phases, the central actors and the central sites of German colonial history can be described in more detail. For these, an attempt was made to achieve a certain completeness of the data. Unfortunately, this was not always possible, as descriptions are not available for all documents. Also, some existing descriptions could not be included in this portal for legal reasons. Despite all this, this database is probably the most comprehensive overview on the subject of "German Colonial History" as far as archival records are concerned.
This overview, however, contains only a part of what has been handed down on the subject as a whole. There are still further objects and information in museums and libraries and there are also similar projects, to which we refer in our overview.
This archive guide is a beta version. Both data and functionalities will be added in the coming months. We invite everyone to participate.
Note on terms usedThe archival descriptions on this website have been taken over by third parties. It is due to the topic and the time of origin of the descriptions that terms are mentioned that can be offensive to members of victim groups. The descriptions in question are a product of their time and therefore themselves a source of historical knowledge. Replacing these defamatory and racist concepts with more neutral variants would be tantamount to manipulating sources. The same applies to terms and designations which are disrespecting gender neutrality.
The people involved in this project explicitly distance themselves from the active use of racist and defamatory terminologies in contemporary language.
Conceptual work, data acquisition, software development
Further data acquisition, setting of data, tests
Conduct of surveys
Department of Information Sciences
Another part of the costs was covered by the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences.
AtoM - Access to Memory
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