The History of German Colonialism

by Ulrich van der Heyden

The Prehistory of German Colonial Rule

Founded in 1871, the German Reich was regarded as a laggard in the competition for the acquisition of overseas colonial territories. It is true that various German territorial rulers had begun since the early modern period to gain access to their own trading colonies in the colonial expansion emanating from Western Europe. Only the colonial adventure of the Brandenburg-Prussian Elector Friedrich Wilhelm at the end of the 17th century was of somewhat longer duration.

Founded in 1871, the German Reich was not the only European power to seek colonial ownership overseas from the mid-19th century onwards, in order to create - so the widespread justifications - a sales market in those areas for products produced in abundance by the industrial boom and to create opportunities for an alleged abundance of its own population to build up new livelihoods elsewhere and to requisition "exotic" raw materials for the local economy. The fact that geostrategic interests also played a role for Germany became evident with the doctrine of bringing civilization to the indigenous peoples living in Asia, Africa and the South Seas (for only in these territories did Germany have colonial possessions, while other European colonial powers thought and acted in the same way), all of whom allegedly lived pagan lives.

Under a Christian cloak of wanting to bring Christianity and civilization to the people in the non-European regions, subjugation wars were waged which subdued the indigenous population living in those regions, prepared the subsequent exploitation, often destroyed or at least influenced their cultures and religions. On the other hand, the colonized and their societies succeeded in connecting to modernity. A large part of the local population and their traditional leaders adapted to the new political and economic conditions of colonial rule.

The active prehistory of German colonialism began with the onset of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century. Mainly due to the lifting of the continental blockade imposed by the French emperor Napoleon in 1813, Hamburg and Bremen merchants and shipowners began to establish direct connections to certain regions in Latin America and the Middle East, later also to Southeast and East Asia as well as West Africa, Australia and the islands of the South Seas. This gradual advance of trading companies on non-European markets was supported by the gradual introduction of free trade within the sphere of power and influence of Great Britain. The partial opening of British colonies to the ships of foreign states by the so-called Navigation Acts of 1822/24, but also the abolition of the trading monopoly of the British East India Company for China in 1833 and the lifting of further restrictions on shipping and trade with the colonies made it possible for German merchants to advance into those regions of the world that had previously been denied them.

The Beginning of Direct Colonial Rule

Nevertheless, Germany lagged behind the other European colonial powers in the "Scramble for Africa". And so, in order to implement one of the most spectacular events in European colonial history, as the colonial and mission historian Horst Gründer called the division of Africa at the end of the 19th century, an international conference had to be held to steer this process of world historical significance for the colonial powers into their acceptable paths.

This international diplomatic conference initiated by France and Germany, widely referred to as the "Congo Conference", was attended by representatives of 13 European powers (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands with Luxembourg, Austria-Hungary, Portugal, Russia, Sweden-Norway and Spain), the Ottoman Empire and the United States from 15 November 1884 to 26 February 1885 in the German capital.

Originally, only the borders of the Congo Free State in Central Africa were to be confirmed by the European competitors for the colonial division of Africa. At the same time, Belgian King Leopold II was granted personal sovereignty over the Congo Free State, which brought him enormous wealth. In addition to these regulations, which gave the conference its widespread name, the regulations were laid down on how to prevent or resolve the conflicts that have arisen or are beginning to arise in the course of industrial developments in Europe and North America through the development of new sources of raw materials and the creation of markets on the African continent.

It was agreed among other things for the signatory states in Berlin for West Africa to establish the freedom of navigation on the rivers Congo and Niger, as well as the prohibition of the slave trade declared and a mutual renunciation signed, in the case of a war in Europe "colored troops" to use.

"Effective occupation" was considered a criterion for the recognition of colonial occupation. The "Scramble for Africa" could now be intensified and regulated under international law. This regulated the modalities of future colonial seizures.

These and other questions were toughly negotiated in Berlin and recorded in a general act in 38 articles under international law, without consulting or even asking the Africans concerned. Even the sovereignty rights of African states were simply ignored. However, as is often mistakenly assumed, the Conference did not define the boundaries between the individual colonies in Africa, the majority of which still exist today between the current independent nation states. The often dead straight demarcations, which often rigorously separated the habitats of ethnic communities, suggested this, but only the regulations for the colonial powers were laid down here, how they could divide the territory of Africa south of the Sahara among themselves, without getting their hair in each other's pockets.

Otto von Bismarck, the "iron chancellor", used the "Congo Conference" held under his chairmanship in the former Radziwill Palace in Wilhelmstrasse 77 (Reichskanzlerpalais), at which the German delegation, together with France, rejected Great Britain's claim to a monopoly position in West Africa in order to assert the interests of the German economy striving for unhindered colonial trade. The contemporary writer Joseph Conrad, who had travelled the "Congo Free State" in 1890, described the division of the African continent in Berlin as "the most disgusting scramble for prey ever to deface the history of human conscience.

In fact, the African division regulations brought more than ten million square miles of African land and over 100 million Africans under European rule in about two decades, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia. As many of their contemporaries and later apologists claimed, the Europeans did not advance into a power vacuum in which the expansion process could take place unhindered. African resistance to colonial conquest and occupation proved to be a serious obstacle everywhere, which could only be overcome by the deployment of European troops, often reinforced by local mercenaries. Colonial wars and uprisings, but also passive resistance, refusal to pay taxes or provide services and escaping from certain areas of power are evidence of this.

In the result of the negotiations of finally fixed procedures for the division of Africa among the European colonial powers the demand for "free access of the Christian missions" always played a role. The General Act declared freedom of mission for the whole of Africa. But what was it worth if the African population was expelled before or at the same time as the missionary process or subjugated by the suppression of anti-colonial actions? Of the noble aims communicated to the public and reflected in the preamble to the General Acts, namely that the European powers felt they had to fulfil a missionary and civilizing mission in order to contribute to the improvement, as it was literally said, of the "moral and material welfare of the indigenous peoples", not much was really noticeable in reality.

Such philanthropic rhetoric was particularly intended for the European public. Their purpose was to suggest to the critics and skeptics of a colonial policy, which probably existed in almost all participating countries, at least the appearance of bourgeois decency and the pursuit of idealistic goals. The relevant provisions in the General Act on "special protection" for Christian missionaries and against the slave trade were not least intended to win the support of broad sections of the population of both Christian denominations for the colonial division of Africa. This manipulation of thinking can be seen as the beginning of a racist colonial ideology that was still in its infancy.

The colonial historian Helmuth Stoecker made the following assessment of the "Berlin Conference of 1884/85 on the Colonial Division of Sub-Saharan Africa": The division "on paper" by treaties between these powers took place partly during the conquest and the establishment of colonial rule over the affected territories, but mostly the permanent conquest took place only after a territory had been awarded to a certain power as a result of diplomatic cow-trading. A large number of peoples, most of them for centuries seriously injured by the slave trade and damaged in their development, were deprived of their independence, very often also of their land and livestock, and even of their cultural identity. The conquerors used military force to force the African peoples not only to hand over the natural resources of the continent to them, but also to make them available for the extraction and transport of the same labour force. Africa became a completely dependent, subjugated dépendance, a colonial supplier of raw materials for European colonialism, later also for US colonialism and later neo-colonialism.
Indeed, the conference in Berlin laid the foundations not only for the "official acquisition" of the German colonial territories in Africa, but also in the South Seas and China.

The "Acquisition" of the German Colonies in Africa


The only 50 km long coast of Togo, on whose territory several African states existed and whose coastal towns were important transshipment points for the transatlantic slave trade, came to the attention of Germans in 1852. This is where the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft established its stations in Bremen. From the 1870s, French merchants were followed by representatives of German trading houses, who demanded protection and support from the German Reich. Thereupon German representatives concluded protectorate treaties with several chieftains and on 5.7.1884 the empire Togo placed under the "protection". This included the territory of today's Republic of Togo and the eastern part of today's Ghana. From 1886 the violent conquest of the hinterland was started, mostly by so-called hinterland expeditions.


After the Portuguese had "opened up" the territory of today's Cameroon, various European trading houses became interested in it. The first German factorei was opened in 1868. On 11.7.1884 the colonial rule was established by the conclusion of "protection" treaties with some chiefs, in which they ceded sovereign rights, legislation and administration of their territory against payment and some (later broken) assurances. After the formal transfer of these rights to the German Reich, the "German protectorate" was proclaimed in Duala. In the following years, further coastal towns were occupied and one region after the other was subdued.

German Southwest Africa (Namibia)

Already in 1840 the first Germans came to the coast of today's Namibia. It was the missionaries of the Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft who established their stations here. In the middle of 1883 the Bremen merchant F. A. E. Lüderitz acquired today's Lüderitz Bay using fraudulent methods. The Bremen merchant succeeded in having the German Reich take over the "protection" of this property on 24.4.1884. From here, the German territory was expanded by exploiting ethnic disputes and colonial conditions were stabilised, which led to the outbreak of the Herero War in 1904.

German East Africa (Tanzania)

In the course of the 18th century Arab feudal states had developed on the East African coast. A lively trade, often with slaves, became the characteristic feature of the economy. Although some German and British researchers had already travelled the coastal region and parts of the hinterland, towards the end of the 19th century a new period of European invasion of Tanganyika began, as the territory was then called. Germany and Great Britain in particular fought bitterly for supremacy over East Africa. In 1885 the "Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft" received an "Imperial Letter of Protection" for the agreements with indigenous rulers brokered by the adventurer Carl Peters. Despite constant resistance, which reached its peak in 1905/07, the Germans were able to conquer large areas in the interior of today's United Republic of Tanzania in the following years. Regions of the present independent states of Burundi and Rwanda were also added to the colony of D e u t s c h - O s t a f r i k a .

In addition, Kiautschou with its capital Qingdao in China as a leased area and many islands in the South Seas had also become the focus of German attention. There, too, they established a colonial rule.

Methods of domination

The forms of colonial exploitation and oppression in the "conquered" African territories were manifold, also in the extent and intensity of the forms of violence used. The most direct and pronounced violence was used by the German colonial soldiers in the African colonies Deutsch-Südwest and Deutsch-Ostafrika.

The events in and around the Herero and Nama Wars in present-day Namibia (1904-1908), which are much discussed today, were not the only crimes and the resulting political consequences (albeit particularly direct) that the German Empire experienced and still has to this day.

In the other colonial areas, too, any anti-colonial resistance was broken with violence and trickery, and coercive measures were used to govern and exploit it. In all four German colonies on the African continent, the new masters who had travelled from the Empire to the tropics and who were often enough failed existences in their homeland, asserted their supposed claims with all the methods at their disposal.

Although the violent and coercive measures were applied in different forms in the various German colonies, they belonged to the repertoire of imperial repressive measures. If the objectives of the colonial masters could be achieved by other means, bloody arbitrariness was dispensed with and other forms were devised to coerce the local population. There was much less direct violence in the Chinese leased area than in the South Seas and especially in Africa. If, however, when the rule was threatened, resistance arose, as on the island of Ponape, which then belonged to German New Guinea, rigorous action was taken. Between 1910 and 1911 the Sokehs revolted against taxes and forced labour. The Germans reacted with brutal violence. This is hardly known in current historical consciousness.

Even in Togo, which is still often praised as a "model colony" today, the Germans ruled with violent measures, even if there were no bloody uprisings here, with threats, forced labour, tax collections and similar measures. The lack of collective, bloody means of coercion made the fairy tale of non-violent rule in the "model colony" mature, even appearing humane. How "humane" German colonial policy was in Togo was shown, for example, by the fact that the Germans established more prisons than schools.

The ultimate goal of all forms of violence was the theft of the land of the locals. With the exploitation of the people living there, the financial means necessary for colonial administration were to be provided by taxes and forced labour. Under the motto "Divide and rule", the disputes among the indigenous rulers were exploited and rivalries between ethnic groups were fomented.
Besides the mentioned Herero and Nama war in D e u t s c h - S ü d w e s t a f r i k a , which ended in a genocide and which today triggered a public debate about it, there was also anti-colonial resistance in other German colonial areas, which was brutally suppressed. Some that allow conclusions to be drawn about the German-African relationship of power are listed below:

The Maji-Maji War in East Africa

The Maji-Maji uprising was the focus of interest in the German public at the time and later in scientific research. Compulsion to work and arbitrariness were the main causes of its outbreak. From 1905 to 1907, a relatively broad alliance of members of African ethnic groups rose in the south of the D e u t s c h - O s t a f r i k a colony against the colonial exploitation and rule of the German Reich. The armed resistance of the Africans, one of the largest colonial conflicts in Africa, which can certainly be described as war, ended in a devastating defeat. Even though there were shootings and other acts of violence against the civilian population, the majority of those killed died not by bullets, but by starvation and other consequences of war, because the German "Schutztruppe" had burned down fields and villages. Whole regions were depopulated in this way.


It is even less known how the Germans in Cameroon asserted their colonial ideas and what resistance they provoked as a result. One reason for the low profile of the events in Cameroon is due to the fact that the establishment and enforcement of colonial rule is sometimes glossed over, even written by a "humane colonial policy", because there had been a correction of colonial policy since about 1907. No longer should blind violence be at the centre of the methods of maintaining rule, but the effective exploitation of land and people. The nestor of German colonial historiography, Helmuth Stoecker, explained this with the fact that the division of the earth among the imperialist great powers had now been completed and "an intensive exploitation of colonial property" had begun.

The Cameroonian population was exploited on plantations, in road and railway construction with downright predatory practices. Extra-economic coercion played an important role. The future workers were made submissive by alcohol, their ignorance was exploited, chieftains were bribed. However, even when deemed necessary, ruthless violence was used. The mortality rate among the African workforce was catastrophic.

In one of the first scientific studies critical of colonialism it says: "Hunger wages, excessively long working days, inadequate nutrition, inadequate housing, women's and children's labor, a broken family life, an early death, beatings and chain punishments - that was the fate of the workers in Cameroon". Such forms of exploitation and oppression combined with methods of driving large sections of the African population off the land led to passive and active African resistance.

Togo - the "model colony"

The smallest African colony of the German Empire in terms of area was Togo, which was called the "model colony". And this with the argument that it was the only German colony that could be exploited to such an extent that it was not a loss-making business for the merchants, farmers, civil servants and other Germans settled there and thus did not burden the state budget. The financial "losses" in the other German colonies were borne by the taxpayers in the Reich at home.

Despite the use of force in military subjugation and the maintenance of colonial rule, there were no open armed resistance actions. Togo expert Peter Sebald comments: "It can be seen that the colonial regime caused sharp conflicts with the population in all areas. If there were not... major uprisings, it was especially because the more advanced social development of the African population... prompted German colonialism to apply more differentiated methods."

The German colonial administration therefore worked more by means of repressive measures, which were secured by the judiciary. The number of sentences rose from 1,072 in 1901/02 to 6,009 in 1911/12, the number of officially imposed corporal punishments from 162 to 733 in the same period. Not to be underestimated is the continuing passive resistance in which individuals, sometimes entire villages, migrated to neighbouring colonies. This, too, is a consequence of the threat of violence under the conditions of highly developed European colonial rule.

German Colonialism

The German colonial administration used violence, whether subtle or direct and spontaneous, in all the areas it subjugated, because after the acquisition of land, however it went on, the aim was to persuade the indigenous people living there to work. Until then, the latter had lived off the subsistence and natural economy and was to be encouraged by violence and threats of violence to produce added value, which was to benefit trading companies, farmers, builders, shipowners and other forces interested in colonial trade in Germany. The Germans therefore introduced head and hut taxes. Those who could not or did not want to pay these were sentenced to forced labor. Large sections of the indigenous population thus fell into bondage. Passive (flight) and active resistance (rebellion/colonial wars) were countered with various forms of structural violence. This fact, which has been known for a long time, has been and still is confirmed by scientific research.
German colonial rule ended with the defeat of the German Reich in the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles; in some German colonies this was the case shortly after the outbreak of the war.

Selected Overview Presentations on the History of German Colonialism

  • Conrad, Sebastian: Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte, München 2008. DNB
  • Fröhlich, Michael: Imperialismus. Deutsche Kolonial- und Weltpolitik 1880–1914, München 1994. DNB
  • Gifford, Prosser/Louis, William Roger (Hrsg.): Britain and Germany in Africa. Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule, New Haven/London 1967. British Library
  • Graudenz, Karlheinz: Die deutschen Kolonien. Geschichte der deutschen Schutzgebiete in Wort, Bild und Karte, München 1982. DNB
  • Gründer, Horst/Hiery, Hermann (Hrsg.): Die Deutschen und ihre Kolonien. Ein Überblick, 2. Aufl., Berlin 2018. DNB
  • Gründer, Horst: „… da und dort ein junges Deutschland gründen“. Rassismus, Kolonien und kolonialer Gedanke vom 16. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, 3. Aufl., München 2006. DNB
  • Gründer, Horst: Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien. 6. überarb. und erw. Aufl., Paderborn 2012. DNB
  • van der Heyden, Ulrich/Heine, Peter (Hrsg.): Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Kolonialismus in Afrika. Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Peter Sebald, Pfaffenweiler 1995. DNB
  • van der Heyden, Ulrich/Zeller, Joachim (Hrsg.): Kolonialismus hierzulande. Eine Spurensuche in Deutschland, Erfurt 2008. DNB
  • van der Heyden, Ulrich/Zeller, Joachim (Hrsg.): Kolonialmetropole Berlin. Eine Spurensuche, Berlin 2002 DNB
  • van der Heyden, Ulrich/Zeller, Joachim (Hrsg.): "„...Macht und Anteil an der Weltherrschaft“. Berlin und der deutsche Kolonialismus, Münster 2005 DNB
  • Honold, Alexander/Scherpe, Klaus R. (Hrsg.): Mit Deutschland um die Welt. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Fremden in der Kolonialzeit, Stuttgart/Weimar 2004. DNB
  • Höpker, Thomas/Petschull, Jürgen: Der Wahn vom Weltreich. Die Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien, Herrsching 1986. DNB
  • Knoll, Arthur J./Hiery, Hermann J. (Hrsg.): The German Colonial Experience. Select Documents on German Rule in Africa, China and the Pacific 1884–1914, Lanham 2010. British Library
  • Knopp, Guido: Das Weltreich der Deutschen, München 2010 DNB
  • Längin, Bernd G.: Die deutschen Kolonien, Hamburg 2005. DNB
  • Meyer, Hans: Das deutsche Kolonialreich. Eine Länderkunde der deutschen Schutzgebiete, Leipzig/Wien 1909. BSB München
  • Nestvogel, Renate/Tetzlaff, Rainer (Hrsg.): Afrika und der deutsche Kolonialismus. Zivilisierung zwischen Schnapshandel und Bibelstunde, Berlin/Hamburg 1987. DNB
  • Pogge von Strandmann, Hartmut: Imperialismus vom Grünen Tisch. Deutsche Kolonialpolitik zwischen wirtschaftlicher Ausbeutung und „zivilisatorischen“ Bemühungen, Berlin 2009. DNB
  • Reinhard, Wolfgang: Die Unterwerfung der Welt. Globalgeschichte der europäischen Expansion 1415-2015, München 2016. DNB
  • Schinzinger, Francesca: Die Kolonien und das Deutsche Reich. Die wirtschaftliche Bedeutung der deutschen Besitzungen in Übersee, Stuttgart 1984. DNB
  • Speitkamp, Winfried: Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte, 3. Aufl., Stuttgart 2014. DNB
  • Steltzer, Hans Georg : Die Deutschen und ihr Kolonialreich. Frankfurt am Main 1984. BSB München
  • Stoecker, Helmuth (Hrsg.): Drang nach Afrika. Die deutsche koloniale Expansionspolitik und Herrschaft in Afrika von den Anfängen bis zum Verlust der Kolonien, 2. Aufl., Berlin 1991. DNB
  • Wagner, Norbert Berthold: Die deutschen Schutzgebiete. Erwerb, Organisation und Verlust aus juristischer Sicht, Baden-Baden 2002. DNB