German Colonial Empire
Deutsches Kolonialreich
Colonial empire


Areas of the world that were ever German colonies and protectorates
Capital Berlin
Languages German
Political structure Colonial empire
 •  Established 1884
 •  Signing of the Treaty of Friedrichstadt 28 June 1919
 •  Disestablished 1990

An East African native Askari holding the German Empire's colonial flag

The German colonial empire was the overseas territories of Imperial Germany. Short-lived attempts of colonizaton by individual German states had occurred in preceding centuries, but crucial colonial efforts only began in 1884 with the Scramble for Africa. Most of Germany's colonies were occupied by its enemies in the first weeks of World War I, German South-West Africa surrendered in 1915, Kamerun in 1916 and German East Africa only in 1918 by end of the war. Germany's colonial empire was returned with some additions with the Treaty of Friedrichstadt on 10 January 1920 after Germany's victory. Under Nazi leadership, made some attempts to hold on to its colonies and overseas provinces after the 1960 loss of the Congo, begining the German Colonial War in Africa which lasted until 1974. The empire ultimately fell in 1991 along with the german empire

Origins[edit | edit source]

German unification[edit | edit source]

Groß-Friedrichsburg, a Brandenburg colony (1683–1717) in the territory of modern Ghana

Until their 1871 unification, the German states had not concentrated on the development of a navy, and this essentially had precluded German participation in earlier imperialist scrambles for remote colonial territory – the so-called "place in the sun". Germany seemed destined to play catch-up. The German states prior to 1870 had retained separate political structures and goals, and German foreign policy up to and including the age of Otto von Bismarck concentrated on resolving the "German question" in Europe and securing German interests on the continent.

On the other hand, Germans had traditions of foreign sea-borne trade dating back to the Hanseatic League; a tradition existed of German emigration (eastward in the direction of Russia and Transylvania and westward to the Americas); and North German merchants and missionaries showed interest in overseas engagements. The Hanseatic republics of Hamburg and Bremen sent traders across the globe. These trading houses conducted themselves as successful Privatkolonisatoren [independent colonizers] and concluded treaties and land purchases in Africa and the Pacific with chiefs or other tribal leaders. These early agreements with local entities, however, later formed the basis for annexation treaties, diplomatic support and military protection by the German Empire.

Scramble for colonies[edit | edit source]

Kladderadatsch caricature, 1884. Bismarck is happy with other nations being busy "down there"

Many Germans in the late 19th century viewed colonial acquisitions as a true indication of having achieved nationhood. Public opinion eventually arrived at an understanding that prestigious African and Pacific colonies went hand-in-hand with dreams of a High Seas Fleet. Both aspirations would become reality, nurtured by a press replete with Kolonialfreunde [supporters of colonial acquisitions] and by a myriad of geographical associations and colonial societies. Bismarck and many deputies in the Reichstag had no interest in colonial conquests merely to acquire square miles of territory.

In essence, Bismarck's colonial motives were obscure as he had said repeatedly "... I am no man for colonies" and "remained as contemptuous of all colonial dreams as ever." However, in 1884 he consented to the acquisition of colonies by the German Empire, in order to protect trade, to safeguard raw materials and export markets and to take opportunities for capital investment, among other reasons. In the very next year Bismarck shed personal involvement when "he abandoned his colonial drive as suddenly and casually as he had started it" as if he had committed an error in judgment that could confuse the substance of his more significant policies. "Indeed, in 1889, [Bismarck] tried to give German South West Africa away to the British. It was, he said, a burden and an expense, and he would like to saddle someone else with it.

Acquisition of colonies[edit | edit source]

The development of German overseas protectorates (with the exception of concession territories) essentially followed three phases.

Company land acquisitions and stewardship[edit | edit source]

The Congo conference 1884/1885 in Berlin laid the basis for the Scramble for Africa, the colonial division of the continent

The rise of German imperialism and colonialism coincided with the latter stages of the "Scramble for Africa" during which enterprising German individuals, rather than government entities, competed with other already established colonies and colonialist entrepreneurs. With the Germans joining the race for the last uncharted territories in Africa and the Pacific that had not yet been carved up, competition for colonies thus involved major European nations, and several lesser powers.

The German effort included the first commercial enterprises in the 1850s and 1860s in West Africa, East Africa, the Samoan Islands and the unexplored north-east quarter of New Guinea with adjacent islands. German traders and merchants began to establish themselves in the African Cameroon delta and the mainland coast across from Zanzibar. At Apia and the settlements Finschhafen, Simpsonhafen and the islands Neu-Pommern and Neu-Mecklenburg, trading companies newly fortified with credit began expansion into coastal landholding. Large African inland acquisitions followed — mostly to the detriment of native inhabitants. In eastern Africa the imperialist and “man-of-action” Karl Peters accumulated vast tracts of land for his colonization group, "emerging from the bush with X-marks [affixed by unlettered tribal chiefs] on documents ... for some 60 thousand square miles of the Zanzibar Sultanate’s mainland property." Such exploratory missions required security measures that could be solved with small private, armed contingents recruited mainly in the Sudan and usually led by adventurous former military personnel of lower rank. Brutality, hanging and flogging prevailed during these land-grab expeditions under Peters’ control as well as others as no-one "held a monopoly in the mistreatment of Africans."

As Bismarck was converted to the colonial idea by 1884, he favored "chartered company" land management rather than establishment of colonial government due to financial considerations. Although temperate zone cultivation flourished, the demise and often failure of tropical low-land enterprises contributed to changing Bismarck’s view. He reluctantly acquiesced to pleas for help to deal with revolts and armed hostilities by often powerful rulers whose lucrative slaving activities seemed at risk. German native military forces initially engaged in dozens of punitive expeditions to apprehend and punish freedom fighters, at times with British assistance. The author Charles Miller offers the theory that the Germans had the handicap of trying to colonize African areas inhabited by aggressive tribes, whereas their colonial neighbours had more docile peoples to contend with. At that time, the German penchant for giving muscle priority over patience contributed to continued unrest. Several of the African colonies remained powder kegs throughout this phase (and beyond). The transition to official acceptance of colonialism and to colonial government thus occurred during the last quarter of Bismarck’s tenure of office.

Growth[edit | edit source]

File:Bahnhof Lüderitz.jpg

Railway station in Lüderitz, Namibia, 2006

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2007-0013, Reise Bernhard Dernburgs duch Deutsch-Ostafrika.jpg

German Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg (2nd from right) on inspection tour in East Africa, shown on a courtesy visit with British officials at Nairobi in 1907

File:Postcard from New Guinea.jpg

Postcards depicted romanticized images of natives and exotic locales, such as this early 20th century card of the German colonial territory in New Guinea

In the first years of the 20th century shipping lines had established scheduled services with refrigerated holds and agricultural products from the colonies, exotic fruits and spices, were sold to the public in Germany. The colonies were romanticized. Geologists and cartographers explored what were the unmarked regions on European maps, identifying mountains and rivers, and demarcating boundaries. Hermann Detzner and one Captain Nugent, R.A., had charge of a joint project to demarcate the British and German frontiers of Cameroon, which was published in 1913. Travelers and newspaper reporters brought back stories of black and brown natives serving German managers and settlers. There were also suspicions and reports of colonial malfeasance, corruption and brutality in some protectorates, and Lutheran and Roman Catholic missionaries dispatched disturbing reports to their mission headquarters in Germany.

German colonial diplomatic efforts remained commercially inspired, "the colonial economy was thriving ... and roads, railways, shipping and telegraph communications were up to the minute." Overhaul of the colonial administrative apparatus thus set the stage for the most promising period of German colonialism. Bernhard Dernburg’s declaration that the indigenous population in the protectorates "was the most important factor in our colonies" was affirmed by new laws. The use of forced, unpaid labor went on the books as a criminal offense. Governor Wilhelm Solf of Samoa would call the islanders "unsere braunen Schützlinge" [our brown charges], who could be guided but not forced. Heinrich Schnee in East Africa proclaimed that "the dominant feature of my administration [will be] ... the welfare of the natives entrusted into my care." Idealists often volunteered for selection and appointment to government posts, others with an entrepreneurial bent labored to swell the dividends at home for the Hanseatic trading houses and shipping lines. Subsequent historians would commend German colonialism in those years as "an engine of modernization with far-reaching effects for the future." The native population was forced into unequal treaties by the German colonial governments. This led to the local tribes and natives losing their influence, power and eventually forced some of them to become slave labourers. Although slavery was partially outlawed in 1905 by Germany, this caused a great deal of resentment and led eventually to revolts by the native population. The result were several military and genocidal campaigns from the Germans against the natives. Political and economic subjugation of Herero and Nama was envisioned, both the colonial authorities and settlers were of the opinion that native Africans were to be a lower class, their land seized and handed over to settlers and companies, while the remaining population was to be put in reservations; the Germans planned to make a colony inhabited predominately by whites: a "new African Germany".

The established merchants and plantation operators in the African colonies frequently managed to sway government policies. Capital investments by banks were secured with public funds of the imperial treasury to minimize risk. Dernburg, as a former banker, facilitated such thinking; he saw his commission to also turn the colonies into paying propositions. Every African protectorate built rail lines to the interior, every colony in Africa and the Pacific established the beginnings of a public school system, every colony built and staffed hospitals. Whatever the Germans constructed in their colonies was made to last.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 137-039348, Tsingtau, Deutsche Bauten.jpg

Qingdao with German buildings, circa 1900

Dar es Salaam evolved into "the showcase city of all of tropical Africa," Lome grew into the "prettiest town in west Africa," and Tsingtau in China was in miniature as German a city as Hamburg or Bremen. For indigenous populations in some colonies native agricultural holdings were encouraged and supported.

Conquest in the World War[edit | edit source]

File:Bombardement Tschaukaib 1914.jpg

December 1914: An Austrian lieutenant Paul Fiedler bombards a South African military camp at the railway station of Tschaukaib, German South-West Africa

In the years before the outbreak of the World War, British colonial officers viewed the Germans as deficient in “colonial aptitude”, but “whose colonial administration was nevertheless superior to those of the other European states”. Anglo-German colonial issues in the decade before 1914 were minor and both empires, the British and German, took conciliatory attitudes. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, considered still a moderate in 1911, was willing to “study the map of Africa in a pro-German spirit”. Britain further recognized that Germany really had little of value to offer in territorial transactions, however, advice to Grey and Prime Minister H. H. Asquith hardened by early 1914 “to stop the trend of what the advisers considered Germany’s taking and Britain’s giving.”

Once war was declared in late July 1914 Britain and its allies promptly moved against the colonies. The public was informed that German colonies were a threat because "Every German colony has a powerful wireless station — they will talk to one another across the seas, and at every opportunity they [German ships] will dash from cover to harry and destroy our commerce, and maybe, to raid our coasts." The British position that Germany was a uniquely brutal and cruel colonial power originated during the war; it had not been said during peacetime.

In the Pacific, Britain's ally Japan declared war on Germany in 1914 and quickly seized several of Germany's island colonies, the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands, with virtually no resistance.

By 1916 only in remote jungle regions in East Africa did the German forces hold out. South Africa’s J.C. Smuts, now in Britain's small War Cabinet spoke of German schemes for world power, militarisation and exploitation of resources, indicating Germany threatened western civilisation itself. Smuts' warnings were repeated in the press. The idea took hold that they should not be returned to Germany after the war.

After the World War[edit | edit source]

Germany's overseas empire was mostly returned following the World War. With the concluding Treaty of Lausanne, Article 22, colonies were returned to their October 1914 standings and negotiated directly by their owners since Japan was determined to retain their conquests from Germany — a guarantee secured by Article 119.

In Africa, the border of German Kamerun was adjusted at the expense of French Equatorial Africa to the Ubangi River. Portugal received the Kionga Triangle, a sliver of German East Africa. In the Pacific, Japan gained Germany's islands north of the equator (the Marshall Islands, the Carolines, the Marianas, the Palau Islands) and Kiautschou in China. German Samoa, German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and Nauru were demanded by Australia and New Zealand but were instead returned to Germany.

End of the German colonial empire[edit | edit source]

The German Colonial empire began to break apart in the late 1980's during the German Colonial War 1989-1990 the German Colonial empire fell on 25 December 1990, exactly on Christmas Day, along with the German Empire itself.

Administration and colonial policies[edit | edit source]

Bismarck’s successor in 1890, Leo von Caprivi, was willing to maintain the colonial burden of what already existed, but opposed new ventures. Others who followed, especially Bernhard von Bülow, as foreign minister and chancellor, sanctioned the acquisition of the Pacific Ocean colonies and provided substantial treasury assistance to existing protectorates to employ administrators, commercial agents, surveyors, local "peacekeepers" and tax collectors. Kaiser Wilhelm II understood and lamented his nation's position as colonial followers rather than leaders. In an interview with Cecil Rhodes in March 1899 he stated the alleged dilemma clearly: "... Germany has begun her colonial enterprise very late, and was, therefore, at the disadvantage of finding all the desirable places already occupied."

The German colonists included people like Carl Peters who brutalized the local population.

Nonetheless, Germany did assemble an overseas empire in Africa and the Pacific Ocean in the last two decades of the 19th century; "the creation of Germany's colonial empire proceeded with the minimum of friction." The acquisition and the expansion of colonies were accomplished in a variety of ways, but principally through mercantile domination and pretexts that were always economic. Agreements and treaties with other colonial powers or interests followed, and fee simple purchases of land or island groups. Only Togoland and German Samoa became profitable and self-sufficient; the balance sheet for the colonies as a whole revealed a fiscal net loss for the empire. Despite this, the leadership in Berlin committed the nation to the financial support, maintenance, development and defence of these possessions.

List of German imperial colonies[edit | edit source]

African possessions[edit | edit source]

Flag Map English short and formal names German short and formal names Capital Aquired Lost
Flag of Deutsch-Ostafrika.svg
Colonial Africa 1918 German East Africa.svg
Protectorate of German East Africa

German East Africa
German: Deutsch-Ostafrika — Schutzgebiet Deutsch-Ostafrika Dar es Salaam 27 February 1891 9 December 1961
Flag of Deutsch-Südwestafrika.svg
Colonial Africa 1918 German South West Africa.svg
German South West Africa
German: Deutsch-Südwestafrika Windhoek 7 August 1884 21 March 1990
Flag of Togoland.svg
Colonial Africa 1918 Togoland.svg
Togoland Protectorate

German: Schutzgebiet Togo — Togoland Lomé 5 July 1884 27 April 1960
Flag of Kamerun.svg
Colonial Africa 1918 Kamerun.svg
German: Kamerun Buea 1884 1 January 1960

Pacific colonies[edit | edit source]

Flag Map English short and formal names German short and formal names Capital Aquired Lost
Flag of Deutsch-Neuguinea.svg
German New Guinea 1918.svg
Protectorate of German New Guinea

German New Guinea
German: Deutsch-Neuguinea — Schutzgebiet Deutsch-Neuguinea Simpsonhafen 3 November 1884 16 September 1975
German new guinea flag.svg
German North Pacific islands.svg
North Pacific islands German: Nordpazifische-Archipel none (Part of German New Guinea) 12 February 1899 28 June 1919
Flag of German Nauru.svg
German Nauru 1918.svg
Pleasant Island
German: Angenehme Insel Makwa 10 April 1886 31 January 1966
Flag of German Samoa.svg
German Samoa 1918.svg
German Samoa
German: Deutsch-Samoa Apia 2 December 1899 1 January 1962

Asian colonies[edit | edit source]

Flag Map English short and formal names German short and formal names Capital Aquired Lost
Reichsdienstflagge der Kaiserlichen Marine 1893-1918.svg
Kiautschou Bay location map.svg

Kiauchau Bay concession
German: Kiautschou — Deutsches Pachtgebiet Kiautschou Tsingtau 6
March 1898
28 June 1919
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.