If you had an older sibling growing up, you may hold frustrating memories of being told to go to bed while they were able to stay up an extra hour watching TV or the like. You may remember the excitement when you finally hit that same age and then demanding that your parents allow you to stay up until the same time as your older sibling. If that is the case then you share quite a bit in common with the German Second Reich.
The unification of Germany in 1871 was a glorious affair for the people of the newly created state. The Prussian military had just bested two of the traditional great European powers and asserted its political dominance over the loose confederation of German states and gained a significant amount of territory to boot. Germany had in fact finally come of age and, in continuing the metaphor, its people now demanded that they could stay up that extra hour to watch TV. Germany was a Great State and demanded all the trappings that this entailed.
But how did Colonialism come to be seen as the most obvious outlet? Firstly and most obviously the German people saw the military victories against Austria and France as evidence of the supremacy of their new state. These victories carried significant momentum in the minds of the people; why shouldn’t greater expansion occur if they were so successful? However this belief could easily have lent itself to either colonial or continental expansion; what tipped the scales towards colonial expansion was the economic situation unfolding in Germany during the 1870s. Significant industrialisation saw production of goods drastically increase; an indication of this is the amount of freight transported had nearly doubled in size from 1870 to 1873. However the expansion of industry was seen to be limited by protective practices in place in potential export markets. When the economy began to stall in 1873 this problem became even more pronounced. In a pamphlet published in 1879 by Friedrich Fabri, head of the Rhenish Missionary Society, proposed that German colonial possession would provide a solution to the economic problems afflicting the country. The success of his message is demonstrable in the ensuing popularity of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, that is the Colonial lobby group.
So why does public opinion matter so much in a state controlled by a strong leader such as the indomitable Chancellor Otto von Bismarck? Despite the connotations of Imperial Germany being highly authoritarian, there was a large degree of adherence to democratic institutions. While the Prussian domination of these institutions does negate much of their autonomy, the electorate played an important role in pushing the colonial question to the front of German politics. The voting system of Germany, while having universal male suffrage, was weighted by wealth with the highest 5% of taxpayers elected one third of parliament, the next 10% elected another third, and the remaining 85% elected the final third. This makeup is extremely important in the development of public support for colonialism, as the top 15% saw themselves as the greatest beneficiaries of colonial investment. Bismarck’s was seen as wasting the momentum generated by unification in his attempts to cease expansion and ‘consolidate’ Germany’s new position in Europe to avoid isolation from the other great powers. The satirical magazine Kladderadatsch published a cartoon on 13 July 1884 that was critical of the Chancellor who stalled while the rest of Europe gained colonies. It did not help that the social reforms posted by the Chancellor were exclusionary in attempting creating a German identity, targeting both Catholics and Social Democrats. The unpopularity of these measures resulted in poor election results for the Chancellor’s party in the 1884 elections, forcing Bismarck to enter into a coalition with more pro-colonial parties.
Source: Douglas, Roy. Great nations still enchained: the cartoonists’ vision of empire, 1848-1914. London: Routledge, (1993)p77-78
The role of public opinion in supporting colonialism was strong; however the prerogative of the Chancellor was great enough to suppress these desires after it became obvious that expeditions in East Africa were threatening Anglo-German relations. This dynamic changed after the ascension of Wilhelm II in 1888. Wilhelm II had a strong dislike of the Chancellor who he saw as too cautious when it was obvious to him that Germany was destined for greatness. By refusing to renew the Anti-Socialist law and agitating for greater colonialism, Wilhelm II was able to utilise public opinion to decrease the support for the Chancellor and rebalance political power into the Imperial office.
In discrediting the more visible proponents of colonialism, Bismarck had destroyed the moderates allowing a more radical fringe to flourish. Coupled with a toleration of the anti-Slavic Pan-German league, there was an increasingly radicalised understanding of German identity. By engaging so comprehensively with the colonial lobby group under his reign, Wilhelm II effectively let the radicalised elements of society off the chain. The preponderance of the German race as superior to that of the Eastern Europeans found an easy outlet in the colonies where violence against the native population was already an acceptable practice. The massacres of the Herero and Nama people in East Africa after their rebellion against German rule in 1904 were the unfortunate culmination of such beliefs. While violence against natives is not unique to Germany, the importance of colonialism to nation building places the role of racial violence worryingly close to German identity making in the colonies.
Further Reading –
Baranowski, Shelley. Nazi empire: German colonialism and imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2011)
Douglas, Roy. Great nations still enchained: the cartoonists’ vision of empire, 1848-1914. London: Routledge, (1993)
Evans, Richard J. The coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Press, (2004)
Reuss, Martin, ‘The Disgrace and Fall of Carl Peters: Morality, Politics, and Staatsräson in the Time of Wilhelm II’ Central European History, vol 13, No 2 (June 1981) pp 110-131
Wehler, Hans Ulrich. The German Empire, 1871-1918. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, UK: Berg Publishers, (1985)
Primary sources –
von Bülow, Bernhard Germany’s “Place in the Sun” (1897)
Fabri, Friedrich, Does Germany Need Colonies? (1879)
Peters, Karl, and H. W. Dulcken, New light on dark Africa: being the narrative of the German Emin Pasha expedition, its journeyings and adventures among the native tribes of eastern equatorial Africa, the Gallas, Massais, Wasukuma, etc., etc., on the Lake Baringo and the Victoria Nyanza.. London: Ward, Lock, and Co., (1891)
Schnee, Heinrich, and William Harbutt Dawson. German colonization, past and future; the truth about the German colonies, London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., (1926)