Keeping up with the Joneses: The public’s desire for colonies in the German Second Reich

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.

No, seriously.

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)


9 comments on “Keeping up with the Joneses: The public’s desire for colonies in the German Second Reich

  1. carolynewmq says:

    What an interesting topic! Having a double major in German I find German history really interesting but I have always focused any research on the Third Reich or post-war/Cold War periods. I know relatively little about the Second Reich in general and especially in relation to colonisation. I really learned a lot from your post.

    • adamthecon says:

      Thank you Carolyne! It was a very interesting topic to write about. Having German language skills would have been a real advantage. As Marco commented below me, there is little focus on German colonies compared to something like the literature on the British holdings. Call that cultural bias coming from another English speaking country, but going into detail on the subject is very interesting!

  2. giamtesta says:

    A laudable blog. The events, features and issues confronting the German Second Reich remain perhaps understudied. Bismark is the exception. There is also a popular belief that imperial institutions in the new-born German state were weak, whereas this research seems to propose that the emperor had the final call in redressing political imbalance. At the same time, Bismark and Wilhelm II appear to have worked against each other. There was a political shift to the radical left among those who aimed to achieve equal representation (common to that of many other European countries in the 19th century) countered by the persistence in office of a national-colonialist government. It is also interesting to note that the blog focuses on the somewhat forgotten time German colonial possessions. The flourishing of nationalism and imperialism led the German population on its “alternative path” to modernity. A comparative with colonialism during the Third Reich might be an even more enlightening task.

    • adamthecon says:

      A laudable comment Marco! What I try to suggest in the blog summary, and is more clearly expressed in the longer essay, is that the Second Reich was surprisingly democratic however there was a massive Prussian dominance in the Upper and lower houses of the government. Bouyed by the Prussian control of around 60% of the population, so the interests of the much more conservative demographic was overwhelming represented. Coupled with the implementation of the pre-existing Prussian bureaucratic system as the de facto ‘federal’ government. So while Bismarck didn’t have de jure authorative power over the German state, he did through the primary role of the Prussian bureaucracy.

      Addressing the role of colonial policy from the Second Reich and its role into the Third Reich is a whole other kettle of fish! If you’re interested in the topic, look into the ‘Sonderweg Thesis’, especially good to read would be Shelley Baranowski’s Nazi Empire which provides quite a nuanced approach to the question.

  3. dloneragan says:

    This is a great post, Adam. I especially liked the way you emphasise the perceived economic need for colonial expansion, as well as the connections between an emerging self-conception of German national identity post-unification and desires of overseas colonialism . It is interesting to note that while Bismarck was never an enthusiastic overseas coloniser, he did indeed have great interest in ‘inner colonisation,’ especially in Prussian Poland. The German conceptualisation of the East as a potential ground for expansion does precede German experiences of African colonisation. German thinking on eastwards expansion and colonisation was, of course, to have very sinister consequences in the twentieth century. There has been much historiographical debate surrounding the connections between the genocidal activities in the German African colonies and the later actions of the Third Reich. I think you rightly point out that developing notions of biological racial superiority played out viciously within the African colonies—something that was, of course, to play out within Europe itself during the twentieth century. Your prose very clearly expressed your ideas and I enjoyed reading and thinking about the post. Well done.

    • adamthecon says:

      Thank you very much dloneragan (sorry, I can’t make the connection between your handle and your real name! :/) The connection between racism, German identity, and the radicalisation of such ideas into what many scholars see as their eventual culmination in the Twentieth Century is extraordinarily complex. It’s unfortunate that this essay couldn’t have more of a focus on that particular aspect of German identity creation, but the focus and word limit meant that it became more of a contextual reference rather than a full blown analysis. Bismarck always appears to be very focussed on domestic consolidation first and foremost as a part of his nation building project; his Germanification of the Prussian East loomed an even greater priority as immigration from Poland and other Baltic and Slavic states began to pick up towards the end of the 20th Century. I completely agree with your suggestion of the conceptualisation of the East; historical awareness seems to loom large in the German mindset throughout this timeframe. This can be particularly seen in the failure of the Holy Roman Empire and the spectre that this has over the contemporary political scene. Very interesting stuff! Once again, I’d highly recommend Baranowski’s Nazi Empire if you want to read more. Very readable.

  4. nicolekbest says:

    Hi Adam,
    Great post! I love how accessible it is and the humorous metaphor was priceless! I think the German desire to match or better their political counterparts has been well explored here. I love your primary source material- engaging with the debate that occurred in the period rather than simply the historical debates regarding Germany’s imperial desires fleshes out the psyche of the period in far more depth. A really good read! Well done!

    • adamthecon says:

      Thank you Nicole!
      Attempting to understand what constituted public opinion in late 19th century Germany was probably one of the more interesting and complex tasks I have undertaken in my study of history. One of the aspects I looked at was the membership of pro-colonial lobby groups. While I wasn’t able to go into detail here on exactly how important they were in agitating for colonial expansion, I elucidate on the topic in much more depth in the essay. The most crucial aspect of these groups was that their membership was comprised of this highly influential, immensely wealthy, and extremely well connected portion of German society. As mentioned, the largest of these groups, the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, only number about 15 000. However their influnce was far greater than their number would suggest. Once again I would point to the top heavy structure of the German electoral system as another reason for their influence.

  5. mhis300 says:

    Great to see your engagement with and support for each others’ work. It is very heartening and rewarding to read. Tanya

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