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Imperial German Colonial Policy

Towards the end of Bismarck's career the merchants of the German seaports organized a colonial society and began a vigorous campaign in this sense. Rather reluctantly Bismarck gave in to their urgings and launched the empire on a colonial policy. But he was half-hearted about it and anxious to avoid a quarrel with England. He confided to them that Germany had developed ambitions in Africa. The two largest sections of Africa which were then unclaimed by any European power, were the districts which are now called German East Africa and German South West Africa. The British government at once strengthened its grip on Zanzibar, the island off the coast of East Africa, which is the natural economic gate to the territory which the Germans wanted and also "occupied" Walfish Bay and the important islands off the coast of South West Africa. Then they made no serious objection to the German occupation of the hinterland.

The colonists - the individual citizens of the two countries - came into the sharpest kind of conflict. The story of the efforts of these pioneers of Britain and Germany to over-reach each other reads like a romance. Some chapters are as blood-curdling as the best of Nick Carter, full of murder and intrigues, the fomenting of native rebellions, the smuggling of arms. Some chapters are like a story from the Arabian Nights. The Germans - if not the central government, at least the local consul - encouraged a handsome young German boy to climb over the harem wall and elope with the Princess Salme, the sister of the Sultan of Zanzibar. And some of the chapters are side-splittingly funny. Little has happened in the record of Weltpolitik more amusing than Stanley's rescue of Emin Pasha - who did not want to be rescued and at last had to pretend to be sick and jump out of a hospital window in order to escape his rescuer. But as the relations between the two foreign offices did not become strained over these matters, they hardly enter the realm of European politics.

But as the years passed, the Germans, when they set to work to develop their colonies, found that they had been tricked and outplayed at every point. Walfish Bay is typical of the entire situation. The West Coast of Africa suffers from lack of natural harbors. Walfish Bay is the only one on the long coast line of the territory Germany wished to colonize. They quite naturally lost their temper when they discovered that the English had forestalled them. It was a crude case of the dog in the manger. The British have never used Walfish Bay in any way. Time and again the Germans have tried to buy it, but the English would not sell. Apparently they did not care to have their new neighbors become prosperous. By stubbornly holding on to this natural harbor they have forced the Germans to spend millions in, developing an artificial port. The situation is very similar in Zanzibar.

When the record of Germany's colonies is examined, it is difficult to understand how she can either wish to add to their number, or be anxious to spend millions of pounds on their defence against hypothetical dangers. The general belief among patriotic Germans was that the Empire's colonies have provided agreeable homes and remunerative employment for its surplus population, large and profitable markets for its trade, and abundant supplies of raw materials for its industry. In no singular particular was this belief well-founded.

Germany's colonies had been merely a source of weakness and impoverishment to her: they had not been occupied to any appreciable extent either by her own or by any other white people, their trade was of quite insignificant dimensions, they had supplied her with no mentionable quantities of the raw materials of her staple industries, and they had cost, and were costing, her immense sums of money, which can only be recouped, if at all, at a very remote date. In mere area the German colonies were a very imposing mass, for their superficial extent is five times as large as that of the Fatherland, but in all other respects their value had been a negative one.

Altogether it can be said that a very considerable measure of ignorance or optimism must be available before it is possible to look at the results of Germany's colonial policy with enthusiasm or confidence. There was clearly much truth in the exclamation of Caprivi : "No greater misfortune could befall us than to be presented with the whole of Africa." Yet many members of the Reichstag have been so completely hypnotized by the colonial legend that they go on year after year talking as if Germany's colonies were a source of wealth and power, instead of, as they really and obviously are, a drain on her finances, and a weak spot in her defences.

The young Kaiser, after he had dropped Bismarck, tried to reestablish cordial relations with Britain. By the treaty of 14 June 1890, he received from the English the Island of Heligoland off the mouth of the Elbe, which from the point of view of naval strategy was of immense value - but at that time the English did not regard the Germans as dangerous naval rivals. And in exchange he paid four million marks for a strip of East African coast (which was as much his as it was England's); gave up all claim to Zanzibar (in spite of the money which had been spent on the trousseau of the Princess Salme) ; ceded to England the rich country of Uganda and agreed to a northern frontier to the East African colony which entirely suited the English. When Stanley, who knew these African countries intimately, read the treaty, he threw up his hands in amazement and said that the Germans had been cheated. Of course the German colonists on the spot and the Colonial Society at home raged.

The explanation of these sweeping concessions to England was to be found in the fact that the young Kaiser, having dropped his pilot, was worried by the trend of European politics. In the face of rapprochement between France and Russia, he was willing to make sacrifices overseas to maintain the English friendship. And in such matters the British statesmen have always shown themselves shrewd bargainers.

But towards 1893 the German colonial policy became aggressive again and new frictions arose. The Kaiser's famous telegram to President Kruger at the time of the Jameson raid in South Africa was a symptom of the rivalry. From that time on the colonial conflict between the two nations intensified.

On June 18, 1901, the German Emperor in reply to a speech of the Burgomaster of Hamburg, conveying congratulations on the success of the recent expedition to China, expressed the German policy in these memorable words: "In spite of the fact that we have no such fleet as we should have, we have conquered for ourselves a place in the sun. It will now be my task to see to it that this place in the sun shall remain our undisputed possession, in order that the sun's rays may fall promptly upon our activity and trade in foreign parts, that our industry and agriculture may develop within the state and our sailing sports upon the water, for our future lies upon the water." The Empire could not stop with a place in the sun ; it must enlarge that place; and in 1901 the most attractive area for enlargement was North Africa.

Even more important than this colonial and commercial competition was the fact that the Kaiser was a passionate yachtsman. He loved the sea. It was not only the navy which interested him. He was even more interested in the merchant marine. He broke over all the traditions of caste and religion to make a personal friend of the civilian Jew, Herr Ballin, who has engineered the stupendous growth of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. "Our future," he told his people, "lies on the seas." And committed to pushing, aggressive colonial enterprises, fascinated by oversea expansion, he needed a fleet of war. The Deutschtum [Germanness] - when it ceased to be merely continental and entered Weltpolitik - required a navy as much as it did an army. The Kaiser was agent of a new German spirit, which saw no quarter of the globe where it had not an interest. "The ocean also bears witness," said he in 1909, "that even in the distance and on its farther side, without Germany and the German Emperor no great decision can be taken."

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:54 ZULU