Germany´s colonial history has been ephemeral and limited compared with many European neighbors. Former German colonies in Africa are Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, Ruanda, Tanzania and Togo. While Otto von Bismarck disapproved the idea of Germany as a colonial power, the economic interests of Hanseatic trading and shipping companies pushed for establishing German coonies overseas. Major motives then: attenuate Germany´s population pressures via emigration; secure raw materials for the new German industries; build infrastructure by forced labor of indigenous populations via head taxes; and secure viable outlets. The latter motive was fed by Germany´s industrial crisis (1873-79) that went along with overproduction in heavy industry, very much like in today´s China. A further motive would be called ´soft power´ today, then it was ´cultural mission´ especially of the churches.
The recent G20 Africa Partnership has been criticized as ´neocolonial´. True, that reproach is over the top. But there are some hidden parallels with Germany’s colonial history – from the first flag waving 1884 until Germany´s ultimate loss of its colonies as part of the Versailles Treaty 1919. Reading the new book “Die Deutschen und ihre Kolonien” produces some insights[i].
Here is my list of parallels:
- · The G20 Summit in Hamburg recalls the Berlin Conference on West Africa 1885/85, a gathering of 15 states. The Berlin Conference opened a run on yet unoccupied ´protectorates´ as a result of specifying criteria for the recognition of colonial possession (occupancy) under international law.
- · “Volk ohne Raum”, the national slogan, crystallized the thesis of a dearth of habitat for the quickly growing German population. Mass emigration to Africa and elsewhere was supposed to relieve Germany´s supposedly narrowing living and feeding room. Land grabs – occupying land for plantation agriculture – were common then. Today, it is Africa´s population that is growing quickly (the fertility rate per woman is still between 5 and 7 percent in Central and West Africa). This generates an intercontinental migration pressure that nowadays Europe tries to block by arguing that its ´living room is full´.
- · Then as today, Germany has stayed largely unfamiliar with Africa. Its short colonial history and restrictive naturalization policy, compared to France and Great Britain, left it until quite recently with little immigration from the global South. Germany´s perception of Africa was thus narrowed toward charitable commitments, with a corresponding neglect of Africa´s economic potential.
- · Costly prestige projects characterize the German imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th century. This corresponds to the ´Bella Figura´ that the German G20 Presidency has been trying to make with the African Partnership and those many uncoordinated plans[ii].
- · Especially Bismarck, just like today´s architects of the G20 Compact With Africa, tried to resist the public financial liabilities connected with Africa. Instead, private trading companies were mandated with the administration of German protectorates as well as private investors with financing Africa´s infrastructure. That didn´t last long as ultimately public finance of the German Reich became liable for building infrastructure, administration and military.
- · Especially the German finance ministry has been criticized with lazy thinking, namely to have followed the blueprint scripted by the IMF and the World Bank for its Compact With Africa, rather than to develop own concepts[iii]. Similarly, the German imperial state had neither a strategy nor a concept for developing its colonies. The Germans mimicked the British charter societies and relied on local warlords, as they were so little familiar with African matters.
Africa has suffered long-term development damage from colonialism, independent of the type of colonies (raw material extraction v settlement), as colonialism has fostered the creation of extractive institutions on the continent[iv]. However, on balance, Germany´s colonial net benefit has been negative, too: public grants v private profits. The spending on colonial administration, heavy investments into infrastructure (especially the railway in East Africa) and the large military expenditures to confront uprisings required important Reich funding. Emigration to Africa by Germans remained very small (except for today´s Namibia), export markets shallow (except for railway parts and beer!). Tsetse fly infections and Africa´s challenging topography increased infrastructure cost beyond the planned sums. Germany´s colonialism in Africa thus has turned out to be a lose-lose adventure.
[i] Horst Gründer und Hermann Hiery (Hrsg.), „ Die Deutschen und ihre Kolonien“, be.bra verlag GmbH, Berlin 2017.
[ii] Robert Kappel, “The many plans of Germany´s Africa Policy. Is it moving forwards?”, Weltneuvermessung, 29th June, 2017.
[iii] Helmut Reisen, “Die ideologische Schieflage des Compact with Africa“, Makronom, 14. Juni 2017.