German Colonialism: Colonial Fantasies

A brief note:
I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a quick paper on February 9, 2020. This is one of four similarly designed “journal” papers. Basically, they are summaries of what we covered in the course over a period of about four weeks. With this paper, I begin a series of six total German colonialism papers.

Fantasies, Mitteleuropa, and “Germanness”

Though short and relatively unstudied compared to other colonial empires, the German colonial empire had profound effects. Susanne Zantop’s analysis of societal trends in late 1700s and early 1800s Germany provides a good starting point. Germany’s 1500s colonial failure in Venezuela had created “a nagging frustration” within generations of Germans “for having arrived ‘too late’ on the colonial scene.”[1] Throughout these generations, Germans came to view themselves as being innocent, rather than complicit, of early colonial atrocities while simultaneously believing that only they had the “specific propensity for colonizing based on superior qualifications.”[2] By the 1660s, Germans were fantasizing about the “ideal German colony,” which was characterized by “honest, hardworking,” agrarian settlers who simply enjoyed the fruits of their own labor.[3] Germans in the early 1800s were consuming literature, in the form of travelogues, more than any other European group, thus they gained what Zantop calls “the illusion of direct participation” in colonial ventures.[4] These fantasies led Germans to believe that they were the “natural allies of the colonized peoples,” yet they still maintained a belief in their superiority both over the natives and the other Europeans that caused the natives’ “cruel, vindictive,” and “lazy” nature.[5] Brian Vick argues that by 1848, members of the Frankfurt Parliament discussed German empire in the form of continental eastward (and southeastward) expansion rather than colonial overseas expansion.[6] Germany had a vision that Vick refers to as “Mitteleuropa,” which involved the consolidation of “a Central and Eastern European German hegemonic realm.”[7] Plans for the creation of a unified German state, in relation to this vision of the “German hegemonic realm,” called into question the matter of race, especially in regards to what constituted “Germanness.” Vick notes that race was “much more flexible” in the 1840s, yet there were already established racial hierarchies (as also hinted at by Zantop).[8] Germans saw themselves as superior, and thus this view brought about their desire to expand east so that they might civilize the “lesser” Slavs.[9] Sebastian Conrad agrees with Zantop in summarizing how the early German colonial endeavors and fantasies “were retrospectively adopted by the colonial movement during the 1880s,” and that they contributed to the formation of a German national identity.[10]

Early Formations

Moving past the views as held by Germans in the 1840s, Sebastian Conrad credits the genesis of Germany’s colonial expansion to the official government support that was given to “private colonial groups in 1884.”[11] Arne Perras argues much the same, highlighting how Carl Peters’s DOAG in German East Africa would have been a failed venture if not for the official backing of Otto von Bismarck.[12] German colonial expansion was also influenced by Germany’s various geographical societies, missionaries, and Hanseatic merchant families.[13] All of these interest groups had different colonial goals, which complicated matters of German empire as much as the differences in the geography of colonial holdings and the goals of the native peoples that resided there; because of this, Conrad notes that it is difficult to generalize Germany’s colonial empire, as it was “a highly heterogeneous entity.”[14] Lastly, Conrad argues that a few generalizations can be made about the German colonial empire. The German colonial state was largely built upon already established forms of rule in any given colony, but German rule was largely weak.[15] This weakness was due to a “lack of legitimacy and of ideological hegemony,” and therefore Conrad viewed it as “no coincidence that violence and warfare…were inherent in the colonial system.”[16]

[1] Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 21.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 40.

[6] Brian Vick, “Imperialism, Race, and Genocide at the Paulskirche: Origins, Meanings, Trajectories,” in German Colonialism and National Identity, (London: Routledge, 2010), 13,

[7] Ibid., 13-14.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 17.

[11] Ibid., 23.

[12] Arne Perras, “’From the Nyassa to the Nile’: Peters and the German East Africa Company (1885-1887),” in Carl Peters and German Imperialism, 1856-1918: A Political Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[13] Conrad, German Colonialism, 24-25.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Ibid., 67.

[16] Ibid.

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