German Colonialism: Racial Hierarchies

A brief note:
I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a quick paper on March 1, 2020. This is the second of four similarly designed “journal” papers. Basically, they are summaries of what we covered in the course over a period of about four weeks.

Conspicuous Colonialism

Perhaps a direct continuation from some of the prevailing themes of the previous entry, Germans were finally able to actualize some of their colonial fantasies by the late 1880s. According to David Ciarlo, it was not simply “empire” that the Germans were obsessed with, but the “display of empire in grand, well-crafted, artful stagings.”[1] Like exhibitions in Britain and France, Germany’s 1890s exhibitions portrayed Germany as being a colony-holding world power. Such exhibitions were entertaining, but also edifying, and through them colonialist groups in Germany advertised empire “under a narrative arc extolling the patriotic advance of the German colonial cause.”[2] Ciarlo’s discussion regarding Bremen’s Trade Pavilion at the 1890 Northwest German Exhibition serves as an example. Lacking in actual colonial products, the African section was filled largely by murals and ethnographic artifacts that were “presented for their shock value” and described as “grotesque,” “bizarre,” and skillfully crafted yet tastefully undeveloped.[3] Such a display was a testament to the “superiority of the civilized culture.”[4] Exhibitions in the German metropole served in part to reinforce the legitimacy of the German colonial endeavor, and the ideologies created within influenced colonial structures without. Sebastian Conrad believes that the structures of German colonialism were formed through the tension between enacting the civilizing mission and “going native.”[5] Furthermore, according to Ciarlo, the various colonial ideologies themselves (the civilizing mission, economic profits, etc.) were usually discussed under the shadow of what such ideological endeavors “would ‘mean’ for Germany.”[6] The civilizing mission is related to the aforementioned notion that Germany constituted a civilized culture that was superior to the “primitive” colonial peoples. Conrad specifies that it was based on the belief that “Germans (and Europeans more generally) were at the very top of a universal process of development.”[7] “Going native” is somewhat self-explanatory, as it is a phrase that still gets use today in popular culture.

Racial Hierarchies

Sebastian Conrad’s argument that the “tension” between the civilizing mission and “going native” is what was responsible for creating the structures of German colonialism is evidenced by a number of examples. Firstly, these examples might all be analyzed through the lens of what Conrad calls “politics of difference,” in that explicit (racial) hierarchies separated the colonizer from the colonized.[8] An early example of such racial hierarchies can be seen in David Ciarlo’s description of an exhibition catalog. The catalog ordered ethnic tribes from Togo, Southwest Africa, and East Africa by their geographies and by what would now be referred to as “colorism,” with “strength, stamina, and warlike behavior” receiving greater amounts of attention in correlation with the darker a group’s skin tone was.[9] More than being simple hierarchies based upon skin color though, politics of difference involved segregated living quarters (as in Qingdao), separate laws between whites and natives (“native law” in Qingdao), and even separate laws for varying hierarchies of natives that fell within the broader category of, simply, “natives.”[10] These hierarchies, “native policy,” according to Conrad, were “intended to produce…clear-cut cultural differences,” which led to the division of “heterogeneous indigenous population groups” that “were then granted their own powers on the basis of the traditions and customs ascribed to them.”[11] What Conrad describes might be well-exampled by the Askari troops in Africa. As per Michelle Moyd, the Askari occupied a position in colonial society above that of the average native, but below the European, as they served to visually represent state authority in German East Africa.[12] The ceremonies performed by Askari troops served in part to reinforce the fact that the colonized were separate from the colonizer, that the state was separate from the society it ruled over.[13] The Askari lived separate from the Schutztruppe soldiers, in their own villages, where they formed their own unique subculture and enacted their own versions of the East African ngoma.[14] Why such steep divides between “whites” and “natives” though? Conrad summarizes that the two prevailing concepts of “race” played a large role in influencing colonial policy. One interpretation of race asserted that “races” were something that could be changed, while the other asserted that aspects and characteristics of race were biologically inherited and therefore unchangeable.[15] The former might help to explain why racial mixing was more prevalent in Samoa than in Africa. Mixed marriages in Samoa were described positively by people in the colony, with the marriages and resulting offspring being referred to as “the future of the colony;” the practice was even said to have “afforded many German settlers a degree of social mobility.”[16] Matthew Fitzpatrick notes that words in one newspaper claimed “that an adequate German education system…would preserve the social harmony of the colony.”[17] By this example, it is clear that some Germans believe that Samoans might have been capable of becoming “German.” To refer back to Conrad, the latter example of “race” being perceived as something biologically inherent and unchangeable could explain in part why a “self-professed racial hygienist”[18] like Carl Eduard Michaelis would be critical of the race-mixing situation in 1910 Samoa.


Sebastian Conrad makes note that the biologically determinist view of race painted a “nightmarish vision” in which “creoles,” who were viewed as being “more prone to uprising,” could pass on their rebellious traits to their offspring and therefore would be disloyal to colonial rule; through this reasoning, “’going native’ would, eventually, mean the end of the German people.”[19] Carl Michaelis, who was critical of the degree of racial mixing present in the Samoan colony, arrived only after experiencing the strict colonial segregationist policies in place within Africa. It is perhaps in Africa, then, where one might bear witness to the devastating effects of such policies. In Southwest Africa, the German colonial government was slowly strangling the Herero peoples by stripping them of their lands, property, and rights. According to George Steinmetz, the German settlers wanted land and cattle, and since the Herero controlled both to such a degree where their very culture could not be separated from their cattle, “any program of stabilization based on codified tradition was ruled out from the start.”[20] Thusly, European opinions of the Herero people reached the point where “annihilation or abject assimilation” became the only option.[21] When the Herero rebelled, the Germans turned to genocide. Their decision came from a combination of “ethnographic discourse, symbolic competition, and imaginary identification with the colonized as determinants of native policy.” [22] The rebellions and subsequent genocides perhaps served as indicators of Germany’s waning colonial authority.

[1] David Ciarlo, Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 38.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 101.

[6] Ciarlo, Advertising Empire, 41.

[7] Conrad, German Colonialism, 112.

[8] Ibid., 105.

[9] Ciarlo, Advertising Empire, 46.

[10] Conard, German Colonialism, 106.

[11] Ibid., 109.

[12] Michelle Moyd, Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014), 187.

[13] Ibid., 192-193.

[14] Ibid., 204.

[15] Conrad, German Colonialism, 106.

[16] Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, “The Samoan Women’s Revolt: Race, Intermarriage and Imperial Hierarchy in German Samoa,” German History 35, no. 2 (June 2017): 213-214.

[17] Ibid., 214.

[18] Ibid., 206.

[19] Conrad, German Colonialism, 119.

[20] George Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 186.

[21] Ibid., 190.

[22] Ibid., 197.

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