German Colonialism: Nationalism and Germanness, 1870-1919

A brief note:
I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a quick paper on March 19, 2020. This is the third of eight total German colonialism papers.

Questioning “Germanness”

As is the case with any national identity, it is difficult to assess what made Germans German. The precolonial era is particularly troublesome, as Germans themselves were attempting to interpret what both a unified German nation should be, and what “Germanness” should encompass. Even after German unification in 1871, the parameters that defined German nationalism and Germanness were shifting as Germany became a colonial power. Once Germany’s colonial period ended following World War I, these definitions continued to be recontextualized and redefined as necessary. It appears that there was no set definition for what constituted German nationalism and Germanness, and this is only made more apparent when analyzing how the loose definitions of both changed over time.

Superiority Complex?

The German precolonial era is perhaps the most difficult period to investigate when assessing German nationalism and Germanness, as Germans themselves were still attempting to determine what a unified German nation-state should encompass. There do not appear to be any rigid and set definitions, but there are certainly specific factors that, when taken together, loosely define what constituted Germanness and a greater German national identity. In order to analyze how this national identity influenced the views of colonial Germans, it might first be appropriate to consult the work of Susanne Zantop. She asserts that Germans had long since found themselves frustrated by their inability to join other Europeans in colonial endeavors, but because of this they also viewed themselves as having “had no share in colonial guilt,” thereby allowing them to imagine themselves as possessing legitimacy in “their claim to be given another chance” as colonizers.[1] Germans saw themselves as the only Europeans capable of being “’good’ colonizers;” only Germans were capable of treating natives humanely in a way that other Europeans powers had not.[2] While these earlier colonial fantasies helped to form a German (colonial) identity, according to Sebastian Conrad, the German states largely “did not participate in colonial expansion.”[3]

Conrad informs that “[o]nly from the 1840s was there again an increased interest in obtaining settlement colonies, sustained by a liberal bourgeoisie that dreamed of national glory.”[4] Brian Vick’s analysis of the 1848 Frankfurt National Parliament meeting at the Paulskirche provides some further insight. In general, the mass emigration of people out of Germany (Auswanderung) was viewed as a problem.[5] As such, there was a desire by those at the Paulskirche to reinforce “the feeling of German nationality among emigrants” so that Germany might be able to connect with and profit from them in the future.[6] While not quite yet set on overseas colonization, part of what defined a national German identity might be found in the nationalist “idea of consolidating a Central and Eastern European German hegemonic realm” (Mitteleuropa).[7] What this hegemonic realm should consist of seemed to be a large part of the debate at the Paulskirche, with ideas regarding race/ethnicity taking center stage.

A hegemonic Germany, it seems, was to consist largely of “Western Europeans of Germanic descent,” for at this point in time other groups (such as Slavic-speaking peoples) were seen as simultaneously inferior yet still fit enough “for assimilation into the progressive, and expanding, German cultural realm.”[8] The viewpoints of German nationalists were shaped by an identity rooted in Germanic/white supremacy, yet at this point in time such racial beliefs “typically still emphasized common humanity and the potential for improvement.”[9] With that in mind, it was the goal of these German nationalists to commit to “a German assimilatory drive to the East that would bring civilization and progress to Slavic peoples.”[10] Consolidating the interpretations given by Zantop, Conrad, and Vick paints an image of what a precolonial German national identity might consist of: Western European, white, likely of German descent, and superior to other Europeans by way of German history, language, and a “progressive” culture. German unification in 1871, Conrad claims, is what “generated a national desire to catch up with other countries in many areas, including colonial policy.”[11] It was then that German colonialists drew upon Germany’s precolonial experiments, adopting their imagined history of “peaceful conquest” as “a specifically German colonial tradition” in their drive to “legitimize their own claims” as colonizers in the 1880s and beyond.[12]


A shift in German national identity among colonialists began with a shift in semantics. Sebastian Conrad identifies how, around the middle of the 1800s, emigrants began to be described as “’overseas Germans’ (Auslandsdeutsche).”[13] Instead of viewing emigrants as leaving Germany permanently, including leaving behind their German identity, these redefined “overseas Germans” were marked by the retention of their membership within the German nation and thus viewed as still being a part of a national German cultural and ethnic community.[14] This sentiment shifted in only a few short decades. Perhaps a continuation of the effort to raise a newly unified Germany’s global prestige, the German government officially involved itself with colonization. It did not take long before Germany proved that its claims of peaceful conquest were false. Fairly early on, Germans demonstrated that they were both violent and racist colonial rulers.

According to Arne Perras, Carl Peters and his followers in German East Africa “practised [sic] a cult of violence which formed part of their identity as true colonizers.”[15] Perras even notes how it was considered “’good form’” for agents of the German East Africa Company (DOAG) to “manifest their superiority through a certain Schneidigkeit (pluck).”[16] Thus, by the mid to late 1880s, violent rule had already become an inherent part of the German colonial identity. Germans still appeared to maintain their sense of superiority over other imperialist nations, but they were now exercising their colonial authority through violent means against the natives they had once claimed to sympathize with. While German colonialists were particularly brutal towards Africans, the situation was different in Samoa.

Room for Diversity?

Mixed marriages were commonplace in German Samoa.[17] However, when the racial hygienist Carl Michaelis arrived in 1910, he brought “with him clear ideas about the nexus between empire and racial purity.”[18] In his point of view, colonialists were firstly white and secondarily German, therefore the racial mixing between white German settlers and Samoan natives was viewed as detrimental to the welfare of the German race and their role as colonizers.[19] This line of racial thinking, however, was seen as controversial by the German settlers already in place there. While identifying Germanness through racial hierarchies was present in colonies such as those in Africa, this was not so in German Samoa. German settlers there challenged what it meant to be defined as German by marrying local Samoan women and having mixed-race children with them. Colonial Governor Wilhelm Heinrich Solf, for example, sent acting Samoa Governor Erich Schultz-Ewerth a set of guidelines that eroded “any strict racial criteria for citizenship” and confirmed “that Germanness was performative.”[20] Solf even established a guideline stating that natives fluent in German who could “prove a European education” could “apply to be deemed white.”[21] By 1914, however, intermarriage in German Samoa was outlawed.

Colonial officials who arrived from Africa viewed both colonial relations and Germanness “primarily through the lens of race.”[22] Additionally, the German metropole seemed to side with racial definitions of Germanness as opposed to performative. German nationalism and Germanness underwent a marked change during Germany’s colonial period. Colonial Germans still concerned themselves with raising national prestige for a recently unified Germany, but they no longer appeared to abide by the idea of “peaceful conquest.” Their imagined past as a peaceable culture, superior to other European colonial powers, appeared to fall by the wayside as Germans developed racial hierarchies within their colonial holdings. Though settler colonies such as German Samoa challenged definitions of Germanness–defining Germanness as being performative rather than something inherent or biological–it appears that Germanness came to be defined predominantly by race. To a lesser extent, it was also defined by language, religion, education, and culture.

At the “Pinnacle of Civilization”

The end of Germany’s colonial period following the singing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 brought about another shift in the definition of German nationalism and Germanness. According to Dr. Sean Wempe, much as how Germans defined other European colonial powers in the past, Germans were now understood as having been “incomparable in their brutality and un-European in their dealings with indigenous peoples.”[23] Germany was therefore “barred from recovering its colonies” and “was publicly ostracized from the work of the civilizing mission.”[24] What followed was an interesting shift in beliefs that seems to reflect a convenient manipulation (and outright disregard) of historical facts in an effort to regain Germany’s sense of national identity and pride. It was at this point in time that Germans had come to see themselves as increasingly European. This meant that Germans saw themselves “at the pinnacle of civilization” and therefore naturally imbued with the right “to expand that civilization to other parts of the world considered uncivilized and savage.”[25] German nationalist ideals were intertwined with their identity as a civilized European nation, and the stripping of Germany’s colonial holdings via measures contained within the Treaty of Versailles “undermined Germany’s imperial notions of identity as a European power.”[26]

Remarkably, once Germany was stripped of its colonial holdings, Germans once again imagined themselves as being morally and ethically superior to “other European powers still active in the colonial field.”[27] Former German colonial officials attempted to defend Germany against allegations of colonial guilt by asserting that the allied nations had once praised Germany for its successes in colonial endeavors. Furthermore, they alleged that German acts of violence against colonized subjects were simply “necessary or typical of any colonial endeavor.”[28] Unlike during Germany’s colonial era, it appears that Germans valued themselves less as an independent colonial power vying for prestige through their colonial holdings, civilizing endeavors, and economic gains, and more so as a nation concerned with being a respectable and valued member of a wider European community–a community in which national identity was founded upon being a colonizer of the “Other” and a bringer of European civilization.

Stripped of Identity

Nationalism and associated Germanness shifted as Germany experienced eras of pre-colonialism, colonialism, and post-colonialism. Colonial Germans first saw themselves as being unique as they looked towards their imagined history of peaceful conquest. They sympathized with natives against the harsh rule of other European colonial powers, believed in a common humanity between the races, and fantasized about what a German colonial society might look like. Near the time of German unification, Germans living abroad were seen as still being a part of a national German culture and identity. German unification itself served to motivate a nationalist drive towards colonization in an effort to bolster the nation’s prestige. Germany’s colonial era, however, was marked by a shift away from a “common humanity” between themselves and natives. Though it was challenged in settler colonies like German Samoa, Germanness was instead identified primarily through the lens of race. Germans were not peaceful in their conquest, and violence against native “Others” became an integral part of the German colonial identity. Lastly, upon losing their colonial holdings as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Germans redefined what it meant to be a nationalist. As a nation, Germans saw themselves as belonging to a European civilization, whereby it was their right to bring civilization to “lesser” peoples. By being stripped of their colonial holdings, they had lost their new national identity.

[1] Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 29.

[2] Ibid., 40.

[3] Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian Vick, “Imperialism, Race, and Genocide at the Paulskirche: Origins, Meanings, Trajectories,” in German Colonialism and National Identity, (London: Routledge, 2010), 10.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Conrad, German Colonialism, 16-17.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] 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), 118.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, “The Samoan Women’s Revolt: Race, Intermarriage and Imperial Hierarchy in German Samoa,” German History 35, no. 2 (June 2017): 206.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 225.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 226.

[23] Sean Wempe, “A Question of Respectability: Colonial German Responses to the Treaty of Versailles and Colonial Guilt,” in Revenants of the German Empire: Colonial Germans, Imperialism, and the League of Nations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 36.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 36-37.

[26] Ibid., 37.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 46-47.

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