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For some years, there has been increasing discussion about the extent to which imperial expansion and colonial forms of rule were evident not only in Africa and Asia but also in Europe. The best-known examples include English control of its ‘Celtic fringe’ in Ireland and the role of the Hapsburg Empire in central Europe. Similar suggestions have recently been made about German history. In analytical terms, the debate about German history has two separate starting points. Firstly, Hannah Arendt’s conceptual differentiation between ‘continental’ and ‘overseas’ imperialism leads to the suggestion that German expansion into Poland and Russia, especially the expansion during the Second World War, can perhaps be seen as a form of continental empire-building. Secondly, the concept of ‘internal colonialism’ focuses on the domestic use of colonial forms of rule.
Heuristically, these perspectives have proven to be very fruitful, and they have opened up spaces for analytical questions outside the purview of traditional approaches that equated colonial territories, by definition, with overseas possessions. At the same time, it is important to be precise about the status and level of ‘coloniality’, and to clarify whether the links under investigation are rhetorical and metaphorical, economic, or indeed overlapping social practices. As much as it is illuminating to understand the reach and pervasiveness of colonial constellations, it is just as crucial to recognize the differences, not least the legal differences, between ‘domestic colonialism’ and foreign colonialism. Otherwise, there is a danger that the concept of ‘colonialism’ will become so broadly conceived that it covers, more or less indiscriminately, any kind of rule at all. This should be borne in mind over the following paragraphs, in which I briefly outline three current debates on the European dimension of German colonialism. They have to do with ‘internal colonization’ in the eastern provinces of Prussia, with the question of a link between the Herero war and the Holocaust and finally with the colonial character of Nazi expansion in eastern Europe.