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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

Chapter 4 - The German colonial empire


Between 1884 and 1919, Germany amassed one of the largest colonial empires of the epoch. Most territories were ceded during the first months of the First World War, and Germany was officially dispossessed of her colonies at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when her former territories were handed over to the mandate powers. In geographical terms, the German colonial empire was focused on Africa, where it acquired its first territories in 1884 and 1885. Germany’s expansion was an integral part of the larger ‘scramble for Africa’ that substituted the ‘informal imperialism’ of control through military influence and economic dominance by that of direct rule. It was initiated with France’s move into Tunisia in 1881 and with the British take-over in Egypt in 1882, and formalized in 1884 with the ‘Congo Conference’, called by Bismarck and held in Berlin to settle competing claims over the Congo and West Africa. At the conference, in the absence of representatives from Africa, the European powers (including the Ottoman empire) laid down rules for the continent such as free access to the Congo and Niger rivers and the freedom of missionary activity in all of Africa. The most momentous of the provisions was the definition of colonial territories by the criterion of ‘effective occupation’, which triggered a rush to take possession of lands not yet annexed by European powers.

The smaller areas in north-eastern China and in the Pacific were added only in 1897 and 1899. German expansion into east and south-east Asia, too, was an element in a larger European (and Japanese) contest over commercial privileges, strategic military bases, and spheres of influence in the region. Also in the following years, colonial lobbyists continued to disseminate plans, and more often fantasies, to further enlarge the colonial empire. Among the places preferred by colonial lobbyists were Morocco (which forced Germany into deep foreign policy crises in 1905 and 1911), the Belgian Congo (as an ingredient in plans to create a German Central Africa), the Portuguese possessions (parts of Angola and Mozambique), Brazil, Chile, and the Middle East. But these projects added more to the diplomatic difficulties of the Kaiserreich than to its empire. With the annexation of Kiaochow, Samoa and New Guinea, German expansion had come to an end.

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