The Scramble for Europe

Richard J. Evans

  • Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler by Shelley Baranowski
    Cambridge, 380 pp, £17.99, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 521 67408 9

A few decades ago, historians searching for the longer-term roots of Nazism’s theory and practice looked to the ruptures and discontinuities in German history: the failed revolution of 1848; the blockage of democratic politics after unification in 1871; the continued dominance of aristocratic elites over a socially and politically supine middle class; the entrenched power of the traditionally authoritarian and belligerent Prussian military tradition – in short, everything, they argued, that had come by the outbreak of the First World War to distinguish Germany from other major European powers and set it on a ‘special path’ to modernity that ended not in the creation of a democratic political system and open society to go with an industrial economy, but in the rise and triumph of the Third Reich.

Such arguments were discredited by the 1990s, as it became clear that imperial Germany’s middle classes had been far from supine, its political culture was active and engaged, and its aristocratic elites had lost most of their power by the outbreak of the First World War. The 1848 Revolution was shown to have transformed German political culture, not to have restored the old regime. Comparisons with other countries revealed similar deficits of social mobility and openness in Britain, tendencies to authoritarianism in France, military domination in Austria and more besides. But if there was no domestic ‘special path’ from unification to the rise of the Third Reich, where should historians look instead?

Over the last few years, the answer, it has become increasingly clear, can be found only by expanding our vision and viewing German history not in a domestic context or even a European one, but in the context of global and above all colonial developments in the Victorian era and after. This view of German history is perhaps possible only at a time when we have become acutely aware of globalisation as a contemporary phenomenon, but it has thrown up many vital new interpretations and generated a growing quantity of significant research that links Germany’s relation to the world in the 19th century with its attempt under the Nazis to dominate it. Now this research has been brought together in a powerful and persuasive new synthesis by Shelley Baranowski, previously known for more specialised studies, notably an excellent book on the Nazi labour and leisure organisation, Strength through Joy.

Baranowski’s story begins in the mid-1880s, when Bismarck reluctantly agreed to the establishment of colonial protectorates in order to win the support of National Liberals and Free Conservatives in the Reichstag. Bismarck was wary of the financial and political commitment involved in full colonisation, but he was soon outflanked by imperialist enthusiasts, merchants and adventurers, and by 1890, when he was forced out of office, Germany had a fully-fledged overseas empire. It was, admittedly, not much to write home about. The ‘scramble for Africa’ had left the Reich with little more than leftovers after the British and the French had taken their share: Namibia, Cameroon, Tanganyika, Togo; elsewhere in the world, New Guinea and assorted Pacific islands such as Nauru and the Bismarck Archipelago. A younger generation of nationalists, who didn’t share Bismarck’s sense of the precariousness of the newly created Reich, complained it was an empire on the level of the (late 19th-century) Spanish or Portuguese empires, hardly worthy of a major European power.

Moreover, the colonies Germany did possess proved in more than one instance peculiarly difficult to run. The colonial regime responded with policies of extreme harshness. Prussian military doctrine held that the complete destruction of enemy forces was the prime objective of war, but in the colonies this became enmeshed with racism and a fear of guerrilla attacks to create a genocidal mentality that responded to unrest and uprisings with a policy of total annihilation, by methods that included deliberate starvation: 150,000 Hehe were killed in this way in Tanganyika and a further 300,000 people in the Maji-Maji revolt. Even more notoriously, 60 per cent of the Hereros and Nama were exterminated in Namibia, many of them driven into the desert without supplies, their water holes poisoned, their cattle sequestered, their crops destroyed, and large numbers imprisoned in concentration camps, where they died of disease and malnutrition. Victory was followed by the establishment of an apartheid regime with laws and regulations forbidding racial mixing and reducing the Africans to the status of poorly paid labourers.

Already, however, German policy had begun to move towards the acquisition of new colonies. Where were they to come from? With Kaiser Wilhelm II’s assumption of a leading role in policy-making, Germany began the construction of a large battle fleet in 1898. By focusing on heavy battleships rather than light, mobile cruisers, the navy’s creator, Admiral von Tirpitz, was adopting the high-risk strategy of working towards, or at least threatening, a Trafalgar-style confrontation in the North Sea that would defeat or cripple the British, whose domination of the seas was regarded as the major obstacle to German imperial glory, and force them to agree to an expansion of the German overseas empire. Germany now adopted an aggressive ‘world policy’, aiming to boost the status of its empire and gain a ‘place in the sun’ comparable to that of other European powers. Soon, uncontrollable imperialist enthusiasms were bubbling up from the steamy undergrowth of pressure-group politics.

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