Far from Empire - German Colonial History and its Memorials

A good example of the German colonial architecture of Swakopmund, Namibia, Africa
Lizzie Shepherd-robertharding@gettyimages.de

Europe’s long and sinister colonial history can still be experienced in many places. Forced-upon European heritage, such as languages or the ominous right to militarily intervene, are found all over the globe. The different colonial narratives of the British Empire, the Spanish Navy or Portuguese traders are well known and often still glorified as a grand national past. Outside of Germany, the country’s colonial history is not referred to often within Germany it is a rather sore topic.

Being overshadowed by the two World Wars, it is up to recent historical studies to fully bring it into the light. Even if – in terms of gaining territory, compared to its rivals - Germany’s colonial endeavors weren’t exactly successful, German colonial forces are guilty of terrible crimes against peoples indigenous to their colonies. As are so many European histories of the 17th,18th, 19th and 20th century, the German one is not short of gruesome acts committed in the name of forging a global empire.

German East Africa and German-Samoa

Even though Germans were part of the European Colonial Expansion right from the beginning, the engagement of Germany as a formal colonial power started its endeavors rather late. One reason was that the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, before that there was no “Germany” that could, as a nation, colonize anyone. Maybe that is another reason for the pressing necessity to acquire colonies, which seems to have been felt by German officials.

From 1884 on, Germany quickly incorporated African colonies such as Togo, Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania (some under different names) into the Empire. A few Pacific Islands and a Chinese colony followed. The German colonial officers aimed at being very efficient colonizers, which resulted in very ruthless and brutal behavior towards the natives. This, of course, sparked rebellions and uprisings, which the oppressors, in turn, brutally put down. In German South-West Africa (Namibia), the German leaders attempted to segregate all inhabitants by a German upper class and an African working class – following an ideology of deep biologist racism. This kind of segregation was not limited to German colonies. All of European colonialism shows this attribute. But, one can say that German forces were the most efficient as the examples of Namibia and, a Generation later, the occupation of Eastern Europe show.

German colonialism was driven by heavy armed conflicts, some of which are rightfully called genocide (e.g. the so-called Herero Wars, which lasted from ca. 1904 until 1907), as German attacks and the following famines were responsible for the death of an estimated 80% of all Herero. The German colonies in the “South Sea” also fell victim to colonial violence. German battalions were even part of ending the Boxer Rebellion in China.

The first period of German colonialism ended after World War I when its protectorates were taken from the Reich, as it was unfit to be a colonial power. But the Third Reich brought a second period of course. A surge of colonial memorials throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and '40s prepared the public for a dawning new colonial age. One, that quickly ended with the victory of the Allied Forces in 1945.

Memories and Memorials - Germany’s Colonial Past is Surfacing

The last few years of public debate and discourse have made it clear: Germany’s colonial past can no longer be ignored and has to be duly addressed. Local initiatives successfully fought for the recognition of colonial crimes (e.g. through having the designations of streets changed, that bore the name of colonial leaders) and historians emphasized how history and collective memory itself is often a construct rather than an organically grown development.

The self-definition of a society or community is created through delimitation on the one hand and the construction of a common past through notions of unifying grandeur, such as military victories, on the other. The composition of the latter is supported by memorials, memorabilia, as well as historic artifacts. In the case of German colonial history, these items are vastly overshadowed the Third Reich and are often only viewed in its context. Recent history and the present show that there is still a long way to go when it comes to processing Germany’s colonial history. Many streets still carry the names of colonial commanders guilty of war crimes, and many memorials still show German colonialism in an exotic, rather romantic light. 

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Schmitz, Michael. "Far from Empire - German Colonial History and its Memorials." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/german-colonial-history-and-its-memorials-4031761. Schmitz, Michael. (2020, August 27). Far from Empire - German Colonial History and its Memorials. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-colonial-history-and-its-memorials-4031761 Schmitz, Michael. "Far from Empire - German Colonial History and its Memorials." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-colonial-history-and-its-memorials-4031761 (accessed June 7, 2023).