The unification of Germany in 1871 constituted a watershed in Germany’s imperial agenda of acquiring colonies in Africa. A number of lobbying groups formed after the unification, including the West German Society for Colonization and Export (1881) and the Central Association for Commercial Geography and the Promotion of German Interests Abroad (1878). These groups exerted pressure on the government to acquire colonies abroad, especially in Africa, by arguing that Germany needed the territories to maintain its economic preeminence. The result was the founding of the German Colonial Association in 1882. The expansion of German industry and the growth of German maritime interests facilitated a more aggressive colonial program. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was initially not a colonial expansionist, but he changed and signed on to the demands of the lobbying groups for a more proactive role in the race for colonies.
Bismarck became convinced that it was imperative for Germany to move quickly if the country was to protect its trade and economic interests because of the emerging protectionist policies that would come with colonialism. This position was best articulated by the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce in 1884 when it asserted that if Germany were not to forever renounce colonial possessions in Africa, especially the Cameroon coast, then it had to act swiftly by acquiring the territory.
Annexation of territory was a significant feature of the emerging protectionist imperial world order of the late nineteenth century. In addition, the prevailing international situation strengthened Bismarck’s resolve to acquire territories in Africa. The British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and imperial incursions by France into Africa and Asia combined to make the issue of colonies a national necessity that had to be embraced by Germany because of its preeminent role in continental European diplomacy and politics. Being the skillful politician he was, Bismarck also envisioned the politics of German colonies serving as a stabling force in domestic politics by emphasizing nationalism and the greatness of Germany internationally. Bismarck was a pragmatist and his drive to acquire colonies in Africa was largely a function of economic considerations, both real and potential, in the emerging imperial world order, European diplomacy, and domestic politics as well.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885, hosted by Bismarck, was a turning point because it not only recognized European colonial claims in Africa but also hastened the process of partition. The European powers agreed that those nations claiming parts of Africa had to physically occupy them in order to legitimize those claims. Germany annexed South West Africa (present-day Namibia) in 1884 after negotiations with Great Britain. In the same year Germany annexed a strip of coastline on the Gulf of Guinea, which was later expanded into the territory of German Cameroon. The acquisition of Togo completed German annexation of territory in West Africa. Germany acquired German East Africa (present-day mainland Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) in 1885, and a formal protectorate was declared in 1890. However, formal boundaries were not concluded until the late 1890s.
Germany used concessionary companies during the infancy stages of establishing a colonial presence in the annexed territories. The companies were granted charters to administer the colonies on behalf of the German government. The concessionary firms were supported on the grounds that they would mobilize private capital for the purpose of investment in the colonies. The argument was that private enterprise would be less costly, both to the government and taxpayers, since the latter two would be spared the burden of financing the empire.
In South West Africa, German imperial interests were advanced by the German South-West Africa Company and in East Africa by the Imperial German East Africa Company. The companies failed to perform as expected because of two main factors. First, the companies lacked a strong capital base to undertake the various governmental functions, including constructing the infrastructure required for colonial control. Second, the companies were ill-equipped to contain uprisings during the initial stages of establishing imperial control. By the end of the 1890s, direct governmental control had supplanted administration by concessionary companies.
Germany developed a reputation for ruthlessness in dealing with uprisings in its colonies. The Herero Uprising of 1904 was ruthlessly suppressed, resulting in the deaths of nearly sixty thousand out of a population of eighty thousand. The Germans not only shot the victims but also poisoned the water holes from which survivors could have drawn water, resulting in the deaths of thousands more. Those who survived were forced into work camps and became the subject of various medical experiments and examinations.
In German East Africa, the Abushiri Revolt was ruthlessly suppressed in 1889. The same fate befell the Hehe community following an uprising in 1893 when their leader, Mkwawa, was arrested and hanged. The 1905 to 1907 Maji Maji Rebellion in southern German East Africa was equally stamped out when Germans resorted to a ”scorched earth” policy that resulted in killings, as well as a massive destruction of crops. The Duala resistance in Cameroon was brutally suppressed. In Togo, the Dagomba fiercely resisted German intrusion, but were overwhelmed. The colonization of African territories by Germany was to a large extent achieved through forceful means, which included overt military campaigns, economic coercion, and land seizure and expropriation.
After the colonial wars of pacification, Germany proceeded to institutionalize political and economic control by putting in place an administrative structure. The colony was headed by a governor. The commanders of the armed forces in the colony, although answerable to the governor, retained a lot of power because they were subject to the High Command in Berlin. The military performed the vital function of maintaining power relations in the colony. A number of the officers also doubled as regional administrators. African chiefs were appointed and made subject to the authority of the local German officials, who were invariably few. The chiefs were supposed to undertake such functions as collecting taxes, conscripting labor for colonial projects, and enforcing government policy. The Germans established a colonial administration that embraced both direct and indirect rule that varied from one colony to another, and on occasions even within the same colonial territory.
The administration of justice in the German colonies was anything but impartial. Its function was to maintain the status quo on the erroneous premise that Africans were inferior, which led to the degrading practice of corporal punishment as well as the frequent arbitrary executions in the colonies. The Germans developed public hospitals as well as educational institutions. But even in these two areas, the facilities were inadequate to cope with the large number of people who desired health and educational services.
The German colonial government encouraged the participation of missionary societies in the provision of these services. The situation in the German colonies was hardly dissimilar from that in other European colonies in Africa. German colonial rule was still evolving by the time World War I broke out. Africans were conscripted to fight on various warfronts in defense of German imperial interests. However, the end of the war in 1918 proved disastrous for Germany’s imperial ambitions in Africa. Germany was defeated and forced to surrender all its colonies, which were subsequently taken over by the other European imperial powers—Britain, France, Belgium, and in the context of South West Africa, South Africa.