In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section German Colonial Rule

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Brandenburg-Prussian Colonies
  • Cameroon
  • Togo
  • German Samoa and German New Guinea
  • Kiautschou (Jiaozhou, China)
  • Military History, Colonial Wars, and Violence
  • Missions and Colonialism
  • Women and the Colonial Project
  • Cultural History of German Colonialism
  • Colonial Science and Colonial Medicine
  • Colonial Education
  • The Colonial Encounter
  • Colonial Revanchism

African Studies German Colonial Rule
Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0020


With the exception of Brandenburg-Prussia’s short-lived attempt to gain a foothold on the West African coast and to participate in the 17th-century transatlantic slave trade, German colonialism began only in the 1880s. As a latecomer in the struggle for colonies, Germany had to settle for four territories, called “protectorates,” in Africa: Togo and Cameroon in the west, German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia), and German East Africa (today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) in the east. In addition, Germany obtained territories in the Pacific, such as German New Guinea and Samoa, as well as some smaller islands, and with the status of a concession territory, Kiautschou (Jiaozhou) in China. From the beginning, African men and women resisted the wrongful annexation of their territories, which led to several violent colonial wars. The Herero-Nama war of 1904 in German Southwest Africa and the Maji-Maji war in German East Africa were the most devastating ones for the local population. The German-Herero war led to the first genocide of the 20th century. Most of Germany’s African and Pacific colonies were occupied by other European colonial powers in the early stages of World War I. Only in German East Africa did General Lettow-Vorbeck and a small number of African mercenaries persevere until the end of the war. The German colonial empire ended after its defeat in the war and the Treaty of Versailles on 10 January 1920. Following the official end of German colonialism, a revanchist movement in the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany began to try and claim the former territories, and colonial literature, films, and science blossomed. Only when the Nazis’ Russian campaign of World War II began taking its heavy toll did colonial ambitions finally end. Recent literature speaks of “imaginary colonies” in the context of revisionism of the post-Versailles years.

General Overviews

There are a number of excellent overviews that focus on different aspects of German colonialism. Speitkamp 2005 is a condensed, easily readable general introduction, whereas Conrad 2012 is based on an up-to-date transnational history approach. Stoecker 1987 represents the former GDR school of studying German imperialism. Forster, et al. 1988 concentrates on the early years of colonial partition, and van Laak 2005 is a short general study of two hundred years of German imperialism. Gann and Duignan 1977 deals with the German personnel in Germany’s African colonies. Steinmetz 2007 presents a comparative study of three German colonies, and Ames, et al. 2005 offers a collection of essays on all aspects of German colonialism.

  • Ames, Eric, Marcia Klotz, and Lora Wildenthal, eds. Germany’s Colonial Pasts. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

    Offers a wide range of studies on German colonialism and its legacies. Some essays focus on the period of Germany’s formal colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific, while others examine Germany’s postcolonial era, which includes the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany and its colonial revanchism. The interdisciplinary volume includes essays in the fields of musicology, religious studies, film, and tourism studies as well as literary analysis and history.

  • Conrad, Sebastian. German Colonialism: A Short History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Offers an up-to-date synthesis of Germany’s colonial ventures in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific and places them in a cultural and transnational frame. It includes excellent illustrations and maps as well as an annotated critical bibliography.

  • Forster, Stig, Wolfgang Mommsen, and Ronald Robinson, eds. Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    A comprehensive account of the Berlin Africa Conference of 1884 and 1885 and a study of the motives behind the partitioning of Africa. It includes essays on the different negotiators, economic interests, as well as missionary aspirations.

  • Gann, L., and Peter Duignan. The Rulers of German Africa, 1884–1914. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1977.

    Although a little outdated in its approach, this study is still worthwhile reading. It focuses on Germany’s military and administrative personnel in Africa and examines their performance, educational and class background, ideology, continuing ties with the homeland, and subsequent careers.

  • Speitkamp, Winfried. Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005.

    A short overview of German colonial history that is useful for students and a general readership.

  • Steinmetz, George. The Devils’ Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    Offers a rare comparative study of three German colonies and argues for the heterogeneity of German colonial practice and policy. The author seeks to explain these differences in Germany’s precolonial ethnographic discourse and in imperial Germany’s three-way intra-elite class struggle.

  • Stoecker, Helmut, ed. German Imperialism in Africa: From the Beginnings Until the Second World War. London: Hurst, 1987.

    Representative of East German scholarship on African history in general, especially colonial history.

  • van Laak, Dirk. Über alles in der Welt: Deutscher Imperialismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Munich: Beck, 2005.

    A short study of the origin and impact of German imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, which the author regards as part of the globalization process.

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