Frank Lahmann: Chapter 1: The Birth of the Imperial Colonial Administration and the Reichstag’s Role in German Colonial Politics 1886-1907

Heinrich von Kusserow

Heinrich von Kusserow: The whole administrative task, not delegated to or accepted by the Chartered Companies, was carried in 1884 by Bismarck himself and Foreign Office civil servants like Heinrich von Kusserow and later Friedrich Krauel.

The Birth of the Imperial Colonial Administration and the Reichstag’s Role in German Colonial Politics in the years 1886 to 1907.

The legal basis of the newly-formed German empire was the Imperial Constitution of 1871. The new Reich incorporated twenty-five formerly independent German states and, in accordance with Bismarck’s convictions at the time, made no provisions for a future colonial empire. Executive leadership was invested in the King of Prussia, who became the German Emperor. He was assisted by an Imper­ial Chancellor directly responsible to him. One legislative body of the new empire was the Reichstag elected by universal adult male suffrage, and controlling imperial revenues from direct taxation.1 As Imperial ministries like the Foreign Office were gradually created to aid the Chancellor in the administration of the empire, thereby increasing governmental expenditure, the Reichstag’s influence also grew through its right to vote the necessary imperial funds. Originally the Reichstag’s direct influence over government was generally limited to budget control. It had few means of altering important political decisions made by the Chancellor and the Emperor. This was illustrated in 1884-85 by the Emperor’s acquisition of colonies with­out prior consultation with the Reichstag.

While the Reichstag from 1884 on concentrated on increasing its influence over colonial affairs, the government was busy elabor­ating an administrative system to govern colonies it had unwillingly inherited once the chartered company protectorate scheme collapsed. No colonial administrative institutions existed when Germany extended its sovereignty over territories in Africa and the Pacific. The bur­den of colonial administration which was not assumed by the chartered trading companies, fell therefore squarely on the Chancellor’s shoulders. He delegated his administrative responsibilities to a few Foreign Office officials, who as a part-time task represented the colonies in their dealings with other nations. The Protectorate Law of 1886 legalized the Chancellor’s basic administrative responsibility for the protectorates by giving him very specific rights to regulate by decree certain matters such as the police machinery and its discipline, prison sentences and fines, as well as the definition of citizenship.2 Moreover, the Emperor made it a regular practice to delegate his own absolute powers of colonial decree to the Chancellor. The adminis­trative workload increased after 1886 with the government’s growing involvement in the colonies. Thus, it is not surprising that Bismarck’s 1884 demand for a Colonial Department was repeated over the years by the other civil servants in the Foreign Office.3 However, the necessary funds for the creation of a Colonial Department were finally approved by the Reichstag only in 1890, and a year later the new department became the fourth division of the Foreign Office.4

The Colonial Department was headed by a Colonial Director directly responsible to the Chancellor and entrusted with the responsibility for all colonial affairs.5 Representation of the colonies in foreign affairs still remained the duty of the Foreign Office as a whole.6 An Imperial decree of 1894 decided that the Colonial Depart­ment defend imperial colonial policies in the Reichstag. It became directly responsible for colonial finances, justice, public works, missions, education, health care, exploration, economy, agriculture, land policy, trade, mining, shipping, monetary policy and banking. Other minor obligations involved the handling of complaints and peti­tions, the investigation of offences and consultation with local traders.7 The Colonial Department was divided into four sections, three of which were concerned with civil administration, the fourth being in charge of military operations in the colonies.8 The department’s decisions were all subject to the Chancellor’s approval.

Over the years, the Colonial Department staff eventually grew to many hundreds, exceeding that of some other large Imperial ministries such as Justice.9 Efforts were made to create an inde­pendent Colonial Office, not only because as a department of the Foreign Office the Colonial Department had become too unwieldy, but also to further enlarge the Imperial administrative structure. More­over, the creation of a Colonial Ministry would eliminate two other complaints brought up by colonialists. Firstly, the importance of colonial affairs in Germany had outgrown the status of a mere department of another Ministry. Secondly, the Imperial edict of 1894 naming the Colonial Director as the Chancellor’s representative in the Reichstag debates was termed unconstitutional, since the Chancellor Representation Law of March 1878 had stated that the Chancellor could only be represented by a head of imperial ministry, an imperial state secretary.10

Taking into account all of these factors, Chancellor Bülow attempted in 1906 to form a new Imperial Colonial Office. But the Reichstag withheld the necessary funds. A year later, the political situation in the Reichstag had changed through the arrival there of a new pro-colonial majority and a bill was quickly passed to establish an independent Imperial Colonial Office. Set up in May 1907 it assumed all the colonial responsibilities held by the old Colonial Department to which the High Command of Protectorate troops was an important addition.11 With the founding of the Imperial Colonial Office, the final stage in the development of the governmental colonial administrative structure was reached. This situation remained unchanged until Germany lost its colonies in 1918.

The German colonial administrative system was hierarchical. Colonial Directors, and later Colonial State Secretaries, were res­ponsible only to the Chancellor, and ultimately to the Emperor. Thus, the Colonial State Secretary was responsible for the formulation of policies, which he could pursue without fear of interference from any other person or agency save the Chancellor or Emperor unless his projects required financing through the Reichstag.12 Whereas the head of the British Colonial Office was subjected to several outside controlling influences including Parliament, the chief officials of the Colonial Office itself and some local colonial legis­latures, the German Colonial Office was relatively protected in its functioning. The strict hierarchical domestic German system was duplicated in the colonies, where local department heads acted under the direct jurisdiction of the Governor. The Governor himself was responsible to the Imperial Colonial State Secretary and not to lo­cal forces.13

In discussing the various influences on German colonial policy, one cannot neglect two agencies which, although not part of the decision-making process, considerably affected the German government’s colonial decisions. In October 1890 shortly after the formation of the Colonial Department a Colonial Council was created by imperial decree.14 This new advisory body consisting of colonial experts was set up because the civil servants responsible for the colonies lacked all colonial experience. The great domestic criticism over the Helgoland-Zanzibar treaty of 1890 was also at the root of this decision. The criticism centred on the abandonment by Germany to the British of its claims to Uganda and Zanzibar in return for cession by the British of the island of Helgoland.15

In the beginning the Council’s membership was limited to twenty, but in 1895 it was raised to twenty-five and in 1901 to forty.16 This advisory board was under the Chancellor’s control. He appointed its members for a three-year-term and planned the meetings and agendas. The permanent Council President was the head of the Colonial Department, and after 1907 the head of the Colonial Office. He was the only person who could publicly disclose matters discussed during the Council’s sessions. The entire membership met twice annually, however a permanent three-member-committee met more often to attend to urgent business.17 The board was to offer objective advice to the government on all colonial matters, but its impartiality is subject to serious doubts. Of the nineteen members appointed in 1891, twelve were personally involved in colonial commercial ven­tures and thus stood to lose or gain by their own decisions. Since the board was mainly composed of influential colonial traders and headed by the Colonial Director, its policies were likely to be en­dorsed by the Chancellor, who, in some cases, implemented its decisions by decree without consultation with the Reichstag. The con­flict of interest within the Colonial Council was repeatedly attack­ed by the Reichstag over the years and as a result was dissolved in 1908 and replaced by temporary commissions of experts formed whenever the need arose.18

Another influential pro-colonial interest group was the German Colonial Society (Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft), founded in January 1880 after the merger of two older colonial societies. As a result, it had at its inception a membership of approximately nineteen thousand, which rose to a high of nearly forty thousand in 1907. Its members were mainly merchants and businessmen and to a lesser degree, government employees, military and navy personnel. The aim of the Colonial Society was to propagate and further German colonialism wherever possible. To this end, a small standing committee met frequently to discuss and decide urgent society matters. The director­ate, consisting of fifty to one hundred members met four times yearly to map out strategy and decide more important business.19

To survey this Society’s scope of activities would go be­yond the frame of this study, because it would be difficult indeed to find a subject it did not concern itself with. However, in general it supported measures to improve colonial rule such as the creation of local advisory boards in the colonies and an Imperial Colonial Office at home, improved roads, transportation and health care as well as the teaching of German language in the colonies. In Germany the Society propagated its cause by organizing public lectures on colonial subjects in universities and by distributing informative material to the schools. Its closest connection with the government was through some of its leading members such as the colonial trader Woermann, who also served on the Colonial Council between 1890 and 1908. If the Society’s demands were not promptly acted upon, its mem­bers petitioned the government and exercised pressure on the authorities.20

The most successful undertaking of the Society took place during the 1906-07 national election, at which time it pooled all its resources in a concerted effort to eliminate its main opponent, the Reichstag’s anti-colonial majority. Its members waged a fierce press battle and it instructed the branches all over Germany to confront Reichstag candidates with colonial questions and sponsor public lectures. Thus the 1907 victory of the Bülow bloc and the formation of a new pro-colonial majority in the Reichstag can be credited not only to governmental activity but also to the exertions of the Colonial Society.21

The creation and take over of protectorates by the Imperial government, coupled with the absence of legal provisions for colonies in the German Constitution left large questions of colonial administration and responsibilities completely undefined and soon posed serious problems. Until 1907, the largely liberal-socialist-centrist majority in the Reichstag was generally anti-colonial. From the very beginning, Bismarck tried to avoid Reichstag infringement on the Emperor’s absolute rights in the protectorates and later the colonies by limiting expenditure to a minimum. The whole administrative task, not delegated to or accepted by the Chartered Companies, was carried in 1884 by Bismarck himself and one other Foreign Office civil servant, Heinrich von Kusserow and later Friedrich Krauel.22 But in spite of these Spartan measures, Bismarck was forced as early as the fall of 1884 and the spring of 1885 to approach the Reichstag with money demands for the protectorates.23 These requests gave rise to considerable discussion in the Reichstag, during which the legislature demanded a clarification of the protectorates’ legal status and the extent of Imperial jurisdiction in these territories.24 Bismarck’s response to these questions is documented in a memorandum to the Department of Justice dated November 24th, 1885. He began with the point that the Emperor, in the name of the twenty-five federated German states, represented Germany in foreign countries. Since protectorates were clearly to be considered foreign soil, the German Emperor had the right to deal with them by Imperial decree. He also pointed out that the Reichstag’s role was constitutionally limited to the voting of funds and laws within Germany.25 This strict inter­pretation of the Constitution would indeed have given the Emperor virtually unlimited control over the administration and expenditure of the protectorates.

When the imperial government introduced on January 12, 1886 into the Reichstag the draft of a Protectorate Law (Schutzgebietsgesetz) to legalize the status of the protectorates, along the lines outlined in Bismarck’s memorandum discussed above, it encountered strong opposition partly on the grounds that this draft curtailed the Reichstag’s budgetary and legislative powers.26 The government replied that Germany had no previous experience in the administration of colonies and that it would be unwise to devise a complex system until greater knowledge had been gained.27

In the ensuing debate, which carried on intermittently until passage of the bill on April 17, 1886, the draft underwent fundamental changes. The first paragraph acknowledged the Emperor’s predominant position and administrative responsibility in the protectorates,: “...the Emperor in the name of the Empire, exercises the power of protection in the German protectorates...”.28 But because the Reichstag insisted that the Emperor’s colonial power be exercised “in the name of the Empire”, the Emperor became through the Chancellor answerable to the legislative body in all matters, a right of which the Reichstag was to make abundant use.29 The second part of the law finally stipulated that the administration of justice in the protectorates would be based on consular law valid for Ger­man citizens, other European nationals and natives alike, and that appeals would be handled by the Supreme Court in Germany.30 The Emperor’s power of decree was thereby effectively curtailed to the purely administrative sphere, for civil and criminal law was now to be based on regular German law. However, this limitation on the Emperor’s power was to be reversed in the years following 1886.

Practice soon proved that consular law, which was an amalgam of German and Prussian laws,31 could not adequately be applied in Africa because of special circumstances there including illiteracy and tribal custom. Therefore, the Protectorate Law was amended in 1887 and 1888 to permit the Emperor to define by imperial edict native law and land questions. Another amendment a few years later conferred to the Emper­or the right to transfer his power of administrative and justice decrees to civil servants working in the colonies. A further amendment, which demanded that the Chancellor co­sign imperial colonial decrees, was later withdrawn, when the government admitted that the Imperial law stating that all imperial edicts must be countersigned by the Chancellor in order to become legal was automatically appli­cable to colonial affairs.32 All these modifications did much to restore the Emperor’s former rights.

Meanwhile, the Protectorate Law left unresolved the question of control over the financing of colonial administration. This question developed into a major controversy between government and Reichstag in the years before 1892. As previously noted, Bismarck had originally intended in the 1871 Constitution to consult the Reichstag only in respect to expenditure for Germany itself.33 Since Germany’s acquisition of protectorates in 1884, their budget had been defined by the Emperor. According to the first paragraph of the Pro­tectorate Law, the Emperor continued this practice “ the name of the Empire 34, with the only limitation that colonial expenditure not covered by the colonies’ income be raised through extraordinary grants or permanent appropriations approved by the Reichstag. But colonial deficits soon appeared. For example, the colonial budgetary demands submitted to the Reichstag for all German colonies in 1886 amounted to 300,000 marks. The small administrative machinery of South West Africa alone needed 22 000 marks in Imperial funds a year with no relief in sight.35 It was because the government made these monetary requests to the Reichstag to cover colonial expenses that the Reichstag gained a greater measure of colonial control.

The Reichstag also criticized the government’s practice of automatically carrying over unspent funds from one year to the next without notifying the Reichstag. As early as 1887 the Center Party demanded that the legislature be given details about colonial income and expenditure. Center Party Reichstag member Karl Baumbach explained his conviction that the legislative body had the implicit right to check colonial income since it had to subsidize the colonies. The government, on the other hand, argued that colonial affairs were as yet too unsettled to allow such accurate accounting and point­ed out that it was already providing more information to the Reichstag than was the case in France and England, which did not disclose their whole colonial budget.36

This drawn-out controversy came to a head in 1891. At that time, a powerful pressure group of merchants urged the government to break the Duala natives’ trading monopoly in the Cameroons, which ex­tended from the coast to the interior. The Colonial Society, the best organized of all colonial interest groups, urged the government to occupy the Cameroons hinterland in order to protect German commercial interest in this region threatened by English and French infiltration up the Niger and Congo.37 Paul Kayser, the Foreign Office official in charge of the colonies, also had his own expensive plans. He favoured the construction of roads into the interior and intended to secure German access to Lake Tschad, at the time considered to be the all-important trading center of the area, by dispatching a military expedition there under the command of a former explorer Eugene Zintgraff.38 Implementation of these measures was estimated to cost 1.5 million marks. However it was believed unlikely that the Reichstag would approve such a large sum, following so close on the heels of a two-million-mark grant to combat the slave trade in East Africa. Under these circumstances, Kayser tried to implement a plan devised in 1884 by two of the major German traders in the Cameroons, Woermann and Thormählen.

According to this plan, the Emperor would personally borrow money from the Hamburg merchants for use in the Cameroons and the loan would subsequently be serviced out of the colony’s income.39 Had this secret scheme succeeded, it would not only have established a precedent but would also have made the government virtually independent of the Reichstag, since the necessary funds would have been raised through private loans. However, this plan was made public, and by a resolution introduced by the anti-colonial liberals into the Reichstag, it was declared illegal. The government was then forced to ask the Reichstag for a supplementary grant of 1.5 million marks for the Cameroons. The ensuing debates in the Reichstag were extremely bitter, and though the money was finally approved it was not as an outright grant but only as a government loan to the colony “...which the colony was to repay in sixteen annual instalments...”.40

It was in the aftermath of this acrimonious debate and while under attack from liberal and socialist Reichstag leaders Bebel and Richter, that the government finally surrendered its claim to complete freedom of action in colonial matters and introduced a law to clarify the Reichstag’s financial jurisdiction in colonial affairs. An Imperial Law relating to “...income and expenditure in the protectorates” was passed in March 1892.41 It stipulated that all colonial income and expenditure would first be examined by Imperial government treasury agencies and subsequently be presented to the Reichstag, which in turn could accept or refuse the new budget.42 Thus, the Emperor’s original power to determine the colonial budget by decree was shared from then on by the legislature.

The implications of this new arrangement were widespread. Every minor detail of colonial administration involving finance was now subject to approval by the Reichstag. Moreover, by withholding funds the Reichstag could induce the government to make policy changes. Since nearly all administrative changes in the protectorates involved financial expenditure, officials in the colonies now, at least in theory, had to take their decisions in close consultation with the home government.43 In practice, due to slow and uncertain communication between the colonies and the homeland, colonial ac­counts were usually passed on to the Reichstag in incomplete form and too late to allow meaningful action, while colonial governors continued to enjoy relative freedom from interference.44 Still, this did not take away the Reichstag’s theoretical right to keep control of colonial affairs.

Perhaps even more important than the Reichstag’s theoretical victory in colonial financial matters, was to be its ability to legislate certain laws for the colonies. In the aftermath of the 1892 colonial financial law, which for the first time defined that the Reichstag had budgetary rights over the income and expenditures of the colonies, the government was also forced to admit that the legislature had the right to enact certain laws for the colonies. German law had not been automatically applicable in the colonies because the 1871 Imperial Constitution had stipulated that these applied only to the twenty-five member states of the German Empire45. Only if requested by the government could the Reichstag, Germany’s legislative body, either pass new laws or re-enact existing ones for the colonies. Some of the most important colonial laws passed in this manner by the Reichstag included the 1895 anti-slavery law, the 1896 law allowing for the raising of local imperial protectorate troops and the 1900 amendments to the Protectorate law. The laws concerning German nationality and election rights were also extended by Reichstag legislation to the coionies.46 Added to its new financial powers, the Reichstag was thus given additional opportunities to discuss colonial affairs by government requests for supplementary colonial legislation.

Until 1907, the Imperial Reichstag itself had been anti-colonial in spirit and hesitant to embark on colonial legislation. This anti-colonial Imperial Reichstag, which had not even been con­sulted about the acquisition of protectorates in the eighties, now began somewhat unwillingly to play a larger role and also adopt a more critical attitude to colonial matters as the government became more and more involved in the direct administration of colonies. The Reichstag’s debates give ample evidence of this new direction.47 Between 1900 and 1906 some colonial governors and district administrators were attacked in the Reichstag in a most violent manner and accused of brutality towards the natives. In some cases, these attacks led to their dismissal. A famous example was that of the once-popular founder of German East Africa, Carl Peters. Due to the Reichstag’s insistence that Peters had severely beaten his servants he was dismissed from government service and arraigned in German courts.48 The Reichstag also forced the government to re-call the Governor of the Cameroons, Jesko von Puttkamer, who was accused of brutality towards the natives and mishandling public funds.49 The first major restructuring and improvement of the Ger­man Colonial Service in 1907 was to be to a large extent due to the criticism of governmental policies by the Reichstag and its exposure of misgovernment in the colonies. Not only did the Reichstag concern itself with these public colonial scandals, but it also asserted itself through its control of all colonial funds from the construction of railways in the colonies to the building of a governor’s residence in South West Africa.50 Despite the Emperors’ considerable residual powers and the Governors’ relative freedom from homeland interference the Reichstag had gained a substantial influence over the last twenty years.

Footnotes (text is continued thereafter)

1-Iliffe, p. 31.
2-Köbner, p. 122.
3-Eugen Kade, Die Anfänge der Deutschen Kolonial Zentralverwaltung, (Würzburg-Aumühle: Druckerei Konrad Triltsch, 1939, pp. 10. 20.
4-Zimmertnann, p. 171.
5-Deutsches Kolonialblatt, 1890, p. 119.
6-Deutsches Kolonialblatt, 1905, supplement, p. 7.
7-Ibid., p. 13.
10-Deutsches Kolonialblatt, supplement, 1905. p. 14. H. Edler von Hoffmann, Verwaltung und Gerichtsverfassung der Deutschen Schutzgebiete, (Leipzig: G.J. Göschen’sche Verlagshandlung, 1908), p. 14.
11-Deutsches Kolonialblatt, supplement, 1905, p. 14.
12-Ibid., pp. 7, 8, 26.
13-Ibid., p. 17.
14-Zimmermann, p. 172.
l5-J. Gerstmeyer, “Rechtliche Grundlagen, Verwaltungs und Gerichtsorganisation”, in Dreissig Jahre Deutsche Kolonialpolitik, ed. Dr. Paul Leutwein under the direction of the Gesellschaft für Kolonialen Fortschritt, (Berlin: Gersbach & Sohn, 1922), p. 14.
16-Rudin, p. 138.
17-Hoffmann, p. 125.
l8-Rudin, p. 140.
19-Richard V. Pierard, The German Colonial Society 1882 - 1914. (Iowa:
University of Iowa, 1965), p. 109.
20-This section is mainly based on Richard V. Pierard’s study: The German Colonial Society 1882 - 1914.
The Colonial Society survived the war, was restructured in 1922 and continued to exist under the new name of the German Colonial Labor Community (Koloniale Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft). In 1933 it adopted the new name of German Colonial Federation (Reichskolonialbund) under the leadership of German East Africa’s last governor Heinrich Schnee.
22-Rudin, p. 133 and Zimmermann, p. 312.
23-Kade, p. 35.
25-Document copied in full in Eugen Kade, pp. 160 - 62.
26-Kade, p. 36.
Hans Pehl, Die Deutsche Kolonialpolitik und das Zentrum, 1884 - 1914, (Limburg a.d. Lahn: Limburger Vereinsdruckerei G.m.b.H., 1934), p. 34.
27-Rudin, p. 127.
28-Hoffmann, p. 10.
29-Zeitschrift für Kolonialpolitik, Kolonialrecht und Kolonialwirtschaft, 1907, pp. 420 - 430.
30-Florack, p. 19 and Kade, p. 91.
3l-Köbner, p. 127.
32-Kade, p. 44, 94.
33-Ibid. p. 160 -162.
34-Dr. Zadow, “Die Nachprüfung der Ausgaben in den Kolonien durch Rechnungshof und Reichstag” in Jahrbuch für die Deutschen Kolonien, ed. Karl Schneider, (Essen: G.D. Baedeker, Verlagshandlung, l9ll), p. 208.
35-Kade, pp. 98, 105.
36-Ibid., pp. 101, 102.
37-Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, 1891, p. 103.
38-Rudin, p. 85 and
E.M. Chilver, “Paramountcy and Protection in the Cameroons: The Bali and the Germans, 1889 - 1913”, in Britain and Germany in Africa, ed. P. Gifford and R. Louis.
39-Rudin, p. 86.
40-Ibid., p. 147.
4l-Jahrbuch, p. 208.
43-Zeitschrift für Kolonialpolitik, Kolonialrecht und Kolonialwirtschaft, 1900, p.1.
44-Jahrbuch, pp. 212, 213. See also Wilhelm Methner, Unter Drei Gouverneuren, (Breslau: Wilhelm Gottl. Korn Verlag, l938), p.221 and Kade, pp. 8, 107.
45-Florack, p. 17.
46-Ibid., pp. 28, 29.
47-Germany, Die Letzten Kolonialdebatten im Aufge1östen Reichstag, (Berlin: Mittler & Sohn, 1907).
48-W.0. Henderson, “German East Africa, 1884 - 1918”, in History of East Africa, ed. Vincent Harlow, E.M. Chilver and Alison Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 246.
49-Die Letzten Kolonialdebatten, pp. 145, 147, 172 -174, 238. For further information on atrocities and action undertaken, see Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, 1894, p. 70.
50-Kade, pp. 99, 100, and Pehl, pp. 58 - 61, and Die Letzten Kolonialdebatten, pp. 43, 47, 81, 91, 275, 289.


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