Frank Lahmann: Chapter 3. The Emergence of a Pro-colonial German Reichstag 1907 - 1911

Bernhard Dernburg

Bernhard Dernburg. There is little doubt that Bülow’s appointment of the reputed ruthless banker Bernhard Dernburg to the post of Colo­nial Director in September 1906 was motivated partly by the desire to maintain the recent allegiance of the Progressives by introducing a sound administration in the colonies.

The Emergence of a Pro-colonial German Reichstag during the years 1907 to 1911

Ever since Germany had acquired overseas territory in the eighties the major criticism from the opposition in the Reichstag had been that colonies constituted a heavy and unnecessary financial burden on the German Empire.1 Consequently efforts were directed towards keeping the colonial budgets as low as possible. The opposition parties, the Social Democrats, Progressive People’s Party (left liberals)2 and the Center Party, also denounced German brutality in Africa since it seemed to foster rebellions which necessitated expensive military expeditions.3 However, this criticism was limited to particularly glaring cases such as Carl Peters’ arbitrary execution of his concubine in East Africa, and did not concern itself with the general policies pursued by the colonial governors.4 Nor, as seen in the previous chapter, did the home government interfere with the governor’s policies themselves. Although it believed that colonies would enhance Germany’s status as a world power, the government had no real interest in their internal development, which was left to the governors’ goodwill or to private companies like the East Africa Company, the South West Africa Company or the South Cameroon Company, which were granted huge land concessions to freely exploit.5

The government’s colonial policy was generally supported by the Center Party which before 1907 held the balance of power in the Reichstag. They could either defeat the government by moving left to the Social Democrats and Progressive People’s Party or allow the passing of governmental drafts by voting with the Liberals and Conservatives.6 As the Center was a confessional party almost entirely made up of Roman Catholics, its support of the government’s colonial policies - or lack of same - was conditional on the unhindered activity of Catholic missions as well as a policy of financial restraint in the colonies.7 Under these conditions, the Center had since the early 1890’s become a fairly consistent supporter of the government in colonial matters.8 However, this co-operation between the Center Party and the government was seriously disturbed by the l904 -1907 major uprisings in German East and South West Africa. As a result, the Reichstag was led to a re-examination of the government’s colonial policy. Deprived of its majority in the Reichstag and unable to acquire the needed funds to crush the uprisings in South West Africa, the government called a general election. It was this election fought on the colonial issue with its strong appeal to the patriotism of the electorate, which not only altered party alignments but also returned to the Reichstag an overwhelming pro-colonial majority.

The immediate result of the uprisings in East Africa and South West Africa was a tremendous outflow of German soldiers, money and supplies to these areas. In the case of South West Africa, for example, fourteen thousand five hundred European troops were deployed and by 1906 the expenditures of the war against the Hereros exceeded four hundred million marks.9 This drain of financial resources combined with the ever-mounting death toll of German soldiers overseas, sparked renewed public concern about colonial administration. Initially the Center Party was willing to vote the necessary funds to suppress the South West African revolt. However as early as 1904., it began to modify its support and refused to grant funds for the complete indemnification of the South West African settlers, arguing that the latter had caused the revolt because of their improper treatment of the Africans and therefore were not entitled to any government subvention to cover their losses.10 Indeed, though the Center Party continued to approve funds for the actual military campaign in South West Africa in 1905, it voiced an ever-increasing criticism against brutalities committed by government administrators and against the policy of granting large land concessions to private companies.11

Relations between the Center Party and the government further deteriorated in early 1906, when a Center Party member Matthias Erzberger condemned the government’s colonial policy as aimless, inefficient and corrupt.12 Erzberger claimed that the administration of the colonies was not pursued in the best interest of the German Empire. He pointed out that such government contracts concluded with the German shipping line of Woermann and Co. and the firm Tippelskirch to provision the German troops in South West Africa had given these two companies a virtual monopoly, leading to exorbitant prices for their goods and services. Erzberger held that these and similar government contracts had eliminated competition, encouraged price gouging and cost the German taxpayer several million marks in unnecessary expenditure.13

What exacerbated an already bad situation was that the other opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the left-Liberal Progressive People’s Party, joined the Center Party in its criticism of the government’s colonial policy. Amidst growing discontent the government introduced into the Reichstag in early 1906 a bill request­ing ten million marks to compensate the German settlers in South West Africa and additional funds to create an independent Colonial Office in Germany and extend the southern railway in South West Africa. The bill was thoroughly defeated in the Reichstag when the Center Party joined with the Social Democrats in voting against it, the former thus giving ample evidence of its unwillingness to further support the government’s colonial policy.14 It was on this note of discord that the Reichstag ended its debates before the summer recess.

Whereas the uprisings in Germany’s African colonies had pulled the government and the Center Party further apart, it inaugurated on the other hand a rapprochement between the left-Liberal Progressive People’s Party and the government. Since the late 1880’s the Progressives had solidly opposed the government’s colonial policy. They had believed that the colonies were a bad business proposition and as such constituted an unnecessary financial burden on the Ger­man Empire. In particular, they were opposed to the building of colo­nial railways financed by the government, arguing that if railways were a sound investment private enterprise would be attracted without government interference. 15 But after the outbreak of hostilities in South West and German East Africa in l904. and 1905, the Progressives turned around and voted in favour of all funds requested by the government to quell these revolts, since there were now people’s lives at stake and the party did not want to be accused of refusing to secure them. 16 While the Progressive People’s Party in this instance supported the government, it nevertheless continued its attacks on the so-called colonial scandals.16a The Reichstag debates of the period give ample evidence about atrocities committed by German colonial officials. 17 In spite of their continued criticism, the Progressives became increasingly favourable to colonial ventures during 1905 be­cause their new fervent patriotism began to overcome their previous economic scepticism.

At a Party’s convention in September 1905, the general membership was urged by one of its Reichstag’s deputies to become less critical in colonial matters and to support instead the building of colonial railways since the proper development of colonies would be of real benefit to the German Empire18 The party’s changing mood is also mirrored in its support of the government proposal for the creation of an independent Colonial Office. Although the bill to set up a Colonial Office was defeated in 1906 through the combined opposition of the Social Democrats and the Center Party, the Progressives’ support of it indicated that they were increasingly willing to co-operate with the government not only in regards to the military campaign in South West Africa but with its colonial policy in general.

The government quickly took advantage of the Progressives’ tergiversation. During the Reichstag’s 1906 summer recess, the govern­ment began to bestow favours on the party. A member of the royal family attended the funeral of Progressive Party leader Eugen Richter, while the new leader Reinhardt Schmidt-Elberfeld was invited to Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow’s summer residence for political dis­cussions. During this meeting, Schmidt-Elberfeld informed the Chan­cellor that the Progressive People’s Party would henceforth adopt a more positive approach to national questions and in particular to colonial matters.19 There is little doubt that Bülow’s appointment of the reputed ruthless banker Bernhard Dernburg to the post of Colo­nial Director in September 1906 was motivated partly by the desire to maintain the recent allegiance of the Progressives by introducing a sound administration in the colonies. This appointment was also seen as a measure to dampen the Center Party’s fierce attacks on corrupt colonial administration.20

When the Reichstag reconvened in November 1906, the government introduced a supplementary colonial budget of twenty-nine million marks for the continuation of the war in South West Africa, and nine million marks for the extension of the southern railway in that colony.21 The subsequent debates in the Reichstag at first put aside these requests in favour of a general debate of Germany’s colonial policy. The new session began quite harmlessly as the government admitted that Germany’s colonial policy was going through a crisis. Then Chancellor Bülow introduced Bernhard Dernburg as a captain of industry appointed to the post of Colonial Director to eliminate former mistakes and improve colonial administration. Dernburg assured the Reichstag of his determination to exercise a strict control over the colonial administrative bureaucracy and to prosecute any officials responsible for brutalities against Africans or other irregularities. He asked for the Reichstag’s assistance in this undertaking, and added as a sign of good faith that the contract with the afore-mentioned Tippelskirch Company had already been cancelled and that the other contracts were under study.22 Dernburg’s colonial programme was well received by all the opposition parties save the Social Democrats. Even Matthias Erzberger, the Center Party’s most outspoken critic of colonial maladministration, expressed his intention to co-operate with the new Colonial Director. Moreover, he indicated that if Dernburg continued to eliminate the present evils such as the mistreatment of Africans in the colonies and followed a course of financial restraint, there would be little cause for the Center Party to complain about colonial matters.23

However, this apparent government-Center Party rapprochement ended in December 1906, when Centrist member Hermann Roeren brought forth accusations of unfair treatment of Catholic missionaries and of immoral conditions prevailing in the colonies. Basing his speech on information forwarded by Catholic missionaries, Roeren disclosed that the practice of corporal punishment was widespread in the colonies and could arbitrarily be ordered by even minor officials. He claimed that this type of punishment was so brutal that its vic­tims either died soon after or were physically incapacitated for life.24 Specific examples were brought forward, including the case of a Togo district judge who had repeatedly whipped a number of African soldiers and carriers on a trip inland for lagging behind. Another case - and this time Roeren accused the new Colonial Director of prior knowledge and attempting to cover up the affair - was that of a German civil servant in Togo, who had his cook so viciously beaten that he died within twenty-four hours.25 Lastly, Roeren spoke of a case in Atakpante, a district capital in southern Togo, where a district officer named Georg Schmidt had supposedly forced an underage African girl to become his concubine by whipping her into submission. But when Catholic missionaries accused Schmidt of this in colonial courts, they were arrested for false accusations against a German official.26

Roeren concluded his acrimonious speech by saying: “I am of the opinion that if these conditions con­tinue in spite of the denunciations here in the Reichstag, then we are honestly obliged… in all conscience to question if we should grant a single penny more to the colonies.” 27 The significance of Roeren’s speech lies not so much in his criticism of past colonial inefficiencies as in his attack on Dernburg. It indicated that the Center Party might be prepared not to grant further funds for the colonies.

Dernburg was understandably aggravated. In his subsequent speech in the Reichstag, he showed himself unable to disprove Roeren’s allegations. But he tried to discredit him by pointing out that Roeren had repeatedly tried to blackmail the government by threatening to publicize volatile material and withdraw Center Party support if certain cases, such as the missionary incident mentioned above, were not solved to Roeren’s satisfaction.28 Dernburg broadened his attack and accused the Catholic missionaries in Togo and their mouthpiece, the Center Party, of misusing their influence by interfering in administrative and judicial matters.29 He stressed that he was not prepared to tolerate this any more.30 The Imperial German Chancellor von Bülow supported Dernburg’s arguments the following day, and so brought about the final break between the government and the Center Party.

The attitude of the Progressive people’s Party throughout the fall debates of 1906 had been more or less neutral, although it joined the other opposition parties in their criticism of colonial abuses, a rather harmless practice since both von Bülow and Dernburg acknowledged them.31 The Progressives painstakingly avoided any at­tacks on Dernburg. Quite the opposite. They assured him of their support and urged him not to fall prey to any internal or external pressure that would prevent the achievement of his goals of improved colonial administration.32 Thus the government anticipated full support from the People’s Party after the second reading of the supplementary budget on December 13th, 1906, while the Center Party was expected to oppose the measure. However, when debate began, the Reichstag was confronted with three different proposals since both the Center and the People’s Party had also put forward their own motions. The Center Party’s amendment allowed for a twenty rather than a twenty-nine million-mark-grant for additional expenditure for the South West African war and demanded the reduction of German troops from fourteen thousand to eight thousand by April 1907 to be followed by a further reduction to two thousand five hundred after that date.33 The Progressives’ proposal accepted the full monetary demands of the government but stipulated that a troop reduction should be inaugurated as soon as the South West Africa uprising was completely put down and the local authorities thought it safe to do so.34 Dernburg, on behalf of the government accepted the Progressive motion, and called for its support by the Conservatives and National Liberals.35

Before the actual voting began, the German Imperial Chan­cellor made a last appeal to the Reichstag. He pointed out that the government’s requests were the absolute minimum to restore peace and security in the colonies; that it was the patriotic duty of every member of the Reichstag to vote in favour of these appropriations; and that anyone failing to do so would be guilty of treason. He emphasized that the future of German colonies was at stake and that it was not merely a financial question. The Chancellor concluded his speech by warning the Reichstag that, should the outcome of the vote be negative, he could not carry on as the responsible leader of the German Empire and “…in the face of the German people and of history....subscribe to such a capitulation.”36 But in spite of his last minute effort, both the government’s and the Progressives’ motions were defeated by the Center and Social Democratic parties. In light of this result and without allowing a vote on the Center Party’s proposal, Bülow dissolved the Reichstag thereby forcing a general election.37

The Center Party’s unreliable support on colonial matters since 1904 undoubtedly prompted such a speedy and surprising dissolution. In the spring of 1906, for example, the Center had voted against funds for the creation of an independent Colonial Office. Furthermore the accusations voiced against the newly appointed Colonial Director indicated that the party was not satisfied with the government’s solutions to colonial problems and intended to continue its criticism.38 Facing the possibility of continuous interference from the Center Party, von Bülow opted for the dissolution of the Reichstag. And so the 1907 election was fought on the South West African issue, which Bülow’s last speeches in the Reichstag had turned into a national cause extremely attractive to the electorate.

Following dissolution of the Reichstag, Bülow worked strenuously to gain support from the Progressive People’s Party, which he wanted to include in a common front of National Liberals and Conservatives opposed to the Center and Social Democratic Parties. These views were first voiced by the conservative newspaper, the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, which recommended that the govern­mental parties should play down their differences so “...that the feeling of unity in the spirit of national steadfastness and pat­riotic unse1fishness be given practical and forceful expression.”39 Bülow himself re-iterated similar views on January 1st, 1907 in an open letter to the Imperial Union for Combating Social Democracy, an organization formed during the previous election campaign in 1903. In a speech to the Committee for Action on Imperialism which was founded in December 1906 by a group of Berlin university professors, he again expressed his hope that “...all national elements, from the Conservative Right to the Radical Left (Progressive People’s Party), subordinate their special interests to their national duty and obligation.”40

Concurrent with government efforts to bring about an alignment of the pro-government parties, the leaders of the National Liberals, the Conservatives and the Progressives met daily in Berlin to try to overcome their mutual differences. In early January 1907 they finally agreed to unite on the colonial issue, which they be­lieved every German should support.41 To assure the unhindered pur­suance of a pro-colonial policy, they agreed to form a common front against the Center Party and the Social Democrats. Moreover, they allied to support common candidates on all constituencies of the Empire, where seats were threatened by a Center or Socialist candidate. Bülow’s project of a united front including right and left wing parties, commonly referred to as the Bülow Bloc, had become a reality. The bloc parties appealed to the voters’ national pride. Their programme presented the suppression of the native uprising in South West Africa as a national duty and a test whose outcome would prove if Germany were capable of assuming the responsibilities of a world power. It was pointed out that the suppression of this rebellion was a question of national honour since many German soldiers had already been killed in South West Africa. The bloc denounced the Center and Social Democratic Party for having denied the Imperial government the means to fulfil a national obligation, through re­fusal of the necessary funds. They had thereby proven their essentially unpatriotic character.42 Bülow too re-iterated that the refusal to appropriate funds for the South West African war was a blow to Germany’s national dignity and that the election campaign was conducted to restore German honour and the welfare of the nation.42a

To arouse the Germans’ national pride in their colonies, the government embarked on a major public information campaign. Co­ordination of this task was assumed by the Colonial Director Bernhard Dernburg, who gave public speeches on the colonial subject all over Germany. Dernburg’s major aim was to convince the people that the colonies did not constitute a liability, but were to the contrary, a profitable asset to the German nation. He defined the aims of future German colonization as being the exploitation of the colonies’ human and material resources to the benefit of the mother-country.43 He elaborated on the need to enlarge the colonies’ infrastructure, stressing the value of colonial railways which would open the inte­rior of the colonies, increase African consumption of German goods and therefore improve Germany’s economy.44 Finally, Dernburg as­serted that Germany could acquire many tropical products from its colonies such as coffee, rubber and cotton instead of buying them from other nations.45 During these election speeches, the Colonial Director countered the opposition’s claim that the government’s colonial policy lacked cohesion by familiarizing the public with his colonial aims: increased railway construction and public works, in­creased German capital investment, exploitation of natural resources, education of Africans and improved training for colonial administrators.46 Having clearly underlined the aim of his projects, Dernburg held that retention of the colonies was a “...national question of the first order…”47

The 1907 election results established beyond doubt that the appeal to German patriotism by the government and Bülow Bloc had been a successful endeavour. When balloting was completed, the bloc parties discovered that they had increased their seats in the Reichstag from one hundred and seventy-seven to two hundred and six­teen, whereas the Center and Social Democratic Parties had secured only one hundred and sixty-eight seats as compared with the two hundred and sixteen they previously held. The Social Democratic Party, in principle opposed to colonialism, emerged as the main loser, dropping from eighty-one to forty-three seats.48 Bucked by the positive election results, the government was quick to point out in the Reichstag that the German public overwhelmingly approved the pursuance of a national policy, and that the government now felt free to follow such a policy in regards to colonies. Indeed, one of the most significant outcomes of the 1907 election was that for the first time since the inception of the German Empire in 1871, a solid pro-colonial majority was returned to the Reichstag. As a result most of the formerly defeated colonial bills were re-introduced by the government and passed unamended with the aid of the bloc parties.49 Among these were the previously-refused military appropriations for the suppression of the South West African rebellion and the allocation of funds to transform the Colonial Department into an independent Colonial Office. In May 1907 former Colonial Direc­tor Bernhard Dernburg was made head of the new ministry as Colonial State Secretary.

The Center Party had learned its lesson, that is to say, “...never to be found on the wrong side of any question in which patriotism was involved...”51 Although officially an opposition party in the Reichstag after the 1907 election, the Center Party, which had repeatedly been denounced as disloyal during the campaign, seemed determined to improve its public image by consistently voting from then on in favour of colonial legislation.52 Thus, the only party to retain its opposition to colonialism was the Social Democratic Party.

The only increase of the Reichstag’s colonial powers after 1907 took place four years later due to its response to the Franco-German agreement on Morocco and Central Africa. At that time Germany was forced to surrender its commercial interests in Morocco to France and received in exchange a small slice of the French Congo territory, which was incorporated into the Cameroons. This agreement was severely criticized in Germany by colonialists and the press alike. The Colonial Society denounced the newly gained territory as a useless swamp and desert region. 53 The Reichstag joined in the general clamour. It sought to prevent what it termed a similar “sell-out” of German interests in the future by voting a resolution demanding the introduction of a bill which assured Reichstag participation in any such future decisions. The major argument raised in the Reichstag debates stated that the Reichstag had a right to such consultation since it would be the legislature’s responsibility to approve resulting expenditures.

The government tried to argue that the first paragraph of the Protectorate Law of 1886 gave the Emperor power of protection and therefore denied the Reichstag any degree of interference in the acquisition or disposition of colonies. However, public pressure and repeated Reichstag’s motions finally forced the government to give in and a law was passed in December 1911 stipulating that treaties concerning the acquisition or cession of colonial territory would be subject to legislative approval. Thus, the Reichstag acquired the means effectively to prevent the government from increasing or decreasing its colonial territory. In 1884, this same right had it existed, would certainly have prevented the acquisition of any German colonies. However, in 1911 the Reichstag did not fight to curtail German expansion but rather what it considered to be major German overseas interests. This overwhelming pro-colonial spirit in the Reichstag lasted until the termination of World War I in 1918.

Footnotes (Text is continued thereafter)

1-Townsend, p. 156.
2-Agatha Ramm, Germany 1789-1919, A Political History, (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1967, p. 447.
3-Die Letzen Kolonialdebatten, pp. 91, 138 - 140.
4-Ibid., pp. 146 - 149.
5-George D. Crothers, The German Elections of 1907, (New York: Amm Press, Inc., 1968), pp. 243, 244.
6-Ibid., p. 23.
7-Ibid., pp. 23, 27, 29.
8-Ibid., pp. 26, 30.
9-Die Letzten Kolonialdebatten, pp. 14 - 17, 263.
10-Pehl, p. 55, see also Crothers, p. 33.
11-Pehl, p. 66.
12-Crothers, p. 34.
13-Ibid., p. 34, and Die Letzten Kolonialdebatten, pp. 103 - 108.
14-Ibid., pp. 136, 138.
15-Ibid., p. 47.
16-Ibid., pp. 49, 50.
16a-The term “colonial scandals was most commonly used by the Press. It refers to the various atrocities committed by German nationals in the colonies against the African population.
17-Die Letzen Kolonialdebatten, pp. 89, 172 - 174.
18-Crothers, p. 50.
19-Ibid., pp. 52, 53.
20-Die Letzen Kolonialdebatten, p. 22
21-Ibid., p. 33 and Crothers, p. 74.
22-Ibid, pp. 8 - 10.
23-Ibid. pp. 97, 117 and Crothers, p. 74.
24-Ibid., p. 173.
25-Ibid., p. 176.
26-Ibid., pp. 178 - 180.
27-Ibid., p. 182.
28-Ibid., pp. 190 - 192.
29-Crothers, p. 80.
30-Die I.etzen Kolonia.ldebatten, pp. 210 - 213.
31-Ibid., pp. 4., 5, 7, 8.
32-Ibid., pp. 180, 185.
33-Ibid., pp. 261, 262, 283.
34-Ibid., p. 264.
35-Ibid., pp. 276, 277.
36-Ibid., p. 263, see also pp. 264, 290, 291.
37-Ibid., p. 292.
38-see above, p. 51.
39-quoted in Crothers, p. 154.
40-quoted in Crothers, p. 160, see also pp. l08, 116, l58, 159.
41-Ibid., p. 161.
42-Ibid., p. 105.
42a-Ibid., p. 252.
43-Bernhard Dernburg, Zielpunkte Des Deutschen Kolonialwesens, (Berlin: Ernst Siegfried Mittler and Sohn, 1907), p. 5.
44-Ibid.,., p. 10.
45-Ibid., pp. 26, 31, 32, 36, 43.
46-Ibid., pp. 10, 34, and Crothers, p. 107.
47-Ibid., p. 51.
48-Crothers, pp. 174, 175.
49-Ibid., p. 193.
50-Zimmermann, p. 312.
51-quoted in Crothers, p. 183.
52-Ibid., p. 201.
53-Townsend, p. 327.


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