“Mittelafrika”: The German Dream of an African Empire, 1884-1918

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 is still seen by many historians as the high point of European imperialism in Africa: dominated by Bismarck’s diplomatic genius, the congress divided in fact the great Congo basin among various colonial powers, balancing their competing commercial interests into a complex system of exclusive spheres of influence. Thus the Berlin Conference formalized that political and economic “scramble” for African territory destined to reach its peak in the late 1890s, with the Anglo-French contest for Sudan and the emergence of Cecil Rhodes’ “private” empire in South Africa. But it also had the unexpected result of fostering Germany’s own colonial ambitions, giving diplomatic assent to its recent acquisitions in Togo, Cameroon, and Southwest Africa. This fact would have deep repercussions on the international balance of power, nurturing all that series of colonial rivalries later disclosed in the final tragedy of World War I. Meanwhile German statesmen and merchants tried to capitalize over this huge overseas “investment”, supporting schemes of agricultural and industrial development for the colonies. And, after the Anglo-German partition of East Africa in 1890, they also began to entertain ambitious dreams of a huge continental empire, extending from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean. Generally known as “Mittelafrika”, this visionary project was included among German official war aims in 1917, and it resonated sometimes even in Hitler’s expansionist programme of the early 1940s, propagated by former colonial officers of the Kaiser era.

German claims in Africa (1917)

German claims in Africa (1917)

Bismarck, however, was not among the early supporters of this massive colonial enterprise. On the contrary, he decided to purchase colonies in Africa only with extreme reluctance, due to the constant focus of his diplomatic strategy over the European situation. Indeed, he preferred to leave colonial expansion to France and Britain, fostering their mutual enmity and placing Germany as an “honest mediator” among them. But this clever scheme became more and more untenable during the 1870s, with the emergence of a large colonial lobby in the German society. Lead by charismatic figures like Adolf Woermann, Friedrich Fabri, and Carl Peters, this lobby expressed itself in a myriad of local commercial and geographical societies, who advocated the development of new markets for German industries or the acquisition of free land for agricultural emigration. Finally, in 1882 all these groups merged into a national colonial league (Kolonialverein), pressing the major political parties for further action in colonial matters. In the end, Bismarck was compelled to satisfy this agitation with the acquisition of some African protectorates in 1884, but he still hoped that such possessions could be maintained at a minimum cost, leaving them to the administrative responsibility of private companies. For example, Southwest Africa was given to the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft fur Sudwestafrika directed by Adolf Luderitz, while Adolf Woermann accepted to administer Cameroon through his own trading business.

The only exception to such colonial “privatization” was East Africa, where Karl Peters signed several treaties with local chiefs in the name of the German government, compelling Bismarck to dispatch a small military body for the enforcement of these documents. A daring but violent explorer, Peters refused any sort of constraint on his colonial actions, and in 1887 he arrived even to attempt a large scale raid on the Congo basin, claiming Uganda for the German Reich. Fearing a direct confrontation with Great Britain, Bismarck repudiated Peters’s claim, labelling him as a “filibuster”, but he had to install a semi-formal protectorate on East Africa, thus partially breaking his previous idea of an informal colonial empire. Meanwhile Peters continued to trouble the Chancellor with his extreme initiatives, including the development of intensive coffee plantations in the Mount Kilimanjaro area: indeed, native labourers employed in these structures were treated with such brutality that they widely rebelled in 1892, forcing the German army to a difficult and bloody repressive campaign. Finally Peters was compelled to leave East Africa, but he continued to advocate a major German presence in the region, supported by the aggressive press of the Pan-German League. Attacked by the Social Democratic Party for his crimes against African natives, he was dismissed from government service, but his imperialist ideals attracted other young radical activists, who later developed them in the “Mittelafrika” scheme. Their patriotic tone was also shared by the new German emperor Wilhelm II, who adopted a bolder colonial policy after Bismarck’s resignation in 1890.

The failure of Woermann’s administration in Cameroon, in fact, compelled the German government to completely reorganize the structure of its overseas empire, replacing private enterprise with public intervention. In March 1890 Heinrich Krauel, a low level official of the Foreign Office, was named director of a small colonial department, with its own annual budget, but four months later he was replaced by Paul Kayser, who established a larger colonial council advising the government on various matters of African policy. This early institutionalisation didn’t produce many results, because Kayser’s council still remained a secondary branch within the Foreign Office. It accelerated, however, the gradual centralization of colonial administration in all the African colonies, with loose private companies replaced by a permanent civil-military structure dependent from Berlin’s orders.

In Southwest Africa, for example, Luderitz’s Kolonialgesellschaft was disbanded in favour of a military government lead by First Lieutenant (later Major) Curt von Francois, who tried to encourage the settlement of white farmers in the region around Windhoek. The scheme, however, failed for the stubborn resistance of the local Herero tribes, whose skills in livestock farming proved extremely successful in limiting German agricultural penetration in the interior. Exasperated by the Herero’s competition for land and water, German ranchers asked then for a direct intervention of military authorities against their African rivals, but Francois refused to satisfy their request, trying to maintain good relationships with the native population. His successor Theodor Leutwein, however, was more sympathetic toward the ranchers’ pleas, and he tried initially to persuade the Herero to give more land concessions to the white settlers, playing on the rivalry between different tribal chiefs. This strategy had some success, but the growing aggressiveness of German farmers destroyed any possibility of a peaceful solution of the conflict, unleashing instead a terrible annihilation war in 1904. Led by the legendary Samuel Maherero, the Herero began in fact to attack several European farms, killing over a hundred colonists in a few weeks. As a reaction, Berlin removed the diplomatic Leutwein with the more sanguine Friedrich Lindequist, who adopted extreme measures to defeat the rebels: entire villages were burned, and their population deported in the desert, while German military commanders allowed their men to shoot freely at every Herero man, woman, and child. The final product of this policy, which crushed the rebellion after almost two years of bitter guerrilla fighting, was the first great genocide of the twentieth century: indeed, of the eighty thousand Herero who had lived in Southwest Africa before the war, less than twenty thousand survived the ordeal of German repression. Broken native resistance, Lindequist could then launch a vast programme of white settlement in the region, following the new ambitious colonial schemes designed in Berlin. Togo, Cameroon, and East Africa followed the same route, but with less violence than the South African possession. In Togo, for example, Julius Graf Zech established a model administration, deeply admired by French and British observers, while in East Africa German officers developed a genuine cooperation with the local Swahilis, creating a vast and efficient colonial army. Both countries, however, didn’t escape the exploitative reality of late nineteenth century imperialism.

From the late 1890s Wilhelm II inserted his African colonies in the wide programme of global expansion commonly known as Weltpolitik. Inspired by the aggressive strategic doctrine of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, State Secretary of the Imperial Navy from 1897, this programme aimed to challenge the old international supremacy of Britain and France, gaining new “vital space” (Lebensraum) for German political and economic interests around the world. In this sense, the overseas colonies in Africa and the Pacific became the object of wide economic investments, especially in the railway and mining sector. In East Africa, for example, the colonial government began the construction of two long railroads across the countryside: a Zentralbahn directed to the Lakes region, and a Nordbahn connecting the coast to the northern highlands of Usambara. But white settlers’ opposition to the project blocked the extension of the two lines until 1907, when – in the aftermath of the Maji Maji rebellion in Tanganyika – Chancellor von Bulow decided the creation of an independent Colonial Office under the directorship of the famous banker Bernhard Dernburg. A big-business manager with powerful allies on both aisles of the Reichstag, Dernburg proposed a massive programme of economic development in the colonies, transforming them into an important outlet for German domestic industry. Thus German agricultural settlement needed to be increased, while local infrastructures should be strengthened in favour of the national market. In late 1907 he visited East Africa, where he tried to reactivate the Zentralbahn project in connection with the modern development of African peasants’ activities.  Indeed, Dernburg greatly disliked the arrogant pretences of German settlers in the region, which had been responsible for the recent Maji Maji uprising, and wished instead to promote a more “progressive” native policy, maybe entrusted to a professional corps of governmental officers. His scheme, however, was firmly opposed by the Pan-German League, who continued to advocate a system of population colonies, and it failed even to gain the support of the main German political parties. Defeated in the Reichstag, Dernburg resigned from his position in 1910, leaving the Colonial Office to his old rival Friedrich Lindequist, the former crusher of the Herero rebellion in Southwest Africa. It was under his leadership that the ambitious scheme of Mittelafrika finally took shape, culminating in the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911.

Inspired by the ideas of former Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, Lindequist began in fact to envisage the direct acquisition of Congo from Belgium, creating a long unique German empire from Cameroon to East Africa. This large scale dream would have secured an important source of raw materials to the national industry, satisfying even the agricultural concerns of the Pan-German League: indeed, with Congo as the main industrial motor of the German overseas empire, East Africa could have been transformed into a vast plantation economy, absorbing the emigration of new white settlers. Thus the visionary character of Lindequist’s plan gained wide support from German political forces, and it positively impressed even foreign observers like E.D. Morel, the President of the Congo Reform Association, who believed that German colonialism could introduce a more “humanitarian” economic system in Central Africa. But it provoked the open hostility of France and Great Britain, who feared the expansion of German interests at the expense of their own geopolitical power in Africa. Meanwhile the growth of German business presence in Morocco, considered by Paris almost as a formal dependency, diverted Berlin’s political energies to the Maghreb, linking the Congo objective to the broader foreign policy of the Kaiser’s Reich. Indeed, an open contestation of French rights in the region could have compelled the other European powers to give territorial concessions in Central Africa as a compensation for German acquiescence in Morocco. The only result of this strategy, however, was the diplomatic humiliation of Germany in the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, when the Kaiser sent the gunboat Panther at Agadir under the pretext of safeguarding European lives from a local rebellion: France and Britain reacted vehemently to such display of German military arrogance, and their common diplomatic front – ready even to go to war for the defence of national honour – compelled a partial abandonment of Lindequist’s bold requests. With the ensuing Treaty of Fez, in fact, Germany renounced to all pretensions in Morocco for a small section of French Cameroon, near the border of Belgian Congo. Situated between the river Logone and Mambere, the area was completely useless from an agricultural point of view, and the marshy terrain didn’t allow even the construction of a modern railway. Last but not least, such poor acquisition was paid with the cession to France of the entire coast near Fort Lamy (N’Djamena), on Lake Chad, depriving German traders of a key position for river commerce in West Africa.

Deluded by the Moroccan fiasco, Lindequist resigned from the Colonial Office, but his ideas continued to dominate German colonial policy until the outbreak of World War I. In 1913, for example, the German Foreign Office opened a long series of negotiations with Britain on a possible partition of Portuguese colonies in South Africa, tightening again its possessions around the Congo borders. But diplomatic talks didn’t produce anything tangible, apart the British firm defence of Portuguese old authority in Angola and Mozambique.  Thus it was with a certain relief that German imperialists welcomed the final outbreak of European hostilities in the summer of 1914: even if they knew the extreme vulnerability of their African colonies, encircled by French and British territories, they thought that a huge military victory on the Western Front could provide enough bargain power at the peace table for the definite achievement of the Mittelafrika scheme. Three years later, despite the bloody stalemate in Europe and the complete loss of all overseas possessions, they still believed in such a fantastic perspective: indeed, in the official list of war aims presented by the Reich’s government to the international public, Chancellor Benthmann Hollweg included a large series of territorial acquisitions in Central Africa, giving concrete realization to the old dream of Mittelafrika. According to such plan, the colonial area controlled by Germany should extend from Senegal to Kenya, with Nigeria, Angola, Congo and Rhodesia within its main borders – a titanic empire in the heart of Africa, rich of raw materials, arable lands, and commercial routes.  It was something completely unacceptable for the Allied Powers, who even considered some colonial concession in return for Belgium and northern France in the grim autumn of 1917, when the Central Empires seemed on the verge of military victory. One year later, however, the situation was completely reversed, and Germany was compelled to renounce forever to its ambitious colonial projects. They partially survived in Hitler’s Nazi ideology, with the formal rehabilitation of Carl Peters in 1934 and the realization of several propaganda films on African historical events, including a popular biography of Boer President Paul Kruger in 1941. But they never dominated again the main attention of the German government as in the Wilhelmine era. Mittelafrika died with the last shots of the Great War.

Simone Pelizza, University of Leeds


Suggested readings:

Fernando M. Navarro Beltrame, ‘Mittelafrika: Canarias y la geopolitica alemana en el Africa subsahariana y en el Maghreb (1871-1919)’, Vector Plus, 35 (enero – junio 2010), pp. 63-76.

Wm. Roger Louis, Great Britain and Germany’s Lost Colonies, 1914-1919 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

Micheal Perraudin, Jurgen Zimmerer, and Katy Heady (eds.) German Colonialism and National Identity (London: Routledge, 2011).

Woodruff D. Smith, The German Colonial Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).

Woodruff D. Smith, The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism (New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Helmuth Stoecker (ed.), German Imperialism in Africa: From the Beginnings until the Second World War (London: C. Hurst&Company, 1986).


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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