Germany’s Colonial Past

Today is the German national holiday, known as German Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit). October 3 only became a holiday in 1990 after German reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before that, East Germans celebrated their national day on October 7, the date of the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949. Few West Germans could have told you the date of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany (May 23, 1949), and there was no West German equivalent of the American Fourth of July. Even the October 3 observance is pretty tame compared to Independence Day in the US. Nationalistic flag-waving is not really a German thing (except at soccer matches).

So it comes as a bit of a surprise, even to most Germans, to learn of Germany’s colonial past. Unlike Britain, Spain, Portugal and other European powers, Germany (Prussia) came late to the colonial game. Nevertheless, the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) extended its reach to territories located in Africa, the South Pacific and even China.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I saw a news item about Germany and Namibia. The BBC News website headline read: Germany returns Namibian skulls taken in colonial era. From 1884 to 1915, today’s Namibia was a German colony known as German South West Africa (Deutsch-Südwestafrika). Although the official language in Namibia today is English, there are also many people who still speak German, Afrikaans and of course various African languages.

During its imperial period, Germany had other African colonies (German East Africa, German West Africa) as well as colonies in the Pacific (German New Guinea, German Samoa) and China (Tsingtao, today’s Qingdao). All that ended when Germany lost World War I, but I find certain elements of Germany’s colonial past fascinating – especially aspects that still affect us today.

For instance, I enjoyed some Tsingtao beer the other day. The Tsingtao Brewery, China’s second largest brewery today, was founded by German settlers in 1903 as the Germania-Brauerei (Germania Brewery) in the colony that was part of the Jiaozhou Bay concession granted to the Germans. From 1898 to 1914 the Germans ran a model colony that featured modern roads, sewers, schools and German-style architecture (some of it still there). Both Qingdao and the Tsingtao Brewery survived Japanese occupation, the Chairman Mao era and state ownership.

For a brief period of world history, maps of what is today Papua New Guinea (north of Australia) once bore German names: Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, Neu-Pommern (New Pomerania), Neu-Mecklenburg, and Bismarck-Archipel (Bismarck Archipelago). Later these places, with different names, would become sites of battles against the Japanese in the Pacific during the Second World War. Nearby lie the Marshall and Salomon Islands, Guadalcanal and the Coral Sea. From 1884 to 1914 “German New Guinea” was part of the German Empire. However, this attempt by Bismarck to counter British influence in the South Pacific and support German trade interests there was a disaster. Never profitable, the venture ended at the start of WWI, when Australian troops drove the Germans out in 1914.

Germany’s presence in what is today Namibia was not quite as benevolent as that in Tsingtao/Qingdao. In South West Africa, German troops (sometimes riding camels) maltreated and killed tens of thousands of Herero and Nama natives (disparagingly called Hottentots by the Europeans) who had rebelled against German rule. The response to the “Hottentot Uprisings” (1903-1908) was not Germany’s finest hour. Troops led by Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha committed what is today considered one of the first genocides (Völkermord) of the 20th century – complete with concentration camps.

After the Germans left, Namibia (named for the Namib Desert) was long ruled as a protectorate by South Africa (originally by League of Nations mandate), and only gained its independence in 1990, the same year as German unification. In 2004 the German government officially apologized to Namibia for the colonial-era abuses. (The return of the skulls in the news story I mentioned reflects a rather unpleasant aspect of German colonial history.) Descendants of Lothar von Trotha also traveled to Namibia to personally offer a public apology to the royal Herero chiefs in 2007. But Germany has steadfastly refused to meet Namibia’s demands for reparations, pointing out that German aid to Namibia currently amounts to about $14 million per year.

But this sad tale does have a happy ending. Today Namibia’s 2.1 million inhabitants live in one of the few successful democracies on the African continent. Despite some problems (AIDS/HIV in about 15 percent of the population; high unemployment; limited natural resources, other than diamonds and uranium), this former German colony is a modern, fairly prosperous nation with a strong tourism industry that attracts visitors to Namibia’s beautiful desert and mountain landscapes, African wildlife and the tidy capital city of Windhoek (pop. 300,000).

The official language of Namibia is English, but… “Even today, 90 years after the end of the German colonial era, the German language plays a leading role as a commercial language. Afrikaans is spoken by 60% of the white community, German is spoken by 32%, English is spoken by 7% and Portuguese by 1%.” – Wikipedia: Nambia

Namibia covers 318,696 sq mi (825,418 sq km) and is larger than the US state of Texas (268,580 sq mi; 695,621 sq km) – and a bit over twice as large as Germany (137,847 sq mi; 357,021 sq km), its former colonial occupier. Out of the country’s one million tourists each year, an estimated 60,000 Germans visit Namibia, helping make the balance of trade between the two countries about even. I’d call that a certain poetic justice.