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How the German Colonies Were Seized

By the Treaty of Versailles, which was not negotiated, as treaties of peace traditionally are, but drawn up by the representatives of the Allied Powers and forced on a disarmed enemy, Germany was required to surrender her colonies. The Powers whose troops occupied those colonies in the course of the war had already divided them amongst themselves. In accordance with the provisions of the treaty named they have since governed the whole of Germany's oversea territories under mandate of the League of Nations, in whose name they are supposed to act.

Laborious attempts have been made to justify the appropriation of the German colonies before the world by the plea that Germany had shown herself unfit to colonize and unworthy of possessing colonies. Grave accusations have been levelled against German colonial activity. In particular, Germany has been accused of militarizing her colonies in such a way as to become a menace to other nations, and of ill-treating the native populations. An elaborately planned indictment of Germany's "colonial guilt" has, in fact, been built up, in the hope of establishing the claim that it would be "impossible" to entrust my country and nation again with responsibility for the fate of the colonies and of their native populations.

It is the purpose of these chapters to meet this indictment, to disclose the methods adopted in framing it, and to prove [50] its baselessness. For there rests upon the German nation just the same necessity of refuting the ungenerous fiction of "colonial guilt" as of repudiating the charge that it alone must bear responsibility for the late war - a charge now made with ever-diminishing assurance even by those who still adhere to it, and abandoned altogether by most well-informed students of pre-war documentary and circumstantial evidence, both in neutral and combatant countries.

We Germans owe it to ourselves and to our children, we owe it to our position amongst the nations, that these reflections upon our national honour should be rebutted before all the world. We also owe it to the future of our race, in order that the way may be cleared for the return of Germany to the ranks of colonizing nations, since without colonies our country can never develop to the full its economic resources or play its rightful part, and the part for which it has abundantly proved its capacity, in the industrial and commercial life of the world.

Not less, however, do our late enemies, if they really respect and desire truth and justice, owe it to themselves in turn that they should welcome, and be ready to impartially weigh, Germany's answers to the many malignant misrepresentations to which since August 1914 she has been exposed on the colonial question, as a result of a huge system of propagandism with which she was unable to compete, operating also at a time and in circumstances which made it impossible for her even to obtain a hearing.

It is probable that a large proportion of those who read these pages will have no accurate knowledge, if any knowledge at all, of the way in which the German colonies passed into the present hands. The amazing story will serve as a fitting introduction to the succeeding chapters.

In his Note of November 5, 1918, Robert Lansing, the American Secretary of State, had assured to Germany a just peace based upon President Wilson's Fourteen Points, as these were set forth in the President's "Fourteen Points" speech in Congress on January 8, 1918, and his "Five Points" address of September 27th following, which terms Germany had for- [51] mally accepted. A contract was thereby established between the Allies on the one hand and the German Empire on the other hand, and this contract clearly defined the fundamental basis of settlement.1 The question of the German colonies was covered by Point 5, by which the Allies had pledged themselves to abide. The text of Point 5 runs as follows:

      "A free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the Government whose title is to be determined."

To what obligations did this stipulation pledge the Allies? In the first place it clearly required them to give Germany a full, fair, and unprejudiced hearing before the fate of her colonies was decided on. The preliminary and essential condition of every just decision is that both sides shall be heard and their claims have judicial consideration. The Allies were, furthermore, bound in fairness to investigate the conditions under which the natives of these colonies lived, and to ascertain their wishes, and that meant an impartial inquiry made by disinterested persons. It is impossible to consider the "interests" of the native populations unless their wishes have first been clearly ascertained. Point 5 guaranteed a free and liberal decision, and this could be achieved only if the decision were based on objective facts instead of, as was actually the case, on agreements for the division of German colonial territory [52] which certain of the Allies had previously concluded between themselves.

How did the decision to appropriate the German colonies really come about? For a long time we Germans remained in ignorance of the whole proceedings. The publication of President Wilson's documents, among them extracts from the Protocols of the representative statesmen in whose hands the various decisions lay, at length brought the facts to light. According to these disclosures the forced renunciation of her colonies by Germany was brought about in the following fashion:2

On January 13, 1919, the Council of Ten declared itself agreed upon a list of matters which President Wilson had advanced for discussion. In this list the League of Nations occupied the first place, being followed by Reparations and Territorial questions. The question of the German Colonies stood last on the list. In spite of this, on January 23, 1919, Lloyd George proposed that colonial matters should be settled at once, in conjunction with the Eastern Question. Clemenceau, speaking in the name of France, and Sonnino, speaking for Italy, declared themselves agreed, "as though it had all been understood beforehand." Baker writes:

      "Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Sonnino had long been working together, and knew one another well. They had... negotiated - as we now know more definitely than we did at the time - regarding many of the coming settlements of the peace, both those founded upon the earlier secret treaties and those which had arisen since American interposition in the war had assured ultimate victory to the Allied arms" (vol. i, pp. 251-2).

Wilson resisted, however, declaring that European questions were more pressing. Hereupon the Council of Ten came to the decision that the General Secretary should demand of all delegations of the Powers represented on that body that they should within ten days hand in a declaration of their territorial demands. As Baron Sonnino put it later, "They wanted to know exactly what they were to get."

[53] Wilson believed that he had put off the discussion of colonial matters. On the very next day (January 24th), however, Lloyd George again brought up the matter, springing it as a surprise. With an eye to dramatic effect, as Baker remarks, he arranged that the Prime Ministers of the four British Dominions should present themselves together at the French Foreign Office while the Council of Ten was in session. They accordingly appeared, being welcomed by Clemenceau, all according to plan - General Smuts for the South African Union, Borden for Canada, Hughes for Australia, and Massey for New Zealand. Baker writes:

      "They had come to present their claims for the possession of most of the former German colonies which, as Lloyd George explained, had been captured by Dominion troops. Mr. Lloyd George made a brief statement showing that the German colonial policy had been a bad one - 'in South-West Africa they had deliberately pursued a policy of extermination.'"

The Secret Protocol of the Council of Ten contains the following extract regarding the subsequent proceedings:

      "All he (Lloyd George) would like to say on behalf of the British Empire as a whole was that he would be very much opposed to the return to Germany of any of these colonies...
      "President Wilson said that he thought all were agreed to oppose the restoration of the German colonies.
      "M. Orlando, on behalf of Italy, and Baron Makino, on behalf of Japan, agreed.
      "There was no dissentient, and this principle was adopted."3

Yet Baker records that the President was "profoundly disturbed" by these proceedings. He writes:

      "It was clear enough that he was to have shrewd opponents - the shrewdest in the world. They were not going to fight him on his main contentions. That would have been poor tactics. It was the familiar policy which he himself described later in the Council of 'acceptance in principle but negation in detail.'
      "In short, after a settlement had been completely made on [54] the order of the old diplomacy and according to the provisions of the secret treaties, and each nation had got all it could get materially, strategically, and politically, there was to be a pious statement of 'principles leading to justice, morals, and liberty,' and a discussion of the organization of a society of nations."4

Thus it was that the appropriation of the German colonies was decided off-hand, without discussion, and without taking the natives, still less Germany, into consideration. Such was the "free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment" promised by Wilson's Fifth Point! Such was the fulfilment of the solemn contract with the German Empire as contained in Lansing's Note of November 5, 1918, so far as Point 5 was concerned!

But the seizure of the German colonies was only one side of the matter. There now arose the question of their division among the Powers which had come into occupation of them in the course of the war. Lloyd George proposed the annexation of the German colonies in the special interest of the British Dominions. "He would like," he said, "the Conference to treat the territories as part of the Dominions which had captured them." And he made this claim in spite of the fact that on January 25, 1918, he had assured the Trade Union leaders, who stood for the "No Annexations" principle: "With regard to the German colonies, I have repeatedly declared that they are held at the disposal of a Conference whose decision must have primary regard to the wishes and interests of the native inhabitants of such colonies."

Wilson declared the solution proposed by Lloyd George to be nothing more than "a mere distribution of the spoils." Now the Prime Ministers of the British Dominions presented their claims. Hughes demanded German New Guinea and the German South Sea Islands for Australia; Massey claimed Samoa for New Zealand; and Smuts claimed German South-West Africa for the South African Union. All of them wanted immediate out-and-out annexation and no half-measures. They based their claims upon the expense and losses suffered [55] by the Dominions in the war and the fact that their troops were then occupying the colonies in question, and, further, they called attention to the alleged strategic and military necessities of the Dominions. The interests of the natives, they said, would be secured in the event of annexation, for the Dominions were all democracies, and naturally would do their best for civilization.

On January 27th the representative of Japan, Baron Makino, appeared before the Council of Ten and demanded the absolute surrender to Japan of Kiao-chou and the other rights and privileges of Germany in Shantung, together with the German South Sea Islands north of the Equator. These demands were based upon a secret agreement concluded between Japan and England in March, 1917 - nearly two years before, while the war was still in progress and its issue uncertain! At that date the Entente had requested Japan's help against the German and Austrian submarines in the Mediterranean, and German territory was to be the payment. The Japanese Government had cautiously stipulated that the cession of these colonies to Japan should be formally guaranteed by treaty.5 Great Britain had, in fact, promised before this to support Japan's claim to appropriate the German South Sea Islands, and the Anglo-Japanese Agreement on this subject is set forth in the British Note of February 16, 1917.6 After receiving this assurance, Japan asked France and Russia for their consent. France gave the desired assent on March 1st, but required in return that China should be made to participate in the war against Germany - in other words, that Japan should cease to oppose this idea, as she had previously done. Russia gave her consent shortly before the collapse of the Russian Empire.

France likewise had secret agreements concealed up her sleeve. On January 28, 1919, M. Simon, the French Colonial Minister, demanded the "annexation pure and simple" of Togo and the Cameroons, basing this claim again upon the existence of an understanding with Great Britain. He offered [56] to read two letters exchanged during the war between M. Cambon, French Ambassador to London, and Sir Edward Grey, arranging for the provisional division of these same colonies, but he was promptly headed off by Mr. Lloyd George, who "did not think it would serve any useful purpose to read these documents just then."7 The exchange of Notes here referred to had taken place on March 24 and May 11, 1916. It was made plain in these Notes that the provisional division of the Cameroons and Togo therein agreed upon between Great Britain and France, for purposes of occupation during the war, should be converted into permanent possession in the event of the Allies at the end of the war securing the right to dispose of these colonies.8

Belgium also advanced a claim to a portion of German East Africa. Even Italy made colonial demands on the grounds of the secret Treaty of London concluded with the Entente on April 26, 1915, in which the price of Italy's participation in the war against the Central Powers was fixed. It was declared therein that Italy should receive grants of territory in Africa, should France and Great Britain "extend their colonial possessions in Africa at the expense of Germany."9

In the meantime Wilson was called home in February by political exigencies, sailing on the 15th, and Baker writes that in his absence the Council of Ten did its best to wreck the American scheme of peace for the world. He says: "It seemed that every militaristic and nationalistic force came instantly to the fore when Wilson departed."10

It is self-evident that all these territorial claims raised by the various Allies on the score of secret treaties were in direct contradiction to Woodrow Wilson's Point 5. The American President perceived and openly declared that the Allies did not concern themselves with the carrying out of his principles, which were to have formed the foundation of the peace as this had been agreed upon. On the contrary, all they cared about was the division of the spoils of war. Nevertheless, in [57] spite of this express conviction, Wilson yielded, permitting the German colonies to be divided up in accordance with these secret treaties, and agreeing that those Powers which had occupied them with their troops should remain in possession. Although his Fifth Point was thus thrown to the winds, he seems to have contented himself with the threadbare reservation that occupation was to be under a system of Mandates, a condition which gave no anxiety to the Powers in possession.

Nevertheless, it is evident that Wilson was never happy about this breach of faith. He had undoubtedly entered on the discussion of the question intending to adhere to his famous Point 5. As late as May 2, 1919, the American Press Bureau stated that though Germany had provisionally been refused any of her colonial possessions, the matter was not as yet definitively settled.

      "Wilson had proposed that she should receive back sufficient colonial territory to make her independent of other countries for tropical raw materials and to provide a sphere for emigration. Germany was, however, to give an undertaking that she would follow no military or political designs in these colonies."

What had been done in January, however, remained. The policy of annexations, formally repudiated by the spokesmen of Great Britain at the beginning of the war, and later by Wilson still more emphatically, prevailed. Even a French journal, Le Peuple (May 15, 1919), condemned the arrangement as one under which the territories with their populations were "to change hands just as slaves were of old sold with the other property of their master when he became bankrupt."

Here it should be stated that it was not President Wilson, but General Smuts, the Prime Minister of the South African Union, who invented the Mandate system. Smuts, however, had only proposed that the Turkish possessions to be separated from the Ottoman Empire should be placed under Mandate administration; and he demanded the outright annexation of German South-West Africa by South Africa. What Wilson did was to extend the Mandate system to the German colonies, in order to be able to bring these within the scope of his plans for the League of Nations.

[58] One of the principal participants in the negotiations at Versailles, the American Secretary of State, Lansing, has plainly stated that this procedure of the Allies was not dictated by any consideration for President Wilson's ideas, but by extremely prosaic and egoistic reasoning. If, it was argued, the German colonies had been so divided between the victorious Powers that each had come into possession of sovereign rights, it would hardly have been possible to avoid reckoning the value of these acquisitions as part of the war tribute to be exacted by them from Germany. Under the system of Mandates, however, the victorious Powers came into possession of Germany's colonial possessions without being obliged to relinquish one tittle of their crushing demands for reparation. As Lansing scathingly puts it:

      "In actual operation the apparent altruism of the mandatory system worked in favour of the selfish and material interests of the Powers which accepted the Mandates.... It should not be a matter of surprise, therefore, that the President found little opposition to the adoption of his theory, or, to be more accurate, of the Smuts theory, on the part of the European statesmen."11

The situation was thus brought about that, in spite of the acceptance of the system of Mandates, the Powers severally received exactly that share of the German colonies which they had guaranteed to each other by early secret treaties or later agreements. Great Britain and France divided the West African colonies between them; Japan and Great Britain similarly divided the South Sea Islands; while each of the British Dominions was allowed to keep the colony which it had occupied. The system of the Mandates was only a formality - a mere mask covering the ugly reality. Lansing says:

      "If the advocates of the system intended to avoid through its operation the appearance of taking enemy territory as [59] the spoils of war, it was a subterfuge which deceived no one."12

That the subterfuge failed to deceive may be true of the members of the Conference, but the outside world, hardly informed at all of the circumstances, was certainly deceived. Perhaps most people took at their face value the statements that were made as to the institution and ends of Mandate government: they actually believed that it had been deliberately designed in the elevated spirit of philanthropy and humanitarianism as the best way of ensuring the future prosperity and welfare of the native inhabitants of the former German colonies, and that the Powers which had supplanted Germany by the crooked methods described were best fitted to enter upon "the sacred trust of civilization." They believed, too, that these Powers were intended to be only the caretakers for the League of Nations, acting in its name and under its directions, and above all, that it would be a first and fundamental principle of administration in the mandated territories that the military training of the natives would be forbidden, except for police forces and for home defence, so that these wretched people would not again be dragged into wars between European nations - a calamity which, as will be shown, Germany strove to prevent in 1914.

Doubts upon these points should have been aroused in the minds of any persons who had even a rudimentary knowledge of colonial matters when the Belgians and the French were chosen as Mandatories. For the world has not yet forgotten the story of the Belgian Congo atrocities, nor of those which followed in the French Congo on the Belgian model. It is also a well-known fact that it is precisely France which pursues a systematic plan of militarizing the natives within her colonial empire and training them for warlike purposes in any part of the world to which she chooses to send them.

It is unfortunate, however, that the great mass of people in all countries are still too little informed about colonial affairs to be able to submit to the test of fact and truth the specious and one-sided statements put forward for their consumption [60] by leading statesmen of the Allies and the section of the Press at their command. The public has heard much of the idealistic motives and moral considerations which are alleged to have determined the action of the Powers which have taken the German colonies, but little or nothing of the way in which this bartering of territory and population was actually carried out. It is just from the moral point of view that the episode presents so unpleasant and sinister an aspect. For it was only when a prearranged plan for the dividing up of the German colonies had to be defended before the world that the Allied Governments began to talk of morality and to profess that they were concerned only for the good of the natives.

Thus it is that the action of the Allies in this matter involves a threefold deception.

(1) The first deception was practised upon the German nation. By deluding the German people with the promise of peace based upon President Wilson's Fourteen Points, the Allies led them to believe that the colonial question would be subjected to "free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment." Instead of this, the German colonies were arbitrarily confiscated in virtue of military predominance, in anticipation, if not in fact, while the war was still in progress, in virtue of secret agreements concluded before the Lansing Note laid down the principles of the peace to which America and her Allies nevertheless solemnly pledged themselves!

(2) The native populations of the German colonies were also the victims of deception. The Allies had raised a great hue and cry about the right of the peoples to "self-determination." Lloyd George repeatedly declared in public that the native chiefs and tribes would be consulted before a mandate over a former German colony would be granted to any nation. This, again, proved to be nothing more than a blind. In reality, the partition took place without the wishes of the natives being seriously considered at all. It will also be proved that native interests have not only been neglected, but in some instances have even been seriously injured by the change.

(3) Finally, the public has been grossly deceived. Every possible attempt was made to create the impression that the [61] decision respecting the fate of the German colonies was arrived at only in accordance with ethical principles. Although secret treaties formally providing for their partition had already been concluded, the final act was cloked with moral professions, and the world was told that the object in view was to secure for the native populations better conditions than had been theirs under German rule. In effect, however, the Allies in conclave divided territory and drew new frontier lines in the most arbitrary fashion without any regard for the natural boundaries of the tribes, and never even tried to keep up the fiction of the "self-determination" of the peoples. Yet while the military and economic interests of the participating States were the only factors really considered in seizing Germany's colonial possessions, the world was asked to believe that they were fulfilling "a sacred trust of civilization."

1Cf. the President's declaration to the effect that "Having received the solemn and explicit assurance of the German Government that it unreservedly accepts the terms of peace laid down in his address to Congress of the United States on January 8, 1918, and the principles of settlement enunciated in his subsequent addresses, and particularly the address of September 27th," he agreed to take up with the other Governments the question of an Armistice, etc. Points 1 and 2, as developed in the later address, ran:
      "Impartial justice must involve no discrimination between those to whom we wish to be just and those to whom we wish to be unjust, and the equal rights of the several peoples concerned must be secured.
      "No special interest of any nation can be made the basis of any settlement which is not consistent with the common interest of all." ...back...

2See Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (London, 1923), vol. i, chap. xv, pp. 250-75. ...back...

3Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (London, 1923), vol. i, p. 225. ...back...

4Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (London, 1923), vol  i, pp. 253-4. ...back...

5Cf. Secret Protocol of the Council of Four, April 22, 1919, in Baker, vol. i, p. 60. ...back...

6Reprinted verbatim in Baker, vol. i, p. 61. ...back...

7Secret Protocol of the Council of Ten, January 28, 1919, quoted in Baker, vol. i, p. 268. ...back...

8Le Temps, January 30, 1919. ...back...

9Cf. Baker, vol. i, p. 54. ...back...

10Baker, vol. i, p. 296. ...back...

11Robert Lansing, The Peace Negociations (1921), pp. 139-40. It has been calculated by colonial experts that the values represented by the German colonies exceed the costs of the war, and the potential values of the German colonies which fell to Great Britain have been estimated at thousands of millions of pounds sterling. ...back...

12Cf. The Peace Negociations, p. 139. ...back...

German Colonization Past and Future:
The Truth about the German Colonies.

Dr. Heinrich Schnee
Late Governor of German East Africa