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The Myth of German "Colonial Guilt"

It is necessary to examine closely the claim of the Allied Powers that only they, and not Germany, can be trusted to administer colonial territories efficiently and for the good of their native populations. Only then will the reader be enabled to perceive clearly the hollowness of the pretences under which Germany has been deprived of territories every one of which she held by a tenure as rightful and honest as any claimed by the Allied Powers, with the additional force that her title to nearly all of them was at one time or another formally recognized by treaty by one or other, and in some cases several, of the very Powers which have now seized them as a prize of war.

Take first the interests of the native populations. If Germany had really treated her natives as badly as the world was so often told after the war, had she really been guilty of such sins of omission and commission as she is charged with in the Notes to the Treaty of Versailles and other official pronouncements of the Entente, then the fact must have become evident before the war in the reports of foreign observers. Foreign criticism is not accustomed, in the case of real atrocities on a systematic scale, to be particularly reticent or indulgent. Yet there existed nowhere in the world any evidence of disapproval or even suspicion of German methods of colonization such as that which was justifiably advanced against French and Belgian methods before the war. In reading the reports of foreign colonial experts and travellers upon the German colonies, we do not encounter a single accusation of that kind. On the contrary, there are many tributes to German colonial activity and success. The unprejudiced reader will find it interesting to read a few that are characteristic out of the great mass available. It will be seen that most of them relate to the years immediately preceding the war - in other words, to the conditions which have been misrepresented by our enemies for war and other political purposes.1

[63] During a meeting of the Royal Colonial Institute held on January 13, 1914, the late Viscount Milner, the chairman (who as an ex-High Commissioner for South Africa must have known well German South-West Africa and how it was governed), following a lecture by a German professor, remarked:

      "Great Britain has had a long and very diversified experience as a colonizing country. Germany is a comparative new-comer in the colonial field, but having entered, she has thrown herself into the unfamiliar task with characteristic thoroughness and energy. It would be a great mistake to think that we have nothing to learn from her experience in that field, as she admittedly has much to learn - something, at any rate - from our long history as a colonizing people."

On the same occasion, Mr. George Foster, M. P., Canadian Minister of Commerce, stated:

      "The vigour and strength and system with which Germany, not to mention other European countries, has of late years thrown herself into the work of outside colonization, has been very marked and notable."

Sir Charles Eliot, Royal Commissioner for British East Africa from 1901 to 1904, writes as follows in his book The East African Protectorate (1905) of the work achieved in the adjacent German colony:

      "As might be expected, the scientific departments, which have been almost entirely neglected in the British possessions, have received great attention.... The Germans are said to deal with natives more severely than we do, and to be less popular with them.... On the other hand, natives are said to immigrate into German territory from the Congo Free State and the Portuguese dominions, so that they cannot find the régime very distasteful."

In the same book Eliot says: "I would not have us lay any flattering unction to our souls, and congratulate ourselves, as [64] we are wont to do, on managing everything better than all other nations."

Only two years before the war, the Rev. J. H. Harris, in his book Dawn in Darkest Africa (1912), advocated the increase of Germany's colonial stake in Africa, proposing the transference to her of the Upper Congo and the Belgian Congo. He wrote:

      "Great Britain has a full share of responsibilities in the African continent. France, Belgium, and Portugal, even if they desired to enlarge their tropical dependencies, have not yet established a case for expansion. Quite the reverse. One Power alone - Germany - is not only capable but apparently desirous of adding to her colonial possessions... (p. 301).
      "If France and Belgium together could be persuaded to transfer the whole or the greater part of French and Belgian Congo to Germany,... they would individually be immeasurably the gainers, they would secure the peace of the world, and they would thereby add a lustre to their names which neither time nor eternity could tarnish.
      "German administration of French Congo certainly could hardly be more oppressive than the French Government permits to-day. In Belgian Congo the natives would probably be treated as humanely and probably more justly than at present.... On the whole, both from the commercial and native standpoint, the Congo Basin stands to gain by a transfer to the German Empire " (p. 303).

His idea was that Belgium should be paid in cash, and that in favour of France there should be a rectification of the frontier of Alsace-Lorraine, or the "lost provinces" be given complete autonomy.

Again, in the English magazine United Empire for July, 1913, is an article on the German colonies by L. Hamilton, who states:

"Wherever the German may be, the schoolmaster is abroad. With the missionaries, the colonial Governments have developed education to quite an astonishing extent."

Two English officials from Northern Rhodesia, by name Frank H. Melland and Edward H. Cholmely, travelled through German East Africa, and published their impressions in a [65] book called Through the Heart of Africa (London, 1912), and these are the conclusions to which they came:

      "The common impression that we should not find much to learn from the German administration of East Africa is founded on a superficial or out-of-date knowledge of the facts.... Naturally enough, we judged the German system by our own, and in some ways found it wanting; as a nation we have had far greater experience in ruling tropical countries, and we were quick to notice what we considered to be weak points in the German administration; but at the same time we saw much to admire, and the general verdict must, we think, be one of congratulation to our neighbours (p. 93).... On the whole, considering how new colonial work is to the German nation, they have every reason to be proud of what they are doing in their East African Protectorate " (p. 101).

I may also cite two American judgments. Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of the United States, wrote as follows in his book African Game Trails (1910), dealing with his African experiences in regard to the German planters, Government officials, and officers:

      "They are first-class men, these English and Germans; both are doing in East Africa a work of worth to the whole world; there is ample room for both, and no possible cause for any but a thoroughly friendly rivalry" (p. 5).

Another American traveller, E. A. Forbes, who spent a considerable time in Africa, wrote in the American Review of Reviews in 1911:

      "Of all the overlords of Africa the German has the cleanest hands and the best prospects. His African invasion was characterized by the most artful diplomacy, but even his bitterest enemy could scarcely declare that he did not play fair.
      "I have closely observed the Germans in their intercourse with their half-savage protégés on the West Coast. Administration and government on the black continent are largely a question of temperament, and to all appearances the Germans are less liable to give way to irritation and excitement than other white men. I have studied all the white races engaged in the work of awakening Africa, and I cannot avoid the [66] conviction that the German native will develop himself as highly as all the others, if, indeed, not more highly."

Moreover, if German colonial activities had been so pernicious as they are represented to be in the Versailles Treaty and the accompanying documents, how can be explained the fact that shortly before the war the British Government was about to sign treaties with Germany which would have ceded to her further tracts of colonial territory? Long negotiations had then resulted in the drawing up of an Anglo-German treaty in which Germany was promised a large share of the Portuguese possessions in Africa in the event of Portugal being disposed, for financial reasons, to give up these colonies, and even boundary adjustments which would have handed over British territory to her. If Germany's administration of her colonies had really been such as to make it impossible ever again to place the responsibility for the training of natives into her hands - as the Mantle Note of July 16, 1919, declared - then the conduct of Great Britain in proposing to hand over numerous native tribes to Germany in this pre-war colonial agreement would have been inexplicable. There is only one explanation, and it is quite simple. The propagandism about Germany's alleged evil colonial record was organized, and in large part invented, without the slightest regard for logic or consistency, for the one purpose of covering with the cloke of righteousness an indefensible act of sheer cupidity.

The fable of Germany's "colonial guilt" was built up during the World War. Never before had it been breathed. At first there was a private agitation on a small scale, demanding the seizure of Germany's colonies, and combining this demand with attacks upon Germany's colonial policy. This agitation began in the early stages of the war, but met at first with no official encouragement. In 1917, however, when the entry of the United States into the war had brought the prospect of final victory within sight, the British Government came out in the open with public statements purporting to prepare the public mind for the seizure of the German colonies and to justify this by discrediting German colonial administration. In March, 1917, a special "commission" composed of scien- [67] tists and other experts was appointed, to prepare the material for the British delegates to the future Peace Conference. It was this commission which mobilized the attacks against the German colonial administration.

In July, 1918, when as a result of the counter-offensive of the Entente Powers the fortunes of war seemed to be turning definitely against Germany, official Great Britain began to take a firm stand on the colonial question. Finally, when the Versailles Treaty was forced upon Germany, the alleged maladministration of her colonies was used as a pretext wherewith to quieten the scruples of those who had been assured, and who still believed, that England did not go to war for the acquisition of more territory. This cursory historical survey suffices to show clearly that the fiction of Germany's colonial incapacity was concocted, developed, and spread abroad merely as a convenient means of effecting certain definite political ends which had been decided upon in secret long before.

As soon as the machinery of propagandism was well in motion the myth of Germany's "colonial guilt" was disseminated in a vast number of official and unofficial speeches, pamphlets, newspaper articles, etc. The concentrated expression of this false witness is to be found in the Allied Note of June 16, 1919, which contains a reply to the comments of the German delegates upon the terms of peace and at the same time an ultimatum, demanding the signing of the peace treaty by the German Government within five days, and in the covering Note, in which the alleged justification for the conditions of peace, as arbitrarily settled by the Allies, is stated.

The reasons for the seizure of the German colonial possessions are set forth as follows in the Note addressed to the President of the German Delegation covering the reply of the Allied and Associated Powers:

      "Finally, the Allied and Associated Powers are satisfied that the native inhabitants of the German colonies are strongly opposed to being again brought under Germany's sway, and the record of German rule, the traditions of the German Government, and the use to which these colonies were put as [68] bases from which to prey upon the commerce of the world, make it impossible for the Allied and Associated Powers to return them to Germany, or to entrust to her the responsibility for the training and education of their inhabitants."

In the reply of the Allied and Associated Powers itself there occurs the following passage:

      "In requiring Germany to renounce all her rights and claims to her overseas possessions, the Allied and Associated Powers placed before every other consideration the interests of the native populations advocated by President Wilson in the Fifth Point of his Fourteen Points mentioned in his address of the 8th January, 1918. Reference to the evidence from German sources previous to the war of an official as well as of a private character, and to the formal charges made in the Reichstag, especially by MM. Erzberger and Noske, will suffice to throw full light upon the German colonial administration, upon the cruel methods of repression, the arbitrary requisitions, and the various forms of forced labour which resulted in the depopulation of vast expanses of territory in German East Africa and the Cameroons, not to mention the tragic fate of the Hereros in South-West Africa, which is well known to all.
      "Germany's dereliction in the sphere of colonial civilization has been revealed too completely to admit of the Allied and Associated Powers consenting to make a second experiment and of their assuming the responsibility of again abandoning thirteen or fourteen millions of natives to a fate from which the war has delivered them.
      "Moreover, the Allied and Associated Powers felt themselves compelled to safeguard their own security and the peace of the world against a military imperialism which sought to establish bases whence it could pursue a policy of interference and intimidation against the other Powers."

Where did the authors of these Notes acquire their knowledge of colonial matters? It is well known that the author of the covering Note, which bore the signature of Clemenceau when delivered to the German Government, was in reality written by an official in the service of Mr. Lloyd George. It is natural, therefore, that he should have obtained his material [69] from English sources, and indeed the very wording of the Reply Note shows clearly that it was founded upon English material. The principal basis for the statements contained in the Notes is obviously the industrious and exhaustive work of the special commission above named, which, as I have said, began as early as March, 1917, under the direction of the British Foreign Office, to prepare the material for the British delegates to the peace negotiations. The Handbooks which were compiled by this commission and utilized at the Peace Conference were published in 1920.2

The Handbooks on the German colonies are not by any means uniform in contents and tendency. Some, mainly objective and scientific, confine themselves to giving a description of the geographical conditions, history, and economical development of the territories, whilst others, especially that entitled Treatment of Natives in the German Colonies, are malicious and slanderous compilations of everything prejudicial which has ever been said of German colonization, without a single reference to the generous and impartial testimony abundantly volunteered by English and other foreign observers in praise of German colonization and administration. Such dishonourable methods of propagandism are entirely unworthy of the reputation for fair-play which Englishmen have claimed in the past, and which many people of other nations have hitherto been ready to acknowledge.

In order to characterize the spirit of these writings, it is only necessary to examine the evidence upon which they were based. Every question asked or accusation levelled in the German Parliament at the time of the "colonial scandals" against this or that colonial official, however far in the past, is carefully noted, but the answers to these questions are never given, nor are the results of the investigations or the judgments of absolutely impartial German judges, which usually resulted in the refutation of the accusations. It is impossible that the assiduous compilers should have been ignorant of these results, for such an assumption would stamp them as incompetent as well as malicious, [70] since the result of every investigation was laid before the Reichstag in a memorial. No, what they did was to mass together all the accusations they could lay hold of, however baseless and fraudulent, and to hush up official replies, disclaimers, and disproofs. The result of this discreditable procedure is that the reader, ignorant of the truth, imagines that he is reading a complete record of proved facts, instead of a selected and biassed compilation of unproved accusations by members of the Reichstag, principally Socialists, who, like most English Socialists, are inclined to regard all European colonization among coloured people as a reprehensible form of profiteering.

In addition to this, the utterances of German parliamentarians are often deliberately torn from their context. The same member frequently combined with his accusations something greatly to the credit of German colonization, but this part of his speech is invariably suppressed. As an example let me mention the case of the well-known member of the Catholic or Centre Party, the late Matthias Erzberger. As a free-lance journalist, not over-popular in his own party, Erzberger levelled at one time or another many sharp criticisms at German colonial policy, some of which were totally unjustified, and he is cited in the Entente Note to the Versailles Treaty as the principal witness for the evils of German colonial methods. The accusations levelled by Erzberger against the Government are reported in full. But all the good which Erzberger said of German colonial policy, and in particular his warm praise of the policy pursued with regard to the natives in German East Africa, is absolutely ignored and omitted (cf. speech in the Reichstag, February 27, 1918). It is also a fact that one of the most powerful defences of Germany as a colonial Power, one of the most indignant refutations of the false accusations of her critics, came from the pen of the same Erzberger, but no mention of this fact will be found in any British propagandist publication.

The second principal witness cited in the Entente Note, Gustav Noske, a Social-Democratic member of the Reichstag, also repeatedly criticized the abuses which, according to Socialistic conceptions, occurred in the colonies. On the other [71] hand, in a book which he published in May, 1914 (i.e. before the war), under the title Colonial Policy and Social Democracy, after mentioning what, according to his ideas, was still capable of improvement in the colonies, he brought forward a considerable body of material to show how a most reasonable spirit was gradually making itself felt in German colonial policy. As was to be expected, the English propaganda pamphlets which made use of Noske's attacks suppressed these favourable passages.

In view of all that has been said, it is hardly needful to repeat that the propagandist Handbooks were composed solely in order to provide a moral pretext for the intended seizure of the German colonies. The impression left on the mind of the uninformed English reader is that the existing conditions in the German colonies approximated to the atrocities which were branded before the world in the case of the Belgian and French Congo territories, and to inspire in him the desire that the unfortunate blacks should be liberated from a similar horrible fate. The misrepresentations, of course, adopt the air of being objective and scientific. It is, therefore, quite possible that some members of a delegation at Versailles were equally convinced that it would be a blessing to liberate the natives from the German yoke.

The attacks against German colonization in German South-West Africa were separately prepared in the form of a British Blue Book entitled Report on the Natives of South-West Africa and their Treatment by Germany (London, 1918). A publication called German Colonisers in Africa, written by one Evans Lewin and published in German at Zurich in 1918, played a large part in this propagandism, and it seems also to have furnished the authors of some of the Handbooks already mentioned with material. In this slanderous pamphlet we find the author using, with execrable taste, comparisons out of the Old Testament in order to disparage German colonization. He stigmatizes the German colonists - all of them - as "cruel, brutal, arrogant and wholly unsuited for intercourse with primitive peoples," and "lustful and malicious in their moral attitude to subject races."

[72] The author of this pamphlet, by perversions of the truth, by generalizations of single incidents, and by citing detached parts of speeches and opinions of members of the Reichstag, missionaries, etc., succeeds in constructing a horrible picture, but it is a base caricature of the facts. Most of the parliamentarians and missionaries whom he misquoted issued a public protest against his abuse of their words, and published them in their proper connexion in a pamphlet which was issued in Basle in 1918, with the title German Colonial Policy before the Tribunal of the World. Pater van der Burgt, a Dutch missionary, who had been cited by Lewin as a neutral witness, likewise repudiated his assertions in the Koloniale Rundschau in 1919. Nevertheless, I have been unable to discover that any notice whatever was taken of these corrections in later literature, and it is justifiable to believe that they were ignored in the same methodical way that the truth was ignored in the original publications.

Lewin's slanderous publication also makes use of an Open Letter published by Bishop Frank Weston, leader of the English University Mission in Zanzibar and East Africa, in which the principal charge made against the Germans is the introduction of forced labour. It would be interesting to know whether this Open Letter was written without prior arrangement with, or at least without the prior knowledge of, General Smuts, who was bent on annexing German South-West.

I do not suggest for a moment that Bishop Weston, in publishing his temperamental and exaggerated statement, acted in bad faith, yet the fact remains that before the war he lived in the friendliest relations with the German authorities in East Africa and, so far as I am aware, had no grievance to bring against German administration. A German Protestant missionary, Dr. A. W. Schreiber, criticizing the Weston attacks, has written:

      "If the treatment of the natives was in Bishop Weston's opinion as scandalous as he represents, why did this humane man - to whom the ear of the Government and of every District Administrator, and also the columns of the Press, were as open as to others - maintain complete silence until his proof of [73] these alleged excesses could be used for the purpose of transferring German East Africa into British possession? We missionaries have always waged unrelenting warfare against the abuse of the whip, and we always shall do. But we found ample reason for so doing in British possessions likewise."3

There for the moment I leave the matter, only asking the reader to consider what would be said of Bishop Weston's evidence in a court of law in the circumstances above stated.

1For a larger selection of such tributes from English, American, and other sources, the reader is referred to Dr. W. H. Solf's book, Germany's Right to recover Her Colonies (Berlin, 1919), and to Englische Urteile über die deutsche Kolonialarbeit ("English Verdicts on German Colonial Enterprise"), by Dr. A. Mansfeld and G. Hildebrand (Berlin, 1919). ...back...

2Handbooks prepared under the direction of the Historical Section of the Foreign Office (London, 1920). ...back...

3Die deutsche Kolonialpolitik vor dem Gerichtshof der Welt (Basle, 1918), p. 58. ...back...

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

Dr. Heinrich Schnee
Late Governor of German East Africa