HT 2023: German imperialism revisited: New empirical approaches to the social and economic history of German colonialism

Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands (VHD); Verband der Geschichtslehrer Deutschlands (VGD) (Universität Leipzig)
Universität Leipzig
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
19.09.2023 - 22.09.2023
Mathias Hack, Historisches Seminar, Universität Leipzig

Among the vast and ever-growing body of literature on German colonial history, studies on individual companies and entrepreneurs, racism and labour relations, or the transformation of economies from pre-colonial to colonial to postcolonial settings are a rather recent phenomenon. This section brought together different approaches to the “hard” economic side of German imperialism and colonialism, to outline what has been achieved in recent years and what is still on the horizon.

Focusing on the construction of railways and jetties, NINA KLEINÖDER (Marburg) opened the section with a strong example of a business history in the German colonies. She argued the colonial ventures of companies and conglomerates like MAN, Koppel, Lenz & Co, Krupp or Hoesch should be considered part of corporate internationalisation and globalisation efforts in the late 19th century and not as short business intermezzos or highly experimental episodes. The German colonies were potential growth markets; therefore many companies started projects and even accepted financial risks and losses. Kleinöder presented the construction company Grün & Bilffinger as an example. The company from Mannheim built several jetties and docks in Swakopmund and Lome, knowing their investments would probably not pay off financially in an early stage, but built up expertise and corporate knowledge. Such projects in the 1890s and early 19th century were usually done by a trial-and-error method. Corporations had to learn how to acquire or produce essential materials such as concrete locally, finetune the production of ready-made components in Germany and recruit as well as train a local labour force. Infrastructure projects such as railway lines often played a central role in opening up colonies for German corporations. The German government heavily subsidised such projects and – Even more importantly to German corporations – protected colonial markets from British and French competitors. The exclusive access to the colonies saw companies receive regular follow-up contracts and establish what Kleinöder calls transcolonial links. After building a jetty in Duala (Cameroon), equipment, labour and expertise would be transferred to another construction site in Tanga (Tanganyika) across the continent. The corporate knowledge gained through such projects saw various companies strengthening their position in a growing global market.

Although the title of the section referenced social and economic approaches to studying German imperialism, only TRISTAN OESTERMANN (Berlin) combined both dimensions in his case study on African rubber traders in Southern Cameroon. By moving beyond a binary view of exploiters and exploited, he aimed to show how African entrepreneurs dealt with European rule and colonial capitalism. His starting point was a description of the situation in Southern Cameroon before German colonial rule. In the second half of the 19th century “big men” controlled the ivory and rubber trade in the region by combining traditional rights over people through family kinship with violence and strategic alliances. Although the German colonial presence was minimal for most of its time, the arrival of colonial officers and merchants changed the social, political and economic setting of the area. German colonial officers concentrated on policing to get a grip on the lucrative market, but entered it mostly through African intermediaries. Europeans were not able to do the heavy and dangerous labour to acquire rubber from the forests, and often died from diseases. Oestermann presented the example of Sampa, an African sub-contractor who attained wealth and power in the rubber trade and received a regular salary from the colonial government. African intermediaries often de facto outranked junior German staff in power on the ground and most certainly in their salary. With Germans entering Cameroon arose a new opportunity of Africans to become entrepreneurs. Individuals could now sell rubber directly and avoid control of the “big men”. This challenged the established social order and increased the frequent use of violence in the Cameroonian rubber trade. Murder, slavery and blackmail led to a near breakdown of the social, economic and moral order. These circumstances furthered the development of a new labour market: households run by “big men” with many wives and slaves were diminished and a heterogenous group of wage labourers developed. The colonial state saw its power strengthened as a result.

Whereas the second presentation promoted an integrated view of social and economic history of German colonialism, CHARLES TCHOULA (Marburg) pushed the overall topic of the section well into the postcolonial era. He started his presentation of his ongoing research on the economic relationship between (West) Germany and Cameroon between 1962 and 1999 by emphasising that the two countries never broke off (economic) relations completely after the German empire ended and the British and French mandate was established. But only after the independence in 1960 were formal relations established and West Germany became an essential economic partner to Cameroon. Frequent visits by various diplomats formed strong ties, and Germany institutionalised its economic interests by creating and funding a business school, chamber of commerce and other public institutions in Cameroonian cities. Cameroonian government officials and the press welcomed these German investments enthusiastically. But just as had happened fifty years earlier, German corporations started to extract raw materials such as cocoa and coffee from the country to be processed back in Europe. These economic strategies resembled the colonial extractivism in many ways, as Tchoula pointed out in his conclusion.

The last presentation brought business history back to the forefront of the section by detailing the Woermann Group’s development from a shipping line into a broader logistical company, in conjunction with German colonial rule. Kim TODZI (Hamburg) explained how the company both benefitted from colonial expansion and was an agent of it in its own right. He outlined in detail how this company – active in shipping, logistics, mining and trading – provided the network and transportation links for the economic exploitation as well as administrative and military occupation of the German colonies, especially today’s Namibia. Through its regular shipping lines between “Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika” and Europe, the Woermann Group played a central role in supplying weapons, troops and material for the war against the Ovaherero and Nama from 1904 onwards. The troop transports formed a near symbiotic relationship between the company and the colonial state, making it difficult to distinguish between the two entities. Despite not having a legal monopoly, Woermann became the largest private entity in Swakopmund during the war, and used prisoners of war to unload its ships. By combining the exploitation of POWs and the regular influx of public money, Todzi elaborated, Woermann secured a lucrative business and grew exponentially during the war. But already by 1904/05 Woermann was accused of overcharging the military, accusations which were even debated in the Reichstag. The company and Adolph Woermann himself were profiled as greedy merchants, enriching themselves with public money. After Bernhard Dernburg took over the Reichskolonialministerium he sought to crush the monopoly of Woermann in West Africa, but the company managed to retain its status by forming a coalition with HAPAG.

The section showed convincingly how research on the economic aspects of German imperialism has moved beyond the often repeated argument that the colonies had been a losing deal for the German government. The examples given detailed not only the monetary profit of various corporations, but also the benefits of technological expertise and corporate knowledge which was acquired in colonial markets and used for global expansion. The different approaches, ranging from a focus on a single company or economic sector (Todzi/Kleinöder) to the agency of colonial “men on the spot” and Africa intermediaries (Oestermann) to official diplomatic and institutional relationships between countries (Tchoula), indicate how rich this subfield of research has recently become and how such stories can be written. The frequent connections the presenters drew to such diverse topics such as the genocide in Namibia, global commodities in the early 20th century (in this case rubber) or development aid in the era of decolonization, display how research on the economic side of German imperialism is already entangling itself with other fields. The chronological gap between three presentations firmly based in the period of formal German colonialism in the early 20th century and one in the era of decolonisation after 1960, made it apparent where future research might need to go.

Panel overview:

Chairs: Nina Kleinöder (Marburg) / Kim Todzi (Hamburg)

Nina Kleinöder (Bamberg): Construction Firms as Transcolonial Actors. The Case of German Colonial Railway Building (ca. 1890-1915)

Tristan Oestermann (Berlin): A Colony of Opportunity: African Entrepreneurs and Capitalism in Cameroon under German Rule

Charles Tchoula (Marburg): Economic transformations in the post-colonial phase: An analysis of the economic relationship between Germany and Cameroon (1962-1999)

Kim Sebastian Todzi (Hamburg): From Trading to Logistics: The Woermann Company and German Colonial Rule in the Imperial Globalisation