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Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Decolonization

  • Matthew P. Fitzpatrick (a1)

In the past two decades, colonial studies, the postcolonial turn, the new imperial history, as well as world and global history have made serious strides toward revising key elements of German history. Instead of insisting that German modernity was a fundamentally unique, insular affair that incubated authoritarian social tendencies, scholars working in these fields have done much to reinsert Germany into the broader logic of nineteenth-century global history, in which the thalassocratic empires of Europe pursued the project of globalizing their economies, populations, and politics. During this period, settler colonies, including German South West Africa, were established and consolidated by European states at the expense of displaced, helotized, or murdered indigenous populations. Complementing these settler colonies were mercantile entrepôts and plantation colonies, which sprouted up as part of a systematic, global attempt to reorient non-European economies, work patterns, and epistemological frameworks along European lines. Although more modestly than some of its European collaborators and competitors, Germany joined Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States in a largely liberal project of global maritime imperialism.

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1 For a sample of the work on German colonialism, see Berman, Nina, Mühlhahn, Klaus, and Nganang, Alain Patrice, eds., German Colonialism Revisited: African, Asian, and Oceanic Experiences (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014); Kundrus, Birthe, Moderne Imperialisten: Das Kaiserreich im Spiegel seiner Kolonien (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2003); Steinmetz, George, The Devil's Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Lindner, Ulrike, Koloniale Begegnungen: Deutschland und Großbritannien als Imperialmächte in Afrika, 1880–1914 (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 2011); Naranch, Bradley and Eley, Geoff, eds., German Colonialism in a Global Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Ames, Eric, Klotz, Marcia, and Wildenthal, Lora, Germany's Colonial Pasts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005); Walther, Daniel J., Creating Germans Abroad: Cultural Policies and National Identity in Namibia (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002); Wildenthal, Lora, German Women for Empire, 1884–1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). For its intersection with transnational and global history, see Zimmerman, Andrew, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Conrad, Sebastian and Osterhammel, Jürgen, eds., Das Kaiserreich transnational: Deutschland in der Welt, 1871–1914 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006); Conrad, Sebastian, Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); idem, Rethinking German Colonialism in a Global Age,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 4 (2013): 545.

2 Volker Berghahn has recently attempted to revive interest in the Sonderweg thesis in his recent overview of the literature in this field; see German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler,” German Studies Review 40, no. 1 (2017): 147–62.

3 Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387–409.

4 On the liberal nature of nineteenth-century European imperialism, see Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Bell, Duncan, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Press, Steven, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe's Scramble for Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Fitzpatrick, Matthew P., ed., Liberal Imperialism in Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). For the German case specifically, see Fitzpatrick, Matthew P., Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848–1884 (New York: Berghahn, 2008); Guettel, Jens-Uwe, German Expansionism, Imperial Liberalism, and the United States, 1776–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

5 Frank, Alison, “Continental and Maritime Empires in an Age of Global Commerce,” East European Politics and Societies 25, no. 4 (2011): 779–84; Ruthner, Clemens, “Central Europe Goes Post-Colonial: New Approaches to the Habsburg Empire around 1900,” Cultural Studies 16, no. 6 (2002): 877–83. Also see the special issue edited by Hughes, Jon and Krobb, Florian: “Colonial Austria: Austria and the Overseas,” Austrian Studies 20 (2012); Naranch, Bradley, “Made in China: Austro-Prussian Overseas Rivalry and the Global Unification of the German Nation,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 56, no. 3 (2010): 366–80; Weiss, David G. L. and Schilddorfer, Gerd, Novara: Österreichs Traum von der Weltmacht (Vienna: Amalthea Signum, 2010); Ritter-Basch, Renate, Die Weltumsegelung der Novara, 1857–1859: Österreich auf allen Meeren (Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 2008).

6 On these various aspects, see Bönker, Dirk, Militarism in a Global Age: Naval Ambitions in Germany and the United States before World War I (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Rüger, Jan, Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Kuss, Susanne, German Colonial Wars and the Context of Military Violence, trans. Smith, Andrew (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Becker, Felicitas and Beez, Jigal, eds., Der Maji-Maji-Krieg gegen die deutsche Kolonialherrschaft in Tanzania, 1905–08 (Berlin: Christoph Links, 2005); Penny, H. Glenn and Bunzl, Matti, eds., Worldly Provincialism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010); Zimmerman, Andrew, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001); van der Heyden, Ulrich and Becher, Jürgen, eds., Mission und Gewalt: Der Umgang christlicher Missionen mit Gewalt und die Ausbreitung des Christentums in Afrika und Asien in der Zeit von 1792 bis 1918/19 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2000); Oermann, Nils Ole, Mission, Church and State Relations in South West Africa under German Rule, 1884–1915 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1999); Ciarlo, David, Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

7 Influential in sparking this wave were Zantop, Susanne, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770–1870 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Friedrichsmeyer, Sara, Lennox, Sara, and Zantop, Susanne, eds., The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and its Legacies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

8 See, e.g., Zimmerer, Jürgen, Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz? Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2011); Madley, Benjamin, “From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe,” European History Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2005): 429–64.

9 For more detailed critiques of the “Africa to Auschwitz” thesis, see Gerwarth, Robert and Malinowski, Stephan, “Hannah Arendt's Ghosts: Reflections on the Disputable Path from Windhoek to Auschwitz,” Central European History (CEH) 42, no. 2 (2009): 279300; Kundrus, Birthe, “Kontinuitäten, Parallelen, Rezeptionen. Überlegungen zur ‘Kolonialisierung’ des Nationalsozialismus,” Werkstatt Geschichte 43 (2006): 4562; Fitzpatrick, Matthew P., “The Pre-History of the Holocaust? The Sonderweg and Historikerstreit Debates and the Abject Colonial Past,” CEH 41, no. 3 (2008): 477–503.

10 Grosse, Pascal, Kolonialismus, Eugenik und bürgerliche Gesellschaft in Deutschland 1850–1918 (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 2000); Langbehn, Volker and Salama, Mohammad, eds., German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust, and Postwar Germany (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

11 Following in the footsteps of Lora Wildenthal's German Women for Empire, see Loosen, Livia, Deutsche Frauen in den Südsee-Kolonien des Kaiserreichs. Alltag und Beziehungen zur indigenen Bevölkerung, 1884–1919, (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014); Birthe Kundrus, “Weiblicher Kulturimperialismus. Die imperialistischen Frauenverbände des Kaiserreichs,”  in Conrad and Osterhammel, Das Kaiserreich transnational, 213–35; Dietrich, Anette, Weiße Weiblichkeiten: Konstruktionen vonRasseund Geschlecht im deutschen Kolonialismus (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2007).

12 Short, John Phillip, Magic Lantern Empire: Colonialism and Society in Germany, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Guettel, Jens-Uwe, “The Myth of the Pro-Colonialist SPD: German Social Democracy and Imperialism before the First World War,” CEH 45, no. 34 (2012); Bonnell, Andrew, “Social Democrats and Germany's War in South-West Africa, 1904–1907: The View of the Socialist Press,” in Savage Worlds: German Encounters Abroad, 1815–1918, ed. Fitzpatrick, Matthew P and Monteath, Peter (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), 206–29.

13 Gissibl, Berhard, The Nature of German Imperialism: Conservation and the Politics of Wildlife in Colonial East Africa (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016); Bauche, Manuela, Medizin und Herrschaft: Malariabekämpfung in Kamerun, Ostafrika und Ostfriesland, 1890–1919 (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 2017); Walther, Daniel J., Sex and Control: Venereal Disease, Colonial Physicians, and Indigenous Agency in German Colonialism, 1884–1914 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015).

14 There is nevertheless a burgeoning literature here as well. See, e.g., Habermas, Rebekka, Skandal in Togo. Ein Kapitel deutscher Kolonialherrschaft (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Verlag, 2016); Moyd, Michelle, Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014); Pesek, Michael, Koloniale Herrschaft in Deutsch-Ostafrika. Expedition, Militär und Verwaltung seit 1880 (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 2005); Giblin, James Leonard and Monson, Jamie, eds., Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War (Leiden: Brill, 2010); Yigbe, Dotsé, “Is Togo a Permanent Model Colony?,” in The Cultural Legacy of German Colonial Rule, ed. Mühlhahn, Klaus (Oldenbourg: De Gruyter, 2017), 97112; Gottschalk, Sebastian, Kolonialismus und Islam: Deutsche und britische Herrschaft in Westafrika, 1900–1914 (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 2016); Nyada, Germain, “The Germans Cannot Master Our Language!,” in German Colonialism Revisited: African, Asian, and Oceanic Experiences, ed. Berman, Nina, Mühlhahn, Klaus, and Nganang, Patrice (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 5070.

15 Kopp, Kristin, Germany's Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012); Nelson, Robert L., ed., Germans, Poland, and Colonial Expansion to the East, 1850 Through the Present (New York: Palgrave, 2009).

16 See Förderer, Gabriele, Koloniale Grüße aus Samoa: Eine Diskursanalyse von deutschen, englischen und US-amerikanischen Reisebeschreibungen aus Samoa von 1860–1916 (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017); Steinmetz, Devil's Handwriting; Loosen, Deutsche Frauen; Morlang, Thomas, Rebellion in der Südsee: Der Aufstand auf Ponape gegen die deutschen Kolonialherren 1910/11 (Berlin: Christoph Links, 2010). These studies join works by earlier specialists on the Pacific, including Hiery, Hermann J., The Neglected War: The German South Pacific and the Influence of World War I (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1995); Hempenstall, Peter J., Pacific Islanders under German Rule: A Study in the Meaning of Colonial Resistance (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1978); Firth, Stewart, New Guinea under the Germans (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1983).

17 Bürger, Christiane, Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte(n): Der Genozid in Namibia und die Geschichtsschreibung der DDR und BRD (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017).

18 Zimmerer, Jürgen, Deutsche Herrschaft über Afrikaner. Staatlicher Machtanspruch und Wirklichkeit im kolonialen Namibia (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2002). For skepticism about the ever broader use of the term genocide, see Kundrus, Birthe and Strotbek, Henning, “‘Genozid’. Grenzen und Möglichkeiten eines Forschungsbegriffs—ein Literaturbericht,” Neue Politische Literatur 51, no. 2/3 (2006): 397423.

19 Berman, Russell, Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Penny, H. Glenn, Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Guettel, Jens-Uwe, “From the Frontier to German South-West Africa: German Colonialism, Indians, and American Westward Expansion,” Modern Intellectual History 7, no. 3 (2010): 523–52.

20 Muschalek, Marie, “Violence as Usual: Everyday Police Work and the Colonial State in German Southwest Africa,” in Rethinking the Colonial State: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives, ed. Rud, Søren and Ivarsson, Søren (Bingley: Emerald, 2017), 129–50; Kuss, German Colonial Wars; Stefan Rinke, “‘No Alternative to Extermination’: Germans and Their ‘Savages’ in Southern Brazil at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century,” in Fitzpatrick and Monteath, Savage Worlds, 21–41.

21 Mühlhahn, Cultural Legacy; Sean Wempe, “Lost at Locarno? Colonial Germans and the Redefinition of ‘Imperial’ Germany, 1919–1933” (PhD thesis, Emory University, 2015)—a revised version will appear as Revenants of the German Empire: Colonial Germans, the League of Nations, and the Redefinition of Imperialism, 1919–1933 (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

22 Along these lines, see the special edition of Postcolonial Studies 9, no. 1 (2006): “Decolonizing German Theory,” edited by George Steinmetz. More generally, see Ciccariello-Maher, George, Decolonizing Dialectics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

23 Beyond German history, researchers around the world are beginning to ask what a truly decolonizing research praxis might actually look like. See, e.g., the special issue on decolonizing research practices, edited by Debbie Hohaia, Lisa Hall, and Nia Emmanouil, in Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts 22 (2017).

24 Berliner Entwicklungspolitischer Ratschlag, Stadt neu lesen. Koloniale und rassistische Straßennamen in Berlin (Berlin: BER Publikationen, 2016).

25 Deutsches Historisches Museum, German Colonialism: Fragments Past and Present (Berlin: Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2016). For a criticism of the lack of African involvement in the planning and opening of the exhibition, see Peter Schraeder, “Wie eine neue Ausstellung den Kolonialismus aufarbeiten will,” Vorwärts, Oct. 14, 2016  (https://

26 Jürgen Zimmerer, “Der Kolonialismus ist kein Spiel,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Aug. 9, 2017 (

27 Lars Eckstein, “Recollecting Bones: The Remains of German-Australian Colonial Entanglements,” Postcolonial Studies (forthcoming, 2018); Le Gall, Yann, “The Return of Human Remains to the Pacific: The Resurgence of Ancestors and the Emergence of Postcolonial Memory Practices,” in Postcolonial Justice: Reassessing the Fair Go, ed. Adair, Gigi and Schwarz, Anja (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2016), 4560; Ahrndt, Wiebke, “Zum Umgang mit menschlichen Überresten in deutschen Museen und Sammlungen—Die Empfehlung des Deutschen Museumsbundes,” in Sammeln, Erforschen, Zurückgeben?, ed. Stoecker, Holger, Schnalke, Thomas, and Winkelmann, Andreas (Berlin: Christoph Links, 2013), 314–22. Also see “Forum: Human Remains in Museums and Collections: A Critical Engagement with the ‘Recommendations’ of the German Museums Association (2013)” (https://

28 “SPK erforscht Herkunft von menschlichen Überresten aus Ost-Afrika—Gerda Henkel Stiftung fördert das Projekt” (

29 Tuck, Eve and Yang, K. Wayne, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.

30 Ibid., 11, 19.

31 Ibid., 35.

32 Evelyn Araluen, “Resisting the Institution,” Overland 227 (

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Central European History
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