Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Imperialism from Below: Informal Empire and the Private Sector in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Imperialism from Below: Informal Empire and the Private Sector in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Article excerpt

A commonplace of European history holds that, prior to 1884, Germany was essentially uninterested in colonies. Both popular histories and scholarly accounts of Germany's entry into the colonial world have traditionally begun with a steadfast Bismarck declaring, after defeating France in 1871 and absorbing Alsace and Lorraine, that the German Reich was now territorially "sated". Thereafter Germany's interests would not extend beyond the geopolitical reality that Germany was stuck between a revanchist France and an unpredictable Russia. (1) Under this reading, the creation of a German colonial empire in 1884 seems inexplicable except as a late and uncharacteristic deviation in an otherwise consistent German anti-colonialism that could only be understood as part of Bismarck's convoluted and Machiavellian European diplomacy.

With the boom, however, in articles and monographs accompanying the entry of postcolonial approaches into German history, Germany's colonial era is beginning to offer a number of new possibilities for the reinterpretation of the characteristics of "anti-colonial" nineteenth-century Germany. (2) While the standard works on preunification and Kaiserreich Germany have continued to play down the role of imperialism in the project of nation-building, the works of historians such as Frank Lorenz Muller and Hans Fenske have pointed not only to the breadth of appeal of imperialism within German society and political circles, in particular amongst German liberals, gut also to me extent mat it informed me broader politics of the ostensibly precolonial era. (3)

Yet even these scholars, the vanguard advocates of an approach that highlights the importance of imperialism to nineteenth-century politics, have tended to see these imperialist tendencies as surfacing only sporadically, peaking with the 1848-49 Frankfurt National Assembly, then drifting away until the 1870s and 1880s. The reasons for this narrative line are complex, but an important factor is that the historiography dealing with liberal imperialism has been grounded firmly in diplomatic and political history. This work has certainly been important in revealing some of the more overt imperialist tendencies in political culture prior to 1884. (4) Ultimately, however, political history alone (however valuable) cannot recover the broader sociocultural terrain that more firmly demonstrates the deep historical roots of what has erroneously been seen as "Bismarck's colonial politics". (5)

Rather than focus exclusively on state agency and high politics (although these are avenues requiring continued scrutiny), the socio-cultural approach looks to the nonstate sector, taking seriously the adage that "where the state finishes, civil society begins" in an attempt to discover what political history has overlooked. In excluding analysis of the non-statist attempts to anticipate, and, it was often hoped, trigger a state policy of settler colonialism, most histories that previously have discussed German imperialism have only been able to recover a small part of the flourishing colonial milieu that kept liberal society's passion for expansionism afloat, irrespective of the political turbulence that made recourse to the state apparatus more problematic. On the other hand, a cultural, textual approach, informed by both social and political history methodologies, offers a view of how pro-imperialist textual production, and the social logic of pro-imperialist texts, operated together to bring about the creation of colonies for Germany in the ostensibly pre-colonial era. (6) Through this blended historiographical approach, an imperialist through-line from the 1840s to the 1880s may be uncovered.

A critical part of this long imperialist thread worth exploring is the way in which liberal civil society organisations, cognisant of the power of "informal imperialism" to subvert official government foreign policy, (7) attempted to establish a German-speaking population in South America commensurate with that of the English-speaking population in North America. …

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