German Colonial Empire
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German colonial empire in 1914 prior to World War I

The German colonial empire was an overseas domain formed in the late 19th century as part by the German Empire. Short-lived colonial efforts by individual German states had occurred in preceding centuries, but Imperial Germany's colonial efforts began in 1884. Although most of Germany's African and Pacific colonies were occupied in the first weeks of the war, the German colonial empire officially ended with the effective date of the Treaty of Versailles on 10 January 1920 following World War I.

German unificationEdit

Until unification, the German states had not been able to concentrate on the development of a navy, and this essentially had precluded German participation in earlier imperialist scrambles for remote colonial territory — their so-called "place in the sun." Germany was destined to play catch-up. The German states prior to 1870 had retained separate political structures and goals, and German foreign policy up to and including the age of Otto von Bismarck concentrated on resolving the "German question" in Europe and securing German interests on the continent.[1] On the other hand, Germans had traditions of foreign sea-borne trade dating back to the Hanseatic League; a tradition existed of German emigration (eastward in the direction of Russia and Transylvania and westward to the Americas); and North German merchants and missionaries showed interest in overseas engagements. Above all the Hanseatic republics of Hamburg and Bremen sent traders across the globe. These trading houses conducted themselves as successful Privatkolonisatoren [independent colonizers] and concluded treaties and land purchases in Africa and the Pacific with chiefs or other tribal leaders. These early agreements with local entities, however, later formed the basis for annexation treaties, diplomatic support and military protection by the German Empire.[2]

Scramble for coloniesEdit

Many Germans in the late 19th century viewed colonial acquisitions as a true indication of having achieved nationhood. Public opinion eventually arrived at an understanding that prestigious African and Pacific colonies went hand-in-hand with dreams of a High Seas Fleet. Both aspirations would become reality, nurtured by a press replete with Kolonialfreunde [supporters of colonial acquisitions] and by a myriad of geographical associations and colonial societies. Otto von Bismarck and many deputies in the Reichstag had no interest in colonial conquests merely to acquire square miles of territory.[3] In essence, Bismarck's colonial motives were obscure as he had said repeatedly "... I am no man for colonies"[4] and "remained as contemptuous of all colonial dreams as ever."[5] However, in 1884 he consented to the acquisition of colonies by the German Empire, in order to protect trade, to safeguard raw materials and export markets and to take opportunities for capital investment, among other reasons.[6] In the very next year Bismarck shed personal involvement when "he abandoned his colonial drive as suddenly and casually as he had started it" as if he had committed an error in judgment that could confuse the substance of his more significant policies.[7] "Indeed, in 1889, [Bismarck] tried to give German South West Africa away to the British. It was, he said, a burden and an expense, and he would like to saddle someone else with it."[8]

German colonialismEdit

The development of German overseas protectorates (with the exception of concession territories) essentially followed three phases.

Company land acquisitions and stewardshipEdit

The rise of German imperialism and colonialism coincided with the latter stages of the "scramble for Africa" during which German enterprising individuals, rather than governmental entities, competed with other already established colonies and colonialist entrepreneurs. With the Germans joining the race for the last uncharted territories in Africa and the Pacific that had not yet been carved up, competition for colonies thus involved all major European nations, plus several lesser powers.

The German effort included the first commercial endeavors in the 1850's and 1860's in west Africa, eastern Africa, the Samoan Islands and the unexplored landmass of the north-east quarter of New Guinea with adjacent islands.[9] German traders and merchants began to establish themselves in the African Kamerun delta and the mainland coast across from Zanzibar.[10] At Apia and the settlements Finschhafen, Simpsonhafen and the islands Neu-Pommern and Neu-Mecklenburg, trading companies newly fortified with credit began expansion into coastal landholding.[11] Large African inland acquisitions followed — mostly to the detriment of native inhabitants. In eastern Africa the imperialist and “man-of-action” Carl Peters accumulated vast tracts of land for his colonization group, "emerging from the bush with X-marks [affixed by unlettered tribal chiefs] on documents ... for some 60 thousand square miles of the Zanzibar Sultanate’s mainland property."[12] Such exploring missions required measures for security that could be solved with small private, armed contingents recruited mainly in the Sudan and led by adventurous former military personnel of lower ranks. Brutality, hangings and floggings prevailed during these land-grab expeditions under Peters’ control as well as others as no-one "held a monopoly in the mistreatment of Africans."[13]

As Bismarck was converted to the colonial idea by 1884, he favored "chartered company" land management rather than a colonial government setup due to financial considerations.[14] Although temperate zones cultivation flourished, the demise and often failure of tropical low-land enterprises contributed to changing Bismarck’s view. He reluctantly acquiesced to pleas for help to deal with revolts and armed hostilities by often powerful rulers whose lucrative slavery activities seemed at risk. German native military forces initially engaged in dozens of punitive expeditions to apprehend and punish insurrectionist ring leaders and their followers, at times with British assistance.[15] The author Charles Miller offers that the Germans had the handicap of trying to colonize African areas inhabited by aggressive tribes,[16] whereas their colonial neighbors had more docile peoples to contend with. At that time, the German penchant to give muscle priority over patience contributed to continued unrest. Several of the African colonies remained powder kegs throughout this phase (and beyond). The transition to official acceptance of colonialism and to colonial government thus occurred during the last quarter of Bismarck’s tenure in office.[17]

Colonial governmentsEdit

Bismarck’s successor in 1890, Leo von Caprivi, was willing to maintain the colonial burden of what already existed, but opposed new ventures.[18] Others who followed, especially Bernhard von Bülow, as foreign minister and chancellor, sanctioned the acquisition of the Pacific Ocean colonies and provided substantial treasury assistance to existing protectorates to employ administrators, commercial agents, surveyors, local "peacekeepers" and tax collectors. Kaiser Wilhelm II understood and lamented his nation’s position as colonial followers rather than leaders. In an interview with Cecil Rhodes in March 1899 he stated the alleged dilemma clearly; "... Germany has begun her colonial enterprise very late, and was, therefore, at the disadvantage of finding all the desirable places already occupied."[19]

Nonetheless, Germany did assemble an overseas empire in Africa and the Pacific Ocean (see List of former German colonies) in the last two decades of the 19th century; "the creation of Germany’s colonial empire proceeded with the minimum of friction."[7] In summary, acquisitions and the expansion of the colonies was accomplished in a variety of ways, but principally through mercantile domination and pretexts that always were economic. Agreements and treaties with other colonial powers or interests followed, and fee simple purchases of land or island groups.[20] Only Togoland and German Samoa became profitable and self-sufficient; the balance sheet for the colonies as a whole revealed a fiscal net loss for the empire.[21] All the same, the leadership in Berlin committed the nation to the financial support, maintenance, development and defense of these possessions.

Genocide and colonial overhaulEdit

Main article: Herero and Namaqua genocide
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2007-0013, Reise Bernhard Dernburgs duch Deutsch-Ostafrika

German Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg (2nd from right) on inspection tour in East Africa, shown on a courtesy visit with British officials at Nairobi in 1907

In the first years of the 20th century shipping lines had established scheduled services with refrigerated holds and agricultural products from the colonies, exotic fruits and spices, were sold to the public in Germany proper. The colonies were romanticized. Geologists and cartographers explored what were the unmarked regions on European maps, identifying mountains and rivers, and demarcating boundaries. Hermann Detzner and one Captain Nugent, R.A., had charge of a joint project to demarcate the British and German frontiers of Kamerun, which was published in 1913.[22] Travelers and newspaper reporters brought back stories of black and brown natives serving German managers and settlers. There were also suspicions and reports of colonial malfeasance, corruption and brutality in some protectorates, and Lutheran and Roman Catholic missionaries dispatched disturbing reports to their mission headquarters in Germany.[23]

File:Postcard from New Guinea.jpg

Exposés followed in the print media throughout Germany of the Herero rebellions in 1904 in German South West Africa (Namibia today) where in military interventions between 50% to 70%[citation needed] of the Herero population perished. The subduing of the Maji Maji uprising in German East Africa in 1905 was prominently published. "A wave of anti-colonial feeling began to gather momentum in Germany" and resulted in large voter turn-outs in the so-called "Hottentot election" for the Reichstag in 1906.[24] The conservative Bülow government barely survived, but in January 1907 the newly elected Reichstag imposed a "complete overhaul" upon the colonial service.[24] Bernhard Dernburg, a former banker from Darmstadt was appointed as the new secretary of the revamped colonial office. Entrenched incompetents were screened out and summarily removed from office and "not a few had to stand trial. Replacing the misfits was a new breed of efficient, humane, colonial civil servant, usually the product of Dernburg's own creation, the ... Colonial Institute at Hamburg."[25] In African protectorates, especially Togoland and German East Africa, "improbably advanced and humane administrations emerged,"[26] and "launched a new era of black goodwill toward the German overlord."[25] "For better or worse, Germany was [in her colonies] to stay. ... The future looked sunny."[27]


German colonial diplomatic efforts remained commercially inspired, "the colonial economy was thriving ... and roads, railways, shipping and telegraph communications were up to the minute."[26] Overhaul of the colonial administrative apparatus thus set the stage for the final and most promising period of German colonialism.[28] Bernhard Dernburg’s declaration that the indigenous population in the protectorates "was the most important factor in our colonies" was affirmed by new laws. The use of forced, unpaid labor went on the books as a criminal offense.[25] Governor Wilhelm Solf of Samoa would call the islanders "unsere braunen Schützlinge" [our brown charges], who could be guided but not forced.[29] Heinrich Schnee in East Africa proclaimed that "the dominant feature of my administration [will be] ... the welfare of the natives entrusted into my care."[30] Idealists often volunteered for selection and appointment to government posts, others with an entrepreneurial bent labored to swell the dividends at home for the Hanseatic trading houses and shipping lines. Subsequent historians would commend German colonialism in those years as "an engine of modernization with far-reaching effects for the future."[31]

The established merchants and plantation operators in the African colonies frequently managed to sway government policies. Capital investments by banks were secured with public funds of the imperial treasury to minimize risk. Dernburg, as a former banker, facilitated such thinking; he saw his commission to also turn the colonies into paying propositions. Every African protectorate built rail lines to the interior,[32] every colony in Africa and the Pacific established the beginnings of a public school system,[33] every colony built and staffed hospitals.[34] Whatever the Germans constructed in their colonies was made to last.[35] Dar es Salaam evolved into "the showcase city of all of tropical Africa,"[35] Lome grew into the "prettiest town in west Africa,"[36] and Tsingtao in China was in miniature as German a city as Hamburg or Bremen.[37] For indigenous populations in some colonies native agricultural holdings were encouraged and supported.[38] Managed well and allowed to "take [their] great share in the commerce and prosperity of the world" the German colonies could and would provide a fair good for all, colonizers and natives alike.[39]

German colonial populationEdit

The colonies were primarily commercial and plantation regions and did not attract large numbers of German settlers.[40] The majority of German emigrants chose North America as their destination and not the colonies – of 1,085,124 emigrants between 1887 and 1906, 1,007,574 headed to the United States.[40] When the imperial government invited the 22,000 soldiers mobilized to subdue the Hereros to settle in German South-West Africa, and offered financial aid, only 5% accepted.[40]

The German colonial population numbered 5,125 in 1903, and about 23,500 in 1913.[41] The German pre-World War I colonial population consisted of 19,696 Germans in Africa and the Pacific colonies in 1913, including more than 3,000 police and soldiers, and 3,806 in Kiautschou (1910), including 2,275 navy and military staff.[41] In Africa (1913), 12,292 Germans lived in Southwest Africa, 4,107 in German East Africa and 1,643 in Kamerun.[41] In the Pacific colonies (1913) lived a total of 1,645 Germans.[41]

After World War I, the military and "undesired persons" were expelled from the German protectorates. In 1934 the former colonies were inhabited by 16,774 Germans, of whom about 12,000 lived in the former Southwest African colony.[41] Once the new owners of the colonies again permitted immigration from Germany, the numbers rose in the following years above the pre-World War I total.[41]

Medicine and scienceEdit

In her African and South Seas colonies Germany established diverse biological and agricultural stations. Staff specialists and the occasional visiting university group conducted soil analyses, developed plant hybrids, experimented with fertilizers, studied vegetable pests and ran courses in agronomy for settlers and natives and performed a host of other tasks.[42] Successful German plantation operators realized the benefits of systematic scientific inquiry and instituted and maintained their own stations with their own personnel, who further engaged in exploration and documentation of the native fauna and flora.[43] Research by bacteriologists Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich and other scientists was funded by the imperial treasury and was freely shared with other nations. More than three million Africans were vaccinated against smallpox.[26] Medical doctors the world over benefitted from pioneering work into tropical diseases and German pharmaceutical discoveries "became a standard therapy for sleeping sickness and relapsing fever. On the basis of its achievements in medicine and agriculture alone, the German presence [in Africa] seemed more than justified."[35]

Conquest in the First World WarEdit

In the years before the outbreak of the Great War, British colonial officers viewed the Germans as deficient in “colonial aptitude,” but “whose colonial administration was nevertheless superior to those of the other European states.”[44] Anglo-German colonial issues in the decade before 1914 were minor and both empires, the British and German, took conciliatory attitudes. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, considered still a moderate in 1911, was willing to “study the map of Africa in a pro-German spirit.”[45] Britain further recognized that Germany really had little of value to offer in territorial transactions, however, advise to Grey and Prime Minister H. H. Asquith hardened by early 1914 “to stop the trend of what the advisors considered Germany’s taking and Britain’s giving.”[46]

The 1914 assassination of the Habsburg archduke brought the European nations slithering, as David Lloyd George wrote, "over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war.” On 5 August 1914, Britain decided to carry the struggle to Africa and the Pacific, initiating colonial campaigns with naval might and dominion manpower to conquer Germany's protectorates.[47]

Both in the British Empire and, eventually in the United States, it was feared that Germany eventually would “make a bid for world hegemony”[48] by means of an African conscript army. The Allies felt they had a responsibility to protect the natives from Prussian militarism and German technological developments which would threaten the security of the British Empire.[49] Bringing the war to the Dominions and the protectorates widened the scope of armed conflict. To garner support, the public in Britain and especially in the Dominions was informed that military bases would be built in German colonies, from which “at every opportunity German ships will dash from cover to harry and destroy our commerce ... [and] raid our coasts.”[50] Thus, it was in the interest of the Dominions to destroy Germany’s colonies, thereby ensuring their own safety and the British Empire’s security.[51] The British government portrayed Germany as unworthy to have colonies, that they were unfit to govern native races. The doctrine of Germany’s guilt as a uniquely brutal and cruel colonial power originated during the [early days of] war, not before.”[52]

By the close of 1916, all was moot; “the German colonies except the one in East Africa had surrendered” to large invading forces.[53] Only in East Africa it would then be two more years before the German flag disappeared from Africa and every German colonial territory was under Allied occupation. South Africa’s J.C. Smuts, now in London, could speak as an expert as no other.[54] This new member of the war cabinet spoke of German schemes for world power, militarization and exploitation of resources. "The Germans, Smuts implied, would endanger western civilization itself. By conjuring up a German 'black peril' [at their doorstep], Smuts caught the public’s imagination. ... His ideas reverberated throughout the British press"[55] and had the desired effect that, "whatever happens, these colonies can never be returned to Germany, and it follows as an almost inevitable corollary ... they should remain with us [i.e., the Allies]."[56]


Germany's overseas empire was dismantled following defeat in World War I. With the concluding Treaty of Versailles, Article 22, German colonies were divided between Belgium, the United Kingdom, and certain British Dominions, France, and Japan with the determination not to see any of them returned to Germany — a guarantee secured by Article 119.[57]

In Africa, Britain and France divided German Kamerun (Cameroons) and Togoland. Belgium gained Ruanda-Urundi in northwestern German East Africa, Great Britain obtained by far the greater landmass of this colony, thus gaining the ‘missing link’ in the chain of British possessions stretching from South Africa to Egypt (Cape to Cairo), Portugal received the Kionga Triangle, a sliver of German East Africa. German South West Africa was annexed to the Union of South Africa.[58]
In the Pacific, Japan gained Germany’s islands north of the equator (the Marshall Islands, the Carolines, the Marianas, the Palau Islands) and Kiautschou in China. German Samoa was assigned to New Zealand; German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and Nauru[59] to Australia as mandatory.[60]

British placement of surrogate responsibility for former German colonies on white-settler dominions was at the time determined to be the most expedient option for the British government — and an appropriate reward for the Dominions having fulfilled their "great and urgent imperial service " through military intervention at the behest of and for Great Britain.[61] It also meant that British colonies now had colonies of their own — which was very much influenced at the Paris proceedings by W.M. Hughes, William Massey, and Louis Botha, the prime ministers of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.[62] The principle of 'self-determination,' embodied in the League of Nations covenant was not considered to apply to these colonies and was "regarded as meaningless."[63] To "allay President [Woodrow] Wilson’s suspicions of British imperialism," the system of ’mandates’ was drawn up and agreed to by the British War Cabinet (with the French and Italians in tow),[64] a device by which conquered enemy territory would be held not as a possession but as ‘sacred trusts.’[63] But "far from envisaging the eventual independence of the [former] German colonies, Allied statesmen at the Paris Conference regarded 1919 as the renewal, not the end, of an imperial era."[63] In deliberations the British "War Cabinet had confidence that natives everywhere would opt for British rule," however, the cabinet acknowledged "the necessity to prove that its policy toward the German colonies was not motivated by aggrandizement," since the Empire was seen by American eyes as a "land devouring octopus"[65] with a "voracious territorial appetite."[66]


President Wilson saw the League of Nations as "'residuary trustee' for the [German] colonies" captured and occupied by "rapacious conquerors".[67] The victors retained the German overseas possessions and did so with the belief that Australian, Belgian, British, French, Japanese, New Zealand, Portuguese and South African rule was superior to Germany’s.[68] Several decades later during the collapse of the then existing colonial empires, Africans and Asians cited the same arguments that had been used by the Allies against German colonial rule — they now simply demanded "to stand by themselves."[69]

Footnotes Edit

  1. Washausen, Hamburg und die Kolonialpolitik des Deutschen Reiches, p. 21; in this effort and conjointly with his firm rejection to take over the French colonial possessions after the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck stated in February 1871, that a German acquisition of colonies was equivalent to the Polish nobility wearing silks and furs when they were in need of shirts
  2. Washausen, p. 61
  3. Reichstag deputy Friedrich Kapp stated in debate in 1878 that whenever there is talk of "colonization," he would recommend to keep pocketbooks out of sight, "even if the proposal is for the acquisition of paradise." [Washausen, p. 58]
  4. Taylor, Bismarck. The Man and the Statesman, p. 215
  5. Crankshaw, Bismarck, p. 395
  6. Washausen, p. 115
  7. 7.0 7.1 Crankshaw, p. 397
  8. Taylor, p. 221
  9. later Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and the Bismarck Archipelago
  10. Washausen, p. 67-114; the West and East Africa firms
  11. Haupt, p. 106
  12. Miller, Battle for the Bundu, p. 6
  13. Miller, p. 10
  14. Washausen, p. 116
  15. Miller, p. 9
  16. once the military command was able to harness this aggressiveness through training, the German Askari forces of the Schutztruppe demonstrated that fierce spirit in their élan and war time performance [Miller, p. 28]
  17. Miller, p. 7
  18. Washausen, p. 162
  19. Louis (1963), Ruanda-Urundi, p. 163
  20. as example, in February 1899 a treaty was signed by which Spain sold the Caroline and Mariana Islands and Palau for 17 million gold mark to Germany
  21. Haupt, Deutschlands Schutzgebiete, p. 85
  22. Detzner, Hermann, (Oberleut.) Kamerun Boundary: Die nigerische Grenze von Kamerun zwischen Yola und dem Cross-fluss. M. Teuts. Schutzgeb. 26 (13): 317-338.
  23. Louis (1963), p. 178
  24. 24.0 24.1 Miller, p. 19
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Miller, p. 20
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, p. 83
  27. Miller, p. 23
  28. Miller, p. 19
  29. Churchill, Llewella P. Samoa 'uma. New York: F&S Publishing Co., 1932, p. 231
  30. Miller, p. 21
  31. Gann, L.H. & Duignan, Peter. The Rulers of German East Africa, 1884-1914. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press. 1977, p. 271
  32. Miller, p. 23, German East Africa Usambara Railway and Central Railway; Haupt, p. 82, Togoland coast line and Hinterlandbahn; Haupt, p. 66, Kamerun northern and main line; Haupt, p. 56, map of rail lines in German South West Africa
  33. Miller, p. 21, school system in German East Africa; Garfield, p. 83, "hundreds of thousands of African children were in school"; Schultz-Naumann, p. 181, school system and Chinese student enrollment in Kiautschou; Davidson, p. 100, New Zealand building on the German educational infrastructure
  34. Miller, p. 68, German East Africa, Tanga, shelling of hospital by HMS Fox; Haupt, p. 30, photograph of Dar es Salaam hospital; Schultz-Naumann, p. 183, Tsingtao European and Chinese hospital; Schultz-Naumann, p. 169, Apia hospital wing expansion to accommodate growing Chinese labor force
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 Miller, p. 22
  36. Haupt, p. 74
  37. Haupt, p. 129
  38. Lewthwaite, p. 149-151, in Samoa "German authorities implemented policies to draw [locals] into the stream of economic life," the colonial government enforced that native cultivable land could not be sold; Miller, p. 20, in German East Africa "new land laws sharply curtailed expropriation of tribal acreage " and "African cultivators were encouraged to grow cash crops, with technical aid from agronomists, guaranteed prices and government assistance in marketing the produce."
  39. Miller, p. 23
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 Henderson, William Otto (1962). Studies in German colonial history (2 ed.). Routledge. p. 35. ISBN 0714616745. Retrieved on 2009-08-30. 
  41. 41.0 41.1 41.2 41.3 41.4 41.5 Henderson, William Otto (1962). Studies in German colonial history (2 ed.). Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 0714616745. Retrieved on 2009-08-30. 
  42. Miller, p. 21
  43. Spoehr, Florence. White Falcon. The House of Godeffroy and its Commercial and Scientific Role in the Pacific. Palo Alto, California: Pacific Books. 1963, p. 51-101
  44. Louis (1967), pp. 17, 35.
  45. Louis (1967), p. 30.
  46. Louis (1967), p. 31.
  47. Louis (1967), p. 36.
  48. Louis (1967), p. 100
  49. Louis (1967), p. 95
  50. Louis (1967), p. 37, citing an Australian newspaper.
  51. ”’Security’ remained the British colonial watchword throughout the war” [Louis, p. 37]
  52. Louis (1967), p. 16
  53. Louis (1967), p. 68
  54. Louis (1967), p. 101
  55. Louis (1967), p. 102
  56. Louis (1967), p. 116
  57. Louis (1967), p. 9
  58. German South West Africa was the only African colony designated as a Class C mandate, meaning that the indigenous population was judged incapable of even limited self-government and the colony to be administered under the laws of the mandatory as an integral portion of its territory
  59. Australia in effective control, formally together with United Kingdom and New Zealand
  60. Louis (1967), p. 117-130
  61. "New Zealand goes to war: The Capture of German Samoa". Retrieved on 2008-10-20. 
  62. Louis (1967), p. 132
  63. 63.0 63.1 63.2 Louis (1967), p. 7
  64. General J.C. Smuts is often identified as the inventor of the idea of ‘mandates’ [Louis (1967), p. 7]
  65. Louis (1967), p. 6
  66. Louis (1967), p. 157
  67. Louis (1963), p. 233
  68. Louis (1967), p. 159
  69. Louis (1967), p. 160

Sources and references Edit


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  • Taylor, A.J.P. (1967). Bismarck, The Man and the Statesman. New York: Random House, Inc.. 
  • Washausen, Helmut (1968). Hamburg und die Kolonialpolitik des Deutschen Reiches. [Hamburg and Colonial Politics of the German Empire]. Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag. 
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See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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