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August Bebel’s Reichstag Speech against Colonial Policy in German East Africa (January 26, 1889)

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Gentlemen, if these principles were still authoritative today, as has been claimed, then the government could not possibly approach the Reichstag with this demand, but the further justification of the matter contradicts this claim and expresses the exact opposite. Here, the argument goes as follows: – now that the East Africa Company has been thrown out of its colonial possessions, in my view through its own fault, now that it is no longer capable of fulfilling the task that it had set itself in its own interests, the Reich must advocate on behalf of the objectives of the East Africa Company. Well, then, what is this East Africa Company? It is a small circle of big capitalists, bankers, merchants, and industrialists, i.e., a small circle of very rich people whose interests have nothing at all to do with the interests of the German people; who as far as this whole colonial policy is concerned have nothing but their own personal interests in mind. It is a small circle which, as Dr. Bamberger stated on the basis of certain comments made in the official organ of the East Africa Company, pursued the sole objective of securing greater resources to grow rich vis-à-vis a weaker population in any way possible. We will never consent to such a colonial policy. Basically, the essence of all colonial policy is the exploitation of a foreign population to the highest degree. Wherever we look at the history of colonial policy over the last three centuries, we encounter violent acts and the oppression of native peoples, and not infrequently this ends in their complete extermination. And the driving force is always the acquisition of gold, gold, and more gold. And in order to go on exploiting the African population to the fullest possible extent, preferably undisturbed, millions are to be spent from the pockets of the Reich, from the pockets of the taxpayers; the East Africa Company is to be supported with funds of the Reich in order to secure its business of exploitation. You will readily appreciate that we, as opponents of any form of oppression, will not lend any support to this.

I will go further and say that even if a European or German colonial society were to cultivate the East African territories placed under the German protectorate, no advantage whatsoever would arise for the inhabitants of the respective countries. In part, the manners and customs of these peoples, even if they are in slavery, differ quite favorably from those in the European countries. At a recent lecture in Dresden by Dr. Hans Meyer, also a traveler of Africa, we learned that the situation of slaves under slaveholders in the interior African districts is actually often much better than that of our German, our European, workers. Among other things, this lecture pointed out that African slaves get two days off a week. Gentlemen, if the German worker were to make such a demand, I would like to witness the storm of outcry that would be raised in the farthest entrepreneurial circles. Furthermore, it is a fact that the work here in Germany is much more exhausting than that expected of slaves by their slaveholders, and that the slaves’ workday is on average one hour shorter than those put in by German workers on behalf of their employers. However, the experience and history of all colonies has shown that as soon as Europeans – and it is always the entrepreneurial class that is meant in these cases – gain a foothold in a foreign country and exploit the land in as many different ways as possible, the bad manners, habits, and customs of Europeans take root. These alone are implemented vis-à-vis the native population and are even exaggerated to the utmost. Very soon working hours become appallingly long everywhere; the native population is treated in a manner exhibiting the least possible consideration for their material or physical welfare. This is simple to explain. Even in the eyes of many of our civilized European entrepreneurs, the worker is merely an instrument, a tool that must be exploited as much as possible. This applies even more to the races at a lower level of development, the ones regarded as inferior and against whom a certain contempt and great hatred arises instinctively. One becomes too easily accustomed to seeing in a black person a human of inferior race, someone against whom one can take any liberty, someone whose treatment is governed by no limit other than that of personal convenience, of the entrepreneur’s greatest advantage. As a result of this view, we see that wherever Europeans force their way into such colonial territories, and wherever the native population on the whole is always at a lower cultural stage, these brutally egotistical maxims spread and continuously lead to rebellions and revolts against the entrepreneurs – just as we have already experienced during the brief attempt at administration made by the East Africa Company in the German protectorates in East Africa.

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