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

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It is maintained that the goals are to spread European civilization, European culture, to spread Christianity, and above all to end the horrible slave trade and the slave hunts. But Gentlemen, you do not wish to abolish the central cause of the slave trade and the slave hunts in the first place – slavery in and of itself. So far, not one of you has even thought of emphasizing or even hinting at that. On the contrary, in the previous debate, we heard from the mouth of the Reich Chancellor, and from the mouths of Mr. von Helldorff, Mr. Stöcker, and others, that slavery in Africa was a necessity; that the slaves, if they were freed, would actually not know what to do with themselves. Moreover, the Reich Chancellor specifically pointed out that abolishing slavery in Africa would be a bold undertaking because it would be impossible without compensating the slaveholders. Well, I do not at all understand why that ought to happen. If an unlawful force exerted by one person over another – like slavery – is supposed to be abolished, then I, for my part, fail to comprehend why this should be impossible without compensation. I would just like to remind you that when the United States abolished slavery, it occurred without any compensation, as the consequence of a great war.

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Now then, Gentlemen, if you pass this bill, what sort of relationship will the German Empire enter into with the East Africa Company? Do you really think that the German Empire has the East Africa Company under control? I don’t think so; the exact opposite is probably the case: The East Africa Company has the Reich under control. In reality, the Reich Chancellor, or whoever assumes this position, will be nothing more than the first administrative official of the East Africa Company.

(Laughter on the right.)

Now I ask, however: What kind of guarantee has this Company offered thus far to allow one to even assume that it could in any way fulfill the tasks you have set for it? None whatsoever! The Company is supposed to be an institution of the German people! The German people do not even know the persons comprising the East Africa Company. What is abundantly evident, however, is that the East Africa Company will not deign to fulfill the so-called civilizing mission that you have assigned to it, since it is an organization devoted to the exploitation of the East African protectorate and the East African population. The Company will only think of safeguarding its own interests. Now there is no doubt, however, that if the East Africa Company is to be maintained as an institution with the support and aid of the Reich we will most certainly find ourselves in one embarrassing situation after another.

Mr. von Bennigsen, however, displayed magnificent optimism with his previous words. He acted as though the sacrifices made by the German Empire were minimal enough to warrant no consideration and that soon enough they would no longer even be necessary. Gentlemen, not even the Reich government is that optimistic. We can see this at the end of the current bill, which states in sober terms that, if the sum demanded now is not enough, then the government will come up with new funds, which will simply have to be allocated to the Reich budget. The entire history of colonization proves to us that it is extremely likely that this will be the case. To top it all off, we have also learned from the sentiments voiced in the Reichstag in the course of various debates that a majority of the Reichstag will not shrink from very significant sacrifices, no matter how great they may be.

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