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

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I also have confidence in the German people, [and believe] that once it learns about such a colonial policy, it will oppose and protest it in the most decisive manner by voting accordingly. Gentlemen, to involve us in this type of adventure, without the faintest prospect of it being advantageous to the overwhelming majority of the population – whereas, on the contrary, all the benefits from such an undertaking will go to a small minority of the rich, who, if they wish to increase their wealth may do so at their own cost –, that is something we cannot get enthusiastic about, and it is my firm conviction that the German people will not get enthusiastic about it either, once it understands clearly where this path of colonial policy will lead.

However, once we end up stuck on the fever-ridden coasts of East Africa, a whole range of other demands will confront us; then the most important argument will be: After we have sacrificed and spent so much property and blood for those lands, it is a matter of national honor to preserve them; whatever the cost may be, we must defend them. At that moment, it will be necessary above all to substantially increase the navy – Mr. von Kardorff is already nodding at me in agreement –; furthermore, it will be necessary to maintain a significant number of colonial troops financed from imperial funds. And then the argument will be: We must build up our navy in such a way that in the event of a European crisis, we will be capable of adequately protecting and defending not only our native coasts but also our colonies in foreign countries.

In this way, you will be driven forward with your colonial policy step-by-step, without being able to imagine even faintly what kind of sacrifices you may be expected to make. In my view, however, no one who is at all aware of the situation and who has observed the course of events can have any doubt that it will come to this.

[ . . . ]

For our part, we declare that we will vote against this bill, regardless of whether this stance is described as some kind of treason or high treason. I also declare that I do not have enough confidence in the current leadership of German Reich policy to believe that it will, insofar as it has its officials in Africa, make any particular efforts to conduct the colonization of the territory in a truly humane and so-called Christian manner. Gentlemen, a system that immediately imposes emergency acts on any bothersome party, a system that has cold-bloodedly driven tens and tens of thousands of peaceful inhabitants across national borders in a ruthless fashion, a system that so far has stubbornly refused to grant workers at home much-needed protective legislation, a system that ruthlessly strives to destroy any personal adversary through all sorts of persecution and lawsuits – we have no trust in such a system and will not follow it.

(“Bravo!” from the Social Democrats.)

Source: Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstags [Stenographic Reports on the Proceedings of the Reichstag], Berlin, 1889, 7th legislative period, 4th Session 1888/89, vol. 1, January 1889, pp. 627-31.

Original German text reprinted in August Bebel, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften [Selected Speeches and Writings], vol. 2, Erster Halbband, 1878 bis 1890 [Part One, 1878 to 1890], ed. Ursula Herrmann et al. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1978, pp. 523-33.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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