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Bismarck on "Pragmatic" Colonization (June 26, 1884)

Bismarck disliked the idea of acquiring formal colonies because they promised large expenditures, meager profits, and diplomatic complications. Nevertheless, in the early 1880s the colonial propaganda of writers like Friedrich Fabri (1824-1891) forced him to address the issue. One reason he relented in 1884-1885, cautiously and reluctantly, was that the colonial issue might benefit pro-government parties in the upcoming Reichstag elections. In this speech, Bismarck tries to explain his pragmatic approach without appearing to be lukewarm on an issue that stirred nationalist hearts.

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As regards the colonial question in the narrower sense of the words, I will explain its genesis. We were first induced, owing to the enterprise of the Hanseatic people – beginning with land purchases and leading to requests for imperial protection – to consider whether we could promise protection to the extent desired. I have not abandoned my former aversion to colonies – I will not say colonies after the system mostly adopted last century, the French system, as it might now be called – but colonies which make a strip of land their foundation, and then seek to draw emigrants, appoint officials, and establish garrisons. This mode of colonization may be good for other countries, but it is not practicable for us. I do not believe that colonial projects can be artificially established, and all the examples which Deputy Bamberger advanced as warnings in committee were cases in which the wrong way had been taken: where people had wished to construct harbors where there was no traffic and build towns where there were no people, the intention being to attract people by artificial means to the place. A very different question is whether it is expedient, and whether it is the duty of the German Empire [Reich], to grant imperial protection and a certain amount of support in their colonial endeavors to those of its subjects who devote themselves to such undertakings relying upon the protection of the Empire, in order that security may be ensured in foreign lands to the communities which grow naturally out of the superfluous strength of the German body politic. This question I answer affirmatively: I do so reservedly from the standpoint of expediency – because I cannot predict what will come of it – but I do so unconditionally from the standpoint of the state’s duty.

[ . . . ]

My intention, as approved by the Emperor [Kaiser], is to leave the responsibility for the material development of a colony, as well as its inauguration, to the action and the enterprise of our seafaring and trading citizens, and to proceed less on the system of annexing the transoceanic provinces to the German Empire than that of granting charters, after the form of the English Royal Charters, encouraged by the glorious career which the English merchants experienced in the foundation of the East India Company; also to leave to the persons interested in the colony the government of the same, only granting them European jurisdiction for Europeans and so much protection as we may be able to afford without maintaining garrisons.

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