Colonialism. Germany’s brief flurry of colonizing activity in the mid-1880s represented the single most important exception to Bismarck’s policy of maintaining the status quo in foreign affairs after 1871. Fortifying Germany’s position in Europe and “insulating” it from potential shocks from the international alliance system remained Bismarck’s priorities – this was where his map of Africa lay, as he once put it (IM12). Some Germans believed otherwise, including Friedrich Fabri, Director of the Barmen Rhine Missionary Society. Fabri was convinced that his 1879 pamphlet, Does Germany Need Colonies? (D18) was instrumental in unleashing the public clamor for overseas colonies. Whatever the merits of that claim, the early 1880s saw the rise of noisy colonial lobby groups and the reorganization or expansion of some older societies promoting emigration, geographic exploration, or the export trade (D20, D21). Fabri’s pamphlet and the agitation of these societies captured the public mood of Germans who worried about how to reinvigorate the economy, provide a safety valve to (perceived) over-population through emigration, and secure raw materials and markets for German industry.
Between 1884 and 1886, action followed words, initially through the bold claims to Southwest Africa staked by the adventurer Carl Peters (D23) and, subsequently, through the establishment of German protectorates in Cameroon, Togo, German East Africa, and a number of islands in the South Pacific (IM14). Historians continue to debate the reasons Bismarck acceded to this colonial land grab, because he had previously been disinclined to consider colonial acquisitions. The Chancellor may have been trying to use colonial possessions as pawns in his chess game of international diplomacy. He was not averse to stirring up tension with Britain (IM13) as a means to undermine the influence of Crown Prince Friedrich and his English wife, the daughter of Queen Victoria. And, at least for a short time, he recognized the electoral appeal of colonies. His brief, tentative ride on the colonial bandwagon was supported by members of the right-wing National Liberal and Free Conservative parties, whose candidates in 1884 recouped some of the seats they had lost to the left liberals in the Reichstag elections of 1881. None of these explanations makes sense, however, unless we discard the idea that Bismarck conjured up the colonial movement to serve his Machiavellian plans. Instead, we should recognize that colonies in the 1880s represented a genuinely powerful expression of nationalist feelings among a significant number of middle-class Germans.