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

In February 1885, the German colonial adventurer Carl Peters (1856-1918) had received a Royal Patent of Patronage for the territory of German East Africa. The conduct of his German East Africa Company [Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft] caused a native rebellion starting in August 1888. An angry Bismarck was forced to accept official state administration of the area by means of a bill introduced in the Reichstag in January 1889. The bill purported to commit German forces against the slave trade, but the real goal was to put down the rebellion and gain control over Peters’s enterprise. In the following excerpt from the Reichstag debates, August Bebel (1840-1913), Germany’s leading Social Democrat, voices strong opposition to German colonialism.

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Gentlemen, if I understood Reichstag Deputy Dr. Windthorst correctly, he is prepared to approve the two million Marks demanded. (Heckling: “Back to your seat.” Bell.) – Gentlemen, if you calmed down a bit, you would hear what I have to say. Furthermore, he was prepared to give the Reich Chancellor [Otto von Bismarck] the responsibility of utilizing these two million Marks; moreover, in his concluding remarks he also declared his willingness to grant additional funds, if the Reich government deemed it necessary. I fail to grasp how Deputy Dr. Windthorst can attach any particular significance to a possible Committee consultation after such a declaration. I can think of only one reason for it. Just now, these gentlemen based their views on the fact that a particular enthusiasm for colonial policy can supposedly be found in the German Reich. Gentlemen, as far as I can gauge the mood of the German population, there is no trace of any such enthusiasm to be found anywhere. If some such enthusiasm possibly existed four or five years ago, the events and disappointments that have taken place in the meantime have caused it to disappear. Today, the colonial question leaves the vast majority of the German people cold to the very core [kühl bis ins Herz hinein]. I will take this one step further by saying that if the overwhelming majority of the Reichstag approves the demands of the government, as will undoubtedly happen, you will not be able to say that you are in agreement with the majority of the people. In my view, the German people are not inclined to embark on the types of colonial adventures expected of us here. In order to create the impression that all sorts of important matters were debated in the Committee, it appears that one would need a Committee consultation.

Gentlemen, what was particularly obvious to me about the whole bill is the fact that its motivation, as presented to us by the federated German governments, is seriously inconsistent with itself. At the outset of this justification, it is argued that the guiding principles of German colonial policy, as approved by the Reichstag during official debate in 1884 and 1885, continue to be authoritative even to this day. Furthermore, it is argued that the main issue had been to safeguard the territory slated for colonization against disruptions and interventions by other colonial powers; any other difficulties and embarrassments that might arise from the colonization of the occupied territory, however, did not concern the Reich. Rather, they were entirely the concern of those persons who had taken the colonization of the respective lands into their own hands.

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