A Nation Forged by Empire: The Hidden Legacy of German Colonialism

Matthias Leanza, University of Basel

The European colonial empires have long since ceased to exist. Yet, we continue to grapple with the complex legacy they have left behind. Drawing on a wide range of primary sources from various European and African archives, this paper explores the vestiges of German colonialism, arguing that Germany’s overseas empire in Africa, the Pacific, and China (ca. 1884–1919) was an important factor in the formation of the German nation-state. The colonies, or protectorates (Schutzgebiete), as they were officially called, shaped the development of the metropole’s political system by strengthening the power of the federal government and helping to solidify German national identity. As a corollary to this, German colonialism weakened the country’s pronounced federalism, which was rooted in longstanding regional allegiances, and fueled state centralization, thus bringing national identity into sharper focus. After losing its protectorates and most of its imperial border regions in Europe as a result of World War I, Germany retained a sense of historical continuity largely on account of the developments the colonies had helped to spur. The overseas empire had vanished, but its structural effects lived on, veiled in the form of the nation.

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 Presented in Session 71. Perspectives on German and U.S. Imperialism