Colonialism is generally regarded as the expansion of a nation-state, with a particular focus on economic, political and military interests. In this context, the exploitation and oppression of the populations of the colonized territories play a significant role.
The connections between colonialism, racism, the German Empire and the Maafa are rarely addressed in Germany until today. Great Britain, France, the Netherlands or Portugal are usually cited as examples of colonialism. It is true that the German Empire owned fewer colonies and that it was no longer a colonial power after World War I because of the Treaty of Versailles. But since 1883 the German Empire owned colonies, which were called protectorates. They were located, among others, in what is now Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and a part of Mozambique called German East Africa. In addition, there were German New Guinea, German Samoa, today’s Namibia (then called German Southwest Africa), German West Africa with today’s Cameroon and Togo, and Kiautschou in northern China. This made the German Empire the third largest colonial empire in terms of area, with about 13 million people living in its protectorates. Yet only a few ethnic Germans owned land there or were involved in trade with enslaved people. Rather, they profited indirectly through newly developed branches of production and trade with the colonies. Thus, the prosperity within the German Empire is at least partly due to exploitation through colonialism, which provided economic uplift. Around the same time, important ethnological collections were created in the German Empire, and museums were built to house them, such as the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, the Grassimuseum in Leipzig, and the Culturgeschichtliche Museum in Hamburg (today: Museum am Rothenbaum).
While prosperity was increasing in the German Empire, people were proselytizing within the German colonies. Through a racially motivated sense of white superiority, missionaries attempted to “civilize” the local people, i.e. to impose “German culture” on them, while their own customs, norms and religions were to be increasingly forgotten. This form of foreign domination resulted in subjugation in all spheres of life with simultaneous economic exploitation at various levels, which was accompanied by an interweaving of colonialism and religious and cultural oppression.
Through these different and effective mechanisms, indigenous populations were dehumanized and objectified. As a result, the first genocide of the 20th century occurred between 1904 and 1908: In German Southwest Africa, the uprisings of the indigenous Herero and Nama populations resisting foreign rule were bloodily put down with the aim of exterminating the entire indigenous populations. Prussian Lieutenant General and commander of the Schutztruppe Lothar von Trotha (1848-1920) issued the extermination order: “Within the German border, every Herero with or without a rifle […] will be shot.” Those who were not shot were driven into the Omaheke Desert to die of thirst. Around the same time, von Trotha began to establish concentration camps in German Southwest Africa at the behest of the Kaiser, Wilhelm II (1859-1941). There, the imprisoned Herero and Nama – adults and children – were forced to perform forced labor and were mistreated. Their corpses were sent to Germany for medical research. Even today, human remains can be found in museum collections in Germany. It is estimated that over 70,000 people fell victim to this genocide. This corresponds to about 70% of the Herero and about 50% of the Nama. Germany has only officially recognized the genocide since May 2021.