A Question of Respectability: Colonial German Responses to the Treaty of Versailles and “Colonial Guilt”
Sean Andrew Wempe
Article 119 of the Treaty of Versailles presented to the German delegation in the summer of 1919 stated that Germany would forfeit all of its colonial possessions. Despite initial resistance by the delegation and the Weimar government in hopes of forcing better terms, on June 28, 1919, Germany’s Foreign Minister Hermann Müller of the Social Democratic Party and Ruppel’s superior, Colonial Minister Johannes Bell of the Catholic Center Party, signed the Treaty of Versailles on Germany’s behalf. Before 1919, Germany had controlled the third largest colonial empire in the world, surpassed only by England and France. With Müller’s and Bell’s signatures, seemingly in an instant, Germany ceased to exist as a colonial power.
Colonial Germans’ resistance to the colonial provisions of the Versailles Treaty did not solely derive from pragmatic and personal considerations. In addition, the matter of Germans’ “Colonial Guilt” stung their collective and individual self-image and demanded a response at the level of identity. The Allied Powers justified the seizure of Germany’s colonial holdings with accusations that Germany had militarized its colonies and by citing colonial atrocities such as the German campaign against the Herero. With the taint of ‘colonial guilt,’ Germans were deemed “exceptionally cruel colonial masters” and “unfit imperialists.” Germany was therefore barred from recovering its colonies by way of becoming a Mandatory Power itself, a status the Allies insisted the Germans would not be allowed to attain in the new League of Nations Mandates System. In short, Germany was publicly ostracized from the work of the “civilizing mission.”
For Colonial Germans, combating these allegations of colonial guilt thus became a necessary first step to any potential progress in recovery of the overseas empire, but the implications went beyond the level of political rhetoric. In order to maintain imperial/national conceptions of the “self,” these individuals argued against the idea of “Colonial Guilt” and reasserted German Europeanness in a world where empire was an essential component of this identity. They engaged with the new political vocabulary of empire and civilization made normative by the Allies and the League, using it in both conventional and innovative ways to legitimate past actions and to reassert German Europeanness, as well as manipulating it to claim moral superiority. The end result was a tricky negotiation of Colonial Germans’ identity as a group. This paper analyzes the strategies deployed by German colonial irredentists as they simultaneously claimed the status of victim alongside their former colonized subjects, and yet insisted they were separate from and more advanced than these groups. They demanded recognition of the word “German” as synonymous with the term “European”, and yet also claimed moral superiority over the rest of European civilization, contending that Germany—now dispossessed of its empire—was uniquely qualified to bring to lead the “reform of colonial rule” that was the purported platform of the new imperial internationalism of the Mandates System.
WWI and the Reshaping of Daily Life in the Eastern Mediterranean
This paper has been framed for inclusion on the panel “Empires after the War,” which looks into how imperial rule evolved or broke down in different parts of the world. Geographically, it focuses the Middle East, particularly the Eastern Mediterranean, where imperial rule broke down with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and then evolved under the colonialist auspices of the UN Mandate system. Thematically, it investigates the short and long-term social consequences, which ensued from imperial handover.
Those consequences are discerned through the eyes of the local peoples and how they dealt with their new place as secondary participants in their own future after the end of the war. Groups, specifically in Syria/Lebanon/Egypt, which fought as equal partners during war then became subservient to European rulers. In my last book, I have passages of British soldiers feeling superior to local Egyptians, and this paper investigates further into the secondary place of local soldiers and former war partners, now told what to do by the French in Greater Syria, and the British in Egypt. Former war allies expressed tensions about their places in the new European dominated world of the post-war period.
Local sources convey the reactions of populations and foreign soldiers in their midst to the changed relationship between them. These changed relationships explain some of the tensions between local groups and European rulers after the war and in the decades to follow.