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The German Empire: an Empire?
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The German Empire:
an Empire?

The 'Aufarbeitung' – the exploration or investigation – of Germany's imperial past has been one of the more exciting developments in the recent historiography of modern Germany, and a crucial element in the recent discussion among German historians of the potentials of transnational history. A growing flood of studies of German imperial policy, life and death in the German colonies, German colonialist organizations, German colonial literature, and colonial ideas, influences and tropes in German culture has poured from the presses in the past decade or so. Increasingly, German historians interested in empire have begun to assert that this work, taken together, now requires us to rethink the nature and dynamics of German nationalism, German politics and German culture. Given the growing bulk of scholarly production on the subject, this seems a plausible expectation; and yet, in some respects it is still not clear, from the literature, precisely what the terms of such a revision should be. At the most basic level, for example, there is actually growing disagreement as to what the term 'empire' means. Equally disturbing, there is growing disagreement to as to what 'empire' does not mean – that is, what kinds of polities we distinguish Germany from when we call it an empire. Drawing on this burgeoning literature, this essay seeks to address, and perhaps to help clarify, three specific questions – questions that can, I hope, help us to define the terms and aims of an 'imperial' revision of modern German history. The first is simply this: what kind of empire was the German Empire? Second, to what extent was it an empire; or, more precisely, how do we relate the aspiration to be an empire to the aspiration to be a nation? And third, was the German Empire different from other European empires?

Colonial or Continental?

One of the striking things about the German Empire created in 1871, then, is the extent to which, despite its great power status, it was a European society. Relatively few Asians or Africans actually participated directly in 'German' culture, compared to the number of Scandinavians or Americans or Russians who did. It is easy to make the case that Germans lived in an institutional and intellectual context that was European in scope – or more appropriately Atlantic and Baltic in scope, since Sweden and the United States were probably more important to Germans than, say, Spain or Bulgaria. Beyond the boundaries of the European Atlantic world it becomes much more difficult to see a unitary-but-diverse, shared culture in which institutions were copied at the local and national level or joined at the international level, books translated, meetings attended, ideas picked up [End Page 129] or demonstratively rejected. And far more Germans abroad lived within Europe than did outside it (though certainly a surprising number did live at least for a time in Asia or the Americas, and even more travelled outside Europe).1

This may turn out to be one of the peculiarities of German history. In relative terms, far fewer German than British or French people had experience in the colonies or the sense that life within the boundaries of the European metropole could not be separated from life within the boundaries of the colonial empire – for example in Nigeria or New Zealand or Natal or New South Wales, or in Southeast Asia or Algeria. And surely by most measures the colonies were far less important in the political economy of Germany than they were in that of France, Britain, Holland, Portugal, or even Belgium. Recent studies of the culture of imperialism have high-lighted the role that images and ideas drawn from (German or other European) colonial experience played in German life in the metropole; but it is hard not to think that such influences were nevertheless more superficial than they were in those countries with massive colonial possessions, held in some cases for a century and more.

This is a comparison that is frequently made in the literature. As Conrad Jarausch points out in a contribution on transnational history to the internet discussion network H-German, the view that colonial empire was probably more important in France and Britain...