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Europe During the Scramble: Voting on Empire

By Gary Oswald

Georg Ledebour

In 1907, the German Empire in Africa consisted of four territories. German South West Africa, German East Africa, German Togoland and German Kamerun.

In 1904, German South West Africa saw the beginning of the Herero and Nama genocide when a German official, Lothar von Trotha, ordered that every single man, woman and child of the Herero was to be exterminated. This order was enacted for six weeks, until the German parliament got the Emperor to retract that order and so instead the residents of German South West Africa were merely used as slave labour in concentration camps until 1907.

In 1905, Valdemar Horn, Governor of German Togoland, was tried in a colonial court for having killed an African boy by flogging him to death after he stole a cash box. Horn was fined 900 marks. Elsewhere in German Togoland, in that same year, a District director called Schmidt imprisoned twelve German missionaries without charge for three weeks so that they could not testify against him in a trial over his rape and murder of a twelve year old African girl.

From 1905 to 1906, Adolf Graf von Götzen caused a man made famine in German East Africa by burning crops in order to end the Maji Maji rebellion. The famine killed somewhere between 250,00 and 300,000 people, more than ten times the number of armed rebels.

In 1906, a junior official in the Colonial department leaked that Jesko von Puttkamer, the nine times governor of German Kamerun, had been stealing money from the German state. Puttkamer had long been running a brutal and corrupt administration in which natives were routinely flogged to death, taken as sex slaves, castrated and killed. In one case of casual brutality, 54 Bahoro children were drowned without any provocation by a German soldier. In both 1902 and 1905 the vassal Kings of Kamerun complained to Berlin about this and were in turn imprisoned for 'insubordination'. In 1906, with Puttkamer on trial for breaches of discipline, these Kings were released and Puttkamer was fined 1,000 marks, though he avoided any criminal charges.

Also in 1906, Carl Peters, the man who more than anyone had founded the German Empire in Africa, was restored to the colonial service by Wilhelm II. Peters had been dishonourably discharged in 1897 for killing two African servants without cause, but not only was this was now declared forgiven but the men who had prosecuted him were in turn forced to retire by the German Government.

As a result of all these events, there were some people in Germany during 1906 who felt the German Government was not behaving entirely morally spotlessly in their Empire. Various left wing and liberal parties lined up the Reichstag to take shots at the Government for their handling of the Empire.

Georg Ledebour of the SPD (The Social Democratic Party of Germany) was perhaps one of the most eloquent critics of the German Empire and his speech on it is a classic that deserves to be better known.

"This is the result of the horrible curse of the system of colonial exploitation. If you maintain this colonial system, you also always continue such atrocities. And colonialism will drive this process of brutalization into European society, ... [so that they] completely abandon even the little bit of civilization, cultural sensitivity, and humanity that they had so far preserved in our capitalist era. Because of this reason alone … we Social Democrats reject colonialism."

One of the reasons Lebedour disapproved of colonialism, admittedly was a dislike of race mixing but his genuine outrage at the massacres and forced labour was there too. And Ledebour was speaking for his party on this, under their chairman August Bebel (who had called the Herero genocide "not only barbaric, but bestial" and had in turn being nicknamed 'Bebel the Herero' by the conservative press), the SPD officially opposed any Empire and would try and push for a full German withdrawal if elected. The SPD managed to in fact win a vote in late 1906 to deny the government extra money for their colonial wars.

Bernhard von Bülow, Chancellor of the German Reich, reacted to this loss by dismissing the Reichstag entirely and calling for a new election in 1907 based on the lack of patriotism of his enemies. The election became known as the Hottentot Election as it was based on Bülow's desire to get the money needed to end the Nama rebellion once and for all.

But Bülow also was aware enough of his PR problems to bring in the, much more liberal, Bernhard Dernburg as his new Colonial Secretary, and Dernburg promised to reform the Empire, and make it both ethical and profitable. Against that, Bülow argued, the likes of Bebel and Ledebour just wanted to abandon it. For the German worker, increasingly making money out of colonial jobs, this was an argument that had weight to it, abandoning the empire meant losing those jobs. Even some of Bülow's greatest critics over how the Empire was run, such as the Catholic liberal firebrand Matthias Erzberger, viewed the SPD's idea of completely abandoning it as the greater evil.

Germany at the time had universal suffrage for male citizens older than 25 though women still could not vote and the 1907 election had a turnout of over 80%. The Reichstag was not that powerful, certainly it was much less powerful than the British or French parliaments as the Emperor and his upper chamber of German Princes still held most of the power, but it was representative. The Hottentot Election was therefore a genuine chance for the German people to give their views on the atrocities being committed in their name.

Their verdict was mixed. Bebel and Ledebour's SPD won the most votes, around 29%, and actually gained votes compared to 1903 (though their vote percentage decreased slightly as more men voted in total) but their new voters were overwhelmingly urban and the unequal constituency sizes that favoured rural seats counted against them, as they lost votes in the countryside. The result was that the SPD lost half their seats, something blamed partly on the unfairness of the electoral system but also on their unpatriotic attitude. 1907 would become the high point of the SPD's hostility towards colonialization and the government in general though they would remain critical of the Empire up until 1914.

In 1912 the SPD argued for the legalisation of mixed race marriages in the Empire, something that Ledebour made clear he disapproved of due to his racist views on the matter but to quote him again "I am tolerant enough to say that when people are thrown into such a situation then this is an inevitable result, ... We demand full and free humanity ... [and] that these Germans are not to be defamed and the women they love are not to be defamed." Ledebour wanted the Empire ran as racially blind as possible but he would prefer that Germany didn't have an empire and so the situation of mixed race marriages would never arise, and he made that clear. WWI, however, changed things, in 1917 Georg Ledebour and many of the other more radical members were expelled from the party as a much less combative attitude had taken hold and by 1919 members of the SPD were openly calling for Germany's colonies to be restored to them.

The Centre Party, the party of Matthias Erzberger, did better in 1907 as they benefited from the same rural bias that harmed the SPD, though they only won 19% of the vote, they gained 101 seats to the SPD's 43. However the right wing parties, while more divided, did even better and won enough seats for Bülow to be able to run the Reichstag without either the Centre or the SPD and soon Dernburg's reformist agenda was quietly abandoned. As Wilhelm Dittmann of the SPD put it in 1914, since 1907 the Empire had moved away from atrocities and exterminations, due to a lacked of armed opposition, but not away from forced labour and resource extraction and it could never truly move away from those things, which were killing the Africans as surely as the exterminations had, because they were its reason for being.

If the German people had not fully supported the Imperial status quo in 1907, they had not exactly voted resoundingly against it either. Regardless of the unfairness of the constituency sizes and the First Past the Post system, had a majority of voters actually favoured the SPD, they would have won a majority of seats. They didn't. It is fair to say that they were lied to, German propaganda often emphasised African brutality and painted German actions as self defence. But there were postcards available to sale in Germany which showed the naked beaten bodies of the Herero and the brutalities were a regular subject of debate in both the newspapers and the parliament.

Germany was also not a full democracy, even if every man ignored domestic issues and voted solely against the Empire, and they had no obligation to do so as the Reichstag passed many domestic laws that could be viewed as more important, and bought the SPD to a majority in the Reichstag, that doesn't mean the Colonial Empire would be abandoned. Likely the Emperor would refuse to follow their demands. But, if we are talking about the extent that the common man in Europe helped perpetuate the imperial systems, we cannot ignore that he had a choice to vote for those who argued against those systems and he mostly didn't.

And that was as true in France and the UK as it was in Germany. Germany had the Hottentot elections, but the UK had the Khaki elections of 1900 held during the Second Boer war, which Joseph Chamberlain made, much like Bülow had, a test of Patriotism. 'A vote for the Liberals,' he declared, 'is a vote for the Boers'.

Now the UK had a much smaller suffrage than Germany at the time, like the Germans no women could vote but of men over 25 only 60% had the vote compared to 100% of Germans due to property qualifications. But the result was also far more conclusive, by focusing on the War and the Empire the Conservative and Unionist party was able to firmly defeat a Liberal party which was unable to shake consistent accusations of lack of patriotism and so of being 'little Englanders' who wanted England to remain small and unimportant. The Conservatives refused to engage with the Liberals on the issues Henry Campbell-Bannerman wanted to bring up, instead just pushing that they were the party of colonialism and the Liberals the party of colonial retreat, playing off long battles over other African wars, such as that against the Mahdists, the Zulu and the Ashanti, in which at least some Liberals had argued against new conquests.

And the result was the Conservatives won a large majority of 134 seats, despite accepted wisdom that they were due a loss.

Ultimately, while there was genuine outrage about individual colonial atrocities when reported, imperialism itself was genuinely popular among the voting classes in most major European countries and that element should not be ignored.

But nor should the fact that there was a constitution for anti-imperialism. The party which won the most votes in the Hottentot Election was for a complete abandonment of the German colonial empire and 'little Englanders' reliably spoke up parliament to oppose whatever War the UK was currently waging, such as Thomas Lough's motion against the War of the Golden Stool.

By focusing on Africa in these articles, I have sometimes painted Europe as a monolith, united in a lust for conquest. But that isn't true and never was true. People like Lough and Ledebour, never truly represented the public viewpoint, they were a minority voice, but they existed and that should not be forgotten.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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