The Colonial Problem

franz-xaver-ritter-von-eppGENERAL RITTER VON EPP
Reich Governor in Bavaria, Reich Leader of the Colonial League and the Colonial Board of the National Socialist Party

Germany’s demand for the return of her Colonial possessions has given rise to an animated world-wide discussion that still continues, thus showing that the Colonial problem is one of those most urgently in need of a satisfactory solution. It will be observed, however, that the most essential aspect of the problem -i.e., Germany’s claim that she has a right to demand the return of her former Colonies – is frequently ignored in the discussions. This circumstance suggests the probability that some writers on the subject lack a clear perception of the arguments by which Germany supports her claim, and that they are not familiar with her Colonial necessities as such. The following account of Germany’s standpoint may therefore be found of some use, as it is doubtful whether a successful outcome of the discussion can be hoped for if it is not based on a sound knowledge of the facts.

Germany was a late-comer in the Colonial sphere.  She only entered it in the last quarter of the past century, when it became apparent that the unclaimed regions of the world were about to be finally distributed among the Powers. She then acquired certain territories in Africa and in the Southern Pacific of which it could be expected that their possession would satisfy at least some of her economic necessities. Her action was in no way prompted by Imperialist motives, but was the direct outcome of a development that had converted her from an agricultural into a highly-industrialised country within a few decades. The more she became industrialised, the greater became her need of imports from abroad, as her own resources of raw materials have always been insufficient. Two reasons combined to bring about her industrialisation: first, the large increase in her population, and second, the unique technical progress achieved ever since. In 1800, her population amounted to about 20,000,000; a century later it had risen to 56,000,000, and in 1914 it had reached a total of 67,800,000. It had thus more than trebled; but as the size of the country had remained almost unchanged, it follows that the “space forces” had decreased by two-thirds.

Additional industries were constantly growing up. A large part of their output was exported, whilst those raw materials and foodstuffs which could not be produced at home were imported. Without such an interchange of commodities, it would have been impossible to provide enough food and work for the steadily growing population. All this development, however, was based on the then existing system of universal free trade. It was taken for granted that peace would continue indefinitely, and that the sanctity of private property and the business man’s initiative would continue to be respected as usual.

The acquisition of Colonial territories by Germany was intended to provide her with a reservoir of supplementary “space forces,” a matter which has at all times been considered the premier aim of all Colonising activities. How firmly this conviction was shared by all the Colonial powers may be gathered from the conclusion of the Congo Convention (1885), which was signed by Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, the United States, Italy, Portugal, and a number of other countries. Article I I of the Congo Act provided that, should any power exercising in Central Africa the rights of sovereignty or those conferred by a protectorate be involved in war, the others would endeavour to ensure that its Central African possessions should be declared neutral, and that they should be treated as though they belonged to a neutral State. The term” Central Africa,” as here used, included not only the whole of the Belgian Congo, but also the whole of German and British East Africa, about one-third of the Cameroons, Uganda, Nyassaland, a small part of Northern Rhodesia, and about one-half of French Equatorial Africa. All these wide domains were to be kept outside the range of a possible European war, and their integrity was to be respected.

Germany vigorously applied herself to the opening-up of her Colonial Empire as soon as the initial difficulties had been overcome. The task was enormous; and Germany had practically no experience as a Colonising power. Large parts of her Colonies had never been explored previous to their peaceable and lawful acquisition by Germany. The natives had to be brought in touch with the administrative system. For reasons of internal policy, the capital required for all these purposes did not flow freely into the Colonies during the first couple of decades; but their opening-up proceeded apace in spite of that drawback; roads and other means of transportation and communication were built, and economic progress was unmistakable. The value of the Colonial export trade increased from 25,000,000 Reichsmarks in 1903 to 160,000,000 Reichsmarks in 1913; and the importance of the Colonies as markets for manufactured articles was steadily growing. By 1914, after less than thirty years of opening-up work, a state of development had been attained that promised well for the future.

It is quite true that Germany’s trade with her Colonies formed a small fraction only of her total trade in those years; but this circumstance has no bearing upon the present economic situation. In the pre-War days, when Free Trade was a fact and not a mere name, and when no obstacles were placed in the way of any country’s foreign trade, Germany was not actually dependent upon the produce of her own Colonies. Besides, she was a large creditor country; she had invested huge sums in all parts of the globe, and she could buy all the necessary raw materials and foodstuffs without endangering her currency.

And then the War broke out. The solemn undertaking given by the signatories of the Congo Act was ignored by Germany’s opponents. On August 2nd, 1914, Dr. Solf, the Colonial Secretary, relying upon the provisions of the Act, advised the administrative authorities of German East Africa by telegram that the Colonies would not be involved in the impending war, and that the European settlers need not fear any complications. A few days later, Great Britain started hostilities in East Africa, and the Colonies became a theatre of war.

This obvious violation of a given undertaking was afterwards sanctioned at Versailles, although those who dispossessed Germany of her Colonies had no legal title to do so. On December 14th, 1917, President Wilson stated before Congress that the War was not to be terminated by an act of revenge, and that no nation and no people should be robbed or penalised; and on February 11th, 1918, he added, that “there shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages.” This was also implied in the fifth of the President’s Fourteen Points, which provided for “a free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all Colonial claims.” Germany accepted the whole of the Fourteen Points by her note of October 3rd; and the Allied and Associated Powers also accepted them after the precise meaning of Point Five had been explained in the so-called Lyons wireless message of October 29th, 1918, which was a report drawn up by American delegates at the request of Colonel House, the President’s confidential adviser. As regards the “justified Colonial Claims of Germany,” it was said in the message that Germany must have access to the tropics and their raw materials, that she needed space for her excess population, and that, in conformity with the proposed terms of peace, the conquest of Colonial territories did not give her opponents a legal title to their possession. In the note of the American Secretary of State (Mr. Lansing) dated November 5th, 1918, it was stated again on behalf of the Allied and Associated Powers that President Wilson’s Fourteen Points were to be the sole basis for the contemplated peace.

In spite of these unambiguous declarations, Germany was forced to surrender her overseas possessions (Art. 119 of the Versailles Treaty), although the unwisdom of making her do so was pointed out in many quarters. According to the secret minutes of the Council of Ten (January 24th, 1919), the Allied and Associated Powers were very far from viewing the whole question with unanimity. President Wilson expressed himself as follows:

The world will say that the Powers first of all divided among themselves the defenceless parts of the globe and then proceeded to create a League of Nations. The naked truth is that every one of these parts has been allotted to a big Power. I wish to say quite openly that the world will never tolerate such a proceeding, which will make the League of Nations impossible, and we shall have to revert to the system of competitive armaments, huge accumulations of debt, and the heavy burden of large armies.

To-day it is only too evident that the President’s forecast has come true. As the Powers did not want to lose their hold on the German Colonies, the mandatory system as set forth in Article 22 of the League Covenant was invented. It is interesting to recall the following remarks made by Mr. Lansing in 1921:

It may appear surprising that the big Powers lent their support so readily to the new method of gaining an apparently limited control of the conquered territories, and that they did not try to acquire full sovereign rights over them. There is no need to look far for an adequate and very practical reason. If Germany’s Colonial possessions had been divided among the victors in accordance with the usual method, and if they had been transferred to them with all the rights of sovereignty, Germany would have been entitled to demand that the value of such ceded territories should be credited to her reparations account. The League, however, was supposed to distribute the mandates in the interests of the inhabitants; and the mandates were to be regarded as obligations, but not as a means for the acquisition of additional territory. In this way, the mandatory system deprived Germany of her Colonies, the value of which would have considerably reduced her indebtedness towards the Allies, whilst the latter acquired the Colonies without losing any claim to compensation. Actually, therefore, the apparent altruism of the mandatory system favoured the selfish and material interests of the Powers by whom the mandates were taken over.

In order to justify the seizure of the Colonies and their transfer, under mandates, to the supreme control of the League, it was asserted that Germany was incapable of administering Colonial populations. In the notes dated July 16th, 19 I 9, it is stated among others that

The Allied and Associated Powers are satisfied that the native inhabitants of the German Colonies are strongly opposed to being again brought under Germany’s sway, and the record of German rule, the traditions of the German Government, and the use to which these Colonies were put as bases from which to prey upon the commerce of the world, make it impossible for the Allied and Associated Powers to return them to Germany, or to entrust to her the responsibility for the training and education of their inhabitants.

These charges were based on the” Report on the Natives of South-West Africa and their Treatment by Germany,” issued by the Administrator’s Office, Windhoek, South-West Africa, concerning which the District Council for South-West Africa unanimously resolved on July 29th, 1926, that it was an instrument of war, and that the time had come for discontinuing its use. General Hertzog, the South African Prime Minister, stated on January 28th, 1927: “The unreliability and worthlessness of the document in question were sufficient to condemn it to the same disgraceful oblivion as all similar documents dating from the time of the war.” And it is interesting to note in this connection that Mr. Amery, the former Secretary for the Colonies, expressed himself in a similar manner in January 1937, by way of replying to my explanation of the German view on the Colonial problem, when he said: “As regards Germany’s inability to rule native populations, that is an assertion like many others made in the speeches and even in the official documents originating in the unhealthy atmosphere of those days.” This latter statement should be read in conjunction with a remark on President Wilson and the mandatory system made by Mr. Lansing: “His noble mind and his lofty views made him blind to the base motives which seem to have been at the root of the general consent given to his beloved mandatory system.”

It follows from the foregoing explanations that the alleged reasons for placing the German Colonies under mandates, and therefore those for the continuance of the mandatory system itself, are untenable. Contrary to a belief prevalent in some quarters, there has never been any actual annexation of the Colonies by the mandatory Powers. If it were otherwise, the question might well be asked: Why should there be any mandatory system at all? And what is the use of Article 22 of the League Covenant, which was intended to form an integral whole together with Article 119 of the Versailles Treaty? The fact that, in accordance with the last-named articles, Germany had to surrender her Colonies to the principal Allied Powers, does not imply a transfer of her sovereignty. (Cf. the corresponding provisions respecting Memel and Danzig in Articles 99 and 100.)

Germany, therefore, has a proper legal claim to the return of her Colonies. The German people are profoundly conscious of having such a claim and regard the existing position as a serious discrimination against themselves. It is evident that the question of the Colonies is at the same time a question of equality of status.

Germany’s demand, however, is not only based on legal and moral grounds, but is supported by weighty economic reasons as well. There are many people outside Germany who do not realise the exceedingly unfavourable conditions which she has to endure in many respects. The Versailles Treaty has deeply undermined the foundations of her economic life. Apart from the loss of her Colonial empire, that treaty also forced her to surrender 13 per cent. of her territory at home, together with the valuable mineral and agricultural resources contained in those parts, as well as her entire mercantile tonnage. The confiscation of German property abroad was sanctioned by the terms of the treaty. Germany’s foreign investments, which represented a value far exceeding £ 1,000,000,000 gold, were taken away from their rightful owners by a stroke of the pen. In addition, she was asked to pay fantastic sums by way of reparation. After she had done so for a number of years, it was seen that a continuance of these payments was an absolute impossibility. In order to make the payments on reparations account, she had been compelled to contract so large a foreign debt that, after the lapse of ten years or so, her liabilities towards her creditors abroad were almost as large as the value of her pre-War foreign investments. This foreign indebtedness accounts for the gigantic losses her gold and foreign-exchange reserves have sustained since 1931.

As time advances, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Versailles Treaty has brought about a serious disturbance in the world’s equilibrium. It has given rise to an economic development throughout the world the ultimate effect of which has been to reverse completely pre-War conditions. Before the War, the markets for raw materials were unfettered by any restrictions, and long-term commercial treaties guaranteed the freedom of international trade. The economic era, however, which dates from Versailles, is characterised by protectionist, selfish, and monopolist tendencies. Most countries, notably the United States, the United Kingdom and France, have surrounded themselves with high tariff walls, and have introduced every possible device for promoting trade within their own territories and for preventing the products of other countries from entering them.

Thus, present-day Germany finds herself confronted with the following facts: Considerable territorial losses in Europe and abroad; the complete loss of her foreign assets; a large debt resulting from her reparations payments, and the impossibility of importing sufficient quantities of those commodities vitally necessary for maintaining the standard of living of her population and for ensuring the continued existence of her national economy itself. The consequence of her declining export trade was that the foundation on which her economic system had been based for more than a century suffered a considerable contraction. Even though her Colonies may have been relatively unimportant to the balance of her foreign trade in pre-War time, present economic conditions are so different that the possession or non-possession of Colonies is a question of the very first importance.

All these circumstances have to be taken into account by those who want to understand the justice of Germany’s Colonial claims on economic grounds. The fact that governs the whole situation is this: The centre of Europe is inhabited by a nation which, despite every effort made, finds it impossible to safeguard the foundations of its existence by making use of the resources provided by its native soil.

Before the War, Germany had started to develop, on systematic lines, all those resources of the areas subject to her sovereignty which were-and which are-necessary for the maintenance of her surplus population. At Versailles, however, her Colonial empire (which, although but small, was of great importance to her) was divided among nations that were in no need of additional Colonial possessions. Besides, these nations had so many other matters to attend to that they were not in a position to engage in the work of opening-up the mandated areas. It can be shown that the development of the mandated territories – not only as regards the production of raw materials, but also in connection with many other items ¬ has received far less attention than that of countries adjacent to them where the climatic conditions are very similar. It is very instructive to compare, for example, the export totals of oleaginous seeds and fruits from Togoland and the Cameroons with those from the Belgian Congo and Nigeria, those of timber from the Cameroons with those from French Equatorial Africa, and those of cotton from German East Africa (Tanganyika) with those from Uganda and Kenya. Comparisons such as these indicate that the Colonial possessions of the European countries concerned are developed far more systematically than the territories under mandate. The development of the transportation system in the latter has almost come to a standstill since the advent of the mandatory administrations, as may be seen from the following figures:

Railways open to traffic
or in course of construction.
1914. 1934.
East Africa……… 2,171 km. 2,215 km. 44 km.
South-West Africa……………… 2,178 2,357 179
Cameroons……… 443 504 61
Togoland………… 327 442 115


Thus, almost the whole railway system of the mandated territories dates back to the twenty odd years of German rule, whilst the mandatory Powers have hardly done anything since to extend it. Equally slight has been the increase in the export trade of the Colonies since their taking-over by the mandatory Powers. During the period from 1908- 13, i.e., within five years, the total value of their exports went up from £1,400,000 to £8,000,000, which is undoubtedly a clear proof of Germany’s successful Colonial work in Africa and in the Southern Pacific. By 1936, after seventeen years of mandatory rule, that figure had only risen to £10,000,000 gold. The increase, therefore, has been remarkably slight.

Even in their present state of development, the Colonies could do much to ease Germany’s economic difficulties. They could supply considerable percentages of the raw materials she requires. Based on the export statistics for 1936, these percentages work out as follows: Oleaginous seeds and fruits, 14 per cent.; flax, hemp, etc., 43 per cent. (for sisal alone, 261 per cent.); cocoa, 61 per cent.; coffee, 13 per cent.; bananas, 61 per cent.; mineral phosphates, 49 per cent. Other important raw materials that could be imported from the Colonies are hides and skins, cotton, timber, wool, rubber, and various cereals.

No attention has been paid so far to the considerable possibilities of future development. In view of the relative neglect of the mandated territories by their present rulers, we are justified in assuming that their production totals can be greatly augmented within a short period of time. Experts with a good knowledge of all the facts have ascertained that, on a conservative estimate, the value of the exports can be raised to £30,000,000 gold within eight or ten years, provided that intensive methods of cultivation are employed. This means that the mandated territories could supply Germany with 12 or 15 per cent. of her import requirements. It is obvious that this would materially ease Germany’s foreign-exchange position and her international trade relations and would, above all, give her a feeling of economic security.

To make such an increase possible, it would be necessary, of course, to accelerate very considerably the pace at which the opening-up of the Colonies takes place, both through private initiative and by means of Government assistance. A typical example of the great success that can be achieved by systematic work in the right direction is afforded by the Gold Coast Colony, where the cultivation of cocoa was introduced about the turn of the century. In 1906, about 8,000 tons of it could be exported; and by 1936 that figure had risen to as much as 306,000 tons, so that the Gold Coast is now the principal producer of cocoa. As the climatic and geographical conditions of the Cameroons are very similar to those of the Gold Coast, it would seem quite possible to increase the cocoa production of that country very greatly within a short time. The same possibility presents itself for a number of other products that are of value to Germany as foodstuffs or as industrial raw materials, e.g. timber, oleaginous fruits, sisal, and rubber.

Before the War, there was no need for Germany to adjust her foreign trade with an eye to her Colonies. Today, however, large quantities of Colonial produce could be used to cover the needs of the mother country; and the part not thus used could be sold in other markets. In this way, foreign exchange would become available for purchases in other countries.

All the suggestions put forward with a view to making Germany renounce her Colonial claim fail to do justice to the requirements of the country’s body economic. It has been said that Germany ought to make use of the numerous facilities afforded by “the open door.” But if we look at that “open door,” we find that it is very carefully locked indeed. It has already been emphasised that the principal countries of the world have adopted undiluted protectionism since 1924. Great Britain, more especially, has secured for herself a very favourable position in the great raw material markets by the Ottawa agreements. She, therefore, can hardly claim the right to speak of other countries’ freedom of access to raw materials. A glance at the customs lists and import regulations of practically all parts of the British Empire, Dominions as well as Crown Colonies, shows that the products of non-British countries (more particularly finished articles, in the export of which Germany specialises) are treated far less favourably than those originating within the British Empire. Another example of the tendency on the part of the large Colonial Powers to establish a privileged position for their own products is Britain’s policy in Nigeria and the Gold Coast Colony where a quota system for textiles based on the import figures for 1935 has just been introduced. This step is a serious handicap to the trade of the non-British countries, as 1935 was in many respects a year of bad trade. Since then the purchasing capacity of the inhabitants has considerably improved, so that Great Britain alone will reap the resulting advantage. Besides, nearly all the Colonial territories have established a system of discriminating export duties that make it difficult for Germany to obtain a sufficiency of Colonial produce. All this shows how threadbare is the assertion sometimes heard that the have-nots need only set aside an adequate amount of foreign exchange if they want to share in the Colonial wealth. The very fact that payment must be made in foreign exchange puts us at a disadvantage. Besides, nations deprived of their investments abroad can only obtain foreign exchange by selling their goods.

Experience has shown that Germany is not in a position to sell large quantities of her manufactured products in the mandated territories. This applies still more to the actual Colonies of the European Powers, in whose trade the latter-as a rule-have the lion’s share. France’s share in the import trade of Morocco is 43.7 per cent., Great Britain’s share in that of Nigeria is 55.2 per cent., and Belgium’s share in that of the Congo is 43.4 per cent., whilst Germany’s share in the trade of these and numerous other African territories is very slight. Her trade with them is for the most part passive, because even now imports from them considerably exceed her exports to them. The mandated territories are no exception to this rule, notwithstanding the status of economic equality supposed to exist there. The following figures indicate the losses Germany has incurred in her trade with some of her former Colonies since they have ceased to be administered by her.


South West Africa. German East Africa.
1912. 1933. 1912. 1933.
Percentage of Total Imports
Imports from Germany…………………. 81.4 11.1 51.3 10.2
Imports from British Empire……………………. 13.2 77.7 22.5 46.1
Percentage of Total Exports
Exports to Germany… 83.1 18.5 56.7 11.8
Exports to British Empire……………………. 1.1 64.1 10.8 53.9


These figures show how greatly the share of the British Empire in the trade with these two mandated territories has increased at the expense of Germany. Everywhere the Colonial Powers predominate in the import trade of their Colonies and in that of the mandated territories administered by them. Their nationals are sure to get all the orders from public authorities and also those of any importance from most private firms.

Since all the big Colonial Powers have taken successful steps in recent years to cover an increasing part of their import requirements within the areas subject to their political influence, it is difficult to understand why Colonial possessions should be a burden to the countries that own them – an assertion sometimes made to refute Germany’s Colonial claim. The share of the United Kingdom in the import trade of the British Empire went up from 31 per cent. to 42 per cent. within twelve years, and that in the export trade from 41 per cent. to 49 per cent. The same tendency may be observed in regard to France, where the share of the Colonies in the import trade of the mother country increased from 10 per cent. to 26 per cent. in ten years and that in the export trade from 14 per cent. to 32 per cent. Such developments could only take place at the expense of other countries, largely at that of Germany. But even apart from these facts, it is strange to hear it sometimes said that Colonies are of no value. If that were true, the return of the German Colonies would be felt by the mandatory Powers as a relief, and not as a sacrifice. In Germany it has been noticed with interest that such a view of the Colonial problem has frequently been advanced by British writers on the subject.

From all that has been said it may be inferred that the Colonial question is not simply a “raw-material question.” There is no chance of Germany ever being able to extend her trade unless she is reinstated in the possession of her Colonies. The point of cardinal importance, in view of her foreign-exchange position, is that she must be enabled to obtain from territories subject to her own sovereignty, where her own currency circulates, a considerable part of those raw materials and foodstuffs that have now to be paid for in foreign exchange. In this way alone will it be possible for her trade to gain that measure of security and stability which she so urgently needs in the economic domain. Customs facilities and the removal of trade restrictions are insufficient to do justice to her requirements, however desirable they are in other respects.

Germany asks only for the return of territories that were her own property before she had to relinquish possession of them. She demands nothing unfair, and has no design upon the Colonial possessions of other countries. She only desires to recover those overseas territories to which she has a legal title. It is evident that her claim is directed in the first instance against Great Britain, whose Government was chiefly instrumental in depriving her of their possession. In addition, most of the Colonies are now administered by countries that are constituent parts of the British Empire.

It has been shown that Germany has an unchallengeable claim to the return of the Colonies, based on legal and moral grounds, and on the right of every nation to safeguard the interests vital to its existence. This latter necessity is especially urgent in Germany’s case because of the many restrictions to which her commerce is subject. Her demand is not prompted by a desire to stop up any temporary gaps in the system of her supplies, but rather by a determination to pursue a Colonial policy intended to bring about the economic assimilation of the mother country and the Colonies. Her sole aim is of an economic kind; and all allegations to the effect that she wants to turn her Colonies into military bases are groundless. The Anglo-German naval pact ought to be sufficient proof of the futility of such allegations.

The great task with which the statesmen of the present generation are faced is to establish a lasting peace among the nations. No Government anxious to collaborate in it can want to maintain indefinitely a policy by which a nation of 68,000,000 people is to be deprived of its vital rights. The Versailles doctrine of the advantages to be derived from a system of arbitrary restrictions must be abandoned, more particularly in so far as it applies to restrictions that are meant to be of a punitive kind. Germany therefore expects that the Colonial clauses of the Versailles Treaty will be made the subject of a revision that does justice to her legitimate claims. The solution of the problem must be effected by the method of negotiations, because – as the Führer has said – “the Colonial problem is not a question of peace or war.” Once Germany has regained her proper share in the opening-up of overseas territories, her economic system will function normally again and – above all – a valuable contribution will have been rendered to the recovery of international trade. Such a solution will provide the basis for the peaceful co-operation of the white nations and will initiate a lasting epoch of quiet development. It is the hope of all right-minded people that common sense – so indispensable to all human progress – will prevail in the method of handling Germany’s Colonial problem.

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