Most people who have read anything about history have learned about colonialism, how several European nations invaded, took over and ran large areas of the world as colonies of various kinds until the middle of the 20th century.
Most people who have read anything about colonialism will think of Portugal, Spain, France and above all, Britain. However, there was another European nation that came late to colonialism, but managed to acquire control of a great deal of territory: Germany.
Germany did not formally exist as a nation until 1871, when the king of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany, after the German alliance defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The route to the German nation was managed by one of Europe’s best politicians, Otto von Bismarck.
Bismarck was not much interested in colonies, preferring to make Germany the dominant nation in Europe. However newly united Germany caught the empire disease and many citizens and politicians pushed for Germany to acquire an empire. So in 1884-85 Bismarck called for a conference to meet in Berlin. This Berlin Conference brought together many European nations, with the intend of dividing up Africa among them in an orderly way.
Germany did acquire significant African territory, partly based on previous German mercantile and missionary efforts. Germany took Togo, part of Cameroon, Namibia and what was once called Tanganyika (today’s Tanzania). The German interest in empire was not satisfied by those big chunks of Africa. The Germans wanted territory in the Pacific, justified by previous commercial and missionary activity.
In 1884, Germany declared a protectorate over part of New Guinea (Papua) and some of the adjacent islands, calling them the Bismarck archipelago. The Germans were also interested in Samoa, where German business was involved in the production of copra. They became involved in a series of civil wars in Samoa, along with the Americans, who were interested in a naval station. In a little known incident, three German warships and three American ships came perilously close to a shooting war, but a typhoon in 1889 sank all six warships. The Germans, Americans and British grudgingly cooperated with each other until a treaty in 1899 divided up the Samoan islands, splitting them between the Germans and Americans, with the British getting compensation by declaring protectorates over other islands.
The Americans and Spanish fought a war in 1898. The Americans took over the Philippines and Guam. Spain decided to exit the Pacific, and sold the remaining Spanish islands to Germany—including the Marshall, Caroline and Mariana Islands. Germany occupied them in 1900.
The Germans were envious of the British concessions in Hong Kong. Two German missionaries were murdered in China in 1898, which the Germans used as an excuse to invade China and claim their target, the bay and town called Tsingtao (the modern name is Qingdao). They took over the place in 1898, forcing the Chinese to sign a 99-year lease (called a “Concession”). They built a German-style town, a naval base and used it as a base for extending German commerce into China’s interior.
In 1898-1900 there was a complex situation in China called the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers were a Chinese group dedicated to getting rid of Western influence in China. They put the “International settlement” in Beijing under siege, and a European and Japanese (and American) intervention marched to the capital to rescue the diplomats and their staffs. The German contingent of 20,000 troops got there late, but was notably brutal. The Kaiser (the German emperor) had told his troops before they departed, to act like the Huns of old. They did. And that speech by the Kaiser was used by the British in World War 1 to label the Germans as barbaric Huns.
In 1914, the German Pacific included Papua and the Bismarck archipelago, part of Samoa, Tsingtao, and the Marshalls, Carolines and Marianas island chains. The only significant German military was at Tsingtao on China’s coast, where their Far Eastern fleet was located. In 1914 when World War 1 began, Australia, New Zealand and Japan declared war on Germany. The Japanese were by far the strongest military in most of the Pacific, and the German fleet was no match for the Japanese navy, which had annihilated a huge Russian fleet in 1905. The German fleet under Admiral von Spee set sail for Europe, won a battle with the British off the Chilean coast and met destruction by another British fleet in the icy waters of the Falkland islands.
The only significant ground fighting in Asia in World War 1 was the Japanese siege of the German Tsingtao colony. A large Japanese force, together with a small British contingent, forced Tsingtao’s surrender in November of 1914. The Japanese captured 4,700 Germans and Austrians, and interned them in Japan. Unlike the next world war, the prisoners were well treated, and more than a hundred chose to stay in Japan after the war ended.
The Australians invaded Papua in 1914 and occupied it. A force from New Zealand occupied Samoa, and the Japanese occupied the three island arcs. There was little more fighting save a few German raiders attacking Allied shipping. The Japanese Navy did most of the patrols searching out German raiders.
Some of the islands the Australians and Japanese took from Germany in 1914 became very important in World War 2, when American forces pushed through the island arcs toward Japan, and when Australian and American forces fought the Japanese in New Guinea and the Solomons.
Today, almost nothing remains of the short-lived German Pacific empire.
Except one thing. The Germans built a brewery in Tsingdao. And made a very good beer. It’s still marketed in the United States as Tsingtao beer, and is still considered one of the better beers in China.
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