Dubious lustrum


An account of both the African and decolonised Germany's perspectives after five years of "good [if not better] colonialism". In other words, the Western story of a good master following bad one

⏳  1,200 words

Among some thrilling novelties, the Paris Conference of 1919 saw the birth of the African (and implicitly including Asian) native voice. Though when asked in retrospect, the colonial, sub-imperialist and imperialist delegations would not acknowledge to have fathered this development by whatever means. The militarily decisive input of the United States resulted in the Entente's necessity to somehow accommodate US President Woodrow Wilson's claims. Moreover, the American's Fourteen Points peace proposal, among others calling for the institution of the right of self-determination, served as a blueprint for the ongoing Armistice. At the conference's opening, the 1918 ceasefire agreement had just been prolonged.

It went differently. In the run-up to the conference, the African National Congress vainly requested the admission of its delegation. Its request was turned down by the Allied and United States delegates, first and foremost the British delegations. At this stage, one may expect nothing else but the singular form: David Lloyd George's delegation. This went differently as well.

Long before the familiar questions such as reparation payments by the excluded Germans were to be handled, the British secretly felt an urgent need to accommodate the American figurehead. From a historical perspective, a huge price was to be paid for their apparent success.

In Paris, the Winter of 1919, one of the novelties was that the British conference lead came up with actively gathered voices from the colonised under German rule to cement moral and humanitarian arguments for its colonial settlement concept. Its field research appeared to have been carried out in African parts of the enemy's largely conquered empire overseas. In the opening scene, Lloyd George's delegation surprised friend and foe by presenting a British Imperial Delegation consisting of colonists from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Additional representatives from India and Canada made a total of one crown colony and four dominions. Dominion is an English euphemism for colony. Consequently, the order of an overloaded conference calendar did not at all suit the British lead. To legitimise the Imperial Delegation and make their colonial coup work, they successfully pressed for the colonial question's prioritisation. The initial protest of the other delegates subsided. As a matter of fact, particularly the French conference host would follow its Entente partner in stepping up all kinds of claims on Weimar Germany. The surprisingly new reality was that the combined force of the French and US delegations did not put in more weight than the twin delegations under the Union Jack. After one month of inter-Allied deliberations marking the second and final extension of the 1918 Armistice, the solution to the colonial question (Point Five) in relation to the agreed treatment of Wilson's main idea for the foundation of a League of Nations (Point Fourteen), was brought about by the Imperial Delegation under the lead of Jan Christiaan Smuts. Whereas it would take months before the corresponding details became known to the disinvited, singularly objectified Germans, the Anglo-American conference leaders travelled back to respectively London and Washington leaving the French host alone with the Japanese and Italians until mid-March.

What price were to be paid? In the self-staged process, both Wilson and his Entente friends forfeited their sincerity. Self-determination would remain a noble aim on paper. The natives were qualitatively put under tutelage. The unilateral and scarcely verifiable representation of their voice on the treatment under German rule left no space for alternative interpretations. The historical argument of British-British tutelages ranged from the grassroots level to the brand-new level of international organisation, i.e. the League. The French Entente partner as well as Belgium and Japan joined them in this would-be internationalised format of colonialism. For its part, Portugal did not even need to report to the League like the previously mentioned colonisers, because it was allowed to annex its share, i.e. the southern strip of German East-Africa. Altogether, one may well argue that irreparable damage was caused to the prospects of a sustainable peace with Germany's newly created republic.

In a historical retrospective, the colonial conference coup matched the story of the World War's outbreak. Before hostilities began on what would become the Western front, England's colonial soldiers were the first to open fire, that is outside Europe, laying the groundwork for the definition of world war.1 In what may be termed the dictated treaty's second-to-none totalitarian chapter, Germany was completely stripped of its colonial empire. When the African was said to have cast his vote in favour of other Europeans replacing the German "masters", how did she or he after all see this from a historical perspective? At least a few years had to go by before the experience of successive exploitations and administrations could be evaluated bottom-up. Technically, the replacing colonisers, termed mandated states, were to report annually to the League. Though over the complete lifetime of the Weimar republic, this organisation would solely be led by British incumbents. Any measure of impartiality does not seem to have been possible. An open research question remains: did the African in any way confirm the British, Allied and Wilsonian argument for Germany's all-time exclusion from the "civilisation mission"?

We can be sure that the tales of sky-high reparations or war guilt clause are going to be repeated in mainstream historiography. Indeed, this would have been enough to swallow for any nation put on trial in a way the new Germany was. The diktat's real burden may have grown beyond the comprehension of either party. Thus, it is about time to modernise history writing and construct a transnational culture of memory.

Even when there are not plenty of native sources on this decolonisation avant la lettre, these should be brought together in a single postcolonial project. When the years and decades went by, up to three generations of native population – being originally colonised by latecomer Germany – were virtually able to give testimony to a non-linear experience of colonial rule. Having been ruled and exploited as subjects of the German colonial empire, another "master" replaced the beaten and subsequently interned Germans, of whom the lion's share was consequentially deported in respectively 1914–1916, 1918 or 1919. In the realm of secondary literature, just a recent prize-winning example is named here: Abdulrazak Gurnah's Afterlives (2021). More and more evidence of a contrary stance to the Paris Winter 1919 argumentation has erupted over the past decades.

A complementary research question may sound not less intriguing: Should "white" decolonisation such as the British internationalised one of Germany be included in the definition of this twentieth-century process? The timeline would thus not start in 1945 but some quarter of a century before the end of the Second World War. From the overall perspective, a postcolonial plea for inclusion would make sense. African perspectives should prevail over Eurocentrism. In my 2018 centenary title, I listed the arguments making the totalitarian-chapter thesis feasible. As a cooperative follow-up to that, the post-centenary 2020 founding of Aufa100 provides an independent platform for research on postcolonial lacunae.

Peter de Bourgraaf


1. The Great War Group, X, 8 August 2023. Alhaji Grunshi on Wikipedia.