Second Great War:
Germany's Colonial Empire

Note: We returned to our Second Great War setting for the Dog Days 2016 Golden Journal, which features tough German marines defending New Guinea from Australian invaders in a variant for Panzer Grenadier: The Kokoda Campaign, complete with 24 new laser-cut and mounted playing pieces.

Imperial Germany stumbled into a colonial empire during a very brief window in the mid-1880’s as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck briefly relented on his staunch opposition to overseas entanglements in order to placate some key constituencies. Bismarck foresaw, correctly, that colonies could never come close to recovering the cost of administering and defending them, and would in turn serve to justify massive expenditure on a fleet the Empire did not otherwise need (and which could not, and ultimately did not, do anything to protect the colonies in case of war).

When the Great War erupted in August 1914, Germany had four colonies in Africa, three of them fairly large, and a scattering of small ones in Asia and the Pacific. Tsingtao on the north-east coast of China, the most valuable of these outposts, had been developed into a naval base and commercial center. The Germans also held the north-eastern quarter of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago off its coast, the northernmost of the Solomon Islands, Saipan, Tinian and Rota in the Marianas Islands (the United States ruled Guam), Western Samoa, and a large number of small islands in the Marshal and Caroline chains.

Germany's Pacific empire. Open in new tab to embiggen the image.

German colonial officials made an impressive start at bringing the benefits of Western culture to these lands, building roads, schools and hospitals in all of them (all of those with sufficient size or population, anyway) and railroads in most of them. They also brought some detriments, like taxation and in some instances forced labor. Resistance to German rule was met with crushing, and at times genocidal, military force.

The smaller German colonies fell swiftly to Allied occupation; the German Marines garrisoning Tsingtao put up stout resistance against a huge Japanese attacking force before surrendering as did the colonial forces in Kamerun and South-West Africa. In German East Africa the small colonial army fought to defend the colony’s ports and borders, and then melted into the jungles in the face of overwhelming force.

German New Guinea and the Pacific islands had no military garrisons, only tiny police forces that could put up no real resistance. Australian troops occupied New Guinea and the nearby islands, New Zealanders took Samoa, and the Japanese occupied the rest.

Design Note: This is the history we know. The Second Great War’s alternative history branches off from our reality at the end of 1916, with Woodrow Wilson negotiating a “peace without annexations.” Mostly without annexations, anyway.

The Christmas Armistice of 1916 found almost all of the German colonies under Allied occupation, with the exception of the backwoods regions of Tanganyika still controlled by Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his small army of colonial Schütztruppe. During the negotiations that followed, Germany demanded the return of all their colonies and reparations for Allied looting. While the British, French and Belgians grudgingly agreed, the Japanese held out. Japan had been promised Tsingtao, the German Marianas, the Marshalls and the Carolines, and the Japanese intended to keep them. After bitter negotiations the Japanese withdrew their garrisons from the islands, keeping only Tsingtao. To compensate for that loss, the British ceded the Southern Solomon Islands and Zanzibar to Germany. All sides declared themselves dissatisfied, but none of them proved willing to renew the war.

German administrators returned to their colonies in the spring of 1917 to find them utterly devastated. The Allied occupiers had removed anything of value and destroyed many of the buildings erected by the Germans before the war. Local inhabitants who’d served the colonial government as teachers or police returned to work and received their back pay, while many veterans of the just-concluded war came to the colonies seeking adventure, a new start, or just an escape from post-war reality.

New Guinea and its adjacent archipelago became a major destination for these German emigrants of the Lost Generation. Rabaul acquired the Tsingtao Brewery and cabaret nightlife modeled on that of Berlin. Regular airship passenger service began in 1922. Mines and plantations on both the mainland and the islands produced a steadily-increasing stream of wealth, and the big airships brought fortune-seekers and grifters to the colony as well as stolid junior bankers.

Papuan recruits train under German command.

Unwilling to see the Pacific colonies lost as easily as in 1914, the Imperial government charged the Navy with their defense. A small, professional garrison (Marines and East African askaris, supplemented by locally-recruited troops) would serve as the final line of defense. But it would be the South Pacific Squadron that provided the real defense: enemies would be kept at arm’s length. Built around a quartet of battle cruisers, the colony’s naval defense included cruisers, destroyers and airships as well. The main base at Rabaul had a large floating dock able to repair any of the squadron’s ships, plus extensive tank farms for fuel and hardened ammunition depots. There would be no round-the-world cruise like that of Graf von Spee and his East Asia Squadron in 1914: this time, the Germans intended to stay and fight for their colonies.

Smaller bases dotted Germany’s Pacific holdings, notably at Palau and Truk. A small base and garrison defended Saipan, which had developed a valuable sugar industry based chiefly on German immigrants, the island’s previous Spanish colonial rulers having removed most of the native inhabitants to Guam.

None of the Pacific colonies matched Germany’s African holdings for political or economic value to the Empires. Tens of thousands of Germans moved to Africa in the 1920’s and 1930’s, mostly to Tanganyika where they farmed cocoa, coffee and other export crops. A steadily-expanding rail system brought these crops to market, with Dar es Salaam developing into a major port. Small armies of locally-raised Schütztruppe defended these colonies, based on the same conscription laws (with generous deferments) in place in Germany. As in the Pacific, the Germans did not intend to yield their colonies easily.

Design Note: This is based loosely on the pre-Great War German Colonial Society’s visions of the future of their colonial empire. The Colonial Society saw a bright economic future, but paid scant heed to the obvious social problems on the horizon.

By 1940, a full generation of Africans, Papuans and Pacific Islanders had grown up under the German colonial regime, attended its schools, served in its armed forces and worked in its administration. Many felt they had a stake in the German regime and had benefitted from it; they could easily see their situation as far better than that for Africans in nearby European colonies. And so they would willingly defend the system in one more war, but only in one more war. While very few expected universal suffrage – not even Germans enjoyed that privilege – calls grew to extend voting rights to those meeting the same literacy and property qualifications required of white German voters. If Germany wins this war, they will have fresh struggles to resolve in the peace that follows.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.