Liberal Hegemony by Imperialist Means: The Origins of “Social Imperialism”in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Review)

Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008. Monographs in German History 23. x + 237 pp.

Classical liberalism has often appeared to historians as the precocious but unwanted child of German politics, having experienced a false start in 1848-49 but thereafter undergoing a protracted phase of stunted development. According to this narrative, liberalism only reached maturity after World War II, when it was no longer beholden to prevailing authoritarian institutions. Rather conveniently, claims of their marginal influence on Germany’s political culture also served latter-day efforts to absolve liberals of any active role in the state sanction of racist, imperialist or militarist policies that in retrospect forefeited the sanction of their progressive-minded successors. This theoretical lacuna was arguably the byproduct of the post-war impulse to reconstruct liberalism anew for the West German state, in the process recuperating its legacy from the accretions of that country’s decidedly illiberal history. As Wolfgang J. Mommsen reflected in 1991, this generation of historians was

guided by the conviction that the new German parliamentary democracy could survive only if the conventional authoritarian and antiliberal interpretation of German history were to give way to a new democratic interpretation of Germany’s recent past. Among this generation, there was little doubt that historiography had a definite political function to fulfill, and that the option of taking refuge in objective historical scholarship that was aloof from present-day politics was not open to them. Besides, they gradually came to believe that traditional political historiography in the Rankean tradition was no longer sufficient to properly account for the manifold factors that had contributed to the unfortunate course of German history and had eventually culminated in the rise of National Socialism in a country with a rich, highly developed culture.1 

Taking inspiration from the contemporary (and singular) Anglo-American model, the guiding principle of this historiography was a value-positive notion of democracy requiring the affirmation of values consonant with a robust and active civic sphere such as was absent during the Weimar era.

Confronted with the actual record of liberal support for the state’s imperial and military ventures, many historians would take recourse to a semantic exercise, according to which liberalism and specific practices like imperialism are presented as categorical opposites. Under this typology, liberals’ successive “capitulations” to imperialism, by definition, precluded or negated an authentic commitment to liberalism. This sort of tautology rested on the twin constructions to “liberalism” and “imperialism” as abstract, ideal types,2 notwithstanding contrary evidence that imperialism emanated naturally from the desideratum of national integration, which liberals across most of Europe had championed long before conservatives arrived at similar conclusions. The hermeneutic trick of acknowledging liberalism’s entanglement with nationalism and imperialism only in order to permanently and a priori demarcate this affinity as a later and equivocal development, a regrettable, though circumscribed, lapse bearing no essential or sustained connection to the core liberal program—the expansion of liberty in the personal, civic and economic spheres; the checking of traditional authority with constitutional and/or parliamentary forms of governance—is as unconvincing as the adjacent attempt to cleanly delineate between liberalism’s early cosmopolitan phase and its late diversion into national-chauvinistic streams.

0,,18277179_401,00Caricature de Bismarck. La conférence de Berlin (© AKG)

Coming from another direction, mutatis mutandis, German overseas expansionism presents a similar difficulty, in that the most seasoned historians, even specialists in foreign policy, have struggled to assimilate this phenomenon. Conceptually, historians often proceed with the assumption that colonialism is a historically significant process solely in the limited application to formal empires. Within such an interpretive framework Germany’s peculiar circumstances conspired to reduce imperialism to epiphenomenal status in the historiography. Because the German experience in state-driven, formal imperialism both had a later start than the western European powers and was terminated early when those same powers divested the newly inaugurated Republic of its overseas holdings under the terms of Versailles, the colonial project easily resists systematic integration within the broader nation-building narrative. Because of the sharp chronological rupture in 1919, very little links prewar imperialism intuitively with the later push for Lebensraum in eastern Europe, except perhaps by opposition—Germany being relegated, in the absence of colonies, to a Volk ohne Raum.  And within that period itself the colonies yielded scarce material dividends, whether in the form of raw resources, markets or the projection of military power. The colonies remained, on balance, largely unproductive enterprises maintained largely by state subsidy, and, counter to Bismarck’s original design, opened the door to additional confrontations with Imperials powers that ultimately undermined its geopolitical position in Europe. And as the First World War, Germany’s naval buildup proved insufficient to guarantee the protection of its overseas holdings against Britain and France’s preeminent global profile. Adopting a post-colonial perspective, as indeed Jürgen Zimmerer recently urged,3 can broaden our perspective to includehe transmission of colonial models within wider (geographic and chronological) processes and thereby place Germany’s short-term failures in perspective.

When determining the relative balance of forces weighing on Germany’s decision to build an overseas empire, historians generally fall under either one of two overarching schools of interpretation: those of the so-called “neo-Rankean” tendency, who, assuming the operative independence of Staatsräson, assign priority to the dictates of foreign policy (Außenpolitik); and those, drawing heavily from the methods of the Bielefeld School, who emphasize how politicians acted primarily on considerations of domestic policy (Innenpolitik). AJP Taylor4 and, in updated form, Klaus Hildebrand5 situtating their analyses within the framework of international diplomacy, argued that Bismarck’s Kolonialpolitik was essentially just an extension of his preexisting continental strategy, the chief imperative of was to isolate Britain in Europe. Other scholars attest that the cumulative pressures of industrialization and concomitant demands for raw materials and captive markets, trade rivalries and tariff wars, chronic overproduction and economic depression gave the underlying impetus to colonial expansion. The strong version of this thesis posits further that imperialism in the context of these crises fit into a pre-meditated, overarching strategy of social control, according to which state support for colonial ventures constituted an proto-Keynesian mode of positive intervention in the economy with the goal of controlling cyclical overproduction, staving the appeal of socialist reforms, and diverting proletarian discontent into the maintenance of the status quo. The locus classicus of this instrumentalist reading is Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s Bismarck und der Imperialismus (1969),6 which bequeathed the theory of “social imperialism” to the historical profession’s explanatory repertoire.

bismarck“The Socialist Jack in the Box,” Punch (September 28, 1878). © Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Despite diametrically opposed starting points, both interpretive emphases cast the policy shift as a practically reactive one, lacking in any broader vision beyond either maintaining parity with the other European powers or staving the growth of the socialist movement. In other words, it had shallow ideological roots. However, as diplomacy-based history fell out of favor with a generation of scholars focused on the social forces which shaped policy formulations, it is the latter approach, the default departure point for successive inquiries (critical or otherwise),  which claims our attention in the present review. Emphasizing interaction between foreign and domestic policy—and the further understanding that the latter can shape the scope and direction of the former to a considerable degree—crucially forced German scholars to ask questions about structural continuities that they would have been  ill-equipped to answer within the confines of the traditional political-chronological historiography.

However, an exclusive focus on top-down mechanisms of negative integration will render at best partial and possibly distorted explanations for what was in fact a fairly complex phenomenon. Granted that Germany operated under greater internal and external constraints than Western countries, did its imperial project arise from proximate factors or did there precede a deeper consensus on national goals among various segments of the ruling class? What follows is an aggregate of the most common issues marshaled against the “social imperialism” paradigm.

In the first instance, the proposition of a Sammlungspolitik—whereby agrarian and industrial interests enacted a strategic alliance of necessity to contain the mutual proletarian threat—overestimates the ability and/or willingness of heterogeneous interests to aggregate and to reconcile fundamentally conflicting visions of political economy.7 It was arguably not until the Social Democrats’ electoral breakthroughs in 1912 that socialism superseded “Jewish liberalism” as the principal threat for such organizations as the Agrarian League, who remained committed to preserving the traditional prerogatives and perquisites of their estate.8 Even within the liberal camp disagreements persisted between the adherents of free trade doctrine and those who leaned increasingly towards state protectionism—one of several disputes which eventually ruptured into party splits after unification. Such programmatic differences, which broke down roughly along the two main branches of industry, who diverged on the questions of tariffs and monopoly, are given secondary status in Fitzpatrick’s rubric, who prefers to subsume them under the “teleology” of imperialism, which supplied “the basis for a pan-liberal discourse of German national progress.”9 

More to the point, even if the various constituent branches of the Sammlung were able to suspend their differences for the purposes of regulating domestic pressures, this really only applies to the various initiatives underwritten after 1897 by Chancellor Bülow, Admiral Tirpitz and Prussian Minister of Finance Miquel to engineer political consensus on issues of trade and naval defense. Problems arise when one proceeds to ante-date a continuous and cohesive strategy much earlier than this. Wehler, in reading these motivations back into Bismarck’s colonial policy of the 1880s, stresses continuity of vision past the point of credibility. Bismarck’s overall attitude towards the colonies was distinctly pragmatic and instrumentalist; when their commercial and diplomatic benefits failed to materialize to his satisfaction, he promptly factored them out of his foreign policy considerations after 1886. This rather narrow remit stands in stark contrast to what Winfried Baumgart regarded as the general aimlessness of Weltpolitik under Wilhelm II.10 Bülow, more often than not, allowed his programmatic commitment to the political capital of prestige to override more sober considerations of material interests, which basically reversed Bismarck’s priorities, predicated as they were on the short-term necessity of maintaining the solvency of commercial acquisitions,11  combined with the expediency of consolidating the support of a majority-liberal government by co-opting their pro-colonial platform.12 

Finally, for the amount of exposition which the theory demands, it is notable, and not a little ironic, that “social imperialism” actually explains very little about the central phenomenon which it purports to describe, that is, imperialism as such. Considering that the colonies continued to be a contentious issue for both the Catholic Centre Party and the Social Democrats, and that the socialists continued to register record gains at the ballot and extract substantive gains for their working-class constituencies—it is fair to question whether social imperialism actually achieved its prescribed goals. Geoff Eley, the perennial gadfly of historiographical orthodoxy, argued this point most forcefully in 1976 when he emphasized the considerable disparity between intention and implementation. It is one thing to explicate the motives of influential policy-makers, but quite another, in terms of the sort of evidence required, to extrapolate in any unilinear fashion the actual effect of social imperialism on various social groups: one simply presumes the predominantly conservative function of imperialism in the Kaiserreich. Yet imperialism and its putative antecedent nationalism do not automatically presuppose each other, and their integrative utility has yet to be sufficiently tested. To return to Eley, who has long occupied himself with the diffuse effects of ideology in the social and political spheres, rather than prematurely ceding the hegemonic function of imperialism, we might do better to examine the variable contexts in which the protean appeal of nationalism might serve as a point of opposition to, as well as support for, imperialism:

For we cannot understand the particular forms of the social imperialist nexus in Wilhelmine Germany…unless we differentiate within the underlying consensus between variants of social imperialist strategy, between competing attempts to link the acquisition of empire to domestic policy. The nation-state in its imperialist guise was the inescapable context within which all political action necessarily took place: it determined the range of possibilities against which the left as much as the right were compelled to define their positions. To understand the full complexity of this relationship…it is necessary to recover the original meaning of social imperialism and to revise the terms of the discussion accordingly.13 

FitzpatrickLiberalMatthew P. Fitzpatrick advances our understanding on this particular front; he builds upon these preceding critiques whilst making some original contributions of his own to the discussion in Liberal Imperialism in Germany, mainly by reinstating imperialism as a fundamental topos of the liberal agenda between the abortive Frankfurt Assembly of 1848-9 and the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, which inaugurated an era of state-driven colonial expansion. This interim period is widely characterized as a time of liberal retreat from the political stage, but as Fitzpatrick strongly argues, is was also when liberal writers elaborated and disseminated a coherent colonial program that would solve as the solvent of national unification. By identifying themselves in the public eye with the vanguard of Germany’s material and geographic aggrandizement, the liberal Wirtsschaftsbürgertum hoped to substitute their narrative permanently for rival claims by the nascent socialist movement, as well as by the recalcitrant Catholics and conservatives. They presumed to supply that

single unifying concept that could synecdochically represent the aspirations of an increasingly dominant bürgerliche Gesellschaft. Operating as a nescent nationalist-liberalism’s mythopoeic engine, imperialism…offered a unifying concept and a means of defining the German nation and the German people from within, by reference to its role abroad.12 

The idea of a mutually constitutive nexus between imperialist activity at the non-European margins and the various systems of self-representation and identity construction within European states—between periphery and metropole—owes itself largely to postcolonial methodology. Fitzpatrick avails himself extensively of the insights bequeathed by Said, Fanon and, most substantially, Homi K. Bhabha, who has updated Ernst Renan’s observation that, before its incarnation in a political entity, nationhood must be articulated in discourse and superimposed on actually disparate societies. Nationalism is premised on, and preceded by, “the obligation to forget past and present social ruptures, differences and divides tather than any profound, totalizing or nation necessitating bond,” and the implicit contingency of this demand was more pronounced, more transparent in Germany, where the liberals envisioned the nation-state as an agency through which to organize interests that, at least in the shorter term, “had a limited, even negative impact on other segments of German society.”15 (Informed as its by the so-called “linguistic turn” in history, how much one enjoys this book depends to some extent one’s level of tolerance for the repetition of anodyne phrases like “mythopoesis,” “praxis,” “meta-narrative,” “alterity,” “discursive,” “textual production.”)

The most revelatory aspect of this book relates to the ways in which the author, somewhat indirectly, rehabilitates or normalizes the exceptional relationship of German liberals to the forces of modernization which were presently unsettling traditional socioeconomic relations. The author bases his most substantial critiques on a reframing of the putative domestic effects of imperialism. Liberal theorists indeed regularly prescribed overseas expansion as a comprehensive solution to the Sozialfrage, which was, however, formulated in a quite difficult context than that outlined by Wehler and others.

A sustained reevaluation of the programmatic texts circulated by organizations like the Colonisations-Verein and authors like Friedrich Fabri during this period supports the idea that liberals before the late 1880s approached the socio-economic strains of industrialization (and the consequent growth of a precarious underclass) as an opportunity to facilitate the restructuring of German society along bourgeois lines and, in doing so, render the appeal of social revolution redundant. They typically delivered a neo-Malthusian diagnosis—that is, recasting social inequality in terms of demographic imbalances—and accordingly recommended that the surplus transitional workforce emigrate abroad to achieve the twofold strategy of relieving material and geographic concentration at home and expanding German trade and industry abroad.16  It follows from liberals’ policy recommendations that the pursuit of colonies cannot be reduced to a narrow expression of particular class interests (although this was certainly one of its functions); while they explicitly ruled out social revolution and wealth redistribution, such reservations did not preclude an openness to proactive solutions to the “social question,” which puts them quite at odds with the ascribed cynical and defensive ploy to distract workers from their interests and stave off reforms. In this they were quintessential mid-century liberals; their motives were far from altruistic, yet they implied an unreflected belief that a liberal, bourgeois society could comprehend the diverse (read: divergent) interests of a rapidly developing nation. Per Fitzpatrick’s characterization, “it was a confident assertion of bourgeois liberal imperialism as a truly national, that is trans-social, discourse that would be instrumental in bringing about social integration…through a generalized prosperity created through imperialist economics.”17 


Where the present study is found entirely lacking—and where the outer empirical limits of discourse analysis are readily exposed—is in Fitzpatrick’s reluctance (as telegraphed in the book’s subtitle) to extend his argument past 1884 into the period of formal empire, to test liberal theory against colonial practice. The aim of substantiating any substantial link—personal, institutional or ideological—to the colonial enterprise falls by the wayside. As J. Laurence Hare remarks in his review,

Fitzpatrick might have cast his gaze a few years beyond the end of his study to ask how idealized notions of liberal imperialism informed the actual colonial policies of the German Empire….[or] explained why the grandiose visions of liberal imperialism failed to materialize after 1884. That he neglects to do either denies us the last bit of evidence proving the hegemony of liberal notions of empire.18 

The fact that imperialism was embedded in liberals’ self-image does not necessarily imply that the shift from theory to the field of praxis was altogether free of contradictions. The most compelling line of argument is to accept that liberal paeans to empire as a conduit for expanding markets and active citizenship quickly become inadequate as an explanation when measured against the consistently brutal record of colonial administrations (which, the reader should be reminded, was not a feature peculiar to Germany). The obvious case in point would be the atrocities perpetrated against the Herero and Nama tribes in German Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia), as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, the suppression of the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania). A burgeoning body of scholarship has reframed the exterminationist logic of the war, rendered explicit in Commander Lothar von Trotha’s proclamation of 1904, as prefiguring the Holocaust—a thesis reaffirmed most explicitly by Shelly Baranowski in Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (2010).19  Since the immediate elimination of the entire population never constituted an end in itself as the Nazis conceived it for the Jews, however, a more substantial comparison would focus on the broader structural similarities between colonial policy in Africa and colonial policy in Eastern Europe.20  Granted that, per Isabel Hull’s thesis, the prosecution of the African campaigns emanated in large part from standard military doctrines and practices embedded in a tradition of “total war,” the nature of the atrocities begs the more fundamental question of the second half of the nineteenth century as to how latently racist beliefs, shared as fully by liberals as by conservatives, could be mobilized to such destructive effect.20 

1f37a3cf822deef5d54af9849f2f2ff0Chr. Fetzer: Rassenanatom. Untersuchungen an 17 Hottentottenköpfen: Lichtdruck der Hofkunstanstalt, Stuttgart c.1907.

Care must be taken to avoid reifying the concept of ideological hegemony; the entire point of a “metanarrative” is that it is superimposed on an actual sequence of events that may produce outcomes of varying degrees of acceptability to any single group. More to the point, it is difficult to conceive of a modern, industrialized European nation-state where the hegemony formula is less applicable than modern Germany. Whereas one might expound, in very qualified terms, about the hegemony of Whig ideology in Britain (this was, after all, the century in which Macaulay articulated the “Whig interpretation of history”) or of republicanism in France (the legacy of which every regime up through Louis Napoleon had to accommodate rather than suppress altogether), in Germany, by comparison, regional, confessional and class divisions were far more pronounced and powerfully structured political culture up through 1933. With that said, Fitzpatrick’s Liberal Imperialism in Germany marks an important departure from most other studies by establishing the degree to which liberals not only participated in but articulated the terms of debate around imperialism in the years before 1871, where most others would choose the founding of the Kaiserreich as the starting point for their inquiries into imperialism’s impetus, and thus laying emphasis on entrenching traditional and conservative elites. If we are no closer to understanding the deeply destructive dynamics underpinning imperialism in practice, then at least we will come away with a better appreciation for the initiative taken by German liberals in keeping the issue on the national agenda.

1. Wolfgang J. Mommsen, “The Return of the Western Tradition. German Historiography since 1945,” German Historical Institute, Washington DC, Occasional Paper 4 (1991), p. 13
2. Lothar Gall, “‘Sündenfall’ des liberalen Denkens oder Krise des bürgerlich-liberalen Bewegung?” in Liberalismus und imperialistischer Staat: Der Imperialismus als Problem luberaler Parteien in Deutschland 1890-1914, eds. Karl Holl and Günther List (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), pp. 148-58.
3. Jürgen Zimmerer, “Colonialism and Genocide,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Imperial Germany, ed. Matthew Jeffries, 448-449 (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2015).
4. AJP Taylor, Germany’s First Bid for Colonies 1884-1885: A Move in Bismarck’s European Policy (New York: WW Norton & Co., 1970).
5. Klaus Hildebrand, Deutsche Außenpolitik 1871-1918. Enzyklopädie Deutscher Geschichte, Bd. II (München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1989; Das vergangene Reich: Deutsche Außenpolitik von Bismarck biz Hitler 1871-1945 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1995).
6. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Bismarck und der Imperialismus (Köln: Kiepenhauer & Witsch, 1969).
7. Ian L. D. Forbes, “Social Imperialism and Wilhelmine Germany,” The Historical Journal 22.2 (1979), 334-40.
8. Hans-Jürgen Puhle, Agrarische Interessenpolitik und preussischer Konservatismus (Hannover: Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, 1967), pp. 158-64, 185-9.
10. Winfried Baumgart, “German Imperialism in Historical Perspective,” in Germans in the Tropics: Essays in German Colonial History, eds. Arthur J. Knoll and Lewis H. Gann (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), pp. 151-155.
11. P. M. Kennedy, “German Colonial Expansion. Has the ‘Manipulated Social Imperialism’ Been Ante-dated?”,” Past and Present 54 (1972), p. 139-140.
12. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), pp. 121-128.
13. Geoff Eley, “Defining Social Imperialism: Use and Abuse of an Idea,” Social History 3 (October 1976), p. 269.
14. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 208.
15. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 12.
16. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), pp. 85-86,144-145.
17. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 146.
18. J. Laurence Hare, Review of Fitzpatrick, Matthew P., Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. H-Net Reviews. July, 2012 .
19. Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
20. Helmut Walser Smith, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 197-201.


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