The Albaniplatz used to look like this picture at the beginning of the 20th century. Instead of the city hall, there was the so-called city park. In the photo, you can see this complex with its many small towers. At that time, this place was used for meetings and events, similar to today’s city hall. But what does this have to do with colonialism?
Here in the city park, the Göttingen branch of the Women’s League of the German Colonial Society met. Founded in 1907 as the „Deutschkolonialer Frauenbund“ (German Colonial Women’s League), the League joined the German Colonial Society in 1908, which at the time was the largest interest group of colonial enthusiasts in the German Empire. In Göttingen, the league’s membership grew to an impressive 200 within 10 years. Most of the members belonged to the middle-class milieu. In its high-circulation magazine “Kolonie und Heimat” (Colony and Homeland), the women’s association set out its goals:
“The task of the Women’sLeague is […] to prepare and maintain in our colonies a safe planting and nurturing place for German family spirit and German ways and customs. For this purpose it wants to:
- To get women from all classes interested in colonial questions.
- To give advice and support to German women and girls who wish to settle in the colonies, and to encourage the immigration of women to the colony.
- To support the education of white children in the colonies.
- To assist women and children in the colonies who are in need through no fault of their own.
- To maintain and strengthen the economic and spiritual connection of women in the colonies with their homeland.” Source: “Kolonie und Heimat,” (Colony and Homeland) Vol. VI, No. 17, p. 9.
The fact that women participated in colonialism was long overlooked in the review of German colonial history. Until a few years ago, the exercise of colonial power was seen as an almost exclusively male affair. Nonetheless, it determined the social order of the time that women could especially participate in colonial history regarding marriage and children. However, this was not as harmless as it sounds at first but was a deeply racist issue. The founding of the Women’s League did not coincidentally happen during the last years of the war with the Herero and Nama.
Already in the years before the war, the German public had become increasingly concerned that white men were marrying too many black women and fathering too many bi-ethnic children. The war led to a sharp increase in white unmarried and male soldiers within the country and exacerbated the debate. Many contemporaries also understood the war as a race war, further stigmatizing bi-ethnic relationships. Unmarried white women who emigrated to the colony were to provide remedy – the core mission of the Women’s League was born.
It was, therefore, a social-political association whose entry into the political arena was made possible by the debate over “miscegenation.” The Women’s League belonged to the social associations that closely linked colonialism with racist ideas and that had especially gained social power and influence in the early 20th century.
The Women’s League in Göttingen
The Women’s League took over the recruitment, selection, and preparation of those traveling to the colonies. For young, unmarried women, there were open positions to be filled as farmers or housewives in preparation for marriage and family life. For women from poorer backgrounds, in particular, emigration was a form of social uplift. In total, slightly more than 500 women emigrated with the Women’s League to German Southwest Africa and settled there.
The Göttingen branch played a decisive role in this work. Its main activities included assemblies, lectures about the colonies, and fundraising. During the First World War, women also sent men’s clothing and cigars to the colonies, thereby joining in the support of the war, which was fought between the European colonial powers: also within the colonies. In 1909, the Women’s League also organized a colonial exhibition in the “Englischer Hof” in Jüdenstraße. On display were weapons, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals, shells, and a replica of a pile dwelling from New Guinea. Also on display were plays and “native dances” (as the Göttinger Tageblatt racially described it: more on the reproduction of the term below). This “romanticization” of colonial territories manifested racist stereotypes: white people were portrayed as superior and racism was established as ‘normal’ through the degradation of the colonized population.
Apart from the racist portrayal of life in the colonies, the exhibition contributed directly to German colonial rule in “Deutsch-Südwestafrika”: The majority of the profits were donated to a women’s shelter in Keetmanshoop, which welcomed the German emigrating women upon their arrival in the colonies for a few weeks and prepared them for their new lives.
For many women, leaving for the colonies turned out to be an adventurous prospect. Numerous European women writers of the 1910s and 1920s described Africa as a mysterious continent where women could escape the dreary life in Europe, such as Baroness Adda von Liliencron, the first president of the German Women’s League.
These stories and images conveyed at the time endured well beyond German colonial rule. One example is the award-winning 1985 film adaptation “Out of Africa,” based on the colonial-era story “Dark Beckoning Africa” (1937) by Danish author Karen Blixen (pseudonym: Tania Blixen).
When have you recently encountered depictions of the continent of Africa in films, history, advertising, etc.? Which image was conveyed to you there? Did you find anything about it in need of change and what do you think it would take to change these image?
And: The term “native dances” appeared above. We thought long and hard about whether or not to quote this. On the one hand, we want to avoid reproducing racism by using certain expressions. On the other hand, it’s a term that not every person may realize is racist and degrading. That is why we named it and evaluated it at the same time. However, we are still torn as of the publication of this city walk and would like to hereby open the question up for discussion. What do you think? You can tell us your opinion in a voice memo or a comment that you can send us by mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We reserve the right to re-evaluate the question, partly with the help of your and other reactions, and then make any necessary changes to the wording.
- Burchard, Sophie: „Die Konstruktion eines rassifizierten weißen Weiblichkeitsideals in der Zeitschrift des Frauenbundes der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft: Kolonie und Heimat. Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte in ‘Deutsch-Südwestafrika’ im Kontext von Geschlecht, ‘Rasse’ und Sexualität.“ Diplomarbeit, Universität Wien 2014.
- 10 Jahre Frauenbund der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft : [Festschrift zum 11. Juni 1918] / hrsg. vom Ausschuß des Frauenbundes der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft (unter Protektorat S. Hoheit des Herzogs Johann Albrecht zu Mecklenburg). Berlin : “Kolonie u. Heimat”, Verl.-Ges. m. b. H., 1918.
- Habermas, Rebekka u.a. (2019): Universität und Kolonialismus – Das Beispiel Göttingen.
- Wildenthal, Lora: German Women for Empire, 1884-1945, Durham 2001.
- Walgenbach, Katharina: „Die weiße Frau als Trägerin deutscher Kultur“. Koloniale Diskurse über Geschlecht, „Rasse“ und Klasse im Kaiserreich, Frankfurt (Main) 2005.
- Smidt, Karen: „Germania führt die deutsche Frau nach Südwest“. Auswanderung, Leben und soziale Konflikte deutscher Frauen in der ehemaligen Kolonie Deutsch-Südwestafrika 1884-1920. Eine sozial- und frauengeschichtliche Studie, Magdeburg 1997.
- Mamozai, Martha: Schwarze Frau, weiße Herrin. Frauenleben in den deutschen Kolonien, Hamburg 1989.