In German Women for Empire, 1884-1945, Lora Wildenthal paints a compelling picture of contributions made by German women in the pursuit of imperial ambitions. In Germany’s African and Pacific colonies, women from diverse backgrounds played a conscious and often enthusiastic role, carving out a place for themselves as guardians of “Germanness” and racial purity. In Imperial Germany, feminism took on a distinctly chauvinistic tone, demonstrating that history is full of nuance.
Germany was late to the colonial game, seizing territory in Africa and Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. This included modern day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, and parts of Botswana and Nigeria. Its Pacific possessions included parts of present day New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. German women participated in the establishment of these colonies through nursing and missionary work. For women who wanted to experience the most independence, nursing was their chosen field. The German-National Women’s League, founded by Martha von Pfeil and Frieda von Bülow, was one of the first and most influential nursing organizations in the colonies.
Wildenthal portrays von Bülow as a striking figure and an adventurous woman who sheltered the German-National Women’s League from male oversight. She evangelized the colonies in several novels, portraying them as an ideal place for women to work alongside men to promote radical German nationalism. Von Bülow, conservatively dressed and menacingly pointing a revolver, graces the cover of German Women for Empire.
As increasing numbers of German women arrived in the colonies, a conflict over race mixing developed. Over time, male colonists had begun forming relationships with native women, both African and Pacific islanders. White men opposed to these relationships concluded that the solution was to bring more white women to the colonies. That presented German women with a new role from which to assert their influence.
That role, according to Wildenthal, was the preservation of Germandom in the colonies. Women of all social backgrounds could participate in this endeavor. “In the colonial space, women’s work promised direct participation in the German community: women could become the yeoman farmers of classical republicanism (farmersfrau),” argued Wildenthal. Through this role, women asserted themselves politically even though they could not vote.
After the First World War, the establishment of the Weimar Republic, and the enactment of women’s suffrage, colonial women continued to present themselves as the cornerstone of the household, even after the colonies had been forcibly wrested from German hands. Colonial women thought of themselves as “more German” than women in the homeland. Those perceptions remained even after Germany abandoned oversees colonial aspirations during the Second World War.
German Women for Empire, 1884-1945 was well-written and insightful. Lora Wildenthal revealed an overlooked aspect of German history, and at the same time showed that feminism is not necessarily wedded to liberal causes. For many German women, imperialism, nationalism, and racial purity were indispensable tools for asserting their independence on the world stage.