German Women for Empire, 1884-1945

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2001 Hard cover New. BRAND NEW; issued without jacket. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 352 p. Contains: Illustrations. Politics, History, and Culture. Audience: General/trade.

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When Germany annexed colonies in Africa and the Pacific beginning in the 1880s, many German women were enthusiastic. At the same time, however, they found themselves excluded from what they saw as a great nationalistic endeavor. In German Women for Empire, 1884-1945 Lora Wildenthal untangles the varied strands of racism, feminism, and nationalism that thread through German women's efforts to participate in this episode of overseas colonization.

In confrontation and sometimes cooperation with men over their place in the colonial project, German women launched nationalist and colonialist campaigns for increased settlement and new state policies. Wildenthal analyzes recently accessible Colonial Office archives as well as mission society records, periodicals, women's memoirs, and fiction to show how these women created niches for themselves in the colonies. They emphasized their unique importance for white racial "purity" and the inculcation of German culture in the family. While pressing for career opportunities for themselves, these women also campaigned against interracial marriage and circulated an image of African and Pacific women as sexually promiscuous and inferior. As Wildenthal discusses, the German colonial imaginary persisted even after the German colonial empire was no longer a reality. The women's colonial movement continued into the Nazi era, combining with other movements to help turn the racialist thought of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries into the hierarchical evaluation of German citizens as well as colonial subjects.

Students and scholars of women's history, modern German history, colonial politics and culture, postcolonial theory, race/ethnicity, and gender will welcome this groundbreaking study.

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Editorial Reviews

Antoinette Burton
Wildenthal tells an important set of stories about the implication of white women in the modern imperial enterprise. This book will become a must-read for German historians, students of feminism, modern women, and empire and reform movements; as well as a model for how to do colonial women's history.
author of At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain
Leslie A. Adelson
This stunningly original and important book will define scholarly standards and inspire other studies for a long time to come. Wildenthal probes the nexus of German women's history and colonial politics more deeply, more extensively, and more systematically than any other piece of scholarship I know.
author of Making Bodies, Making History: Feminism and German Identity
From the Publisher
“This stunningly original and important book will define scholarly standards and inspire other studies for a long time to come. Wildenthal probes the nexus of German women’s history and colonial politics more deeply, more extensively, and more systematically than any other piece of scholarship I know.”—Leslie A. Adelson, author of Making Bodies, Making History: Feminism and German Identity

“Wildenthal tells an important set of stories about the implication of white women in the modern imperial enterprise. This book will become a must-read for German historians, students of feminism, modern women, and empire and reform movements; as well as a model for how to do colonial women’s history.”—Antoinette Burton, author of At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328070
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lora Wildenthal is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University.

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German women for empire, 1884-1945

By Lora Wildenthal

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2819-4

Chapter One

Colonial Nursing as the First Realm of Colonialist Women's Activism, 1885-1907

The first voluntary association to be run by and for procolonial women was devoted to providing nurses to Germany's colonies. Nursing was second only to missionary work as a social role for German women in the colonies, predating even marriage and motherhood. Years before colonialists urged German women to become wives and mothers of settlers, nurses and the women who raised funds to dispatch them had a secure place in the colonialist movement. Colonial nursing long dominated procolonial women's activism: for the first twenty years of Germany's colonial empire, that first association remained the only organized outlet for colonialist women outside church or other male-run auspices.

Nursing is, at first glance, a curious focal point for colonialist women's interests. It would seem to be a technical occupation rather than a venue for politics or ideology. Yet in nineteenth-century Europe, the religious, maternalist, and patriotic meanings of nursing overshadowed its technical aspect. Nursing drew on two traditions. First, Christian nursing orders-at first Catholic, later also Protestant-in which women and men pursued nursing as a religious calling, had been active for centuries. (Because nursing among Christian Europeans was so intertwined with Christian institutions, Jewish nursing had adistinct history.) Second, women traditionally performed nursing duties in the home for ill family members. As secular nursing developed over the course of the nineteenth century, an emerging modern ideology of nursing combined religious traditions with the concurrently developing ideology of motherhood. In German-speaking lands, nursing became associated with military glory and nationalism during the Napoleonic Wars and the wars of unification in the 1860s. Furthermore, nursing was economically vital to German women. As one of the very few paid occupations open to middle-class women, it was an important livelihood for those living outside marriage. The charitable support of nursing also offered women an opportunity for unpaid public activism. Neither as paid work nor as charity did nursing challenge conservative notions of women's place in a hierarchical social order; in fact, nursing met the strictest standards of feminine respectability.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, nursing in Germany was transformed by secularization (the increasing prominence of secular nursing orders such as the Red Cross), embourgeoisication (displacement of working-class nurses by middle-class or upwardly mobile women), professionalization (increased training and certification standards), and feminization (displacement of men by women from most nursing posts). Doctors argued that women were more obedient and flexible than men (i.e., they protested less when given unpleasant tasks), and that middle-class women were the best at learning repetitive precision techniques. The nursing labor force was evenly split between men and women around 1800 but by 1909 was about 80 percent female. Advocates of "female nursing" (weibliche Krankenpflege) never tired of asserting that femininity was itself the main qualification for a nurse: as one doctor put it, "even more than knowledge and experience, a whole woman with a brave heart and a loving disposition is needed." The transformation of nursing in Europe also affected colonial nursing. The feminine self-sacrifice that was part of the ideology of nursing served not only to justify bad wages and working conditions for nurses at home, but also to permit respectable women to travel as nurses to the new colonies. And the charitable support of colonial nursing opened the way for the participation of women inside Germany in the male-dominated colonialist movement.

Even though nursing was more than merely a set of technical skills, it was still a narrower realm than colonialist women had originally hoped to occupy. When the first voluntary association of colonialist women formed in 1886, it included nonmedical as well as nursing projects; Protestant, nonconfessional Christian, and secular nationalist goals; and men as well as women. Only after a series of conflicts over personalities and principles did the group emerge in 1888 as exclusively nursing-oriented, secular, and female. The genesis of the first colonialist women's organization demonstrates what became a recurring pattern in the colonialist movement: struggles over authority-between women and men and among women-led to more sharply gendered divisions of labor, or "cultural tasks." Colonialists resolved conflicts by marking out distinct tasks for men and women. The new, gendered division of tasks always meant a narrower realm for women; men were never excluded on the basis of their sex from joining branches of the colonialist movement, and of course men still dominated the wider movement within which colonialist women acted. But women did exercise increased authority within their narrower realm. And even if tensions with erstwhile male antagonists remained, the women's new goals gained the attention of different men with different interests. Nursing offered a conservative resolution to conflicts raised by women's efforts at participation. Until 1907, women's public colonialist interests were channeled into a single voluntary association, the German Women's Association for Nursing in the Colonies (Deutscher Frauenverein fur Krankenpege in den Kolonien). Given the fractious, splintering tendencies of other colonialist organizations with male members, that was a remarkable demonstration of consensus building-but also of the limitations placed on the women. Colonialist women did not foresee these developments; it was only after struggles among themselves and with colonialist men that they drew these conclusions about the importance of nursing.


In November and December 1884, Carl Peters and his small expedition made their way through the East African mainland across from the island of Zanzibar. They used bribery, deception, and terror to conclude so-called treaties with local village leaders. These lands had belonged either to people living in acephalous societies or to local rulers loosely allied with the sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash ibn Sa'id (r. 1870-1888). Peters returned to Berlin and in February 1885 persuaded Chancellor Bismarck to grant a charter to Peters's German East African Company (Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft). German East Africa, nicknamed the "German India," soon drew more attention in Germany than any of the other new colonies Germany had annexed. Colonialists hoped to profit from its thriving spice and ivory trade. Along with other Europeans in a late-nineteenth-century antislavery campaign combining Christian zeal with a drive for colonial annexations, they also hoped to halt its internal, Muslim-dominated slave trade. German East Africa had in Carl Peters a publicity agent who was also Germany's best-known colonialist. Peters fueled the enthusiasm of colonialists in Germany with partly fictitious reports of his chartered company's power and prosperity. In fact, Peters had no effective control over the regions he claimed, which were in any case only a small part of what later became German East Africa. Peters's real achievement was inducing Bismarck and others in Germany to take his treaties seriously. The annexation existed mostly on paper until the coastal war of 1888-1890, when the German military conquered an augmented territorial expanse and direct state administration replaced company rule.

Between annexation in 1885 and the coastal war in 1888, German East Africa became the first setting for German women's colonialist activism. In 1885 Countess Martha von Pfeil of Berlin decided to establish a Protestant church for Germans on Zanzibar, which Carl Peters hoped to add to his new colony. Martha and her sister Eva von Pfeil, who soon joined her efforts, were Protestant, archconservative, and intensely nationalistic noblewomen. Unmarried, they lacked a family fortune and patched together a living from work as teachers, private nurses, and lady's companions, and from taking in boarders. Even though they never left Germany, Martha and Eva were no strangers to overseas colonization. One brother, Bernhard, was a coxswain for Sultan Barghash ibn Sa'id, and another brother, Hugo, settled permanently in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia). A cousin, Count Joachim von Pfeil, even belonged to Carl Peters's expedition party in 1884, but he quarreled with Peters on that expedition, remained in Africa for the rest of the 1880s, and played no role in his cousins' activism. The initiative lay with Martha and her sister.

In June 1885 Martha von Pfeil published an appeal for donations in Kolonialpolitische Korrespondenz, the organ of Carl Peters's Society for German Colonization (Gesellschaft fur deutsche Kolonisation). Several pastors signed the appeal, including Ludwig Diestelkamp, an early follower of Peters who had urged Pfeil to act. So did women connected to Germany's social elite of aristocratic military officers such as Countess Waldersee and her daughter Helene. (Count Alfred Waldersee became head of the Prussian General Staff in 1888 and commanded the German troops in the Boxer War in China in 1900.) In October 1885 Martha von Pfeil held her first meeting.

The surviving minutes of that meeting indicate disagreement over whether the new organization should minister to German colonists, missionize "heathens," or both. This debate was to recur frequently. The balance shifted in favor of serving German colonists when two not particularly religious colonialists began to attend Martha von Pfeil's meetings in March 1886: Carl Peters himself and Baroness Frieda von Bulow. Peters, a master agitator, soon dominated the meetings. He had great powers of persuasion with both men and women, and he consciously cultivated the latter as supporters. Peters had a strategic interest in fostering new organizations that would over him personal loyalty. Joachim von Pfeil was not the only old comrade-in-arms to break with him; so did Friedrich Lange, a radical nationalist publicist. In fact, many people who had direct experience with Peters became disillusioned with him. Some of his contemporaries and most historians have judged him to be unscrupulous, paranoid, filled with delusions of grandeur, and given to acts of cruelty. The German government and his opponents within the colonialist movement distrusted his judgment; Bismarck, for example, limited Peters's powers in the German East African Company after granting its charter because he feared that Peters's brusque and erratic behavior would deter investors. Even though Peters still retained a leading position in the company, he was gradually losing his grip on it. In an effort to strengthen his power base, Peters brought some of his remaining allies to Pfeil's meetings and installed them on her group's board. These men were radical nationalists who definitely preferred rapid exploitation to missionary work: August Leue, the general secretary of the German East African Company; Fritz Bley, a pan-German journalist who argued that races were in perpetual conflict; Count Felix Behr-Bandelin, who bankrolled far-right-wing initiatives; and Friedrich Schroder, a company official charged with plantation administration.

If Peters was Germany's best-known colonialist man, Frieda von Bulow soon became its best-known colonialist woman. Like the Pfeil sisters, Bulow had family connections to "exotic" locales. Her father, Baron Hugo von Bulow, was the Prussian consul at Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), and her uncle Baron Thankmar von Munchhausen, to whom she was close after her father's death, was likewise at Smyrna and then served as the imperial consul in Jerusalem. In Smyrna Frieda attended a school run by the Kaiserswerth Deaconessate, a Protestant nursing order that combined medical and social work with religious counsel and was well known for its work in the Middle East. When Frieda was nine, her widowed mother, Clotilde von Bulow, nee von Munchhausen, moved the family from Smyrna to Germany, into the Herrnhuter pietist community in Neudietendorf, Thuringia. The Herrnhuter pietists ran the oldest German overseas Protestant mission, having begun evangelical work in the Caribbean, Surinam, and western and southern Africa in the 1730s. Bulow retained strong childhood memories of Neudietendorf: of a shop that sold handicrafts from Africa to support the missionaries and a collection box in the form of an African man who "nodded in thanks" when coins were tossed into his carved mouth. A religious skeptic, Bulow nevertheless viewed Protestantism as an important part of German national identity.

In early 1885 Bulow was casting about for a new direction for her life. She had trained as a teacher at Berlin's Crain Institute but disliked teaching. She was despondent over the 1884 death of her sister Margarete, her inseparable companion and a gifted young novelist, who drowned after saving the life of a boy who had fallen through the ice while skating on Berlin's Rummelsburger Lake. Margarete's heroism, and male bystanders' failure to come to their aid, deeply impressed Frieda and apparently helped form her views of female strength and male weakness. Soon after the accident Bulow wrote in her diary: "Sometimes I have a wish ... to be among utterly foreign people and join a powerful struggle. As long as I live, I want to be master, not slave." She traveled, rejected offers of marriage, and seemed to be well on her way to becoming one of the so-called surplus women about whom commentators on the Woman Question debated. Then she glimpsed in Carl Peters's accounts of East Africa a new possibility for a "powerful struggle."

Bulow's fascination with the German colonies began in March 1885 when she read Peters's reports from his first expedition in the Tagliche Rundschau, a Berlin newspaper edited by Friedrich Lange. Bulow already knew Lange, for her sister Margarete's novellas had appeared in his newspaper, and she had met him in 1884 to discuss Margarete's literary estate. Lange recalled his first encounter with Bulow: "I perceived the high-spirited, well-bred vivacity of her character as a masculine tinge to her femininity; in her there was something like the singleness of purpose of an arrow laid upon the string of a bow." In 1884 Lange and Felix Behr-Bandelin had helped Peters to found the Society for German Colonization. Now, in 1885, Bulow arranged for Lange to introduce her to Peters. She asked Peters if her brother Albrecht might join the company and go to German East Africa, and also proposed going to East Africa herself to set up facilities for medical care of the Germans there, most of whom were company employees. Like Peters, Bulow had great powers to impress and persuade. Peters agreed to both plans. Not long after they met, the two began a love affair. For Bulow, high romance and colonial adventure became intertwined; Peters, she later recalled, promised to build her a city in East Africa.


Excerpted from German women for empire, 1884-1945 by Lora Wildenthal Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Colonial Nursing as the First Realm of Colonialist Women's Activism, 1885-1907 13
2 The Feminine Radical Nationalism of Frieda von Bulow 54
3 A New Colonial Masculinity: The Men's Debate over "Race Mixing" in the Colonies 79
4 A New Colonial Femininity: Feminism, Race Purity, and Domesticity, 1898-1914 131
5 The Woman Citizen and the Lost Colonial Empire in Weimar and Nazi Germany 172
Epilogue 201
App Colonialist and Women's Organizations 203
Notes 205
Bibliography 287
Index 325
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