When Europeans Contemplated Turning over Africans to Nazis to Save Their Own Skins

tags: Nazis, Hitler, Europeans, Africans

Susan Pedersen is Professor and James P. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She specializes in British history, the British Empire, comparative European history, and international history. She is the author of several books, including Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience. Her latest book is The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford University Press).

One of the strangest and least remembered encounters in the history of appeasement took place on 3 March 1938, when British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson offered Hitler territories in Africa in exchange for peace in Europe. With the aid of a globe, Henderson sketched out the plan: all of Africa below the fifth parallel and above the Zambezi would be put in a common pot and then distributed among all interested European powers, who would govern their portion under common economic and humanitarian norms. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had worked out the proposal himself, Henderson told Hitler. He hoped it would meet Germany’s ambitions and secure a lasting peace in Europe.

Hitler responded truculently. Why come up with some complicated international scheme when Britain and its allies could simply return Germany’s former colonies -- Cameroon, Togo, South West Africa, German East Africa (including Tanganyika, Rwanda, Burundi) --  now governed by the Great War’s victors under “mandate” from the League of Nations? After Henderson patiently ran through the whole thing again, Hitler promised a written response. But that response never arrived. Instead, just over one week later, German troops marched into Vienna. As Chamberlain learned the hard way, colonial baubles would not entice Hitler to give up his plans for European conquest.

Since Chamberlain’s “colonial offer” led nowhere, historians have mostly ignored it. But this is a mistake, for that offer was both revealing and consequential. It tells us, first, how central calculations about empire were to strategic and geopolitical thinking between the wars, for Chamberlain genuinely thought – and the Nazi regime had encouraged him to think – that Africa was crucial to Hitler’s world plan. But that offer was also consequential, for the revelation that Britain and France would contemplate a new colonial settlement – or, more bluntly, would turn over Africans to Nazis to save European skins – thoroughly undermined those empires’ humanitarian and progressive claims. With both imperialism and internationalism discredited, independence appeared the only future worth having.

Of course, it was hardly Chamberlain’s fault that he thought Germany intent on recovering its colonies, for German lobbyists and statesmen had been saying as much for a long, long time. At the Paris Peace conference, the allies had agreed that Germany’s colonies could not be returned. Instead, they would be governed by “advanced” nations, according to agreed norms and under the oversight of the League of Nations. German protests were met with the retort that Germany had forfeited its rights, and indeed its civilizational status, by its systematic mistreatment of the peoples under its rule – a charge that rankled only slightly less than the “war guilt” charge and that mobilized support for colonial claims as never before. As the allies established their rule and the League its oversight regime, Germany’s former colonial governors built up a noisy lobby dedicated to winning those territories back.

In the late twenties, under Gustav Stresemann’s adept leadership, Germany’s foreign policy establishment exploited that colonial movement in clever and unexpected ways. Certain the allies would never surrender their conquests, the Foreign Ministry worked to make sure that their new rulers gained as little advantage from them as possible. In the League of Nations from 1926 and with a seat on the Mandates Commission soon after, Germany teamed up with small states and anti-colonial lobbies to insist that mandatory powers were not sovereign in territories under international supervision and that all League states had equal rights to trade and invest there. Exploiting such requirements, German companies quickly regained their position in the African carrying trade and repurchased their former plantations. German colonial lobbyists printed exposés of forced labor under French rule in West Africa and famine under Belgian rule in Rwanda. In Geneva, Germany’s representatives insisted that all mandated territories should move to independence as quickly as possible.

This is not what German colonial revisionists had in mind, and they greeted the Nazi takeover euphorically. The Nazis might not care much about the Africa, but mutual loathing for the Versailles settlement made the two natural allies. In the mid-thirties, Nazi propagandists and German colonial revisionists teamed up to insist that – especially now that tariff walls were going up around the colonial empires – the new Germany needed a secure source of raw materials and colonial markets of its own. In meetings with British, French and American officials and ministers, Reichsbank President and Nazi Economic Minister Hjalmar Schacht harped on Germany’s colonial claims and proposed that France and Britain relinquish Cameroon and Togo in particular.

Schacht may not have convinced Hitler, but he convinced many others. In Britain, precisely those liberal internationalists who had helped craft the Versailles settlement now wondered whether they might be able to use African concessions to lure Germany into an agreement, perhaps even back into the League. Private conversations among the historian Arnold Toynbee, the Labour peer Noel-Buxton, and political contacts in Germany paved the way for discussions between Schacht and Leon Blum, between Schacht and Halifax, and ultimately between Henderson and Hitler. No deal was struck, but much damage was done nonetheless. A great swathe of middling opinion sympathized with this effort – but the one thing hardline imperialists, colonial nationalists and the shocked members of the League of Nations Mandates Commission could agree on was that colonial people could no longer be handed about (as one PMC member put it) “like cattle.” Nothing discredited the project of “internationalizing” empire more.

When I first began to research The Guardians, I had expected that it would be about how the imperial powers turned to the League to preserve their authority, and how colonial peoples used that same oversight system to challenge that rule. And indeed, it is about these things, with chapters on that contest in Syria, Samoa, South West Africa, Palestine, and other territories under mandate. Yet, those battles inevitably ended up back in Geneva – and there I found Germany playing a major role. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, for Germany was, after all, the former sovereign of most of the territories under oversight. No state had a greater interest in their fate; none played a greater – if more paradoxical – role in shaping the course of the mandates regime. In 1919 Germany became, very much against its wishes, the first post-colonial great power. Its efforts to overcome that fate – initially by trying to “internationalize” the benefits of empire, later by claiming a new empire of its own – helped to destroy not only its own regime but also the European imperial order.

comments powered by Disqus