»The Mission in the leeway of the colonial movement« – The role of Christian missions in the German colonies

In the face of their continuing engagement in the former colonies, the roll of Christian missionaries during the German colonial period is a delicate issue. Although the problematic cooperation of missionaries with the colonial administration might today not be any longer seriously contested – the orders and societies involved are rather reserved in dealing with this past.(1) The debate around the mission and the colonial rule can be situated between two poles: one regards the mission and colonialism as two sides of the same formidable coin, presenting the church as a keen supporter of the colonial government;(2) the others point to the humanitarian services of the missionaries as well as the intellectual education of the indigenous population, which lead in many cases to political emancipation and ultimately to the independence of the colonies.(3) The following text will elaborate on the backgrounds of these debates, hoping to shift the gladly forgotten colonial history of the Germans out of the dark and into the conscience of society. Mission as a theme is inextricably related to this period of time – not just because German colonisation and intensive Christian evangelisation coincided with each other.(4)

The history of the German mission

Christianisation had already from the beginning been an important motivation for the Western conquests. Examples can be found in the Catholic powers Spain and Portugal in the 16th and 17th century and later the Protestant kingdoms of Holland, England and Denmark.(5) Though the age of rationalism had put a damper on the Western missionary ideas, a new Protestant missionary movement, developing in England, came to the fore around 1800, as well gaining a following in Germany.(6) In the light of the generally waning influence of the Catholic church, the Catholic missionary establishment at that time did not manifest the same euphoria and strength as the Protestant one(7). Around 1815 the Catholic missionary zeal went through a revival originating in France. Due to the cultural war between the Prussian government and the Catholic church, there had hardly settled Catholic missionary religious orders in the German empire until the 1880’s.(8) Given that they already supported missionary stations in the newly acquired German colonies and chancellor Bismarck designated the endeavour as a purely national mission, the Catholic orders in the end did transfer their dependencies to the German empire.(9)

Development of the colonial mission

At the start, the German missionary societies of both confessions considered their mission not limited to the German colonies. In light of the universal religious appeal, a mission formulated in pure national terms was alien to the understanding of the church; the Protestants directly feared an instrumentalisation by the colonial administration and a secularisation and nationalisation of the Protestant missionary activities.(10) This applied especially to the older Protestant missionary associations, who had already settled before the German colonial era. After Germany joined the ranks of colonial powers in 1884/1885, new Protestant missionary groups emerged who were of explicit colonial diligence, propagating a strong bond between mission and the colonial rule.(11) After initial hesitations, the older missionary societies decided as well in favour of a national mission, albeit for different reasons: for the one the colonial rule guaranteed a secure working environment and above the general patriotic euphoria over the strengthening of the German Empire furthermore caused growing nationalism in missionary circles.(12)

This was different with the Catholic missions as Catholic orders had already sent French missionaries to the now German areas long before 1884/1885. In order not to be expelled after the consolidations of German rule over the East African areas, the affected orders established German dependencies, with the approval of the imperial government.(13) The arrival of the Catholics in the colonial missions thus took place more out of pragmatic considerations than being based on a increased national disposition. Nevertheless it can be said that for both confessions, the German acquisition of colonies had made for an increased interest for the mission of the wider population in the homeland. The missionaries did thus not only profit from an improved security situation but could furthermore animate the German public to increase support for the missionary activities.(14) If only because of these advantages, not a single missionary society has opposed out of ethical considerations the questionable bond with colonial rule.(15)

While the Catholic mission used the advantages of the cooperation with the government to expand its influence beyond Germany itself, the Protestants increasingly focused their efforts on the colonies, understanding their missionary zeal as »a national obligation of honour« (Gustav Warneck). Their national conscience grew in such degree, that they even considered a complete nationalisation of their mission – if only just until the eventual demise of the German colonies.(16)

Missionary zeal in the German colonies

Most of the German missionary societies first took up their activities in the German overseas territories at the time of the German colonial rule. Thereby emphasis was laid on the African possessions, the reason why the following elaborations relate to the four colonies on the African continent.(17) The primary goal of the missionaries was not so much the cultural mission but rather the conversion of the local population and establishment of congregations. For the missionaries a profound conjunction between Christianity and Western culture and conduct of life was evident, making a culturally neutral evangelisation thus virtually impossible.(18) Aside from the advancement of religious beliefs, the German missionaries dedicated themselves to the construction of schools where outspoken importance was attached to obedience and discipline. Missionary plantations were created where the pupils of the mission were made acquainted with the »European workflow«. The German missionaries furthermore campaigned for medical care of the population, supporting the latter in times of crisis.(19) The missionary engagement during these time was a somewhat bizarre mixture of helping, charitable activities and rigorous reeducation programs, moulded on an often racist feeling of superiority and the paternalism of the white missionaries.(20) This approach to the mission was welcomed by the German colonial administration as the features emphasised in the missionary posts, such as obedience, discipline and zeal, would ease colonial rule as well as the economic exploitation of the population by German companies. The missionary school education mediated knowledge which prepared for a later service in the colonial administration. Furthermore the socialisation by the missionaries made mass population uprisings against the white rule improbable.(21)

On the whole, the colonial state and mission strove towards a fruitful cooperation for the sake of both sides. Where the missions needed the strong, occasionally militaristic, branch of the state to not become the victim of attacks by local groups in the territories(22), the colonial state had quickly recognised the advantages brought by the »cultural mission« of the missionaries and remunerated its efforts with financial compensations, land donations and in 1913 even a national donation for the missions of both confessions.(23) In this respect, the extended land ownership of the missionary stations in East Africa is particularly problematic(24): the taxation of the local population by the colonial administration forced the people into wage labour. They found, amongst others, an (under)paid occupation on the land of the missions, who kept their stations financially viable through plantations and land leases. In this way colonial and missionary goals complemented each other optimally: the one profited respectively from the other.(25) In this respect, there can be attested an uncritical and collaborative behaviour of the German missionary associations towards the colonial state, most of the missionaries looking the other way in the face of colonial crimes such as the war against the Maji-Maji movement 1905-1907 or the genocide on the Herero 1904/1905 in South West Africa.(26)

There were however also moments of antagonism and conflicts between the mission and colonial administration, relativating the image of the mission as a mere servant of German colonial rule. Especially in regard of education there were grounds of discussion, related to questions of language and tuition content. Here the missionaries put on the most resistance, against an instrumentalisation by the colonial state, defending their religious goal which foresaw to teach in the native languages with an emphasis on religion instructions.(27) Many mission members also criticised that the German companies and the settlers acted scrupulous and exploitative towards the local population and that they remained unchallenged by the state. In some cases they could make the colonial administration to give in, as for example the Leipzig mission in the Kilimanjaro area. The Basler mission(28) in Cameroon eschewed the least to exert criticism towards the colonial administration, mostly denouncing the mistreatment and expropriation of the population by colonial masters. In this respect, the missionary engagement has had without a doubt a moderating effect on the colonial rule of the Germans.(29)

Consequences of the missionary pursuit

Despite of isolated effective allegations of the missions against the colonial administration, it cannot be said that the missionary engagement would have had humanised the German colonial rule in a general and durable way. The verbal attacks of the missionaries throughout did not relate to the colonial system as such, but mostly to single persons or particular situations. Exercising fundamental critique on colonial proceedings was not possible for the missions during the imperial period, as the relation between European expansion and Christian evangelising was too strong.(30) Concerning western-style school education the Christian missionaries have in many cases laid the foundations.(31) The motive here was however not so much the education as such but in the first place to make the Christian doctrine accessible and to educate the pupils into discipline, obedience and wage labour, the level being kept low on purpose as the missionaries were cautious to fuel »false emancipatory aspirations«.(32) Only in the 1920’s, after the end of German colonial rule, did some missions undertake efforts to develop higher education.(33) Notwithstanding it was against the goals of the missions, many of their pupils would become proponents of independence, having found the tools for their liberation in the Christian curriculum.(34)

The medical and charitable services of the missions has without a doubt alleviated some of the needs, social-ethical motives were at this point often still more convincing that mission-strategic or colonial thinking.(35) Notwithstanding, we should keep in mind Fanon's warning about the de-alienation of a people which has been subject to the experience of evangelisation and colonialism. Convinced of the superiority of Christian culture, the missionaries of the colonial era acted vehemently against the alleged »ethical defects« of the African population, not seldom ravaging their cultural and social structures in the process. Following Horst Gründer the practice of missionary theory demanded the protection of indigenous cultures – in practice however, the German imperial missionaries exercised »intolerant cultural imperialism«.(36) This cultural imperialism has left wounds and traumas in the societies affected which should not to be forgotten when looking back to the colonial wrongdoings.

  • (1) Vgl. Horst Gründer: Christliche Mission und deutscher Imperialismus 1884 – 1914. Schöningh: Paderborn 1982, S. 12 – 13. While on the websites and publications of the most missionary societies and orders there is pointed towards the unfortunate relation between mission and colonialism, these indications are played down, if compared to the fact-based descriptions of Horst Gründer or Thorsten Altena.
  • (2) Vgl. Frantz Fanon: Die Verdammten dieser Erde. Rowohlt: Reinbek 1969, S. 32: »But the triumphing statements of the missions in reality offer an insight into the alienation which they have injected the colonised people. I do speak of the Christian religion and no man has the right to be astonished about that. The church in the colonies is a church of white people, of foreigners. She does not lead the colonised on the ways of God but on the way of the white men, on the way of the masters, on the way of the suppressors.«
  • (3) Vgl. Niels-Peter Moritzen: Werkzeug Gottes in der Welt. Leipziger Mission 1836 – 1936 – 1986. Verlag der ev.-luth. Mission: Erlangen 1986, S. 7; sowie Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 11.
  • (4) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 323 – 324; sowie Jürgen Becher: »Ora et labora? Evangelische Missionen und ihr Ringen um Erziehungs- und Disziplinierungsstrategien in der Kolonie Deutsch-Ostafrika«. In: van der Heyden, Ulrich/Becher, Jürgen (Hg.): Mission und Moderne. Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1998, [S. 21 – 38], S. 23.
  • (5) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 19.
  • (6) Vgl. ebd., S. 20 – 21.
  • (7) Vgl. ebd., S. 47. The French Revolution and the all-encompassing secularisation under Napoleon had deprived the Catholic Church of its worldly power and the bulk of its wealth.
  • (8) Vgl. ebd., S. 46 – 47.
  • (9) Vgl. ebd., S. 61 – 67; außerdem Heinrich Berger: Mission und Kolonialpolitik. Die katholische Mission in Kamerun während der deutschen Kolonialzeit. Neue Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft: Immensee 1978, S. 27 – 28.
  • (10) Vgl. Thorsten Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen mitten in der Heidenwelt des dunklen Erdteils«. Zum Selbst- und Fremdverständnis protestantischer MissionarInnen im kolonialen Afrika 1884-1918. Waxmann Verlag: Münster 2003, S. 28 – 29; außerdem Becher: »Ora et labora?«, a.a.O., S. 26; sowie Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 26.
  • (11) Vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 27 – 28; sowie Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 36 – 46. Die wichtigsten Kolonialpropagandisten unter den protestantischen MissionarInnen waren Friedrich Fabri, Carl Peters, Pfarrer Distelkamp, Carl Gotthilf Büttner, Alexander Merensky und M. Ittameier. Gustav Warneck und Friedrich Michael Zahn waren ihre gemäßigten Gegenspieler.
  • (12) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 26.
  • (13) Vgl. ebd., S. 46 – 61.
  • (14) Zur Missionsbegeisterung vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 15, 26; zur zunehmenden Unterstützung vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 36, 43.
  • (15) Vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 31 – 32; sowie Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 326 – 328.
  • (16) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 79.
  • (17) Vgl. ebd., S. 27 – 46, 61 – 79; sowie Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 13.
  • (18) Vgl. Becher: »Ora et labora?«, a.a.O., S. 24 – 25; sowie Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 336 – 337.
  • (19) Zum Schulwesen vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 364 – 366; zur Plantagenarbeit vgl. ebd., S. 242 – 244; zu Gesundheit und Krisenhilfe vgl. ebd., S. 350 – 352.
  • (20) Vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 415. An indication of the paternalist disposition of the missionaries is the continuous use of possessive presuppositions when they talked about »their« heretics, as well as the explicit putting on par of indigenous people and children. Comments made by the missionaries of the Evangelic Mission Society for German East Africa (EMDOA) are for example »completely underdeveloped [N*]« or »poor, slender Black« and collecting boxes shaped after »Missions[n*]« were used in the homeland of the missionary societies as much as in the mission areas themselves. Vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 145 – 152.
  • (21) Vgl. ebd., S. 415 – 416; sowie Becher: »Ora et labora?«, a.a.O., S. 31 – 37; als auch Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 329 – 331.
  • (22) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 322 – 324.
  • (23) Vgl. ebd., S. 236, 329 – 332; sowie Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 31.
  • (24) The missions of both confessions disposed together over about a quarter of the private plantation land in East Africa, which made them, according to Gründer, the »largest private land owner in East Africa«. Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 236.
  • (25) Vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 64; außerdem Hans-Joachim Niesel: Kolonialverwaltung und Missionen in Deutsch Ostafrika. Dissertation: Berlin 1971, S. 218.
  • (26) Vgl. ebd., S. 36 – 37, 63 – 64.
  • (27) Vgl. Becher: »Ora et labora?«, a.a.O., S. 29 – 32; sowie Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 96.
  • (28) As its most important hinterland was considered to be in Baden and Württemberg, the Basler missionary society counted as a German mission. Furthermore the mission took part in the All-German Mission Conference in Bremen in 1885, thereby indicating that its saw itself a part of the German missionary societies. Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 30 – 31.
  • (29) Vgl. Altena: »Ein Häuflein Christen«, a.a.O., S. 43-44.
  • (30) Vgl. ebd., S. 31-32; außerdem Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 321 – 322, 347 – 348; sowie Berger: Mission und Kolonialpolitik, a.a.O., S. 293, 299.
  • (31) Vgl. Johannes Triebel: »Missionsschule«. In: Jacob E. Mabe (Hg.): Das Afrika-Lexikon. Peter Hammer Verlag/Metzler Verlag: Wuppertal/Stuttgart 2004, [S. 404-405], S. 405.
  • (32) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 364-366.
  • (33) Vgl. John Iliffe: Geschichte Afrikas. C.H. Beck: München 2003, S. 299.
  • (34) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 369 – 371.
  • (35) Vgl. Gründer: Mission und Imperialismus, a.a.O., S. 350 – 352.
  • (36) Vgl. ebd., S. 336 – 339; sowie Berger: Mission und Kolonialpolitik, a.a.O., S. 341-342.