Economic Imperialism:
Germany's Self-Revelation Of Guilt

By David Jayne Hill
Formerly United States Ambassador to Germany

[The Century Magazine, July 1917]

In the discussion of international questions it is a common oversight to lay the principal stress on political organization, to the neglect of economic facts and aspirations. It is evident that if all nations were living under a truly constitutional regime and were disposed to apply the principles of constitutional states in their dealings with one another, it would not be difficult to establish a world organization with a settled code of law, a court of arbitral justice, and perhaps a council of conciliation to propose methods of adjusting controversies arising from a conflict of national policies. But such an organization would provide only a set of institutions; it would not reach the national motives that move the world to action.

Among the causes of conflict the most difficult to control are the economic motives; for it is these that are at present the most influential in determining the ambitions of nations, which are not merely "bodies politic," but economic corporations, seeking to acquire and possess the resources of the world. Regarded from this point of view, the external aim of national existence is efficiency rather than justice. Its purpose is not alone the protection of rights, but the augmentation of power. As long as competition in industry and trade seems to the great powers more advantageous than cooperation in the utilization of the earth's resources, war will appear to be a natural, and to some a justifiable, method of national development.

Modern imperialism Is, in fact, far more actuated by economic than by political motives. Politically, imperialism is merely a dynastic interest; but economically, it is made to appear that territorial expansion and extended domination are in the people's interest. In this representation there are, however, two abuses of the people's confidence: for, while a few special interests may profit by an imperial policy, the average person is not rendered richer or happier by imperial triumphs and, if he were, it would still be a criminal act to seduce a people into partnership in a policy of plunder on the ground that advantages may be obtained for them through the power of the state which could not be procured by private persons. When a government embarks upon a policy of imperial aggression, it virtually says to the nation, "Provide us with the necessary power, and we shall win for you increased advantages in which you will all share." A people thus deluded are the victims not only of deception, but of corruption. By becoming shareholders in a joint-stock operation the object of which is illicit gain, they furnish the capital for a predatory enterprise, only to discover in the end that they do not share in its fruits even when these are obtained by conquests and annexations. On the contrary, they find themselves burdened with public debt, impoverished by the neglect of their business, and saddened by the loss of their sons killed or maimed in battle. It may well be doubted if, when the balance is struck, any nation, though victorious in war, has on the whole been to any important extent enriched by imperial aggression. New territory may have been obtained, new accessions may have be made to the mass of the population, wider political control may have been acquired, but rarely, if ever, has the sum of happiness been thus increased.

To most civilized peoples the thought of aggressive war for purposes of gain, involving as it necessarily does every variety of crime—robbery, murder, outrage, and sacrilege—is revolting to the conscience and repellent to intelligence; but in reality imperial aspirations are never so repulsively presented to the mind. They are invariably disguised for the great mass of the people under a mask of virtuous pretenses. Alleged defense against intended invasion, the undoing of historic wrongs, the attainment of "natural boundaries," the unification of divided peoples, the restoration of suppressed nationalities, the extension of the benefits of a higher culture to lower races—all these are the reasons set forth in public proclamations and diplomatic apologies for schemes of aggression, while the advantages to be gained are represented as merely incidental concomitants of these lofty purposes.

It would, of course, be unreasonable to deny that long-obstructed national aspirations and a desire for equality of privilege with other nations may be perfectly legitimate—as, for example, the unification of Germany and of Italy—or a determination to put an end to exclusion from markets and waterways over which unfair monopolies have been established. In cases where whole peoples have by force been rendered economically dependent there may be, no doubt, just grounds for demanding changes; but in the main these are fit subjects for negotiation and transaction, in accordance with legitimate business methods, rather than for the exercise of military force. Resort to violence for the attainment of national ends has not only been customary in the past, but it has seemed to follow as a logical corollary from the absolute theory of the state. If that theory is still to be maintained, then there is no escape from the perfect legitimacy of wholesale conquest, limited only by the power of a state to attain its ends by force. Every existing empire in the world has been created by military power. To those who accept the absolutist theory of the state there is nothing reprehensible in the spirit of conquest and imperial domination. Why should any nation holding this theory refrain from extending its power as far as possible?" It is, in truth, certain that it will not do so; but it follows with logical necessity that as long as this theory is held the conflict of nations will continue.

The whole future of civilization turns upon the decision whether the state is to be henceforth a creation of force or a creation of law. If it is to be considered merely a creation of force, then preparation for war is the only wisdom; for only the strong state can survive, and it must be at all times ready to fight for its existence. But if, on the other hand, the state is rightly to be conceived as a creation of law, then all states accepting this theory are menaced by the existence of strong embodiments of power which refuse to be governed by the rules of law. As long as they exist, as long as they arm themselves for aggression, as long as they devise and entertain schemes of conquest, so long the truly constitutional states must be prepared to defend themselves and even to defend one another.

Considered by itself, mere dynastic imperialism is not at present a menace to the world's peace. There is probably no nation so devoted to a dynasty and to the dynastic conception of government as to endanger the peace of its neighbors for purely dynastic reasons. Mankind has passed that point. But territorial expansion, the extension of political control for economic reasons, the lust for markets, the quest for resources, the command of great waterways, supremacy on the sea, these are the driving and compelling forces that make imperialism a terror in the world. In the hands of an efficient, irresponsible, and remorseless great power, these ambitions would render this planet a place of torture to every law-respecting people.

Beyond dispute it was economic imperialism that caused the present war, and plunged all Europe into it. No one can fail to see the opposition of interests that led up to it. They were real, they were obvious; but it was an anachronism to fight about them. They were primarily business interests—markets, resources, trade-routes. These were the issues. To settle them advantageously, the sword was thrown into the scale, great armies were mustered and despatched upon their errand of hewing their way to the heart of opposing nations. Has it been a good method of transacting business? It was easy to begin it, but it is difficult to end it. It can never be ended by mere fighting. The lesson of it must be learned and accepted by all; and, whoever wins on the battle-field, no real victory can be attained that does not result in the triumph of principles of justice and the renunciation of material advantages as mere spoils of war. Unless the victory resulting from this war is a triumph for humanity, whoever the victor may be at the making of a treaty, it will not be a peace, but the seed of future conflicts.

Herein, then, lies the foreshadowing of a new Europe, that hereafter the stronger may not profit by his superior strength. It sounds, indeed, like a new doctrine, and it will be hard to live by; but it has its apostolate. It is explicitly announced as a creed. Whatever sympathy the Entente Allies have received in America has been given to them because they were the first to announce it, and because it is believed that they are sincere in proclaiming that law is to be respected and the right of the stronger is to be denied. They have opened a great issue, and they will be held to it. The small states, the weak peoples, the submerged races, they affirm, must henceforth receive from the powerful just consideration. The state is no longer to be regarded as an entity existing only for its own augmentation of power, above the law, defiant of humanity, and responsible to no one for its action. There is to be a society of states in a true sense, in which international law is to be respected. In brief, there is to be an end of economic imperialism. It is to be a different world.

For the historian at least it is difficult to accept these high resolutions as certain to endure. History has never been an advance in a direct line toward the fulfilment of great ideals. There are frequently reactionary movements, but they are seldom complete. Human nature does not radically change, but in great crises men see a new light; and, having seen it, it is never quite so dark as it was before.

At all events, a new standard has been raised. Let us, therefore, rally to it. Let us make it easy to perform acts of penitence and contrition. Let all who believe in the constitutional state, who base it upon the rights of the person, who would subject it as far as possible to moral law, and who wish to banish from the earth the shadow of the sword, unite in accepting this standard. At least one step of progress has been made since the conferences at The Hague. Then no one dared to raise the deeper issues. No one in those conclaves ventured to question the prerogatives of government. No one felt that the moment had arrived to discuss the real causes of war or to rebuke the greed of the great powers. There was of necessity an atmosphere of courtesy, but it was breathed through a veil of mutual suspicion. The very fact that there were subjects that could not be frankly considered rendered impossible perfect confidence.

There can be among really constitutional states no discrimination based on mere forms of government. These grow out of the exigencies of every nation, and by its own principles every constitutional state is prohibited from dictating its form of government to any other. Monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy, all and equally may enter into the family of nations as long as they accept and respect the principles of law. But economic imperialism is a spirit and not a form. Until that is renounced there can be no society of states, because it is anti-social, predatory, and based on arbitrary force. As long as nations, whatever their form of government, resort to military power in order to subordinate other nations and extort from them economic advantages, so long civilization will find itself face to face with a dangerous enemy.

If the Entente Allies are sincere in this war, they are prepared to make an end of forceful exploitation, and to enter into solemn engagements to keep the faith. They have appealed to the conscience of mankind. They have defined their own conceptions of right and wrong. They have professed to be ready to die for them. They have insisted upon the sanctity of treaty obligations. They have proclaimed the rights of defenseless peoples. They have asserted that humanity and national morality are to be preferred to empire. In this they have risen to a great height from which it would be humiliating ever to descend. To all who believe in their sincerity they have spoken with a divinely prophetic voice.

What, then, is the attitude of the Central powers, Germany and Austria, toward this standard? Are they also ready to accept it?

If the German Empire has an authorized champion and apologist, entitled by position and attainments to be heard and credited, it is the former imperial chancellor, Prince von Bülow. In the first sentence of his book on "Imperial Germany," published just before the war began, he says: "Germany is the youngest of the Great Powers of Europe; an uninvited and unwelcome intruder when it demanded its share in the treasures of the world." The reason is frankly stated." This union of the states of the Mid-European continent," he says, "so long prevented, so often feared, and at last accomplished by the force of German arms and incomparable statesmanship, seemed to imply something of a threat, or at any rate a disturbing factor."

It may well be doubted if, at the time of the establishment of the German Empire, it was regarded by the world at large as a "disturbing factor," much less as a "threat." German unity having been attained, Bismarck's avowed policy was to guard it from danger from any possible coalition of adverse powers. So long as that regime lasted, no disturbance of the peace was looked for from Germany. Prince von Bülow himself quotes Bismarck as saying: "In Serbia I am an Austrian, in Bulgaria I am a Russian, in Egypt I am English." At the Congress of Berlin, in 1878, all Europe except Russia was willing to accept the great chancellor at his own valuation as an "honest broker," interested chiefly in the peace of Europe; and as regards Russia, that was in Bismarck's mind "the wild elephant" that "was to walk between the two tame elephants, Germany and Austria."

But Prince von Bülow's own interpretation of the meaning of German unity is, it must be confessed, somewhat disquieting. The voluntary and spontaneous movement of the German people, he affirms, could never have created the empire. It was only through a struggle with the rest of Europe, he explains, that the Germanic spirit could be evoked." The opposition in Germany itself could hardly be overcome," he continues, "except by such a struggle. By this means national policy was interwoven with international policy; with incomparable audacity and constructive statesmanship, in consummating the work of uniting Germany, Bismarck left out of play the political capabilities of the Germans, in which they have never excelled, while he called into action their fighting powers, which have always been their strongest point."

These are illuminating words by the former chancellor of the empire, uttered in a spirit of historic truth; and it is in the same spirit that they are here cited. The world would have no fear of the German people, although unified and strong, if their old-time qualities were in control; but almost against its will, it seems, Germany became an imperial power and entered international politics, for which Prussian domination opened the way, and centralized military ascendancy furnished the means of action. Prince von Bülow does not permit the German people themselves or their neighbors to forget that it was not the political capabilities of the constituent states, but Prussian military prowess alone, that created and can further extend the empire.

"The German Empire of medieval times," the former chancellor writes, "was not founded by the voluntary union of the tribes, but by the victory of one single tribe over the others, who for a long time unwillingly bore the rule of the stronger." And in order to leave no doubt of the indebtedness of the German people to Prussia, but rather to show them their complete dependence upon its force of arms, he continues: "As the old empire was founded by a superior tribe, so the new was founded by the strongest of the individual states.... In a modern form, but in the old way, the German nation has, after a thousand years, once again, and more perfectly, completed the work which it accomplished in early times, and for whose destruction it alone was to blame."

It is precisely this return to the past, this frank revival of the methods in use a thousand years ago, this acceptance of a theory of the state that civilization has everywhere rejected, and this frank emphasis upon the intrinsic superiority of "fighting powers," that have made Europe afraid of Germany, and created a distrust of the use intended to be made of its tremendous energies.

And this distrust is not removed by the picture which Prince von Bülow paints of the intellectual state of Germany." German intellect," he says, "had already reached its zenith without the help of Prussia. The princes of the West were the patrons of German culture; the Hohenzollerns were the political teachers and taskmasters." There is as yet, he affirms, no fusion between the Prussian and the German spirit. Representatives of German intellectual life, he assures us, sometimes regard the Prussian state as a "hostile power," and the Prussian at times considers the free development of the German intellect as a "destructive force." "Again and again," he declares," in Parliament and in the press accusations are leveled against Prussia in the name of freedom, and against the undaunted German intellect in the name of order." Between them, he assures us, there is as yet no real reconciliation.

It does not admit of doubt that, if Germany were to-day in the mood it was when the German universities and cultivated classes voiced their sentiments in 1848, there would be a vigorous movement for internationalism. Instead of this, on its cloistered side, the German nation conceives of itself as a universal spirit of righteousness—humanity inspired by divinity—working for incarnation in mankind through its superior forms of culture. In other countries, it is assumed, individual men are seeking only their own private happiness. They have no sense of universality or principle of organization. The German state cares for all its own. It alone, therefore, has the secret of ultimate victory. It alone can save the world from degeneration and decay. For this overwhelming reason it ought to conquer, dominate, and reconstruct the world!

Dies ist unser! so lass uns sagen und so es behaupten.

Considered by itself, this Weltanschauung would be entirely harmless, a form of innocuous spiritual pride; but, taken in connection with the Prussian military organization, to which it looks as a means of action, it has become portentous. Like the faith of Islam, with which Pan-Germanism unconsciously compares itself, it has kindled a fire of fanaticism that does not shrink from extremes and thus, to the pride of culture, is added the zeal of religion:

Wir sind des Hammergottes Geschlecht
Und wollen sein Weltreich erobern.

his spirit reaches its full flower in the Pan-German movement, the publications of which, widely scattered in cheap popular editions, have done vast damage to the reputation of the empire. Among these publications the most elaborate is the book entitled "Gross-Deutschland," published at Leipsic, in 1911, by Otto Richard Tannenberg.

Here is recited and interpreted ethnologically, statistically, chartographically, and prophetically the German dream of Welt-politik. With erudition that has involved years of research, and with a definiteness and perspicuity that leave nothing unexplained even down to the definitive treaties of peace after the Great War shall have accomplished its purposes, we have in this elaborate work a complete exposition of economic imperialism as contemplated by the Pan-Germanists—an exposition sown broadcast among the people.

There is here no question of diffusing German culture for the benefit of other nations, and no attempt to prove the moral value of superior organization; there is nothing, in fact, but a world empire, produced by the vivisection of civilized nations under the edge of the sword.

This urgent exhortation to prompt military aggression, with incredible frankness, makes no pretense of anything forced upon Germany, but declares it to be both expedient and practicable to acquire new territory, expel its occupants, and enjoy its resources, without the slightest recognition of any rights or any law. Being strong, numerous, and well prepared, it insists that the time has come for Germans to strike for world dominion." The period of preparation," Tannenberg declares, "has lasted a long time (from 1871 to 1911)— forty years of toil on land and sea, the end constantly in view. The need now is to begin the battle, to vanquish and to conquer; to gain new territories—lands for colonization for the German peasants, fathers of future warriors, and for the future conquests…. 'Peace' is a detestable word; peace between Germans and Slavs is like a treaty made on paper, between water and fire.... Since we have the force, we have not to seek reasons."

Once brought within the fold of the Greater Germany, there would be in Europe, aside from the Balkans, eighty-seven millions, contributed by Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Baltic provinces of Russia, originally of German stock. That some of these populations have ceased to speak German does not signify; it is an affair of ethnic unity, the restoration of long-lost brothers. That other races occupy these territories also, sometimes exceeding in numbers the German occupants, does not render this less necessary." If all the German tribes existed to-day," writes Tannenberg, "and had the force of the Low Saxons, there would be neither Latins nor Slavs. The frontiers of Europe would be the frontiers of Germany in Europe."

But this scheme of Germanic expansion does not end with the unification of the Teutonic race in Europe. There would be other Germanys, all definitely outlined and marked on the map: an African Germany, stretching across the dark continent from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean; a near Asiatic Germany, covering the whole of the Ottoman Empire; a far Asiatic Germany, embracing the greater part of China; an oceanic Germany, including all the Dutch islands in the Pacific; and even an American Germany, covering the whole of the southern half of South America. Such are the Teutonic ambitions and the Teutonic plans of conquest as delineated upon Dannenberg's future map of the world.

Wherever there are Germans, wherever Germans go, there the standard of the imperial eagle should be set up." We are eighty-seven millions of representatives of German nationality on our continent," runs this exhortation to universal dominion." Our country is the most populous, the best organized. The new era is at hand. We shall fight and we shall conquer.... If in the time of the great migrations a man of mental and military strength had arisen to group the formidable, unnumbered, and innumerable mass of the German people, to give it one will, one thought, in politics or in religion, that admirable force, perhaps the greatest that has ever existed, would not have been dissipated by an insensate individualism. The movement would have united to the force of Islam the German tenacity.... The culture of Europe would to-day be purely German, and with it the entire world."

How terrific this incorrigible spirit of tribalism is can be realized only when we stop to reflect what the culture of the time of the great migrations was, and what this unchained brute force and tenacity would have inflicted upon Europe, if it had never been tempered and ameliorated by the Latin influences that gave it the first semblance to civilization.

"In the good old time," writes Tannenberg, "it sometimes happened that a strong people attacked a feeble one, exterminated it, and expelled it from its patrimony. To-day, these acts of violence are no longer committed. The little peoples and the debris of peoples have invented a new word, 'international right.' At bottom it is nothing but a calculation based upon our stupid generosity.... Some one should make room; either the Slavs of the West or the South, or ourselves! As we are the strongest, the choice will not be difficult.... A people can maintain itself only by growing.... Greater Germany is possible only through a struggle with Europe. Russia, France, and England will oppose the foundation of Greater Germany. Austria, powerless as she is, will not weigh much in the balance. At all events, Germans will not march against Germany."

Of course none of these aspirations is put forth with official authority, but not being officially suppressed they appear to have a certain sanction. Certainly they have never been disavowed by the imperial German Government. Prince von Bülow, for example, writes: "We have carefully cultivated good relations with Turkey and Islam, especially since the journey to the East undertaken by our Emperor and Empress. These relations are not of a sentimental nature, for the continued existence of Turkey serves our interest from the industrial, military, and political points of view. Industrially and financially, Turkey offered us a rich and fertile field of activity...which we have cultivated with profit;" and he concludes by expressing the reliance of Germany upon Turkey in the event of a general European war, while for Austria Turkey is described as "the most convenient neighbor possible." For Prince von Bülow, as he admits, Bismarck's opinion that Turkey and the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier was no longer to be entertained. It was, in fact, to the East that his vision turned.

"No sensible man," he declares, "will ever entertain the idea of recovering either national or political influence over the lands in the South and West which were lost so many centuries ago." For these losses, he admits, "compensation has been granted by Providence in the East." "Those possessions," he concludes, "we must and will retain."

If there has, in fact, as German statesmen profess, been an "encirclement" of Germany, is it to be wondered at, in view of the frank proclamation of German plans of territorial expansion? No part of the world has been considered immune from attack." For us," says Tannenberg, "it is a vital question to acquire colonial empires which will enable us to remain independent of the good-will of our competitors, offer us a market for our products and our industry, and give us the possibility of procuring the raw materials so necessary and so precious which now are wanting. I mention, for example, only the need of cotton. It may be to us of no importance at whose expense it shall be taken. It is essential that we have these colonies, and that is why we shall have them. Whether it be at the cost of England or of France, it is only a question of power, and perhaps also of a little risk."

How much risk it would be advisable to run may be inferred from Tannenberg's complaint that Bismarck's policy was "senile," because as early as 1885 it did not reach out for Cuba and the Philippines, especially Cuba, "the pearl of the Antilles," as large as Bavaria, Würtemberg, Baden, and Alsace united, as he informs us; which, Tannenberg asserts, could not drop this subject without adding an insult to the citizens of German origin in the United States by saying: "The position of Cuba relative to North America would have created a new relation between the German people and the ten millions of German emigrants domiciled in the United States; and, besides its situation, would have given us the preponderance in the Gulf of Mexico."

"After all," runs this outspoken exhortation to aggression, "politics is a business," a statement that recalls Prince von Bülow's observation that "politics is a rough trade in which sentimental souls rarely bring even a simple piece of work to a successful issue." "Justice and injustice," continues Tannenberg, "are notions which are necessary only in civil life." And yet, he pleads, it is "unjust" that small states, like Belgium and Holland, should possess rich colonies and enjoy nearly double the per capita wealth enjoyed by subjects of the German Empire, "only because these two countries do not bear arms, as we do." "For that reason," he says, "they capitalize what they save, and laugh in our faces." But why should not Germans do the same? Is economic imperialism, after all, an unprofitable business?

It would be easy, Tannenberg declares, to make it profitable. Think of Luxemburg, with a total military strength of only 323 soldiers and officers, only one man to a thousand of the population! And Belgium, rich in colonies, a great center of industry and commerce, with its coal and iron, and only a paper protection! "Yet Belgium," he reminds us, "was once a part of the German Empire."

A subject that awakens very serious reflection is presented in the appendix to this remarkable work, which contains the text of the treaties to be concluded when the war for European conquest is ended. By the imaginary treaty of Brussels, drawn up in 1911, France cedes to Germany the Vosges, with Epinal; Moselle and Meuse, with Nancy and Luneville; the town of Verdun; and the Ardennes, with Sedan. France further gives asylum to the inhabitants of this territory, and establishes them elsewhere within her own borders, in order to make room for German settlers; declares its assent to the incorporation of Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, and Switzerland into the German Empire; cedes to Germany the twelve milliards of francs lent to Russia; renounces all colonies; and pays to Germany a cash indemnity of thirty-five milliards of marks. By the supposititious treaty of Riga, also drawn up in 1911, Russia cedes vast territories to Germany; creates a kingdom of Poland on its own soil, where the Prussian Poles, to be expelled from Prussian Poland, may reside; and accepts the incorporation of Austria, ceded by the Hapsburgs to the Hohenzollerns, into the German Empire. As an inducement to Great Britain to sanction these proceedings, the French and Portuguese colonies are by these treaties to be divided between the two empires on the assumption that British neutrality could be thus insured.

In citing these documents, so frankly disclosing the Pan-German dream of expansion, there is no intention to insist, as André Chéradame has asserted, that these specific plans were originated by the highest official authorities of the German Empire; but It is a disturbing reflection that, as he points out, ninety per cent. of the whole program of the Pan-German propaganda, so far as the continent of Europe is concerned, has, despite unexpected opposition, actually been carried into temporary effect.

What Is most discouraging from the point of view of international society is the fact that the official philosophy of Prussia, which, as Prince von Bülow reminds us, "attained her greatness as a country of soldiers and officials...and to this day is still in all essentials a state of soldiers and officials," has taken command of German intelligence and industry. That philosophy is explicitly stated by the former imperial chancellor in the following words:

"It is a law of life and development in history that, where two national civilizations meet, they fight for ascendancy. In the struggle between nationalities one nation is the hammer and the other the anvil; one is the victor and the other the vanquished."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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