Connecting Trump in Greenland with Germany’s Second and Third Reich

Much has been made of President Donald Trump’s recent announcement about purchasing Greenland from Denmark. Although at first the statement was ridiculed and treated with amazement, it was soon pointed out that the United States had historically expanded much of its land area by way of purchase. Alaska, Louisiana, Florida and the Gadsden Purchase are some of the more well-known and larger instances of this practice. What is more, the United States had previously, and successfully, negotiated with Denmark for the purchase of the Danish West Indies in 1917 as a result of concerns that foreign powers might use the islands as a base to attack the Panama Canal. So Trump’s attempted purchase of Greenland for strategic reasons made perfect sense from a historical perspective. What is more, when the United States cannot buy land outright it can still flex its military muscles by a similar work-around, namely by renting land instead. This practice of buying and renting is known as “monopoly imperialism”, after the board game, and the rentals are exemplified by a network of military bases in places as far afield as Diego Garcia and the Marshall Islands.

What has been omitted in the noise about Trump and Greenland, however, is that the United States is not the only imperial power to attempt to expand its global hegemony by way of purchase or lease. At the start of the twenty first century Chinese interests had also been attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to purchase or rent a large chunk of territory in Iceland with a view to having a foothold in the Arctic. For those of us interested in the history and origins of Nazi Germany, however, it turns out late nineteenth century imperial Germany, the prototype of Hitler’s Third Reich, also utilized monopoly imperialism to achieve its geo-political ambitions, albeit on the other side of the world (see Alessio, Arnold & Ollé Tejero 2016). Hence, the Spanish East Indies in the Pacific were purchased by Germany from Spain. The former consisted of what is today the Republic of the Marshall Islands (which were sold to Germany in 1884), and the Caroline Islands (today’s Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marianas), which were sold in 1899. These purchases are historically significant as this appears to be the first time that Germany acquired non-contiguous imperial territory outside of the European continent.

When it comes to places such as the Marshalls, as Mückler highlights, there is ‘little information’ (2016). Yet in spite of this spasmodic treatment “the South Pacific had held an important place in the German imagination” (Conrad 2012: 54). Nationalist sentiment after unification in 1871, as well as emigrant communities who wished to remain connected to the Reich and Germans back home fascinated by the exotic, were all factors in an end-of-century evolving imperial enthusiasm. Many argued that in order to compete with other nation-states formal colonies were necessary (Friedrichsmeyer, Lennox and Zantop 1993: 10). As early as 1806 a secret society inspired by the French Revolution had been operating in Tübingen with the intention of creating a German colony in Tahiti (Kahn and Wilke 2007: 294). Other early suggestions of areas ripe for German colonization included: Taiwan (1867), the Nicobar Islands (1867), and Saigon (Knoll and Hiery 2010: 11). However, post-unification Otto von Bismarck resisted formal colonialism, preferring “trading colonies, where commercial interests would incur most of the expense and effort” (Friedrichsmeyer, Lennox and Zantop 1993: 10).

It is generally thought, therefore, that a zeal for formal German colonies was not acquired until the so-called Scramble for Africa of 1884-1885. Thus Knoll and Hiery argue that Germany began its overseas empire in Namibia when Franz Adolf Lüderlitz established a merchant business (2010: 27). However, fearing British annexation in 1884, Bismarck placed it under the protection of the German empire. Nevertheless, an even earlier history of intervention can be seen when Germany took control of the Marshalls in the late 1870s after German merchants established trading stations there. In 1878 a German gunboat arrived at Jaluit Atoll in the Marshalls. Despite the archipelago having been recognized as Spanish the Germans obtained formal control after landing a detachment of marines; treaties were signed with a local ruler giving Germany the right to establish a coaling and naval station. Thus, ‘German control over Jaluit Atoll in 1878’ was formally achieved (Hanlon 1994: 94). Hezel states that 1878 was without doubt ‘a hesitant first step toward outright annexation’ (2003: 47).

The purpose of these early Pacific colonies is not always immediate. Some argue that Germany’s motive was economic (Quanchi and Adams 2003: 116). Indeed, the islands were a lucrative source of copra. In the case of Jaluit it is noteworthy that annexation occurred shortly after the British had taken control of Fiji in 1874, leaving many German traders there bankrupt and without property. A similar colonial seizure occurred in Hawai’i when the United States established a privileged trading position by way of a new 1875 treaty, thereby hurting German commerce (Kennedy 1972: 264). So the annexation of Jaluit needs to be seen in this wider context and could have been an attempt by Germany to fend off future foreign annexations – the same rationale for their later take-over of Namibia. It is this explanation that Trump cited for Greenland, namely to prevent a Chinese move on nearby territory.

Picking up the story where we left off and a short while after Jaluit, other merchants brought increasing pressure on the German government for outright annexation of all the Caroline Islands. Pressure to take these areas might have arisen from other sub-imperial agendas in the region, for in 1883 there had been a failed attempt by Queensland to annex New Guinea. There were also anxieties about New Zealand’s ambitions over Samoa. Although near confrontation ensued with Spain, the Carolines remained Spanish – as both parties sought mediation from the papacy. Despite German attempts to argue at the Conference of Berlin that signatory powers required effective occupation of a territory to claim possession, the Pope made the case that this agreement was limited to Africa (Elizalde 1991: 17). Yet the story does not end here. In 1885 another German gunboat appeared at Jaluit and Bismarck formally concluded another agreement. Later that year, Spain, wanting to save face, sold the remainder of the Marshalls for 4.5 (US) million dollars. In 1899, following Spain’s defeat by the United States, most of its other island territories in the region were also sold to Germany. Consequently, beginning in the Pacific and employing purchase and lease, Germany had become the third largest European colonial power.

What is intriguing about this Micronesian starting point is that 1885’s Berlin Congress was not consequently, a sudden change in policy direction. What is more, Germany’s Second Reich can be seen to have started not in Africa, as much of the literature assumes, but in the Pacific, and the way that this territory was acquired was through purchase and lease – the same strategy suggested by Trump today. These Pacific possessions would remain under German control until seized by Japan at the start of World War I. Consequently, Germany taking control of Micronesia was significant as it helped to set the groundwork for the Second Reich, which in turn had a profound impact on the development of a Third Reich in a number of ways. Firstly, the feeling of imperial incompleteness post-Versailles “would be a recurring theme that, over the long term, would strengthen the case for expansion” that would continue to such a bloody and fateful end under the Chancellorship of Adolf Hitler (Baronowski, Nazi Empire, 2011: 16). Secondly, given German actions in Namibia in the early twentieth century, some scholars such as Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958) and Sven Lindqvist in Exterminate All the Brutes (1996), have suggested “that colonial slaughters were the precursor and root of the Holocaust and racialist genocide in twentieth-century Europe” (Streets-Salter & Getz, Colonies and Empire, 2016, 377). It is perhaps no accident that the uniform of the early NSDAP Stormtroopers was East African surplus. It would appear to be the case, therefore, that the history of empire is in some cases tied up also with the history of the radical right.

Professor Dominic Alessio is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor of History and Dean of International Programmes at Richmond, The American International University in London. See his profile here.

© Dominic Alessio. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).