In the late nineteenth century, Greater and lesser European powers vastly expand their overseas empires as the continents of Africa and Asia were divided in a race among nations that was more like “a sprint than a marathon.”[1] European superiority in technology and industrialization left subjugated peoples defenseless against encroaching spheres of European interest. Compared to the growing expense and destruction of using war to obtain territories within Europe, overseas empire-building was relatively easy. Colonization among European powers snowballed into competition as European governments feared they would be left behind in power and prestige less they join in imperial expansion.

Imperialism was also easy on the educated European consciousness as prevailing theories of Social Darwinism played into biases about race and justified Europe’s domination of the world. One book published in 1881 by German lawyer Wilhelm Hubbe-Schleiden compared imperialism to a struggle between races for survival as only those races who spread their culture influence by conquering the world would survive, thus justifying German imperial designs with the evolutionary idea of ‘survival of the fittest.’[2] Other similar justifications argued that bringing European culture to ‘under-developed races’ would be an act of benevolence.

Germany’s colonial empire grew to five times the size of the entire German Reich in a short time, 1884-85, despite Otto von Bismarck’s eventual opposition to German imperialism.[3] The race for empire was not simply the machinations of European rulers and heads of state, but also wealthy businessmen who pursed imperial empire for financial and vainglorious reasons. Carl Peters, the founder of the Society for German Colonization, secured 60,000 square miles of land in the east African interior through a series of treaties with local chiefs without the direction of the state. Peters was able to convince Bismarck to grant the territory German ‘protection’ by arguing for the areas economic potential for Germany.[4] This large chunk of Africa, as well as some holdings in China and Indonesia comprised Germany’s imperial empire.

Bismarck explained his acceptance of German imperialism according to financial reasons, believing that Germany’s colonizing efforts would help increase German exports. The colonies themselves being nothing more than an additional means of promoting the development of German economic life.[5] It should be no surprise that when Germany’s overseas territories proved to be unprofitable, Bismarck attempted to pull Germany back from imperialism by trading German colonies for land closer to the Reich and stripping imperial powers away from the South-West African Company due to its own incompetence.[6] Bismarck’s opposition to imperialism spurred his own ousting from office as he butted heads with the German Kaiser and capitalists such as Siemens, Krupp, and David Hansemann[7]


Marxist Interpretation of European Imperialism

The Marxist view of imperialism argues that industrialization and the rise of the Bourgeois class led to “the expansion of international markets, a need for food supplies and raw materials, and increasing competition among the industrializing powers to share in these global markets and resources.”[8] And to be sure, economic insecurities attributed to the need for empire. Great Britain had long been the front-runner in imperialism, but the sudden rush for empire by other European powers and the opening of international markets threatened British predominance in trade.

Throughout the nineteenth Century, Britain’s trade deficit increased as more products were imported and less were exported, and so international competition became ever more important when other nations began to colonize. By the end of the century, Britain was heavily investing in territories outside of Europe, and a third of all British exports went somewhere in the British Empire.[9] Imperial competition between nations went beyond economics, however, as colonies were also seen as strategic military possessions and a subject of national pride.

Social Imperialism

Another interpretation of nineteenth-century imperialism is that governments used colonization and overseas adventures as a distraction from domestic conflict. This theory of ‘social imperialism’ has been used to explain why Germany’s imperial colonies expanded so drastically under Bismarck, who was opposed to German imperialism. Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler argued that Bismarck’s imperialism in the 1880s was to shift attention away from the, “consequences of uneven economic growth, away from social tensions and away from the emancipatory task of modernizing German constitutional life and of democratizing society.”[10]

Imperialism acted as a ‘social valve for change’ by lowing growing populations in home countries through emigration. In 1895 British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes argued, “in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population.”[11] However, imperialism did not have the same support from politicians and the pubic in France as it did in Germany and Great Britain. Colonization was seen as a waste of resources by those on the Right and the Left. Rather, the resources and energy spent colonizing the world could be used to regain territory lost to in the Franco-Prussian War or assisting French people at home.[12]

European imperialism had major effects on the peoples conquered and the Europeans themselves. As an example, much of China’s history of the imperial era sees its territory and sovereignty eroded away by growing spheres of influence. Britain and European powers used force and intimidation to force open Chinese ports. Japan, envious of European expansion, became an imperial power itself and took away the Korean peninsula and the island of Taiwan. The people of China, after having long resisted the adoption of Western ideas and practices, struggled to industrialize and initiate reforms to the military.

The competition between European powers in overseas empire, threatened the instigate war at home and abroad: Conflict over Africa was avoided during the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, in 1898 Britain and France nearly went to war over territory in the Sudan, Russia and Japan went to war in 1905, the United States took Spanish imperial possessions in 1898. Perhaps the greatest significance of nineteenth-century European imperialism was that it set the stage for the global conflict of the Twentieth Century. The domains and sovereignty of European nations expanded far beyond the continent of Europe itself, thus insuring that a small dispute in the Balkans would escalate to a global scale at the advent of World War I.


  1. “>Rapport, Michael. Nineteenth Century Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
  2. “>Williamson, D.G. Bismarck and Germany, 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Suggested Reading

Sources Cited
  • [1] Rapport, 338.
  • [2] Rapport Rapport, 339.
  • [3] Williamson, D.G. Bismarck and Germany, 3rd Edition. Routledge, Chapter 12.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Rapport, 346.
  • [6] Williamson, Chapter 12.
  • [7] Rapport, 311-345.
  • [8] Rapport, 345-346.
  • [9] Rapport, 346.
  • [10] 342.
  • [11] 345.
  • [12] 344.