This article is part of the feature „… a world in which coloniality no longer has a place.

The Kaiser, the Berlin Palace and German Colonialism

48 min read

On June 8th, 2023 in our series SITE SPECIFICS we explored the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Berlin Palace in German colonialism. Historian Jonas Kreienbaum and Alfred Hagemann, Head of the Department History of the Site, presented the first results of a series of studies that shed light on the significance of the site for German colonial history from different perspectives. Find an edited and abbreviated version of the talk below.


Colonial amnesia in Germany

Alfred Hagemann: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for joining us today. Welcome to the Humboldt Forum, welcome to SITE SPECIFICS.

In recent years, it has become quite clear that German colonialism has thus far not received much attention in how the German public perceives its own country’s history. Even though historians have been studying the subject in depth for decades, it has not been a major issue in the public domain, including in exhibitions and the media. In the last couple of years this has changed, and we at the Humboldt Forum are very keen to actively monitor and support these developments. The question of the impact of German colonialism is particularly relevant at this site, if only because of the international cultural artefacts in the collection of the Ethnological Museum, which are on display in this building today – because of the history, origin, and future of those artefacts. But also because of the site itself, the shell of the reconstructed palace. Princes, kings, and emperors who made colonial policy in Germany resided here. We are still in the early stages of addressing this issue. Like many other institutions, we are in the process of reflecting more in depth on it.


I am therefore pleased to share and discuss the first results of our work with you this evening. In the past few years, the History of the Site section has begun to work with scholars to take a closer look at and illuminate the colonial past specifically of this site. We have decided to focus first on the imperial era, which is certainly the best known and most prolonged period of German colonialism. While quite a lot of research has been done on the nearly four decades between 1884 and 1918, the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II and of the Berlin Palace as a central symbolic site of the German Empire have not been a focus of attention thus far. This is why I am pleased to introduce Dr Jonas Kreienbaum, who has worked with us on this subject over the past year.

Last year, we contacted various institutes and asked them in what form they felt the Humboldt Forum should explore the subject. There are quite a few academic research chairs in Germany which focus on colonial history. And we were very pleased that you, dear Jonas Kreienbaum, responded promptly, and we began an intense exchange of ideas and were subsequently able to award a research contract to you. Today we want to present the results of your initial research, though we all agree that this is just a first step. We are trying to develop a position on this range of topics and to determine the next research steps. Perhaps you could briefly explain what your connection is to the subject and especially to Wilhelm II.

Jonas Kreienbaum: Gladly. If we look at the three main subjects referred to in the title of our event – the Kaiser, the Berlin Palace, and German colonialism – then it is quite clear in my case that colonialism research is the field I come from. I studied around the corner here at Humboldt University. And it took a while – it was really towards the end of my studies – before I first heard in a seminar about the colonial war and genocide in what was then German South-West Africa, now Namibia. That was an eye-opening moment for me, especially because I had not heard anything about it at school or during several years in college. That says a lot, of course, about the colonial amnesia of society.

A central question at the time, in that seminar, was about possible connections between colonial violence and later Nazi violence, about whether a line could be drawn from the colonial genocides to the Holocaust. This was an idea that immediately captured my interest and then also became the starting point for me to focus on colonial concentration camps in my dissertation, a subject where the question of possible continuities with National Socialism suggests itself. Since then, colonial history has been a subject of great interest to me, on which I have done research and published. That is surely the reason why you approached me a year ago and the reason why I am here today.

Hagemann: At the beginning of our joint discussions, we reflected on how the decision to engage a White German historian obviously entails only a very specific and quite limited perspective on colonial history. I therefore want to repeat once again that this can only be a first step. As we move forward, we will definitely need to open up the process in order to obtain other perspectives on this subject.

Mr Kreienbaum, what was it about the question of the role of the Kaiser that really interested you?

Kreienbaum: Before this project, I only tangentially dealt with the Kaiser. What I find fascinating about him is that he has been the subject of intense historical research for decades now, and there is a huge number of extant sources that provide information about him. Yet there is absolutely no consensus among historians on how the role of the Kaiser in the German Empire is to be assessed. One side represented by Bielefeld historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, for example, has described him as a ‘shadow emperor’. Wehler has argued that Wilhelm was not really a key political actor. The opposite standpoint is taken by very prominent British historian John C. G. Röhl, who notes that the Kaiser led a ‘personal regiment’ during the Empire and that no crucial decision could have been made without him.

During my earlier research on German South-West Africa, I had noticed a similar divergence. Almost all historians agree that a genocide took place in Namibia. But was it really the Kaiser who was behind it? Did the order for genocide come from him? Or was he perhaps merely a marginal actor? These are disputed questions.

The Australian historian Matthew Fitzpatrick is now the first to have systematically addressed the question of Kaiser Wilhelm II and German colonialism in his excellent and highly recommendable volume on The Kaiser and the Colonies (1). Yet no more than a start has been made in this field of research.


‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust’? The role of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the German genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples

Hagemann: Given your own research biography, it is only natural that the first focus in your work for the Humboldt Forum was on the role of the Kaiser in the German genocide of the Herero and Nama. Perhaps you could explain for us how you assess this issue.

Kreienbaum: My point of departure is the assertion of some authors that the Kaiser was the originator of the genocide, that he gave the direct order to kill all the Herero in the colony. I am a bit sceptical about this form of interpretation. Not because I don’t think it was genocide, but because I have doubts that the story is that simple when it comes to the role of the Kaiser.

What we can establish is that the Kaiser directly intervenes in this war and genocide only twice. The first time is in May 1904. The war had started in January in the centre of the colony. It is a war between the Herero ethnic group and the German colonial empire. Later, a second war with various Nama groups starts in the south. In Berlin, dissatisfaction with the way this war was going sets in fairly quickly and the idea comes up to replace the commander-in-chief, up to that point the sitting governor, of his duties and put a new man in his place. A crisis meeting of sorts takes place in Berlin at which the Kaiser pushes through his candidate: Lothar von Trotha. The Kaiser thus prevails over the civil authorities, i.e., over the Reich Chancellor and the head of the Imperial Colonial Office, as well as over various military authorities, including the Chief of the General Staff and the Minister of War. Clearly, he is quite assertive during this crisis meeting.

But it should be said that Trotha is not an unusual choice. He has extensive colonial experience. In the 1890s he had been in East Africa, an area now mainly in Tanzania. He had been in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900/01. In both cases he had made his mark as a tough military man. But he had not made the impression of being genocidal, of being someone who would invariably go for total ‘extermination’. In other words, when the Kaiser appoints Trotha, he cannot assume he is nominating someone who would be out to kill all Herero and Nama.

Hagemann: How does Trotha then operate in Namibia and how could it come to this escalation of violence?

Kreienbaum: When Trotha arrives in the colony in June 1904, he initially does not, in fact, wage the war with the aim of genocide. But he does want to decide it in a major battle of Waterberg, more or less in the middle of the colony. And before this battle starts, he has large prison camps built for about 6,000 to 8,000 prisoners. This corresponds to the number of Herero combatants and indicates that Trotha intends to take prisoners first and not kill all. The truly genocidal phase begins only after the battle of Waterberg which, from the German point of view, is a failure.


Though encircled by the Germans, the Herero manage to escape towards the east into the Omaheke desert. The Germans pursue them but are unable to give battle to them. And it is only in this situation, when Trotha has to admit that his strategy has completely failed, that he issues the so-called ‘extermination order’. In it, he instructs his troops to take no more prisoners, to shoot all Herero, be they able-bodied men, women, children, or elderly people, and to either shoot and kill them directly or drive them back into the desert, where they would be bound to die of thirst and starvation. In research, this order has quite rightly been interpreted as a genocidal order.

Then comes the point at which the Kaiser intervenes in this process a second time, specifically when news of the ‘extermination order’ reaches Berlin a few weeks later, probably in mid-November 1904. The Reich Chancellor and the Chief of the General Staff now turn to Wilhelm II and ask him to rescind this order. The Kaiser is the only one able to do this constitutionally. Accounts vary, but it presumably takes five days before the Kaiser gives his approval and the order is lifted.


This is where different interpretations come in. Some read this delay as a sign that Wilhelm II approves of Trotha’s war of extermination and is therefore reluctant to rescind the order. Others argue that the Kaiser is not even on the scene and busy with other matters, having lost all interest in the war anyway. This is said to be the reason why it takes him five days to rescind the order. In any case, we can put on record that he does rescind it.

These are the only two moments when the Kaiser directly intervenes in this war. And there is nothing in the sources to suggest that he gives Trotha a direct extermination order when he sends him to the colony. In this sense, I am doubtful that the simple narrative of it all being the Kaiser’s doing is accurate. I think it makes much more sense to understand the genocide as a complex process in which the emperor obviously plays a role, but Trotha’s was probably more significant. And then there are many other actors, down to the ordinary soldiers, lower-ranked officers, and so on.

Hagemann: Therefore, it is obviously somewhat simplistic to speak of ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust’, as the title of the 2010 book by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen postulates (2). I am afraid we cannot simplify things and believe that the responsibility for the genocide in Namibia lay solely with Kaiser Wilhelm II, while the rest of German society had nothing to do with it. Instead, as you have shown, there was an entire apparatus of government departments and military agencies that was involved in bringing about this genocide.


The violence of language

Hagemann: In the context of this escalation of violence, I was particularly shocked by the language used to communicate about the war in Namibia in the sources you worked with, in German government circles and even in communications with the Kaiser. Even if there was no direct order for genocide, the constant talk of ‘annihilation’, ‘extermination’, and ‘elimination’ reflects a tremendous potential for violence.

As regards this language, what role does the Kaiser play?

Kreienbaum: I think that the Kaiser contributes most clearly to the developing genocide in terms of language. He is famous for cultivating a very martial image – including in his language – with the most famous example being his so-called ‘Hun speech’. In July 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the Kaiser bids farewell to his soldiers in Bremerhaven and delivers a speech. In the most notorious passage of this speech he says the following: ‘If you come before the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited!’ He basically tells the soldiers: Take no prisoners! Kill anyone you encounter, which at least borders on a genocidal order. Various historians have pointed out that this is not an order, but a farewell speech. All true. But nevertheless, I believe that such statements gave the colonial military personnel the impression that brutal, if not genocidal, action is tolerated, even desired, at the very highest level. And I believe that it is precisely at this level that the Kaiser contributes to creating a discursive framework that causes this genocide to become conceivable and then feasible.

Secondly, it may be added that the Kaiser is heavily involved in the genocide on a symbolic level. I think this is nowhere clearer than in Trotha’s ‘extermination order’ itself, which he signs, not coincidentally, with the phrase ‘The great General of the mighty German Kaiser’. The policy of extermination is thus carried out in the name of the Kaiser, and this is quite typical of the colonial context, where the German Empire is frequently symbolised in the person of the Kaiser.

Hagemann: Yes, I think these are aspects that we need to keep in mind when speaking about Wilhelm II. He is, on the one hand, a symbolic figure of the German Reich. In the colonies, policies are made in his name, often under his image. And he embodies the German Reich in his ambitions. But besides this symbolic figure, there is also Wilhelm as an individual with very specific political opinions and a political agenda.


Colonial politics in Africa vs ‘world politics’ in East Asia

Hagemann: You explain that in many contexts the impression arises that Wilhelm II is not particularly interested in the war in what is now Namibia, and that, in general, the Kaiser – and I am referring here to Wilhelm as an individual with a political agenda – is less interested in colonial projects compared to other political fields. What is your basis for this?

Kreienbaum: I can draw on what I have just said. This becomes very clear when news of the ‘extermination order’ reaches Berlin. At that point, Wilhelm does not take action of his own accord; instead, he needs to be pressured by the Reich Chancellor and the Chief of Staff to do something. This already shows his lack of interest. There is a well-known diary of Baroness Spitzemberg, who was quite well informed and well connected in court circles. In it she notes repeatedly that the Kaiser is losing all interest as early as the spring of 1904, when the war is just a few weeks old. And a few weeks later she notes that no one is allowed to talk about this war at all in the presence of the Kaiser. The subject obviously annoys him. I think this shows very clearly that he quickly lost interest, if he ever had any to begin with.

The Kaiser’s lack of interest concerns not only this specific war, for the diary is peppered with remarks from different years and decades of his reign that point the same direction. During the Moroccan crisis of 1905, for example, he states he has no interest in Germany getting part of Morocco as a colony. Another time he declares that he would immediately give up all colonies in Africa if he could get a good base in Asia in exchange. I think it becomes very clear there that colonial policy, at least for extended periods, does not interest him much when it comes to Africa or the South Pacific. It seems to be different when it comes to what he called ‘world politics’ and what I would rather link to East Asia.

Hagemann: In other words, the Kaiser is not interested in colonial policy for its own sake, but only as part of a ‘world politics’ aiming to establish an imperialist German presence in the world; colonies can, of course, be a part of this. You have just mentioned East Asia. Would you mind elaborating once more on an example of the Kaiser intervening quite actively in a colonial project?

Kreienbaum: What was striking in the course of this research was that, as far as Namibia is concerned, we only very rarely witness the Kaiser playing an active role. In China, on the other hand, the exact opposite seems to be true. The story of how Kiaochow (Jiaozhou) became a German colony can indeed be told very well – anecdotally, that is – by focusing on the Kaiser.


At the beginning of November 1897, the Kaiser is sitting in the New Palace in Potsdam and reading in the newspaper that two German Catholic missionaries have been murdered. Moved to action, he telegraphs the Foreign Office and the Reich Chancellor: ‘This [the murder] requires thorough punishment by having the naval squadron aggressively intervene. The squadron must immediately set out for Kiaochow, occupy the Chinese village there, and threaten the most severe reprisals if the Chinese government does not immediately pay a high amount of damages to be assessed in currency and if the criminals are not effectively prosecuted and punished’ (3). Then, just a day later, he telegraphs the commander of the East Asian Cruiser Squadron, the German naval unit stationed in East Asia, and orders the occupation of Kiaochow, which is thereupon carried out. Here, the Kaiser is clearly a driving force; he intervenes in the political process.



However, it would be wrong to think that this was a knee-jerk reaction or an example of the Kaiser going it alone. Rather, it becomes clear that there is a coordinated policy with the Foreign Office and the Reich Naval Office. All agree: we need a naval base somewhere in East Asia. And by then Kiaochow had been agreed upon. In 1897, the decision-makers are basically just waiting for an excuse for the occupation. The political lines are clear, and the Kaiser follows them. Had he not done so – and I think Matthew Fitzpatrick describes this very well in his aforementioned book – history would probably have taken a very different course. Fitzpatrick points to another example a year earlier when the Kaiser had given almost the same instructions. Just that back then it is about a different base, Amoy (Xiamen). And at that point nothing happens. Why does nothing happen? Because the Foreign Office thinks it is a really dumb idea. The Foreign Office ignores the Kaiser’s order, if it can be called such, because it is afraid it will cause huge trouble with England. I think this shows quite well that the Kaiser is definitely an important actor when it comes to Kiaochow, a driving force accelerating the process. But he does not act alone, and he may not be able to act alone at all.

Hagemann: That is really astounding. According to the constitution, the Kaiser was the commander-in-chief of the German armed forces – how can it be then that a government department simply ignored the Kaiser’s order? This again raises the question that you already had brought up at the beginning: What was Wilhelm II’s role in the political system? And obviously there is a difference between the constitutional position of the Kaiser and the actual assertion of these powers within a very complex power structure.

Kreienbaum: This goes back precisely to the big old questions in scholarship: what is the position of the Kaiser? It is clear to me that after studying some events in colonial history, I am unable to give a universal answer to this question. But looking at the different colonial episodes I have examined, I am able to say that the answer varies greatly, depending on whether we are looking at, say, Kiaochow or Namibia. On the one hand, the Amoy episode, where nothing really happens, suggests that the ‘shadow emperor’ reading is not entirely far-fetched. On the other hand, he initiates the occupation of Kiaochow and also repeatedly intervenes at a later stage. He tries to speed up the process more and more. This alone shows that he is interested and, indeed, does have a certain latitude. And most notably, his agency is evident the one time he voluntarily intervenes in Namibia, when it comes to the nomination of Trotha. Incidentally, this dovetails well with what many years of research have already underscored: that when it comes to nomination matters, and especially when it comes to nominations in the military, the Kaiser really does have the greatest leverage. There is hardly any way around him in this regard, and he is quite effective in prevailing over all other involved authorities I have mentioned earlier and installing his candidate, Trotha.

Hagemann: At this point, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at the decorations and furnishings of the Berlin Palace under Wilhelm II. As an art historian, I have the opportunity, besides considering the written sources, to question objects and their presentation. And what you said earlier can, in fact, be seen reflected in the furnishings.

In Wilhelm II’s private quarters inside the Berlin Palace there was clearly a core theme: the fleet. One example that illustrates this well is the silver ship that today is on display in the Humboldt Forum as a so-called ‘Flashback of the History of the Site’. It is one of a larger group of silver ship models presented to the Kaiser and his wife as gifts for their silver wedding anniversary in 1906. In a historical photo, the ships can be seen in display cases that stood in the Sternsaal (Hall of Stars) of the imperial residence.

At first glance, this looks very decorative and pretty, because they are truly impressive works of art. Upon closer scrutiny, however, it proves to be a highly political matter, for those models were gifted by a lobby group: German naval associations, shipping companies, shipyards, as well as rowing and sailing clubs – that is, social institutions that heavily campaigned for the German fleet policy at the time – had pooled funds for the financing. The gift was intended to strengthen the Kaiser’s conviction that a strong fleet was essential in helping Germany achieve international standing and respect. At the time the silver ships were gifted, the major military naval rearmament of the German Reich started – in direct competition with Great Britain, whose fleet then dominated the world’s seas and was looked upon with great envy by Wilhelm.

The political significance of the fleet policy is reflected in many ways in the pieces of art furnishing the imperial palace. The Navy Hall, for example, features paintings of modern German warships, and in the Kaiser’s study the Great Elector’s fleet dominates in paintings – an attempt to historically underpin the Reich’s maritime tradition.


Audience and ‘ethnological exposition’: leading figures from the colonies visit the Berlin Palace

Hagemann: Aside from the furnishings, however, there is of course the question of the significance of this palace as a place of political action and decision-making in terms of colonial policy. In this regard you have looked primarily at several visits by politicians from colonial contexts.

Kreienbaum: Yes, this arises from the attempt to consider how the Berlin Palace was really connected to the colonial project. Was the Berlin Palace before 1918 also a place where colonial politics took place? I think this becomes most obvious when colonised people are received in audience at the Berlin Palace by the Kaiser.

There are several examples of this, and I have picked out two to look at more closely. The first example is the visit of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi. He is a noble, a chief, from the western part of Samoa, which had been a German colony since 1900. Tamasese is in Germany in 1910/11 and in early June 1911 he attends the spring parade of the Guards Corps at Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin at the invitation of the Kaiser. Wilhelm subsequently receives Tamasese in audience at the Berlin Palace.

The second example is the reception of Friedrich Maharero. He is in Berlin about fifteen years earlier and is joined by three other people from German South-West Africa when he meets the Kaiser at the palace.

What I find very fascinating is that there is a whole series of parallels between the two cases. First of all, the initiative for both visits to Germany and for the audiences came not in any way from the Kaiser, but rather from each of the colonised actors – a remarkable if not surprising fact. Tamasee’s situation in 1910/11 is as follows: he expects a very important post in Samoa, that of the Ali’i Sili or High Chief, the highest native dignitary, to soon be up for grabs. Since he is a strong candidate, he wonders what he can do to further increase his chances of being appointed. His calculation is that a meeting with the German Kaiser would give him a significant advantage. And that is what was behind his insistence to be received in audience.

Friedrich Maharero, in turn, is the son of Samuel Maharero, the Herero chief who would lead the war against the colonial power a few years later. In 1894, Samuel Maharero is in the situation of having just established himself in the position of chief, actively aided, that is, by the German colonial power. He views a visit by his son Friedrich with the Kaiser as a great opportunity to further strengthen what is then a good relationship to the Reich. This is the reason why Samuel Maharero initiates the trip to Germany.

Both Tamasese and Maharero arrive in Berlin without knowing whether they will, in fact, be received in audience. They come to Germany in a different context, as part of so-called ‘ethnological expositions’. Such shows were extremely popular at the time, not only in Germany but across the Western world. ‘Human zoo’ is another term commonly used to refer to this racist practice, for they often exhibited people from the colonies or people labelled ‘exotic’ in zoological gardens. Friedrich Maharero specifically comes to Berlin as part of a large colonial exhibition that takes place in Treptow Park in 1896. This colonial exhibition is co-sponsored by the Reich Colonial Office, i.e., the main colonial political authority. It is intended to tout the colonial project, to promote the colonial idea among the German population. And the makers assume that ‘völkerschau’ elements are the most effective means to this end. And the exhibition displaying colonised people does indeed attract several million Berliners.

So both Friedrich Maharero and Tamasese initially come to Germany as part of ‘human zoos’ and are put on display for weeks. Only at the last moment it is decided that the hoped-for audiences will take place. But it is also clear from this that that the initiative for the meetings does not come from the Kaiser. He basically just does what the governors of Samoa and German South-West Africa advise him to do. These officials argue that the audiences are politically opportune in that they improve relations with the colonised peoples and increase the likelihood that peace will be maintained in the colonies. It is therefore said to make sense for the Kaiser to agree to the meetings. Here, the Kaiser appears as an actor who is to some extent controlled by others and who primarily plays a symbolic role as head of state, but not as an actor who pursues his own colonial political agenda.

Hagemann: It is very difficult to imagine what must have gone through the people’s minds. To first travel to Germany to be put on display in this way and then, during the same visit, to be received by the head of state as a political representative of a territory that is, after all, part of the German Reich.


On the coloniality of the Berlin Palace

Hagemann: But if we now consider the dimension of the political decision-making structure, how would you assess the role of the Berlin Palace as a site of actual ‘event politics’?

Kreienbaum: I would argue that its role is rather minor. In terms of audiences, as a symbolic place, the palace is relevant. In that sense, it does play a role in colonial history. But the really important decisions of German colonial policy that have shaped German colonial history are made primarily in the colonies themselves, by the governors, by the district officers, by military officers, and of course also by the various colonised groups and actors. If we look at Berlin, at the metropole, then I would say that there are other places where the main and truly influential decisions were being made. This is probably nowhere as evident as at the Berlin Africa Conference of 1884/85, which takes place not in the Berlin Palace, but in the Reichskanzler Palace, because Chancellor Bismarck is hosting this event. In general, with regard to Berlin, it is fair to say that the Reichskanzler Palace or the Foreign Office with the Reich Colonial Department, the main institution dealing with colonial issues, are the more important sites for German colonial history. Which is not to say that the palace does not play a role as well, but it does so on a different level.

Hagemann: Yes, regardless of this rather minor role in the history of events, the Berlin Palace is a symbolic site of the German Reich and colonial policy. This is something we experience today in our daily encounters with colleagues from the Global South.


The reconstructed facades of the palace cause irritation, anger, and sadness because they reproduce the imperial aspirations of the German Reich. The building is closely associated with Wilhelm II and Germany’s colonial policy, which was carried out in his name.

Consequently, the ideological foundations of colonialism are quite present in the palace. This is reflected not only in how the architecture generally symbolises power but also, and especially, in the allegorical representations of the continents which, as early as the eighteenth century, feature prominently in the palace’s decorations. This can be seen, for instance, in the monumental sculptural groups which Andreas Schlüter created above the doors of the Rittersaal (Knights’ Hall). They reflect a long-established world view in Europe that has followed established iconographic formulas since the seventeenth century, with Europe often being depicted as a crowned figure called to rule over the other, supposedly less civilised continents based on its science and technological progress. In the Rittersaal (Knights’ Hall), Europe therefore leans loosely on the globe of the earth, surrounded by state-of-the-art European weapons.

In contrast, we find Africa represented, firstly, by a figure covering its head, as an allusion to the ‘dark continent’. Secondly, we see a naked woman lying unconscious, probably about to be killed by a huge lion standing over her. In this stereotypical portrayal of the woman as ‘African’, the savage and dangerous is thus linked to victimhood. These sculptures are not a direct reference to Prussian colonial policies of the period, but rather reflect a deeply rooted sense of European superiority that underlay the colonisation of the world even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

To return to the role of the Berlin Palace in the history of events during the imperial era, it is remarkable that an event like the Berlin Conference, which at the time was seen as one of the highlights of German international politics, did not take place there. I have tried to find out whether a reception or dinner for the conference participants was perhaps held at the palace during the conference. But to the best of my knowledge to date, this was not the case.

Earlier, we briefly talked about the palace’s decorations and furnishings during the imperial era and how they reflected Wilhelm’s interest in world and naval politics. Conversely, I was surprised to see how few references there were to Germany’s colonial empire. This applies both to the decorations of Wilhelm II’s private quarters and to the official and state rooms. If you look at the historical photographs showing the palace and its imperial-era décor, you are struck by how few specific references there are to the African or Pacific territories.

This is particularly surprising considering how intense the visual and media representation of colonial politics was in the German public sphere at the time.

Numerous vestiges of imperial-era colonialism can be found In Berlin’s cityscape today. To cite an example, there is a building here in the neighbourhood, at 3 Universitätsstrasse. An office building was erected there in 1903. Above the entrance one can see two nude kneeling women that cater to racist stereotypes of ‘Asians’ and ‘Africans’. They hold a shield with a depiction of a European sailing ship. Below there are two statues of medieval-looking European knights with swords. Here we have, in visual form, a claim to domination and subjugation by Europeans on a random office building, simply as decoration. It is striking in its casualness and shows how deeply rooted this racist mindset was.

Surprisingly, one does not find this in such clarity in the imperial-period decorations of the Berlin Palace. Why was the opportunity not taken – from the point of view of hegemonial politics – to present the Berlin Palace as the main residence of a global empire? This is an interesting question, and we are only at the beginning here in terms of considering it. It is generally noticeable that the Berlin Palace was not markedly transformed from a royal palace to an imperial one after 1871. It remains primarily the palace of the kings of Prussia. This can also be seen in the 1890–94 renovation of the Weißer Saal (White Hall). The main ceremonial hall of the palace was revamped at huge cost. It would have been an ideal opportunity to develop an iconography presenting the palace as the centre of an empire spanning several continents. But it looks like this does not happen quite deliberately. Instead, the new décor is all about glorifying the Hohenzollern dynasty. Statues of the Hohenzollern kings line the walls. The coats of arms of Nuremberg, Brandenburg, Prussia, and the German Empire are displayed on the ceiling, representing the rise of the Hohenzollerns from burgraves of Nuremberg to kings of Prussia to German emperors. Imagery depicting the various parts of the empire or even the colonies are missing.

My preliminary conclusion would be that for Wilhelm II, the Berlin Palace is obviously not so much the symbolic centre of the German Reich as a monument to his family. And so the question arises what the situation is like in other palaces?


The significance of the New Palace in Potsdam. The so-called ‘expiatory mission’ and the ‘peak of Kilimanjaro’

Kreienbaum: Assessing the role of all the other palaces is obviously a vast field. I am simply stunned for an answer. But what is fascinating and what you allude to is that the New Palace in Potsdam plays a surprisingly major role, especially when it comes to China and Kiaochow. The Kaiser is sitting there, not in the Berlin Palace, when he instigates the occupation of Kiaochow. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the Kaiser prefers Potsdam to Berlin anyway. At the end of the Boxer Rebellion, the role of the New Palace is less coincidental and particularly charged. The war is waged by a coalition of great powers against China, and these powers subsequently impose a series of conditions on the Chinese government. Germany in particular insists that a so-called “expiatory mission” be sent to the German imperial court, where the Chinese delegation is to apologise or prostrate itself in a symbolically highly charged manner.


In the end, there is no genuflection. But it is significant that the meeting takes place not at the Berlin Palace but at the New Palace in Potsdam. Which to me raises the question, even though this is more an intuitive impression: Is the New Palace more important for German colonial history than the Berlin Palace? This is definitely something that should be looked at more closely and systematically at some point.

Hagemann: There, too, this is suggested by the way cultural assets are dealt with. The Boxer Rebellion, a conflict in which the European powers and the USA fight against China, is extremely brutal. Beijing is looted and many people are killed and raped. In the process, the imperial observatory in Beijing is pillaged. Huge bronze astrolabes from the seventeenth century are brought to Germany. They are installed in front of the Large Orangery in Sanssouci Park – a few weeks, to wit, before the arrival of the Chinese Prince Chun, the Emperor’s brother, in Potsdam.

This means that, when stepping outside their resplendent residence, the guests see these looted pieces that were stolen from their royal capital in the bloodiest of circumstances. This is a very blatant example of how spoils were used to humiliate defeated enemies. In China, there was, accordingly, a strong awareness of the injustice that had brought those looted pieces to Potsdam. Although China was not even a party to the First World War, it pushed through the stipulation in the Treaty of Versailles that the German Empire had to return those pieces to Beijing by 1919, where today they are once again on display in the observatory.

Why the New Palace plays such an important role here is an interesting question, because aside from the Chinese context there is also a specific reference to Africa that appears here. The walls of the Grotto Hall, where the Chinese delegation was received, were successively decorated with crystals, minerals, and fossils from around the world over many decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Among these was, under Wilhelm II, the so-called ‘peak of Kilimanjaro’. The highest mountain in Africa was located in what was then German East-Africa and was first climbed by a European – the German Hans Meyer – in 1889. The following year, Meyer presented the Kaiser with a stone from the mountain’s summit. The inconspicuous piece of lava was given a less prominent place in the ceremonial hall. Its presentation is rather casual, but at least the piece comes with a small explanatory panel, which other objects decorating the walls are lacking.

In the astrological objects in front of the Orangery and the so-called ‘peak of Kilimanjaro’ we have the kind of direct connection to colonial events that we do not find in the Berlin Palace.

We are only just beginning to understand this, and more questions arise than answers. Systematically examining the furnishings of Wilhelm II’s various residences in terms of representations of colonialism thus remains an important research task.

This also includes the question of how gifts were dealt with. After all, cultural artefacts from the colonies reached Berlin not only as spoils, but also as diplomatic gifts. During official visits, the exchange of gifts was an integral part of the protocol. You have found some vestiges of this as well. Would you like to tell us about that?


Gifts from colonial contexts in today’s museum collections

Kreienbaum: Very much so. I have come across a number of objects but was only able to do a superficial search for their whereabouts today. A provenance research project would go about this much more systematically of course.



I would like to highlight one example: a so-called ‘fine mat’. Fine mats are symbolically highly charged objects in Samoan society at the time. This fine mat was given to the Emperor by Mata’afa Iosefo in 1910. Mata’afa Iosefo was the then Ali’i Sili, the highest native dignitary. The Kaiser obviously accepted the mat and gave it straight to the Royal Museum of Ethnology, the predecessor of today’s Ethnological Museum. And that is why this fine mat is on display here in the Humboldt Forum today.


In fact, I have come across quite a few other fine mats in the course of my research. A year later, in 1911, Mata’afa Iosefo senses that he will soon die and gives away his remaining fine mats to various Samoan nobles and to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who is also officially Samoan king at this time – one of his many titles. I have not been able to establish what has become of this mat. A second example: Tamasese, who visited the Kaiser at the Berlin Palace in 1911, gave the Emperor and the Empress each a valuable fine mat. Here, too, queries to the Ethnological Museum have not yielded anything so far, and I think it would be extremely interesting to find out what happened with them. Are they still in the collections somewhere, but not yet catalogued? Or did they take a completely different route? Did they perhaps find their way into other ethnological museums in Germany? I think further research into this would be worthwhile.

Hagemann: So here is another field we can identify as worthy of more in-depth future study: Wilhelm II’s relationship to the Royal Museum of Ethnology. In his symbolic function as German Kaiser, he is in contact with dignitaries from the colonies and receives precious gifts. But it seems that they were often not included among the decorations of the palaces but passed on directly to the institution of the museum, which he very much wanted to see expand in competition with the capitals of London, Paris, and Vienna.

A dialogue with our colleagues in provenance research at the Staatliche Museen should be fruitful here. Further research on the history of the site in the light of the colonial past and the site’s own coloniality today definitely seems worthwhile.

Dear Dr Kreienbaum, this seems a good note to end on. Thank you for the very illuminating insights into the results of your work!

Kreienbaum: Thank you, it has been my pleasure.


Photo by Alfred Hagemann
Alfred Hagemann

Dr Alfred Hagemann is head of the History of the Site Department at the Stiftung Humboldt Forum. His research focuses on the architectural and cultural history of the Berlin court in the 18th century, historical women's studies and the state self-representation of the GDR. Over the past fifteen years, the art historian has curated a series of cultural-historical exhibitions on the history of Prussia and the GDR in Berlin and Potsdam.

Photo by Jonas Kreienbaum
Jonas Kreienbaum

PD Dr. Jonas Kreienbaum heads the DFG project "Neoliberal globalisation or 'global disconnect'?" at Freie Universität Berlin. The historian completed his doctorate at Humboldt University Berlin in 2013 with the thesis "A Sad Fiasco. Colonial Concentration Camps in Southern Africa 1900-1908." This was followed in 2020 by his habilitation at the University of Rostock. His research focuses on the history of colonialism, decolonisation, mass violence and economic crises.