Colonial Capitalism in Action: The New Social and Economic History of German Colonialism

Virtual Conference, 5th and 6th May 2021

Until well into the 1980s, economic history was an integral part of German colonial historiography, but it then declined as a significant focus of historical research. Instead, social and cultural studies have predominated, with important work appearing on colonial violence, gender, medicine, and metropolitan cultures of colonialism, among other topics. While these studies have shed new light on many aspects of colonialism, especially of the repercussions of colonialism on Germany, they are at times Eurocentric and understate the importance of economics to colonialism by not directly engaging with local, non-European actors and the economic structures of specific colonies. In other words, the conditions and consequences as well as the local embeddedness of colonial economies have been, at times, out of focus.

Recently, historians have begun re-centering economics, combining cultural approaches with fresh methodologies and new sources to build a more complete picture of the interplay of economic development with German colonial rule. These historians are aided by new approaches in other areas of historiography which have explicitly championed moving economics back to the center. The “New History of Capitalism”, “Global Labor History” or the “New Materialism” rediscovered capitalism as an analytical concept and replaced the discourse of cultural history with the material world. Researching e.g. the interplay between companies, markets and the state, the relationship between capitalism and various, often hybrid forms of labor mobilization (from wage labor to slavery) or the connection between capitalism and violence, these new approaches analyze “capitalism in action”, as Sven Beckert and Christine Desan put it. This emerging field and the important debates related to it show that analyzing the economic as well as social structures and relationships of Germany’s encounter with the colonial world have the potential to spark new perspectives and new debates.

The planned workshop brings together international historians of German colonialism, with special emphasis on scholars at the doctoral and postdoctoral level, who explore German colonial capitalism and put its economic conditions, material aspects and social structures at the heart of their research. It concentrates the knowledge of scholars of the various local contexts in Africa, Asia, Latin America as well as Oceania, in which German colonial actors were economically active. Thereby, it wants to promote new perspectives on German colonial history, in academia as well as in the broader public, which, in lieu of imperial discourse, underline local experience and social and material realities in the colonial situation.

In order to widen and deepen our perspective and understanding, the workshop explores the economic dimensions of a broad notion of German colonialism, by neither temporarily nor spatially limiting it to the formal German colonial Empire (1884-1919). As recent studies have shown, older connections and postcolonial continuities should not be overlooked. Some economic relationships began long before colonial rule and outlived them. Furthermore, economic networks were not limited to formal German colonies but often crossed imperial borders. Therefore, in addition to research on Germany’s Empire, this workshop aims at also bringing in research on economic contacts between Germany and other parts of the colonial world in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. Thereby, the workshop seeks to uncover unknown continuities, interconnections, and exchanges which would otherwise have been invisible. Moreover, this workshop is an invitation to include other approaches to the past of the non-European world in the history of German colonialism which have only rarely been included – like Atlantic History, Migration History, Maritime History, the History of Islam, to name but a few.

Conceptual questions that will be discussed during the workshop feature inter alia: How colonial was the colonial economy? What role does the use of coercion and violence play in colonial capitalism? Which older forms of economic activity were continued, which were newly developed, and which outlived formal colonial rule? How did colonial business change local economies, e.g. forms of labor, agriculture, production, or commerce? Which new connections of trade or migration were built inside colonies or with places elsewhere? Which older connections were terminated? How did German businesses interact with local economic, social and political structures – and which role played colonial states?

Proposals for papers should include the title, an abstract of maximum 300 words and a short CV of the applicant. Please send proposals to before 15 January 2021. Notifications of acceptance will be announced in early February. Participants are expected to submit a 2,000 – 4,000-word preliminary paper ahead of the workshop in April.

Due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, the workshop will be hosted online, using Zoom. We particularly encourage scholars from the Global South to send their contributions. Limited funding is available for material costs incurred in connection with participation (SIM cards, data volume, etc.). Please indicate in case of an application whether you need to make use of this. For further information and questions please contact us at



  • Deborah Neill, York University Toronto, Department of History
  • Tristan Oestermann, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Department of History
  • Kim Sebastian Todzi, Universität Hamburg, Research Centre “Hamburg’s (post‑)colonial legacy / Hamburg and early Globalization” (Universität Hamburg)


The virtual conference is held in cooperation with:

  • Research Centre “Hamburg’s (post-)colonial legacy / Hamburg and early Globalization” (Universität Hamburg),
  • re:work – IGK Arbeit und Lebenslauf in globalgeschichtlicher Perspektive (Humboldt‑Universität zu Berlin),
  • Department of History at York University