How did the Berlin conference change Africa

Congo Conference in Berlin

The Congo Conference took place in Berlin in 1884/1885. In the English-speaking world, it is therefore also referred to as the Berlin Conference and should not be confused with the Berlin Congress of 1878. The final document, the so-called Congo Act, formed the basis for the division and legitimation of the African continent. Most of the colonies in Africa were already distributed among the European powers by this time. So did the colonies in West Africa.

The conference

The Belgian King Leopold II succeeded in convincing France and Germany that joint action in Africa was of the greatest interest. Otto von Bismarck (German Chancellor) called the representatives of the USA, Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, as well as Sweden and Norway (as a personal union until 1905) together for a conference in Berlin. The conference met on November 15, 1884. Henry Morton Stanley (US journalist and Africa researcher) took part as technical advisor to the American delegation, but had little influence. The conference ended on February 26, 1885 with the signing of the Congo Act by the participating states. Leopold II had achieved a great triumph because he practically got the Congo as a private state. Bismarck was more of a broker and his interest in colonial politics remained dominated by domestic and European considerations.

The Congo Act

The Congo Act regulated the following points:

The Congo Free State was confirmed as the private property of the Congo Society. The territory of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo with more than two million square kilometers thus belonged to Leoplod II.

The 14 signatory states had freedom of trade in the entire catchment area of ​​the Congo and Lake Nyasa and east of it in the area south of the 5th parallel north. This includes the current states of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, a large part of Central Africa as well as the south of Somalia, the north of Mozambique, Angola, smaller parts of Gabon, Cameroon, Sudan, Ethiopia and Zambia.

The Niger and Congo rivers have been opened for navigation.

The ban on the slave trade was set internationally.

The principle was established that every power has the right to own a colony, whichever is the first to actually take possession of it.

The consequences

Within a few years, sub-Saharan Africa was practically divided. Europe's governments had drawn their borders in Africa, regardless of the people living there and their culture. African languages ​​were viewed as inferior and the population was forced to learn the respective European languages. It was only through the division that Africa could really be exploited, as new railway lines were built and the transport of goods and goods proceeded faster.

Until 1895 only the colonies of Liberia, Orange Free State and Transvaal were independent. Abyssinia was able to free itself from Italian colonial rule in 1896 and was the only indigenous state that remained independent. Most of the Sahara became French. Sudan became a British-Egyptian condominium after the Mahdi uprising was put down and the Faschoda crisis was settled. The Boer states were conquered by Great Britain in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Morocco shared France and Spain in 1911 Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912. The official annexation of Egypt in 1914 concluded the colonial division of Africa. With the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia, all of Africa was under European rule.

There are all kinds of myths about the Berlin Congo Conference from 1884-1885

by Prof. Dr. phil. Helmut Bley


There are all kinds of myths about the Berlin Congo Conference from 1884-1885

Probably no diplomatic event has become so symbolic of the division of Africa as the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884/85. It is linked to the widespread notion that the borders of the colonies in Africa were established here by the European colonial powers and that colonialism in Africa actually began. African intellectuals often used the Africa Conference as an opportunity to draw attention to the scandal of foreign rule and the colonial relationship of violence. From their point of view, the division of Africa undertaken in Berlin was a concerted action by the major European powers, the consequences of which have reached into the present crisis and to which (pan) African responses are required.

The European discussion of the Congo Conference often focuses on the aspect that the borders in Africa have been artificially drawn and thus "peoples," tribes "and" ethnic groups "have been torn apart. This turmoil also gives rise to a large part of the crisis phenomena and the instability of post-colonial Africa Behind this is the cliché of a pre-colonial Africa organized in stable ethnic groups or even small "tribes". Basically, this interpretation means that African societies are still clinging to pre-colonial forms of social organization and are based on eighty years of colonialism and forty years of post-colonial statehood It is the image of a historyless Africa, which even through the massive intervention of colonialism and world market pressures is basically unchanged and only torn by the borders.

Both assumptions are myths that will be deconstructed below. But as always with the formation of myths, there are also points of contact.

When the major European powers negotiated Africa issues at the Berlin Congo Conference, the colonial occupation of Africa had long been underway: since the Portuguese presence in Mozambique and Angola from the 16th century; since the occupation of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa from 1652 by the Dutch; since the French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon from 1800; since the French conquest of Algeria from 1830 and the subsequent military campaigns in Senegal; or since Britain's annexation of Lagos in Nigeria in 1861.

The age of imperialism with its new forms of colonialism had already begun. Great Britain had defeated the Zulu Kingdom in southern Africa, the Asante kingdom in Ghana and the Benin kingdom and brought Zanzibar under control in the 1870s. The French operated in a similar way in West Africa and the Sahel region, and Portuguese colonialism also adapted to the changed world market conditions during these years. Even Germany had documented its colonial acquisitions in Togo or Cameroon by raising flags - albeit only shortly before the conference.

So what was the real political goal of the Congo conference initiated by Bismarck? It had several thrusts and corresponding results. The main motivation was to slow down the rapid occupation of African regions by France and Great Britain and to assert the claims of other European powers. The acceptance of the conference invitation to Berlin resulted in recognition of the German colonial acquisitions. At the same time, Chancellor Bismarck tried to mediate in the tense relationship between the German Empire and France and England. He wanted to weaken the French idea of ​​revenge due to the lost war of 1870/71 and force Great Britain to recognize Germany's overseas presence.

The implementation of these goals served in particular the specific project not to divide up at least the huge center of Africa - the Congo Basin - but to secure it as a kind of free trade zone. It should get by without colonial protective tariffs and other privileges for the companies of the respective colonial power. The USA was particularly interested in this solution. At this conference, for the first time, they asserted their own interests in Africa - in the sense of a free-trade "open door policy", as the USA was to formulate for China a few years later.

In the run-up to the conference, Bismarck had decided to realize this goal by leaving the huge Congo area to the private Congo company of the Belgian King Leopold II in order to replace one of the Western powers with a non-state regime. He single-handedly recognized Leopold's acquisitions. However, this solution failed completely over the years because the Belgian king disregarded the Congo Acts negotiated at the Berlin Congo Conference. Therein the Congo Free State was declared private property, but also freedom of trade for the 14 signatory states of the Berlin Conference was recorded. However, Leopold II successively enforced a colony which, with the murder of millions of Africans, assumed such scandalous forms of rule that the Belgian state expropriated the king in 1908. However, behind Leopold's initiative there had been a skilful pan-European Africa management. He had placed his project under the auspices of the pan-European scientific exploration of the continent, the civilization mission and the end of the slave trade. As early as 1876 he had called all the famous contemporary European explorers of "dark" inner Africa together for an international conference in Brussels. This conference can definitely be seen as the symbolic prelude to a pan-European colonial project in Africa.

The closest thing to the myth of the division of Africa came the set of rules adopted at the Congo Conference on how the occupation in Africa can be secured internationally so that conflicts in the race for the colonies do not lead to war between the European powers. The main rule - the principle of effectiveness - said that from now on it was no longer enough to simply hoist a few flags on the coast, but that elements of an effective occupation had to be set up in the hinterland of the colony, such as military or police stations. This laid down the regulations on which the border treaties between the European powers were based in the 1890s, e.g. between Germany and Portugal on the northern border of Namibia and on the southern border of East Africa / Tanganyika as well as with Great Britain in the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty.

But the peaceful division of Africa among the European colonial powers cannot be ascribed to the Congo Conference alone. Because there were many other opportunities before and after. For example, the British-French conflict over control of Egypt on the occasion of the British occupation in 1882 was defused by the British recognition of French interests in the Maghreb. However, this did not prevent France and Great Britain from coming to the brink of a war at Faschoda in the race for Sudan in 1898, which was only avoided in view of the common interests in German world politics. And when France undermined the free trade regulations in Morocco, first in 1905 and then again in 1911, the German General Staff and the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs seriously considered using this conflict for a war for hegemony in Europe. Only the diplomatic isolation of Germany at the Algeciras Conference in 1906 and the 1911 threat from Great Britain to take sides against Germany in a Franco-German war led to compensation negotiations in which Germany gained a small piece of Cameroon. The war of Great Britain against the Boer republics in South Africa from 1899-1902 put an end to all German dreams of advancing via railway construction from Mozambique to the Witwatersrand and its gold mines. The USA, on the other hand, waged colonial wars against Spain at the end of the 19th century. The European agreement not to violently resolve conflicts of interest in Africa, as was customary centuries earlier in the Caribbean in the struggle for the forts of the slave traders, remained fragile despite the Congo Conference, even if it held by and large until the First World War.

The consequences of the demarcation of borders in Africa - which was essentially determined after 1890 by bilateral agreements between the European colonial powers - cannot be discussed without some preliminary considerations on the underlying concept that artificial borders are a central cause of instability. If one follows this argument and applies it to Europe, which is undoubtedly a conglomerate of artificial borders and which practiced border shifts in many wars up to the end of the 20th century, this region would have to be the most unstable and socio-economically stagnant in the world. Already in the feudal era of dynastic marriage politics in Europe there were no ethnic criteria available for the drawing of boundaries, but politically, religiously and / or dynastic landscapes were accepted or given up in a domain. Leading historians and theorists who deal with the emergence of the European nation state since the early modern period see a close connection between state formation, consolidation, territoriality and war. They emphasize the importance of the war both for the question of the territoriality of the state in relation to the multitude of overlapping claims to power in quasi-autonomous small areas with clear borders, as well as for the development of internal state institutions (bureaucracy, standing armies, war-related factories and tax systems) .

In the process, new political and social identities have repeatedly emerged, political units perished and "ethnic groups", "peoples" or nations have been marginalized through political homogenization. The Alemanni, for example, became Swiss and Baden. For the past two hundred years, the Silesians lived in the Polish aristocratic republic, in the Austrian multi-ethnic monarchy, in Prussia, Poland and in the German Empire, as well as as displaced persons in the Federal Republic - and thus experienced far more state change than most African societies. National borders are on the one hand dynamic, on the other hand they are always artificial (in the sense of not being given by nature).

Borders are inconceivable without at least the design or the function of a territorial state that has sufficiently strong institutions to exercise the monopoly of force within its borders and to have financial sovereignty and the power to intervene. Borders are tied to political authority that they can fill. To that extent they are as important as the authority itself and thus historically linked to the development of this authority.

The authority must have interests and be able to organize supraregional power. Furthermore, it must connect the political power center with the centers of important material resources and with the spiritual, religious institutions. The more agricultural such a state structure and centered on raw materials, the more likely it is that large areas will be peripheralized. This can go so far that the state structure remains limited to a network of enclaves.

The colonial state in Africa was, by and large, such a structure. It was stable in that its borders were guaranteed by great powers. Even changes of ownership did little to change this structure, as the Cape Colony shows, which changed hands three times between 1799 and 1806. Only states - whether dependent or not - could participate in the world system of the late 19th and 20th centuries under international law, trade and currency policy aspects. In the internal relationship between metropolis and colony, the latter were more states of minor law than "special provinces".

The special thing about the colonial status in Africa was that between 1888 and 1950, i.e. for 65 years, no internal struggle - not even one waged by military means - was possible in the colony, neither for the center of power nor for secession. It was hardly thought of by the African opposition at the time. The hallmark of the colonial state was the cementing of the political status quo and its reduction to mostly regional subsystems with a strong traditional and local dimension. This arrest of the status quo in state-building processes is a world-historical unique that only existed in the colonies. So there is an inconsistency between the stability of the international state system and the internal dynamics of the social systems of Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The question now is: were the pre-colonial African states on the way to comprehensive state systems when the colonial powers defined their zones of interest by border lines in the hinterland of the coastal zones? Which process has been stopped by the colonial division? Regardless of how old the state traditions in the various African societies are, it will be difficult to track down political systems in Africa whose zones of influence, tributary relationships and dynasties at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries were not fundamental under the pressure of historical conditions were changed. They all changed under the pressure of the slave trade, long-distance trade, the political explosion in southern Africa, for which the Zulu king Shaka stands as a symbol, the renewal of Islam in West Africa, the building of an empire in Ethiopia, Mahdism in Sudan, the Zanzibar empire in East Africa or the expansion of Baganda State north of Lake Victoria.However, none of these systems, none of these states has been torn apart by colonialism. With a few exceptions such as Zanzibar, they have become part of larger colonies as a whole even after the military defeats at the end of the 19th century.

The specific history of this statehood and the incorporation of pre-colonial political units into a new colonial land-based state seems to be of much more profound significance for the (in) functionality of the post-colonial states of Africa than the often arbitrarily drawn borders of the colonies. This can be seen, for example, in the importance of the heirs of the northern Nigerian sultanate for the distribution of power in Nigeria, in the Baganda hegemony for Uganda or in the tradition of the Mahdist state in Sudan - who to this day deal with its periphery not only in the south, but also in the south of Darfur in the west.

Like the empires of the premodern world, all pre-colonial states were "multi-ethnic structures", albeit mostly with a hegemonic structure. These states or political coalitions were extremely flexible with regard to the extent and type of incorporation of other political units, for example through tribute relationships, taking over the monarchical leadership, through the regiment of royal messengers, strategic marriages or mutual respect for religious cults. In addition, secessions were common in times of political weakness. For example, strong clans and port masters in the old Kingdom of the Congo used their access to European slave traders as early as the 17th century to make themselves politically independent from royalty.

In a nutshell, it can be said that these pre-colonial state-building processes of the late 18th and 19th centuries forced many groups to move from loose clan federations and an often poorly developed political "chief" or aristocratic system to politically centralized units, albeit often were small. The formation of the "chiefdom" in its modern form is therefore a relatively new phenomenon. The supposedly so determining ethnic identity of African societies is really defined according to which chief one is politically assigned to. These political identities are more likely to develop against the background of certain vague cultural similarities than on the basis of ethnic ones. In addition, these assignments and identities could and can change quickly. In this respect, the colonial borders have rarely torn apart the units of African societies, but only manipulated them. They gave usurpers power or suggested strategies to adapt to the new colonial state to established groups, which often resulted in the formation of new traditions.

Despite its real influence, at least until the Second World War, the colonial state did not have the power to fundamentally change these dynamic intra-African conditions. Cross-border grazing and refugee movements from famine and drought disasters as well as cross-border trade were common in colonial Africa. The limits of mobility were not reached by blocking border traffic and thus by political measures, rather they resulted from the requirements of the commercial flow of goods and traffic. Even advancing into the colonial educated elite was possible across borders. Accordingly, the national borders were less relevant for the African educational and political elites than the language borders between English, French and Portuguese.

However, in the period of developed colonialism, especially after World War II, the colonial borders gained considerably in importance. This primarily concerns the causes of regional disparities: the polarization between marginalized and world market regions and the formation of (African) metropolises. The anti-colonial struggle for independence, the struggle for resources, the handling of land rights, the investment in infrastructure and the formation of political clientele systems took place within the colonial borders, and these were and are defended and cemented by the national post-colonial elite. In the case of regional disadvantages, the local elites also demand (t) access to the (inland) metropolis rather than secession.

Against this background, the revitalization of political ethnicity, which can often be observed today, as well as the emphasis on monarchical traditions after around three decades of independence, are not answers to old border problems, but to the weakness of many post-colonial states, to the unjust accumulation processes taking place in them and the disappointment associated with them . This argument is not negated by the fact that, after decolonization, there have been repeated cross-border interventions - for example in many civil wars. Liberation movements as well as warlords and smugglers need safe retreats. The same applies to the fundamentally cross-border effects of the militarization of refugee and emergency aid and even to settlement issues. It is known from refugee research that around 80 percent of long-term refugees can use land in their new countries of residence and that this will be passed on to the next generation. Controversial land issues in the context of migration are more internal questions of power than intergovernmental problems.

Despite the artificial colonial borders, it is therefore very unlikely that pre-colonial state structures will be revitalized in Africa, as was possible after the dissolution of the formally strong federal union of the Soviet republics in the Ukraine, the Baltic states and the Central Asian republics. By and large, the colonial borders have become historically relevant borders. Of course, in Africa, as in the rest of the world, there were and are political-historical constellations in which a new political identity is emerging and in which the search for a political system of its own is being pushed. The development in Eritrea and its replacement from the Great Ethiopian Empire was such a case. And in the future, the dissolution of Nigeria in large regions would be quite possible, going it alone cannot be ruled out. Historical-traditionalist justifications will accompany such processes, and they will also make demands on pre-colonial history in particular.

All of this has nothing to do with the creation of legends about an allegedly superhistorical African ethnic identity and even less with the actual arbitrariness of colonial borders. These certainly diverted and hindered developments, produced new regional identities and caused the losers of colonialism. The basic evil lies less in the drawing of boundaries than in the (sub) development processes of the colonial and post-colonial state. The Berlin Congo Conference from 1884-1885 was intended to symbolize this confusing legacy of colonialism and its effects on the elites of Africa, not for the demarcation of boundaries.


Leibniz University Hannover: Helmut Bley

Berlin 1884-1885 Division of Africa (Berlin Congo Conference, West Africa Conference)

Category: Education

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