Berlin, Conference of

Berlin, Conference of
   A congress hosted in the German capital from November 1884 to February 1885 by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to attenuate growing imperial rivalries caused by what historians now term the “new imperialism.” This process, which began in about 1870 and was at its most intense between 1880 and 1900, saw European powers engage in a rapid process of overseas colonization, seeking economic gain, national prestige, and the universalization of European values. The most intense part of this process was the Scramble for Africa, in which European powers carved up the African continent into colonies. The scramble led to several disputes over territory and threatened to cause a European war. The Berlin Conference was called to create rules for continued colonization in Africa. Bismarck also hoped to negotiate a greater imperial role for Germany.
   The conference was attended by all of the major European powers, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States. There were no representatives from Africa itself, reflecting a paternalistic view of indigenous peoples common at that time. The conference had two significant outcomes. The first was to recognize “spheres of influence” in Africa, requiring colonial powers to establish administrative and defense capabilities in a region before it could be effectively claimed. This provision recognized the claims of King Leopold II of Belgium to the Congo River basin, creating The Congo Free State. Leopold subsequently exploited his position by allowing indigenous peoples to be used as forced labor extracting resources like ivory and rubber. During the next 20 years, people perished from mass killings, disease, and starvation under the brutal oversight of Belgian and international masters. Appalling atrocities were ordered by white officers and carried out by black soldiers. The creation of what was in effect an international free trade zone prioritized the rights of European traders over indigenous peoples, and encouraged many European nations to establish chartered companies to do business in Africa. Closely linked was the Conference’s second major provision, the establishment of international freedom of navigation on Africa’s waterways.
   Alongside Leopold, Germany was the main beneficiary of the Conference, subsequently establishing African colonies in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia), Togoland and Cameroon in West Africa, and German East Africa (present-day Tanzania). The meeting also ensured continued Anglo-French rivalries in Africa, a rivalry that almost led to war in 1898 over the Fashoda Crisis in southern Sudan. Germany’s later colonial interest in Morocco almost led to war on two separate occasions in 1903 and in 1907. By establishing rules for Africa, the Berlin Conference helped prevent a European war over Africa in the short term. In the long term, it arguably heightened the international tensions that eventually caused war in 1914, a war in which many Africans fought and died.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Förster, Stig; Mommsen,Wolfgang J., and Ronald Edward Robinson, eds. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition. London: Oxford University Press, 1988;
    Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa: White Man ’ s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912. New York: Random House, 1991.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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