Contrary to other colonial empires, the German colonial empire never established a “standing” theatre stage in its colonies. Nevertheless, from the consolidation of the German colonial empire in July 1884 on (and even long before that), theatre played an important and intricate role in the process of empire-building and the establishment of the settler communities imagined as white
in the colonies. In Germany’s African colonies, amateur theatre societies and drama clubs sprung up like mushrooms, initiated by the German colonizers as a means to strengthen the bond among the settlers and to display an alleged German cultural hegemony to the indigenous African communities. In the German metropoles, theatre performances rendered the new and distant colonial empire comprehensible to a domestic audience and fed the fusion of colonial ideology and mass media representation.
It is notable that German colonial plays and performances from the 1880s and 1890s - and thus from the beginning of the colonial project - focused particularly on the question of migration, or, more specifically, on the process of emigration to the colonies.
The one-act burlesque musical comedy Striese in Kamerun
by Richard Hirschson und Viktor Hollaender, which I will briefly discuss here, even brings the three phenomena theatre, migration, and colonialism together. It challenges the still common assumption that the German colonial project was a “niche” topic of specialized discourse and testifies instead to the fact that, with the help of the popular theatres, colonial ideology and its representations of ‘race’ reached deep into German imperialist society at the time and were disseminated widely across different classes and milieus. The colonial burlesque is set in the future, in 1896, and the scenery described as having an “African character”. As in many other colonial farces and burlesques of that time, the plot is kept simple and fused with grotesque and often racist humour, bright colours, slapstick and stock-characters. The storyline is constructed around the arrival and integration of new settlers from Germany to one of the African colonies of the German empire: Emanuel Striese, an unsuccessful theatre impresario from a larger German metropole, tired of Europe, emigrates with his unmarried daughters Alma and Hedwig to “Africa”, where he hopes to make a new start professionally. They are eagerly awaited by the European settlers, whose lives in the colony are described as “boring” and “monotonous” and whose hope is that the new theatre with its “ballets, operettas, comedies and melodramas” will bring longed for entertainment. The plot unfolds with Alma’s lover Vittorio, a former tenor at Striese’s theatre in Germany, appearing on the scene. He had been hiding on the same boat as Striese and his daughters and came to “Africa” to ask for Alma’s hand in marriage. As Striese had denied his advances before, Vittorio comes up with a trick to convince his future father-in-law of his worthiness: he dresses up as “an African” tenor, auditions for a role in Striese’s new theatre, and wins over the impresario’s heart. Driven by a colonial idea of discovery and exoticism, and not aware that he has been tricked, Striese is convinced he has found his key to success, a “Black tenor”, who sings even better than the tenors in Germany. In addition to a horrendous fee, Vittorio in blackface also asks for Alma’s hand in marriage. To the distress of Alma, who does not recognize Vittorio in disguise and who does not want to marry “a black man”, Striese agrees to both. Vittorio reveals himself behind the makeup and Alma and he fall into each other’s arms. The play ends with the two young lovers persuading Striese that emigrating to “Africa” had been a foolish idea in the first place and convincing an English man by the name of Mr. Beefsteak, who also resides in the German colony, to invest his entire fortune in Striese’s theatre business. With the new financial boost, the whole theatre family returns to the German metropole.
What then, does the play tell us about the colonial discourse in which (theatre) migration as a topic was embedded in turn-of-the-century Germany? The character of Striese represents what theatre historian Berenika Szymanski-Düll has referred to as a “theatre migrant”
. Out of financial necessity, he leaves his home country and his main place of residence to establish a new theatre business elsewhere. His border-crossing mobility has far-reaching biographical consequences for his family and business, which is one of the parameters that, according to Szymanski-Düll, defines a migratory act as distinct from a journey, or, in the language of the theatre, a tour. 
The fact that he maintains ties to his home country, Germany and that he returns to his former place of residence also makes him a “transmigrant”
. A transmigrant is defined as someone, who does not simply migrate from A to B, but whose “public identities are configured in relationship to more than one nation-state”.
This definition is, however, troubled by the fact that Striese does not migrate to another nation-state, but within the German empire to a so-called German “protectorate”. While emigration from Germany to the US was in full swing at the end of the nineteenth century, emigration to the newly established “protectorates” on the African continent, in New Guinea, China, or Samoa was less popular. Colonial publicists like Friedrich Fabri and Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden advertised emigration to the colonies as an important alternative to emigration to the US. Germans emigrating to the colonies would not be “lost” to the German empire, but would stay “German”, culturally and legally, and would, as “cultural pioneers”, help to disseminate German culture worldwide.
What “staying German” meant exactly can be detected from discussions on the citizenship and legal rights of German settlers in the colonies. In their legal status, the German colonies were neither independent states nor parts of the empire. They were subject to the sovereignty of the German empire but not constitutionally incorporated. This meant that in the “protectorates” the citizenship of the German immigrants was largely undefined. In fact, the unclear legal status of German settlers residing in the colonies was partly the reason for a revision of the German citizenship law in 1913. The local populations of the German colonies were not
considered to be members of the empire (Reichsangehörige
). The dual legal system of the colonies separated the people into two different legal categories: “natives” and “non-natives”. “Natives” were defined by colonial law as all members of the “coloured tribes” residing in the colony.
“Non-natives” were referred to by their citizenship (German, British etc.), with certain privileges such as being subject “to the law of the Whites, meaning the German law”.
What becomes clear here is the extent to which “Germanness” was linked to whiteness.
It highlights the intricate relation between migration, race, and citizenship in the German colonial context. Being German in the colonies (and not only there) meant being white
and, more importantly, staying white
. The colonial discourse on migration was dominated by concerns about the settlers’ “racial consciousness”, full with imperial anxieties of Verkafferung
(“going native”) and so-called “miscegenation”. Migrating to the colonies as a white
German citizen was thus deeply informed by questions of race, and an analysis of colonial migration thus requires an expanded definition of concepts such as “theatre migrants” and “transmigrants”, one that includes intersecting questions of race, power, and cultural hegemony.
The play highlights the prominent position of race for colonial migration by making use of a play within a play: Vittorio’s act of “blackfacing”.
While the whiteness
of the European characters goes unnoticed and is thus introduced as the norm in the play, blackness is introduced as a marker of the African “Other”. This is complicated by the fact that the only African character that appears in the play is in fact the white
Vittorio in blackface. More than merely an allegedly innocent symbolic practice, blackfacing was part and parcel of a large array of racialized practice in metropolitan Germany during the colonial era that helped to form a particular image of Africa and Africans and to disseminate racial ideologies and justifications for colonial exploitation and genocide.
The entertainment for the white
metropolitan audience, for whom this play was written, was that they would be able to see through the trick, contrary to Striese. Yet, what they are invited to find behind the make-up is not a white
face but simply a face, a “human” face, their own face unmarked by race. Blackness is performed by Vittorio as a spectacle of Otherness, highlighted as theatrical, as a mask behind which the white
body can hide, from which the white
body can act while remaining invisible, unseen, unmarked. This resonates strongly not only with American minstrelsy traditions but also with a popular trope in German colonial literature and travelogues at the time: the imperialist observer position as invisible and yet all-encompassing. As literature scholar Jonathan Wipplinger has argued, in turn-of-the-century Germany blackface was conceived “as a racial ruse, a joke of identities in flux”.12]
Since blackface appeared mainly on the popular stages (variety and vaudeville theatre) and thus outside of the traditional parameters of bourgeois cultural consumption, it represents an imperial anxiety of intertwining threats for racial and cultural boundaries. In that sense, blackface can be understood as functioning “as a nodal point of societal uncertainty in late nineteenth-century Germany.”
In other words, the choice of theatrical means in the play - the blackfacing - reveals the underlying discursive and performative nexus that influenced and controlled the process of migration to the colonies in the German public sphere: the imperial insecurities of the very notion of what it meant to be German in modernity. It brings to the surface the uncomfortable elements of the radical changes that imperial Germany associated with colonialism and the emergence of mass consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth century and the role that German engagement with race played for the theatrical representation and everyday perception of migration in the colonial and imperial context; elements, that still influence racialized conceptions of migration in Germany today and regularly help to exclude non-white Germans from the narrative of German nationhood and European identity.
The representation of the colonies and the popular reception of colonial discourse in German theatres developed from the beginning of the colonial movement in the 1880s, through a more diffused colonialism of the 1890s to the high point of colonial propaganda during the German-Herero war between 1904 and 1908.
Hollaender, Viktor; Hirschson, Richard. Striese in Kamerun. Burleske Operette in einem Akt.
Op.25, Libretto, Leipzig (ca. 1887). Digital Version under: https://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0006/bsb00063241/images/.
Szymanski-Düll, Berenika. “Vom Reisen, Einreisen und Ausreisen. Zum Mobilitätsverhalten von Theatermigrant*innen im 19. Jahrhundert.” In: Dogramaci, Burcu; Szymanski-Düll, Berenika et.al. Leave, Left, Left. Migrationsphänomene in den Künsten in aktueller und historischer Perspektive.
Neofelis Verlag 2020.
Ibid., p. 65.
Glick Schiller, Nina; Basch, Linda; Blanc-Szanton, Christina. “From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration.” Anthropological Quarterly
, Vol. 68, No.1, 1995.
Another line of argument was that emigration to the colonies would solve the “social question”: the working class would submit to the patriotic task of imperial expansionism and turn their backs on socialist ideas. Mass emigration of the potentially insurgent masses to the colonies would bring new peace and stability to the German empire. But the proposed mass emigration to the colonies never actually materialized. In total, only 24,000 Germans migrated to the German colonies between 1884 and 1913.
, 1920, Vol.III, p.312.
As Katrin Sieg has pointed out, the term “blackfacing” is a German linguistic adaption from American minstrelsy culture and denotes images of white
actors in black make-up often linked to stereotypical and racist depictions of a Black person. See Sieg, Katrin. “Race, Guilt, and Innocence:
Facing Blackfacing in Contemporary German Theatre”. German Studies Review,
Vol. 38, No. 1 February 2015, p.117. See also Sharifi, Azadeh. “’Wir wollen ein Zeichen setzen’: Performance and Protest by Minorities in German Theatre.” Performance Paradigm,
Vol. 14, 2018; Mikossé-Aikins, Sandrine. “Not just a Blackened Face.” Textures: Interweaving Performance Culture
, 2013, http://www.textures-platform.com/?p=3169.
See Skwirblies, Lisa. “Colonial Theatricality.” In: Gluhovic, Milija; Jestrovic, Silvija (eds.). Oxford Handbook of Politics and Performance
. OUP 2021.
Wipplinger, Jonathan. “The Racial Ruse: On Blackness and Blackface Comedy in fin-de-siecle
Germany.” The German Quarterly
, Vol. 84, No. 4, Fall 2011, p.458.
See El-Tayeb, Fatima. Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der postmigrantischen Gesellschaft.