Songs of Colonization

Historical Context

American Colonial History

North America was first colonized in 1607, with the founding of Jamestown. What followed was centuries of conflict between indigenous peoples and European colonizers which led to massive population losses and the genocide of many Native American tribes. Though colonization was around for a long time, the move of American settlers westward that has been glamorized in movies, plays, and music started after the revolutionary war when the U.S. was founded in 1776. The legacy of Westward expansion fueled by the belief in manifest destiny lasted from 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was signed, until the early 1900s.1

Many of the settlers who moved out west in search of economic opportunity and land, believed in American Exceptionalism. This was the belief that the west was filled with empty, unused land, and that saw the native peoples as “savages” who didn’t know how to properly use it.2 The reality was of course much different, and the idea that they had a rightful claim to the land had detrimental effects on the native peoples. Despite this brutality, the idea of the American west and life on the frontier became idealized. In his article titled “Capturing the American West: The Cowboy Song and the Archive,” Michael Slowik writes: “during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, essays, frontier plays, and novels all helped shape the belief that the cowboy was a key representation of "true" American character.”3

German Fantasy

The popularity of the image of the Cowboy was not contained only to the United States. In fact, this image became wildly popular in the entertainment industry in Germany. Karl May was a popular author whose books and plays depicting the American frontier, which he had never visited, sparked a cultural phenomenon in Germany still seen today.4 Among others, May’s depictions of the American west created collective German fantasies about colonization and imperial expansion.5

There is evidence, not only that German fascination with the American West was a factor in popular support for overseas expansion, but also that it influenced the way that Colonial Soldiers treated the Herero and Nama ethnic groups during a war from 1904-1907, which escalated into what is now considered the first genocide of the 20th century.6 The German colonial government looked to and actively researched American policies concerning the extermination of Native Americans in order to use these policies in their own campaign of genocide. This included the relocation of Herero, Nama, and other ethnic groups onto reservations. These groups were forced to give up their traditional cultural practices and convert to Christianity.7 Cultural artifacts and even human remains were stolen and shipped to European and American research institutions and museums. Survivors of the genocide were rounded up and sent to forced labor camps where they were subject to medical experimentation.8 These unthinkable policies were tolerated by the German people because the same practices in the American West were so idealized.9

German Colonial History

But why was this colonial fantasy so potent in Germany? It is important to consider that Germany was a new nation, formed only in 1871, a century after the United States. Colonization was an attractive process that could at once help form a sense of national pride and ensure that Germany could compete with other European imperial nations. Germany claimed the territory of German Southwest Africa, along with other land parcels in the Berlin conference of 1884, seen as the beginning of the “scramble for Africa”, where remaining territory on the African continent was partitioned among European Imperial powers.10 The expansion and appropriation of land were seen as a way to strengthen the German nation and identity.

Another method used to encourage German national identity was evoking the romantic depictions of courtly culture and heroic deeds of medieval Germany. For example, Richard Wagner’s famous four-part opera Der Ring des Nibelungen was based on ancient German mythology and written in 1876.11 Ballads resurfaced as popular forms of writing around this time as well.12 These stories, which were sung in verse form set to music had been popular in medieval Germany and often drew upon themes of heroic knights and courtly love that would inspire a sense of German national pride again in the 19th century. The Folk songs and German Reiterlieder we are analyzing through this project are reminiscent of very similar themes and structures. They are songs that have a story-like structured narrative that romanticizes the landscape and the bravery of soldiers and settlers. They are written with the purpose of reinforcing new myths that glorified nationalistic ideas of exploration and exploitation under colonialism.

Continuous vs. Overseas Empires

These two very different histories, although one was clearly influenced by the other, point to very important differences in forms of nationalism and colonial rule. It is important to consider even the geography of the areas. The Americans were expanding westward in order to establish a continuous empire. Ideas of exceptionalism and the American dream underline that the people in this movement had a strong sense of belonging and subscribed thoroughly to the American National narrative. In fact, they embodied it. The German empire, however, was overseas. Germany and German Southwest Africa were separated by land and water, and this changed how people perceived the land. German colonization of the area was also pushed forward by soldiers, who were fighting in the name of the German government, rather than settlers fighting for their own claims to land.


  1. Editors, History com. “Westward Expansion.” HISTORY. Accessed April 24, 2020.
  2. Guettel, Jens-Uwe. “FROM THE FRONTIER TO GERMAN SOUTH-WEST AFRICA: GERMAN COLONIALISM, INDIANS, AND AMERICAN WESTWARD EXPANSION*.” Modern Intellectual History 7, no. 3 (November 2010): 523–52.
  3. Slowik, Michael. “Capturing the American Past: The Cowboy Song and the Archive.” The Journal of American Culture 35, no. 3 (2012): 207–18.
  4. Galchen, Rivka. “Wild West Germany | The New Yorker.” Accessed April 24, 2020.
  5. Zantop, Susanne. Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1997.
  7. Breure, J., 1999, 'Ancestors: A challenge to the Oruuano Church of Namibia', MTh dissertation, Dept. of Missiology, University of South Africa
  9. Guettel, Jens-Uwe. “FROM THE FRONTIER TO GERMAN SOUTH-WEST AFRICA: GERMAN COLONIALISM, INDIANS, AND AMERICAN WESTWARD EXPANSION*.” Modern Intellectual History 7, no. 3 (November 2010): 523–52.
  10. Wallace, M., & Kinahan, J. (2011). A history of Namibia: From the beginning to 1990. New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica. “Der Ring Des Nibelungen | Summary, Characters, & Facts.” Accessed April 24, 2020.
  12. Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer of Tales. Third edition. Publications of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 4. Cambridge, MA : Washington, DC: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature ; Center for Hellenic Studies, 2019.