For the handful of Australian troops on watch at the Finschhafen District military headquarters in Morobe, New Guinea, January 5th, 1919 seemed to be as nondescript as the multitude of days, weeks, months and even years before it. The region, formerly part of the provinces of German New Guinea, hadn’t seen meaningful combat in more than four years since Australian troops invaded and occupied the colony, driving out the Germans in some of the earliest combat of the Great War. The brief campaign had been Australia’s first independent military action and had kept region out of the hands out of British or Japanese interests.
The sight greeting the Australians seemed more appropriate for 1914 than 1919 – a column of fully armed New Guinean native German troops, with a resplendently dressed Major in his pressed and cleaned field dress uniform – marching down the streets of Morobe, directly towards the headquarters. Upon arriving at the front door, the German Major drew his sword and presented it to the Australian commanding officer. Major Hermann Detzner and the last of his men would surrender – bringing to an end the longest, strangest quasi-guerilla campaign of the First World War.
Had Otto von Bismarck had his way, no German soldier would have set foot in New Guinea – or anywhere outside of Europe, for that matter. The man nicknamed “the Iron Chancellor” for his mastery of 19th Century realpolitik had little time for the expensive vanity projects that were often the result of colonial expansion. Overseas colonies required vast expenditures of resources without any guarantee of profit and could only further entangle Berlin in the foreign policies of France or Britain, all plainly without the naval might to secure such holdings. In short – Bismarck sought to avoid precisely most of the military and foreign policy missteps that Germany ended up making in the 1880/90s. But the allure of powerful financial interests, coupled with domestic political considerations (colonial policies sold well at the ballot box), pushed the Chancellor to embrace the establishment of private colonial ventures. It would only be a matter of time before private German interests became part of the national interest and forced Germany to send engineers, laborers and finally soldiers overseas. Continue reading