German paths in the Hague. Johannes Visscher and the “südafrikanische Propaganda” during
World War I.
On August 3rd and 4th, when the German Empire declared the state of war with France and the
UK, German diplomatic services expressed their concern for the fate of the white inhabitants of
the colonies and suggested that its overseas dominions should remain neutral. Nevertheless,
Germany was inconsistent in this respect, and hoped for extending its colonial possessions in the new political situation. Moreover, the colonial aspirations of Britain left no illusions as to the
possibility of peace preservation in the colonies. The modest German military powers in the overseas
dominions involved the Schutztruppe or police divisions which mostly comprised coloured soldiers
and were not designed for warfare. German South-West Africa, which constitutes the central
reference point for this paper, was equally poorly prepared for military defence. German authorities
believed that the Boers, minding the consequences of the Second Boer War, would refuse to join
the Entente. However, when on July 7th 1914, the British government requested general Louis
Botha to take over the German radio transmitters in Lüderitz and Swakopmund, Botha concurred.
The attack launched by the South African army inevitably led to the surrender of the Germans.
Indeed, the German forces, unable to withhold the attack any longer, surrendered on July 9th 1915.
The government in Berlin realised that winning South West Africa back, might prove
impossible, regardless of the course of war in Europe. By the same token, the future of the German
diamond companies, united in a consortium called Diamantenregie since 1909, depended on the
developing political constellation in the Union of South Africa. Since 1915, German authorities
have launched a subtle diplomatic game aimed at winning the support of the South African elites
and the public opinion of the country. The neutral Netherlands were the main stage of this longterm
post-war policy. Due to the historical connections to South Africa, the Netherlands played
an important role as a cultural and political mediator. Some members of the Dutch elites – writers,
journalists, politicians – still held the pro-Boer and anti-English position when WWI broke out.
This position encouraged the involvement of the Dutch elites in the German incentives regarding
cultural propaganda. Such actions were designed to foster a positive image of Germany as a
natural ally of the Boers. This was achieved by supporting the Afrikaner circles which were
negative about the policy of Botha and Smuts, underlining the independence of the Boer republics
and emphasising the significant role of the Afrikaans language (as a counterbalance for English).
Altogether, this was designed to serve as a fruitful basis for the post-war relations between Germany
and South Africa.
This paper offers insights into the so far unpublished correspondence of the main actors of
the contemporary field of German cultural propaganda (Kultur- und Kunstpropaganda). The main
person under investigation is Johannes Visscher, a Dutch journalist and expert on South Africa.
As editor of the journal Hollandsch Zuid-Afrika, published by Nederlandsch Zuid-Afrikaansche
Vereniging (NZAV), Visscher was employed by the German diplomatic services in the years
1915–1918. As part of the activities financed by Reichskolonialamt, Visscher shaped the image of
Germany in the South African press and the pro-German image of South Africa in the Dutch press.
Johannes Visscher, een Nederlandse journalist, politicus en voortrekker van de Nederlandse
arbeidersbeweging, redigeerde vanaf 1909 het tijdschrift “Hollandsch Zuid-Afrika”, een uitgave
van de in 1881 gestichte Nederlandsch Zuid-Afrikaansche Vereniging (NZAV), de oudste op Zuid-
Afrika gerichte organisatie in Nederland. Vanaf augustus 1915 tot december 1918 stond Visscher
ook in nauw contact met en handelde in opdracht van de Duitse diplomatieke dienst in het kader van het door het Duitse gezantschap in Den Haag en het Berlijnse Reichskolonialamt opgerichte
project “südafrikanische Propaganda”. Het Persbureau van de NZAV werd door hem geïntegreerd
in de semiofficiële “Hilfsstelle” van het Duitse gezantschap met als doel de Zuid-Afrikaanse pers
over de situatie in Europa en de Nederlandse pers over Zuid-Afrika “deutschfreundlich” te
informeren. Deze bijdrage is gewijd aan dit onbekende hoofdstuk in de geschiedenis van de Duits-
Nederlands-Zuid-Afrikaanse betrekkingen in de tijd van de Grote Oorlog.