Guns and Globalization: Germany and the Illicit International Arms Trade since 1890

Lecture format: online via Zoom.

Germany has recently come under criticism for its reluctance to provide arms to Ukraine following the Russian invasion and its legal safeguards against arms trafficking have been decried as outmoded and overly rigid. For more than a century, however, Germany has more traditionally been criticized for its role in the proliferation of small arms trafficking around the world. In the late 19th century, the modernization of European armies generated a huge market for used arms, particularly to colonial hinterlands in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Imperial Germany was a colonial latecomer, but also major producer of arms - via producers such as Krupp and Mauser - which were intent on expanding their global reach as were German merchants who profited from the sale of out of date and obsolete arms sold on by the military to fund the purchase of new technology. The German state pursued a double strategy of promoting arms control including international treaties and an international naval blockade of East Africa when these weapons threatened its colonial interests, but Berlin also backed German merchants seeking to run guns past British, French, Italian and Spanish authorities in North Africa, Ethiopia, and the Middle East, far from German colonial possessions. In 1919, the Versailles Treaty banned the production of military arms on German soil. But once again major manufacturers found loopholes to continue production at home and abroad and German merchants shipped surplus arms from the war to conflict zones around the world, in particular China. Since then, various German states directly engaged in arms deals directly, or tacitly condoned trafficking via arm’s length entities, international dealers and other intermediaries. The lines between state sanctioned commerce and illicit traffic have often been blurred both on purpose but also because historical sources are necessarily problematic and incomplete and media coverage of this topic tends towards the sensational. However, studying the arms trade, both licit and illicit, provides an alternative view to Germany’s political and economic globalization.

Ned Richardson-Little is a Freigeist Fellow at the Department of History at the University of Erfurt. He leads the Volkswagen Stiftung funded research group “The Other Global Germany: Deviant Globalization and Transnational Criminality in the 20th Century,” and is currently working on a project examining German state policy towards international control and prohibition regimes surrounding arms and narcotics from the Kaiserreich to the Nazi era. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and previously held a post-doc at the University of Exeter. His first monograph The Human Rights Dictatorship: Socialism, Global Solidarity and Revolution in East Germany, was released with Cambridge University Press in 2020.