In the decades around 1900, Wilhelmine Germany embarked on a quest for world power status. This endeavor included the acquisition of overseas colonies and a naval arms race with Great Britain, but it also encompassed a broader effort to achieve global presence and economic might through a rapidly expanding merchant fleet. Accordingly, many Germans began to view the maritime community as an extension of the nation and its empire on and over the seas. This study argues that, between the advent of German expansion in 1884 and the outbreak of world war in 1914, a variety of German groups reconceived merchant mariners as emblems of the nation at home, on the oceans, and overseas. Consequently, state authorities, liberal intellectuals, social reform organizations, Protestants, and nautical professionals deployed middle-class constructions of masculinity in their attempts to reform civilian sailors’ portside leisure and shipboard labor for the nation. A broader “crisis of masculinity” around 1900 informed this focus on mariners’ bodies, sexualities, comportment, and character. Reform groups portrayed their efforts to mold model seamen as essential to the success of German overseas expansion and Weltpolitik. They created highly-gendered programs designed to channel mariners’ transnational mobility into steady flows of national power, capital, and culture around the world.
This investigation situates its analysis primary and secondary literature in a transnational framework. It follows merchant mariners on a journey across the Atlantic, where most German shipping was engaged, focusing on the ports of Hamburg, Bremen, New York, and Buenos Aires. This structure allows me to consider the tensions between sailors’ urban leisure practices, both at home and overseas, and reformers’ attempts to anchor these men in marriage, family, Volk, and Heimat. It also allows me to consider how masculinity and Weltpolitik shaped conflicts between traditional notions of skill, training, and command at sea and attempts to instill “soldierly” values among civilian seamen in the context of maritime industrialization. Framed as such, this study draws upon documentary evidence from government sources, shipping firms, journalists, social reformers, pastors, trade unionists, as well as sailors’ personal accounts.
In analyzing this evidence, the study employs theoretical insights of such scholars as Joan Scott and R.W. Connell about the intersection between gender and power in human history and societies. It is thus primarily concerned with how masculinity was both a product and a constituent of power dynamics in Wilhelmine Germany. Consequently, it investigates how different groups and individuals used ideas, rhetoric, and representations of masculinity to further their specific political, socio-economic, or cultural aims and interests. It therefore contributes to the recent multidisciplinary project to “give masculinity a history” rather than assuming the implicit universality of the male subject. Thus far, most work on the history of German masculinities has focused on martial contexts: soldiers, militaries, and warfare. The present study changes course to examine how masculinities interacted with Germany’s growing global entanglements around 1900. In doing so it asks how and why powerful groups attempted to choreograph mariners’ performance of masculinity at home and on the world stage.