Introducing the Phenomenon1

Internal colonization was a widespread phenomenon in interwar Europe, where attempts to build new communities on semi- or unoccupied lands were buttressed by a strong belief in progress and in the ability of man to master nature. Practices of internal colonization exemplified the rise of the modern interventionist state and reflected the expansion of state responsibilities and the increased involvement of experts in government in the interwar period. Examples of internal colonization are plentiful; they include the settlement of farmers in German borderlands by Prussian and Weimar authorities, the reclamation of the Zuiderzee and the subsequent colonization of arable land undertaken by the Dutch government after the First World War, the drainage of the Pontine Marshes by Mussolini’s regime in Italy in the 1930s, and the colonization of the northern regions of Norway and Sweden by state-sponsored organizations.

Internal colonization proved a truly transnational practice, which was not restricted to Europe. In the United States, Roosevelt’s New Deal entailed a rural resettlement programme and in overseas territories, such as the Dutch East Indies, colonial rulers introduced migratory schemes as well. Advocates of these projects were very keen on observing best practices abroad and travel generated an exchange of ideas and knowledge. Swedish advocates of internal colonization, for instance, were inspired by German experts. The Dutch social geographer Henri Nicolaas ter Veen, involved in selecting farmers, travelled to Italy to watch the drainage of the Agro Pontino, while the new Italian villages served as a model for the Chinese region of Jiangxi. Special journals like the German Archiv für Innere Kolonisation and the Swedish Hem i Sverige often gave account of foreign examples, and the type of farms that was built in the Dutch polders served as an example for National Socialist planners.2

Internal colonization proved a very flexible concept in the first half of the twentieth century: movements and individuals on the left and right alike propagated the establishment of new settlements within national borders, and regimes of diverse ideological persuasions understood internal colonization as a matter of national prestige and the exemplification of the values they wished to represent. Rationales underpinning the practices of reclaiming and subdividing land and settling colonists there included the quests for political stability, national grandeur, food security, social improvement, and the modernization of inefficient agricultural production and rural societies, to name but a few. Everywhere, these rationales were interwoven, although in some countries and periods, specific motives proved more dominant than others.

It is the aim of this theme issue to show that despite the different ideological and political contexts, in which resettlement schemes were discussed and implemented, a shared repertoire of ideas and practices can be observed in the interwar period. The case studies collected in this issue analyze resettlement schemes in Germany, Switzerland, Russia/the Soviet Union, Sweden and the Netherlands, and underline this point. They reveal the shared problems, pre-occupations and solutions under debate in interwar Europe, while also pointing at the transnational interconnectedness of ideas and practices of internal colonization. At the same time, the articles show that national specificities, such as dependence on food imports, availability of land, power relations, and the presence of indigenous peoples, influenced settlement policies and gave them their specific articulations.

The rural world became a site of social and economic planning. The practices of internal colonization exemplified the rise of the modern interventionist state, a favour of technocratic elitism, and population management in interwar Europe par excellence, as will be shown below. The subsequent parts of this introduction will critically discuss the contested nature of the concepts of ‘internal colonization’ and ‘internal colonialism’, which are often used interchangeably, and the literature on resettlement practices, which is still dominated by the framework of the nation-state. As a result, internal colonization has been primarily understood as a practice reflecting national particularities, while similarities and connections across national borders have remained underexposed.

State, Territory and Population

When employed by historical actors, the term ‘internal colonization’ most frequently referred to the settlement of groups of people loyal to the metropolis, usually in frontier areas, in order to ensure security and encourage the economic development of semi- or unoccupied land within national borders.3 The popularity that internal colonization as a tool for the management of nature and people came to enjoy from the end of the nineteenth century reflects the development of the modern interventionist state and changing administrative practices. Charles Maier has labelled the years roughly between the 1860s and 1960s ‘the age of territoriality’. Centralized state control of bounded geographical spaces became a powerful strategy for integrating peripheral areas into nation-states or empires and managing the people and resources in these areas. An enhanced concept of territory informed the ways, in which territories were governed and power was produced both at their borders as well as within: ‘territory’ provided the basis for material resources, political power and common allegiance, and stabilized nation-states.4 The connection drawn between populations, whether conceived of in national or racial terms, and state sovereignty has been described as the great distinction between the nineteenth century and what came before.5

To this must be added the concomitant expansion of the ‘state’s ability to mobilize its new industrial, logistical, and administrative resources’ and carry out schemes of social and technological planning on a scale that was inconceivable in earlier centuries.6 These undertakings were held together by a ‘high modernist’ belief in progress: the perfectibility of nature and mankind, and the applicability of scientific knowledge in public administration.7 It has been argued in recent studies on social engineering and state planning that what qualifies this period as distinctively modern is the widespread belief among politicians and experts that man was able to master contingency and crisis without adhering to a transcendent or divine logic. Expectations were high: modernity itself would provide the means, such as scientific knowledge and technological innovations, to manage the sweeping changes and re-establish order.8 The role of scientific knowledge in state governance changed fundamentally in these years, as modern statecraft became increasingly imbued with the rationality of science. Emerging scholarly disciplines, such as sociology, agricultural economics, and spatial planning, were imperative in defining problems and solutions and setting the political agenda.9

These developments were exemplified by the practice of internal colonization. Before the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the establishment of internal colonies had been primarily driven by individuals or private organizations, which conceived of these experiments as part of a transitional stage to a more stable, ‘healthy’ or ‘just’ society. Among them were land reformers, inspired by the ideas of political economist and writer Henry George and sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, who argued that all members of a community should benefit from the value derived from the land, as well as liberals and conservatives stressing the need to provide landless labourers with a plot of land in order to create a stable class of independent farmers. In some cases, such as the reclamation of the Dutch Haarlemmermeer in 1851, the state was involved, but only in the draining stages of the project; the actual colonization of the land was left to private agents. This changed towards the end of the century, when agricultural crises, urbanization and the rise of the ‘social problem’, mass employment, hunger for land, poverty and emigration increased doubts about the benefits of laissez faire capitalism and inspired a gradual shift from the nineteenth century watchman-state model towards an increasingly interventionist one. The Great War and the economic crisis of the 1930s produced two more waves of increased state involvement. This development was reflected in the nature and scope of the resettlement schemes, which received more state funding, were stepped up in the interwar years, and to a much larger extent than before became the responsibility of state actors, who were involved in buying up land, planning its infrastructure and selecting the right inhabitants.

The popularity of internal colonization in the interwar period should be understood as a response to economic turmoil, political polarization and social unrest. Proponents regarded the areas designated for colonization as ‘new’ or ‘empty’ land in need of cultivation, on which they could project their visions of an ideal or improved society. The perceived ‘emptiness’ of these territories inherently provoked ideological debates about the existing state of affairs on ‘old’ land and the desirable future state. Even those historical actors who idealized alleged ‘organic’ orders of the past wished to (re-)create them by applying modern means, such as science and planning. The fact that these areas were often far from empty, but instead populated (if sparsely) by people with diverse national or ethnic backgrounds and/or ways of life was often disregarded. The rural world itself became a site of scientific and social experimentation, as the cases of internal colonization demonstrate.

A Genealogy of the Discourse on Internal Colonization and Internal Colonialism

Etymologically, the principal meaning of the concept of ‘colonization’ finds its roots in antiquity and early agricultural settlements. Colo means ‘I cultivate’, and colonus originally meant ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’, later to become ‘inhabitant of a settlement’. A colony thus meant ‘settled land’ and a ‘colonist’ referred to a farmer who settled on a piece of land in order to bring it into a state of cultivation.10

The historical actors at the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century understood ‘colonization’ as a broad concept, which included the establishment of new agricultural settlements on reclaimed lands as well as the subdivision of large estates into smaller plots, to be distributed to smallholders. This wide range of practices, including the establishment of overseas settlements, were conceived of as part of the same process, as is illustrated by frequent references to examples of settler colonialism that filled the pages of journals and publications on internal colonization.11 The visit made by a central German proponent of internal colonization, Max Sering, to the frontier settlements in the United States in 1883, provided important lessons for the development of German policies.12

The adjective ‘internal’ seems to have been applied primarily to describe what it was not – overseas migration – rather than to provide a clearly bounded definition. In Vladimir Lenin’s early use of the concept of ‘internal colonialism’, ‘colonies’ in the border regions of the Russian empire denoted areas that became the target of economic rather than political conquest, and became integrated in the capitalist system. The role of these colonies in the ‘world division of labour’ was to produce agricultural products for the world market. According to Lenin, Russia found itself in a favourable position with the abundance of free land accessible for colonization in the outer regions.13 If in our current understanding ‘colonialism’ refers to the practice of extending control over peripheral areas, including both the economic exploitation of these areas and the political subordination of indigenous peoples by a minority of foreign settlers, it is important to note that Lenin made no distinction between those parts of Russia inhabited by ethnic Russians and those populated by people from different ethnic backgrounds.14 The Dutch social geographer Henri Nicolaas ter Veen, who wrote a dissertation on the 1851 reclamation of the Haarlemmermeer ‘as an area of colonization’ in 1925, refrained from defining the concept altogether. As late as 1960, the Dutch rural social geographer Adriaan Kees Constandse defined ‘colonization’ as

the settlement of a considerably large number of people, collectively or not, state-controlled or not, in an area, which is unpopulated or inhabited by a population, the land uses of which are different from that intended by the colonist; an area, furthermore, which is clearly, if not geographically then at least psychologically, separated from the former residential area. The colonists aim to create a sustainable community, using the area’s natural resources as the basis for their existence.15

Even when he focused on the emergence of new communities on reclaimed lands in the Netherlands, Constandse’s rather indiscriminate references to foreign examples, such as the settlement of French farmers in Algeria, and his vague qualification of a geographically or psychologically separated area, illustrate that in the minds of those engaged in such schemes, the distinction between ‘overseas colonization’ and ‘internal colonization’ was one of degree rather than substance.

Until the 1960s, contemporaries used the historical concept of ‘internal colonization’ in a non-political, rather technical sense. One of the reasons that this historical term has become problematic and easily leads to confusion is the fact that the principal meaning of ‘colonization’ has changed in modern times, coming to signify ‘the coercive incorporation [of people] into an expansionist state and invidious distinction’.16 People rather than land became the focus of the concept of colonization. From the 1960s onwards, scholars who have employed the concepts of ‘internal colonization’ and ‘internal colonialism’ as analytical concepts have primarily focused on economic exploitation, asymmetrical power relations, and an exclusionist belief in social renewal.

In the 1960s the analytical concept of ‘internal colonialism’ came into vogue among neo-Marxist scholars like Pablo Gonzáles-Casanova, Rodolfo Stavenhagen and Michael Hechter. These authors, among others, used the term to denote a ‘cultural division of labour’ within the boundaries of a state. Initially introduced to explain structural inequalities in the developing world, the concept referred to a system of stratification, which had emerged in decolonized societies and in which class lines and cultural distinctions to a large extent overlapped and mutually reinforced one another.17 The term ‘internal colony’ was then brought back to the West to describe the segregation of African-Americans in the United States and the subordinate position of groups that were perceived to be culturally or ethnically different from hegemonic elites, such as Inuit societies, Scots and Welsh.18 This particular use of the concept has a strong political connotation: ‘internal colony’ in its strongest sense became coterminous with ‘suppressed nation’ and could serve to legitimate demands for greater political power or autonomy.19

In recent years, the ‘colonial’ nature of continental empires like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany has again come into focus, this time under the influence of postcolonial studies. Scholars who see the Soviet Union as a colonial empire emphasize the exploitation of resources in peripheral areas, the exclusion of certain ethnicities from wielding power and the rule of colonial difference, as well as the forced adjustment to ‘European’ norms and standards, all the while highlighting the substantial degree of interaction and mutual influences between metropole and periphery.20 Scholars critical of this perspective have underlined the anticolonial dimension of the Bolshevik Revolution and the modernization mission of the communist regime, which, much like other ‘mobilizational states’, aimed at the homogenization of the population. The ‘civilizing mission’ targeted not only national minorities, but Russian peasants as well; the term used by intellectuals and authors was the ‘self-colonization’ of Russia.21 It has also been argued that local elites did have a stake in modernizing projects and were not excluded from power a priori, but that central economic policies often obstructed regional development and undermined the ideology of modernization.22 A last difference put forward is the degree of coerciveness and direct rule exerted by the Soviet regime, which far surpassed that of colonial empires.23

With regard to Germany, the debate about the ‘colonial’ nature of the Third Reich has taken on several dimensions. First, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism, scholars have examined the extent to which racial doctrines and colonial practices were reimported to Europe and a causal nexus between German colonial violence and the Holocaust can be established.24 In addition to these continuities in terms of ideas, people, and practices, the Nazi regime’s endeavour to ‘reshape Europe as a racial polity by subordinating or destroying the existing mix of nation-states’ has itself been labelled ‘imperial’ and parallels between colonial and Nazi biological racism have been drawn.25

The National Socialist regime relied heavily on the displacement and resettlement of peoples to obtain its ideological objectives, and it placed itself in a long tradition of German settlement in Central Europe. This has raised the question about the ‘colonial’ or ‘proto-fascist’ nature of German internal colonization, both as a discourse and a practice. Scholars like Kristin Kopp, Gregor Thum, David Blackbourn and Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius have all pointed at remarkable similarities in the discourses of internal colonization and European imperialism. Examples are the familiar tropes of ‘empty land’ and ‘wasteland’, which are placed in opposition to ‘cultivated land’ (by Germans), the notion of a ‘social laboratory’ and the depiction of Poles as ‘Indians’ or ‘barbarians’, which all reveal close affinity to the Orientalist discourse of colonial rulers.26 While this particular mind-set may have facilitated or even been a ‘prerequisite’ for the subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe under National Socialism,27 other scholars have warned not to separate colonial discourse from actual practices and institutions, referencing the words of Frederick Cooper: ‘Looking for a “textual colonization” or a “metaphoric constellation” distinct from the institutions through which colonial power is exercised risks making colonialism appear everywhere – and hence nowhere.’28

An additional feature of recent studies on German internal colonization is their narrow focus on Germany. This is explained by their aim to draw out possible connections between Southwest Africa and Germany. At the same time, simultaneous resettlement schemes in Europe and the transfer of ideas, knowledge and practices across national borders, remain outside their scope. As a result, the multifacetedness of this historical phenomenon and the variety of motives underlying it – in Germany as well as elsewhere – have remained underexposed.

The Flexibility of Theories and Practices of Internal Colonization

An amalgam of motives underpinned the widespread practice of internal colonization, which helps to explain its popularity on the left and right, in democratic and non-democratic political contexts alike. Nonetheless, a number of key themes can be discerned. First, internal colonization was seen as a way to increase the nation’s strength and consolidate political control over peripheral, and often disputed, territories. Particularly in places and at stages where national identity seemed most under threat – Sweden after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905, Germany after the forced cession of territories in 1919, for instance – a rhetoric of national struggle accompanied pushes for sustained reclamation efforts. In Germany, settling ethnically German farmers in the East was considered a powerful strategy to halt the ‘Slavic flood’, expropriate Polish landowners and German Junker, and secure national borders. The national-political dimension of internal colonization was not unique to Germany. In southeastern Europe, the redistribution of land was based on similar motives and served ‘nationalization’ purposes as well, as the work of Dietmar Müller shows.29 The Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, whose geopolitical ideas linked the strength of nation-states to the availability and exploitation of natural resources, propagated the establishment of a ‘colonial empire’ and a ‘Greater Sweden’ within state borders. He argued that the ‘reconquest through internal works’ of what had been lost in 1905 should be the central theme of Swedish politics.30 Settling Swedish smallholders in the North would also create an important bulwark against potential Russian aggression.31 The introduction of small-scale agriculture would mean the end to indigenous Sami land use and lifestyle, but many considered this inevitable: colonization and the exploitation of natural resources were considered ‘civilizational works’, wherein ‘inferior’ cultures had to make way for ‘superior’ ones.32

Strengthening the nation also implied improving the ‘quality’ of population. Crowded industrial cities, overseas emigration, declining birth rates, and perceived ‘social degeneration’ were serious concerns, and through programmes of rural resettlements these problems could be countered. Peasants were considered by many to be the cornerstone of a stable society. Firmly bound to the land, peasants would prove resistant to the adverse effects of modern life, insusceptible to radical ideologies and ready to defend the land. Moreover, the high fertility rate in the countryside and other features that supposedly distinguished farmers from their fellow countrymen, such as hardiness and love of the fatherland, made them into a source of national strength.33 Diane Ghirardo, in her book on resettlement schemes in fascist Italy and New Deal America, writes that this general vision of landownership

was buttressed by the conviction that spiritual benefits accrued to those who worked the land; that unemployment would be reduced; that landowners had a greater stake in society and hence were less susceptible to the tide of revolution that gripped Russia and threatened to spread through Europe to the United States.34

This means that the programme of internal colonization always also implied the ‘cultivation’ and improvement of peoples; it was undergirded by a strong belief in the benefits of conquering nature and working the land. The preoccupation with the quality of the population was reflected in the colonization schemes. Stemming from social science, eugenics, and social Darwinist theories, the classification of man translated into a spectrum of suitability. In several countries, such as the United States and Italy, landless labourers were given a plot of land to rid them of their ‘urban, industrial mentality’ to create a new class of smallholders.35 In other cases, the ‘best’ or most loyal colonists, such as war veterans, were selected to ensure the emergence of a ‘healthy’ and politically reliable community of farmers. In Germany, national and (after 1933) racial criteria determined whether a candidate-colonist would be allotted a farm or should be removed from it. In the Netherlands, the social Darwinist ideas of social geographer Henri Nicolaas ter Veen regarding ‘natural selection’ were instrumental in the development of screening procedures. On the basis of professional, educational, psychological and moral criteria, civil servants selected pioneers, whom they expected to grow into an organic polder community, which could serve as a shining example for the rest of the nation.36

Figure 1 

The Noordoostpolder (Northeastern Polder) was the second of four, initially five, polders to be reclaimed in the framework of the Dutch Zuiderzee Works.

Source: Noordoostpolder. Digging ditches by hand. 1941. (Photo collection Nieuw Land, Directie Wieringermeer; H. Nieuwenhuis).

The politics of colonization and land redistribution were closely linked to one of the most pressing questions at the time: the ownership of the land.37 Throughout Europe, the position of the rural population was cause for grave concern, and the rising costs of living, indebtedness and land shortage were major problems. At the same time, the agricultural crisis, the First World War and the subsequent economic breakdown brought home with extra force the importance of a productive agricultural sector and the centrality of food security. A common opinion emerged that pitted the public interest (a productive peasantry) against that of entrepreneurs, industrialists, and large estate owners. Social-reformist motives played an important part in the endorsement of internal colonization by players from across the political spectrum. In Sweden, the introduction of small-scale farming in the North provided an opportunity to weaken the all-powerful position of the timber industry, which owned large tracts of land. In southeastern Europe land reforms were long overdue, and left- and right-wing forces were united in their criticism of large estate owners in the eastern part of Germany. Finally, the reclamation of land in the Netherlands stoked a heated political debate about the most desirable form of landownership to be introduced there, with options ranging from private ownership to nationalized farms.38 Generally speaking, the lands that were targeted for internal colonization were regarded as spaces of exception. Here, more so than on ‘old’ land, political, economic and social reforms could be implemented, which were thought to strengthen national identity and power, enhance agricultural productivity, bring relief to (selected categories of) the rural population, and improve the ‘quality’ of the national community.

This Issue

The case studies presented in this issue highlight the diversity of meanings, objectives, and practices that characterized internal colonization in Europe at the end of the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century. A central feature of the programmes and practices of internal colonization described herein are the two interconnected concepts of developing land (whether by extracting resources or cultivating it), and developing the communities of people who lived on and worked it. In his contribution on the ‘self-colonization’ of Russia, Alexander Etkind shows that nineteenth-century Russian historians appropriated imperial language to describe the process of Russian colonization, and construed it as self-reflexive and internal, rather than as object-directed and external, all the while attaching to it a positive value. A similarly positive judgement was made regarding Dutch cases of land reclamation by German advocates of internal colonization, as the contribution by Elizabeth Jones on the transfer of knowledge and practices across the German-Dutch border demonstrates. While German colonization in the East has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention, this article focuses on northwest Germany, and shows that rural communities in this part of the country were considered ‘backwards’ and, rather than couched in terms of German superiority, were framed in surprisingly Orientalist stereotypes. Programs of internal colonization in Switzerland and the Soviet Union harboured utopian undertones as well. The Swiss food crisis of 1917–1918 gave rise to a lobby that pushed for the cultivation of unused lands, the advocates of which perceived internal colonization as a way to overcome social divisions between city and countryside, consumers and food producers, and left and right, as Daniel Burkhard shows. Jonathan Dekel-Chen shifts our gaze to Jewish agricultural colonization in interwar Soviet Russia, where, he argues, the ‘going back to the land’ movement offered chances for social mobility and promised ‘the rebirth of a strong, self-sufficient and proud Jew (and Jewess), who jettisoned the deprivation and shame of shtetl life in favour of productivization’. The Soviet regime consciously permitted a substantial degree of autonomy to newly settled regions, realizing that it would benefit from the transfer of agricultural knowledge and expertise to the Soviet centre.

The last two contributions broaden the scope of this theme issue by analyzing (re-)settlement schemes in urban areas and extending the temporal focus beyond the Second World War. Rather than reproducing the urban-rural divide employed by their contemporaries, the articles by Håkan Forsell and Stefan Couperus reveal that practices of internal colonization need to be understood within a broader framework of settlement and population policies by the modern interventionist state. The contribution by Forsell shows that the state mining industry in the northern part of Sweden produced similar schemes of settlement and societal modernization in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s these areas returned to a state of urban wasteland. His article reveals the tension inherently present in the dual aims of resource exploitation and societal modernization: of maximizing profits and creating a liveable society. Stefan Couperus takes the theme of this issue one step further, by analyzing population displacement and social re-education schemes in the city of Rotterdam after it had been bombed during the Second World War as a case of ‘internal colonization’. He argues that urban and rural resettlement schemes should be regarded as part of the same set of governmental practices grounded in a strong belief in social progress. Rather than regarding all of these practices as the products of an all-powerful, top-down state, Couperus points at the ambiguity that these projects – disciplinary and aimed at self-assertion at the same time – presented.


It is hoped that this theme issue will convince readers of the relevance of analyzing the objectives that actors (both state and non-state) sought to achieve, and the outcomes of their policies, from a transnational perspective. The selection of case studies presented here lays bare the diversity as well as the unifying strands of the historical phenomenon of internal colonization. Internal colonization was a truly widespread international practice, which led to an exchange of knowledge and expertise across national borders. In all countries, despite their different political contexts, a complex and comparable amalgam of rationales informed resettlement schemes, which explains the broad political and social consensus in favour of colonization projects. Further research on theories and practices of internal colonization should take this into account.

At the same time, a comparative analysis of resettlement schemes should not gloss over important differences in scale and nature. The respective dominance of certain motives, such as eugenic ideas and nationalist exclusion, in public and political debates, and the extent to which these found expression in policies and institutions, needs to be thoroughly investigated. Everywhere, resettlement schemes emerged as examples of social engineering, which were based on diverse categories of inclusion and exclusion. It will be imperative to analyze whether real (as opposed to rhetorical) possibilities existed for those deemed ‘inferior’ – through work, education, or other means – to become part of the ‘cultivated’ world and obtain political, social and cultural rights, or whether no such opportunities were available. A second distinction that needs to be made is the amount of coercion exercized by state authorities: did colonists apply to move voluntarily, or were they forced to resettle by central authorities or by local powers eager to be rid of them?

A comparison of different cases of internal colonization across national borders and in different political contexts will also allow us to shift our focus from expert discourses and grand designs, dominant in recent scholarship on state planning and social engineering, to a comprehensive analysis of both ideas and the actual implementation of grand schemes, including the decision-making processes, the interaction between state, experts, and citizens, and the subsequent adjustment of these schemes. As several of the case studies discussed in the articles of this issue already reveal, planning in practice often involves a significant amount of trial-and-error and planning by doing. An analysis of the factors that contributed to or hampered resettlement schemes – the existence of a robust civil society (in favour of democracy), feedback mechanisms, and countervailing powers, as well as problems on the ground and a shifting self-understanding of the experts involved, to name but a few – will help us to understand why it is that certain schemes became radicalized and increasingly coercive, whereas others were moderated and adjusted, or failed altogether.