When we think of German history, most of our thoughts tend to focus on the Second World War, and more specifically, the Holocaust. To be candid, I am yet to meet someone who has never heard of the atrocities that the Nazis committed against the Jews between 1933 and 1945, or how the Allied forces came to Europe’s rescue – freeing the continent (and as some would say, the world at large) from Nazism. What I find hard to understand is that even though one of Hitler’s main motivations and goals was to win back the colonies, which were lost after Germany’s defeat in World War One (most of which were black and in Africa), our memory of the war still tends to be limited to Europe and the Holocaust.
As part of my PhD, which looks into the representation and the potential use or abuse of Shakespeare’s plays in Nazi Germany, I look into various ‘Othello’ productions in the Reich. Looking into the performance of a celebrated black general, who eventually murders a white woman on the Nazi stage inevitably led me to look closer into the treatment and situation of black people in Nazi Germany.
How many were there? What happened to them? We know that the Jews had to wear the Star of David to be identified as Jews. Were black people required to do something similar? Or were they already visibly marked by the colour of their skin? Were Non-German Blacks treated the same way that German Blacks were treated? How about people from the former German colonies? The list of questions goes on…
Before going off on a tangent (I tend to do that when I talk about my research), I wanted to somewhat summarise what I’ve found out about black people in Germany so far and share some of the books that I’ve read, which have helped me learn more about this less well known part of history.
Black People in Germany during World War One
Already before the Nazi era, black people were essential to the war effort during World War One (for more information on black soldiers fighting during World War One see: ‘The World’s War. Forgotten Soldiers of Empire’, by David Olusoga). Germany had colonies in Africa and a good number of people from the colonies had been living in relative comfort in the country. The colonies were taken from Germany after they lost World War One and that resentment towards the European forces who defeated Germany and thus ‘deprived’ them of their colonies had serious repercussions for people of African descent in Germany after Hitler came to power.
While, for example, Cameroonians who lived in Germany were previously considered citizens of the German Reich (and benefitted from much of the same rights as other Germans, except from their right to vote), the Nazis stripped them of their German citizenship and made them stateless. The reasoning behind this was simple: since the colonies no longer belonged to Germany, its people no longer had a place in German society. Looking back, however, and knowing how intrinsically linked White (Aryan) supremacy was to Nazi ideology I personally don’t believe that non Aryans of any kind (let alone Blacks) would have had the same rights (and privileges) that Aryans had, even if Germany was allowed to keep hold of her colonies.
Black Survivors of the Nazi Period
Firstly, there were indeed black people in Germany before the Nazi period. I wonder why people always assume that there could not have been any black people in Germany during the Weimar Republic and especially during the Third Reich. It reminds me of the misconception that people have about Britain and how black people only started arriving during the ‘Windrush period’ – if that is you, I suggest you read David Olusoga’s ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’.
Secondly, there were black people in Nazi Germany, and while many survived the horrors of the period, many were also persecuted – either sterilised, interned into labour camps, or killed. Some of the people who survived this period include Theodor Michael and Hans J. Massaquoi – two mixed race men whose accounts of events, I have had the privilege to read.
Theodor Michael’s memoir is called ‘Deutsch Sein und Schwarz Dazu’ / ‘Black German: an Afro-German Life in the Twentieth Century’.
Hans J. Massaquoi’s book about his childhood in Nazi Germany is titled: ‘Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger’ / ‘Destined to Witness. Growing up Black in Nazi Germany’.
‘Hitler’s Black Victims’
Another insightful book about the treatment and fates of black people in Nazi Germany is Clarence Lusane’s ‘Hitler’s Black Victims’. Lusane writes in an accessible style and his book is full of information. He enlightens his readers about the often contradictory stances of the regime and of Hitler himself about the black people that were present in Germany. He also explains, at length, the repercussions of the post-World War One occupation of Germany by French and Belgian forces, which included a good number of black soldiers (and which were recruited from the countries’ respective colonies).
The offspring of German mothers and those black soldiers, later on called ‘Rheinlandbastards’ (Rheinland is an area in Germany), experienced terrible treatment after the Nazis had come to power. They considered themselves to be Germans but were not accepted as thus, mainly because of their ‘non-Aryan’ (White, European) status and because they served as unwelcome reminders of Germany’s defeat and occupation after World World One. Many of those mixed children were sterilised and sent to camps. A few days after Hitler’s rise to power, one of his main henchmen Hermann Göring commissioned an enquiry into the number of mixed race children that were living in the Rheinland area, to be able to come up with the most efficient way to get rid of them. The mothers of those children also experienced discrimination and persecution, since miscegenation was considered a serious crime and was widely regarded as ‘Rassenschande’ (racial shame). By having children with black soldiers, these women were seen as traitors of the ‘Fatherland’.
The Long History of Genocide(s) committed by Germans
Talking about Hermann Göring, his family was not just heavily involved in the Third Reich, but his father was already active in German Southwest Africa where the Germans tried, tested, and perfected what would later become the well-known concentration camps on the Nama and Herero peoples.
This part of German history is often forgotten and overlooked. While Germany has tried to make amends for what happened in the Holocaust (in the form of apologies, reparations, monuments, etc.), the German government has hardly even acknowledged this earlier Holocaust, let alone atoned for it. An amazing book about the genocide of the Nama and Herero people in what is nowadays Namibia is by David Olusoga and Caspar Erichsen: ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust. Germany’s Forgotten Genocide’.
I am still at the beginning of my research into black German history, and due to the nature of my PhD research, my focus has largely been on the Nazi period and a little before that. If you’re interested in more resources on the topic and the period, comment below and I’ll get in touch with you (I can’t share everything in one post, since it would just be too much).
With this post I wanted to give a brief insight into black history in Germany, what I’ve read and learned about it so far, but of course, there is so much more out there, more than could ever fit into one post. The point is, however, that black history is not limited to slavery or the slave trade, it is not limited to British or French imperialism. Black history is rich and diverse, and, more often than not, it is the story of extreme resilience in the face of unimaginable and continuous suffering, oppression and persecution. Black history in Germany and across Europe is definitely there, we just need to look for it, talk about it, research it, and share it, because the powers that be are most likely not going to offer it up on a platter of gold.