The Forgotten Blacks of Germany
September 19, 2009
Did you know that in the 1920s there were 24,000 blacks living in Germany? Neither did I. Here's how it happened and how many of them were eventually caught unawares by the events of the Holocaust. Like most West European nations, Germany established colonies in Africa in the late 1800s in what later became Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, and Tanzania.
German genetic experiments began there most notably involving prisoners taken from the 1904 Heroro Massacre that left 60,000 Africans dead following a 4 year revolt of German colonization. After the shellacking Germany received in World War I, it was stripped of its African colonies in 1918. As a spoil of war, the French were allowed to occupy Germany in the Rhineland, a bitter piece of real estate that has gone back and forth between the two nations for centuries. The French willfully deployed their own colonized African soldiers as the occupying force. Germans viewed this as the final insult of World War I. Soon thereafter 92% of them voted in the Nazi party.
Hundreds of these African Rhineland-based soldiers intermarried with German women and raised their children as Black Germans. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote about his plans for these "Rhineland Bastards". When he came to power, one of his first directives was aimed at these mixed children.
Underscoring his obsession with racial purity, by 1937, every identified mixed race child in the Rhineland had been forcibly sterilized to prevent further " race polluting" as he termed it. Hans Hauck, a Black Holocaust survivor and a victim of Hitler's mandatory sterilization program, explained in the film that when he was forced to undergo sterilization as a teenager, he was given no anesthetic. Once he received his sterilization certificate, he was "free to go" so long as he agreed to have no sexual relations whatsoever with Germans.
Although most Black Germans attempted to escape their fatherland, heading for France where people like Josephine Baker were steadily aiding and supporting the French underground, many ran into problems elsewhere. Nations shut its doors to Germans, including the Black ones. Some Black Germans were able to eke out a living during Hitler 's reign of terror by performing in vaudeville shows.
But many Blacks, steadfast in their belief that they were German first, Black second, opted to remain in Germany . Some fought with the Nazis (a few even became Lutwaffe pilots!). Unfortunately, many Black Germans were arrested, charged with treason, and shipped in cattle cars to concentration camps. Often these trains were so charged with people (equipped with no bathroom facilities or food) that after the four day journey, box car doors opened to piles of the dead and dying.
Once in the concentration camps, Blacks were given the worst jobs conceivable. Some Black American soldiers who were captured and held as prisoners of war recounted that while they were starved an forced into dangerous labor (violating the Geneva Convention), they were still better off than Black German concentration camp detainees who were forced to do the unthinkable: man the crematoriums and work in labs where genetic experiments were carried out. As a final sacrifice, these Blacks were killed every three months so that they would never be able to reveal the inner workings of the Final Solution. In every story of Black oppression, no matter how enslaved, enshackled or beaten, we are, we find a way to survive and rescue others. Case in point, was Johnny Voste, a Belgian Resistance fighter who was arrested in 1942 for sabotage and shipped to Dachau. One of his jobs was stacking vitamin crates. Risking his own life, he distributed hundreds of vitamins to camp detainees, which saved the lives of many because they were starving, weak, and ill, conditions exacerbated by extreme vitamin-deficiencie s. His motto was: 'No, you can't have my life: I will fight for it.'
According to Essex University's Delroy Constantine- Simms, there were Black Germans who resisted Nazi Germany, such as Lari Gilges, who founded the Northwest Rann -- an organization of entertainers that fought the Nazis in his home town of Dusseldorf -- and who was murdered by the SS in 1933, the year Hitler came to power.
Little information remains about the numbers of Black Germans held in the camps or killed under the Nazi regime. Some victims of the Nazi sterilization project and Black survivors of the Holocaust are still alive and telling their story in films such as Black Survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. But they must also speak out for justice, not just history. Unlike Jews (in Israel and in Germany), Black Germans receive no war reparations because their German citizenship was revoked (though they were German-born) . The only pension they get is from those of us who are willing to tell the world their stories and continue their battle for recognition and compensation.
After the war, scores of Blacks who had somehow managed to survive the Nazi regime were rounded up and tried as war criminals. Talk about the final insult. There are thousands of Black Holocaust stories from the triangle trade, to slavery in America, to the gas ovens in Germany. We often shy away from hearing about our historical past because so much of it is painful. However, we are in this struggle together for rights, dignity, and yes, reparations for wrongs done to us through the centuries. We need to always remember so that we can take steps to ensure that these things never happen again.
Read on: Destined to Witness : Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, by Hans J. Massaquoi; written by A. Tolbert, III