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Black People in Nazi Germany


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Hans J. Massaquoi


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the photograph taken in 1933 of a brown-skinned boy wearing a swastika in a schoolyard in Hamburg, Germany, does not begin to tell the story of the remarkable life of Hans J. Massaquoi. Mr. Massaquoi, former managing editor of Ebony magazine, has now told the story himself in his new book, Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.

"When I first heard about the book, I stopped in my tracks," said Yvonne Poser, associate professor of German at Howard University, who interviewed Mr. Massaquoi in the Pickford Theater on Feb. 16 as part of the Library's African American History Month program. "His is a victim's story that had yet to be told."

The question of how Massaquoi came to be raised in Nazi Germany is one he has been asked "millions of times." Grandson of the Liberian consul general to Hamburg, Mr. Massaquoi was born in 1926 to a well-to-do African father and a German mother. His early life was one of privilege, befitting the grandson of a diplomat.

"I associated black skin with superiority, since our servants were white," said Mr. Massaquoi. "My grandfather was 'the man,'" he joked.

His circumstances changed dramatically when his father and grandfather returned to Liberia in 1929. Refusing to expose her sickly son to a tropical climate, Mr. Massaquoi's mother chose instead to raise her son in Germany as best she could on her meager wages as a nurse's aide.

Although he had spent his early years in a villa, Mr. Massaquoi at first found life in a cold-water flat "interesting." What distressed him most was being the "oddity on the block."

"It was a constant problem," he said. "I was always pointed at because of my exotic looks. I just wanted to be like everyone else." Like other boys, he wanted nothing more than to join the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth Movement).

"The Nazis put on the best show of all the political parties. There were parades, fireworks and uniforms — these were the devices by which Hitler won over young people to his ideas. Hitler always boasted that despite parents' political persuasion, Germany's youth belonged to him."

Mr. Massaquoi was dealt a crushing blow when he learned that the Hitlerjugend as well as the local playground were not open to "non-Aryans."

Two events that occurred during the summer of 1936 gave him "a genuine pride in my African heritage at a time when such pride was extremely difficult to come by." Two young black American athletes, boxer Joe Louis and Olympic runner Jesse Owens, dominated the news. Mr. Massaquoi initially supported Germany's Max Schmeling, who was scheduled to fight Louis but quickly switched his allegiance to "the Brown Bomber" in the wake of racist remarks attributed to Schmeling. His classmates had taken to calling him "Joe," which gave him welcomed prestige.

"I think I was more crushed than Louis when he lost to Schmeling," joked Mr. Massaquoi. In a rematch several months later, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round.

Mr. Massaquoi took similar pride in Jesse Owens's now legendary performance at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. He had the good fortune to be included when the father of one of his classmates took a group of boys to the games. The triumph of a "non-Aryan" over German athletes was not what Hitler hoped to capture on film when he commissioned German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to make a documentary of the Olympic games.

Years later, while working as a journalist, Mr. Massaquoi met Owens and Louis and thanked them "for allowing me to walk a little taller among my peers that summer."

As he grew to adulthood, Mr. Massaquoi was barred from joining the German military, pursuing an education or a preparing for a professional career. Instead he became a machinist's apprentice. After World War II, he immigrated to the United States on a student visa. Although not a citizen, he was ordered to report for military service because of a clerical error and served for two years as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborn Division during the Korean War. He subsequently took advantage of the GI bill and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, which paved the way for a nearly 40-year career at Ebonymagazine.

Asked how he survived Hitler's reign of terror, Mr. Massaquoi credits two factors. The fact that there were so few blacks in Germany at the time made them a low priority for mass extermination. Additionally, the rapid advance of the allied troops gave Hitler "more to worry about than Hans Massaquoi."

What does he think about Germany today? "I love it. It's my homeland." His opinion of Joerg Haider, the newly elected leader of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party whose views have been likened to the Nazis, is far different: "He must be repudiated. The whole world must show that we won't tolerate this type of ideology." (Mr. Haider has since resigned as his party's chairman.)

Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.

Black People in Nazi Germany

Blacks and the armed forces Soldiers of the Free Arabian Legion in Greece, September 1943.

The treatment of blacks in Nazi Germany was generally indifferent. The black race was deemed inferior to the Aryan race, but there was no official government policy implemented towards blacks, unlike against, for example, Jews. The same was true for encounters with or against blacks by the Wehrmacht. When engaging blacks in a larger number for the first time, the German soldiers perceived them as extremely foreign. German propaganda depicted black soldiers as animal savages, leading to extreme prejudices against them by German soldiers. German commanders in higher ranks did not implement or ordered any special treatment for them, but spoiled by the concepts of the "race war", several massacres occured against black POW's, especially in the 1940 campaign in France. This happened especially to the darker people of Equatorial Africa, while the people from North-Africa with a ligher skin tone were more likly to be spared or treated as normal POWs.

On the other hand, a number of blacks served in the Wehrmacht. The number of German blacks was low, but there were some instances of them beeing enlisted within Nazi organisations like the HJ and later the Wehrmacht. In addition, there was an influx of volunteers during the African or Caucasian campaign, which led to the existence of a number of blacks in the Wehrmacht and SS in such units as the Free Arabian Legion.



Nazi propaganda photo depicts friendship between an "Aryan" and a black woman. The caption states: "The result! A loss of racial pride." Germany, prewar.

— United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The fate of black people from 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany and in German-occupied territories ranged from isolation to persecution, sterilization, medical experimentation, incarceration, brutality, and murder. However, there was no systematic program for their elimination as there was for Jews and other groups.

After World War I, the Allies stripped Germany of its African colonies. The German military stationed in Africa (Schutztruppen), as well as missionaries, colonial bureaucrats, and settlers, returned to Germany and took with them their racist attitudes. Separation of whites and blacks was mandated by the Reichstag (German parliament), which enacted a law against mixed marriages in the African colonies.

Following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the victorious Allies occupied the Rhineland in western Germany. The use of French colonial troops, some of whom were black, in these occupation forces exacerbated anti-black racism in Germany. Racist propaganda against black soldiers depicted them as rapists of German women and carriers of venereal and other diseases. The children of black soldiers and German women were called “Rhineland Bastards.” The Nazis, at the time a small political movement, viewed them as a threat to the purity of the Germanic race. In Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler charged that “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.”

African German mulatto children were marginalized in German society, isolated socially and economically, and not allowed to attend university. Racial discrimination prohibited them from seeking most jobs, including service in the military. With the Nazi rise to power they became a target of racial and population policy. By 1937, the Gestapo (German secret state police) had secretly rounded up and forcibly sterilized many of them. Some were subjected to medical experiments; others mysteriously “disappeared.”

The racist nature of Adolf Hitler's regime was disguised briefly during the Olympic Games in Berlin in August 1936, when Hitler allowed 18 African American athletes to compete for the U.S. team. However, permission to compete was granted by the International Olympic Committee and not by the host country.

Adult African Germans were also victims. Both before and after World War I, many Africans came to Germany as students, artisans, entertainers, former soldiers, or low-level colonial officials, such as tax collectors, who had worked for the imperial colonial government. Hilarius (Lari) Gilges, a dancer by profession, was murdered by the SS in 1933, probably because he was black. Gilges' German wife later received restitution from a postwar German government for his murder by the Nazis.

Some African Americans, caught in German-occupied Europe during World War II, also became victims of the Nazi regime. Many, like female jazz artist Valaida Snow, were imprisoned in Axis internment camps for alien nationals. The artist Josef Nassy, living in Belgium, was arrested as an enemy alien and held for seven months in the Beverloo transit camp in German-occupied Belgium. He was later transferred to Germany, where he spent the rest of the war in the Laufen internment camp and its subcamp, Tittmoning, both in Upper Bavaria.

European and American blacks were also interned in the Nazi concentration camp system. Lionel Romney, a sailor in the U.S. Merchant Marine, was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Jean Marcel Nicolas, a Haitian national, was incarcerated in the Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau concentration camps in Germany. Jean Voste, an African Belgian, was incarcerated in the Dachau concentration camp. Bayume Mohamed Hussein from Tanganyika (today Tanzania) died in the Sachsenhausen camp, near Berlin.

Black prisoners of war faced illegal incarceration and mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, who did not uphold the regulations imposed by the Geneva Convention (international agreement on the conduct of war and the treatment of wounded and captured soldiers). Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, an African American pilot, was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison in Butzbach. Black soldiers of the American, French, and British armies were worked to death on construction projects or died as a result of mistreatment in concentration or prisoner-of-war camps. Others were never even incarcerated, but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo.

Some African American members of the U.S. Armed forces were liberators and witnesses to Nazi atrocities. The 761st Tank Battalion (an all-African American tank unit), attached to the 71st Infantry Division, U.S. Third Army, under the command of General George Patton, participated in the liberation of Gunskirchen, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, in May 1945.


Black Germans


Around 5,000 Black people, mainly men, lived in Germany in 1933. Most of them came from German colonies in Africa. Some were married to German women and had children with them.


The Nazis were unsure how to treat their Black residents. Although they were considered to be inferior, they only formed a very small group of people. But Nazi propaganda was also aimed at Black people. Germans were told that marrying a black person was betraying one’s race.


Eventually, more than three thousand Black Germans were put into concentration camps. Most of them were not arrested because of the color of their skin, but because they were Communists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or because they played forbidden jazz music.

The so-called « Rhineland bastards »


France occupied the German Rhineland after the First World War. The French occupation army included Black soldiers from the French colonies. Some of these men had children with German women. These children were known as the "Rhineland bastards." The Nazis thought it was scandalous that White German woman could have children with Black soldiers from an enemy army. In 1937, 385 of these children were rounded up and sterilized in clinics. They would never be able to have children.

1936 Olympic games


The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were supposed to be a showcase for German "Aryan" racial superiority. Open racism towards Jews, Gypsies and Blacks was hidden for a short time. Germany did win the most Gold medals during the games, but many Black athletes performed extremely well. Among them were eighteen African-Americans. The most famous was Jesse Owens, who unpleasantly surprised Hitler and the Nazis by winning some of the most important track and field events. He embarrassed famous Nazi athletes by winning four gold medals, including the 100 meter dash.

Contributor: bgill
Created: October 15, 2011 · Modified: October 15, 2011

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