The Erasure of People of African Descent in Nazi Germany
Recently, Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer made some peculiar and offensive comments comparing Syrian leader President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks to those of Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler. In attempts to justify Trump’s random missile strikes against Assad, Spicer asserted that what Assad did was completely inhumane—so inhumane that he claimed not even Hitler used chemical weapons against his own people, when in fact he did. Spicer would later on apologize for his Hitler comparison.
His comments were met with much backlash, and many have claimed they were disrespectful to the Jewish community and therefore diminished the horrible plight of the millions of innocent Jewish lives lost at the hands of Hitler and the Nazi regime. What is critical in understanding Spicer’s offensive statement is assessing not only his erasure of the violence enacted on the Jewish community during the Holocaust, but also the effacing of the experiences of Afro-Germans, African-Americans, and persons of African descent during the Nazi era. Both national and global discourses have excluded the narratives about and perspectives on Afro-Germans in German society. While the German constitution forbids racism, prejudice, and other forms of discrimination, there lacks a substantive and stable legal reform on combatting racism, as a “generally accepted definition of racism does not exist in Germany.” The intentional void of state-sanctioned discourses on race in Germany because of the legacy of the Nazi era ignores the historical remnants and current manifestations of systemic racism against Afro-Germans, which is embedded in every facet of German society.
Despite such ostracization throughout history and in the contemporary, Afro-Germans and persons of African descent in Germany have used their agency in overcoming the limiting images of their experiences during Nazi Germany and their overall conditions in contemporary Germany via organizations such as The Black German Cultural Society, The Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany), the Black German Heritage Research Association and ADEFRA, a Black women’s advocacy organization.
Afro-Germans have also been vocal about their history and experiences. In his article, “I Hated Human Zoos — Afro-German Author on Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany,” Afro-German author Theodor Michael recalls growing up under Hitler’s regime. At 92 years old, Michael shared his disturbing experience in a documentary by DW Stories about being forced to appear in human zoos where onlookers touched his hair and rubbed his skin. Fearing every day for his life, especially during the Nazi era, Michael said, “With a face like mine, you can’t hide. But I’ve tried.” In her 2015 memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past, Jennifer Teege discusses how she, an Afro-German woman, accidentally uncovered her family’s Nazi past. After randomly choosing a book from the library, Teege discovered her grandfather was Amon Goeth, a Nazi commander who was known as the “butcher of Płaszów.”
While the main focus of the Nazi legacy has seemingly been centered on the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, stories like Theodor Michael’s and Jennifer Teege’s have been overlooked and subsequently, the lives and stories of Afro-Germans during Nazi Germany have also been absent from the global discourse. However, Clarence Lusane’s book, Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of European Blacks, Africans and African Americans During the Nazi Era, disrupts the one-sided, dominant imagery that violence was only enacted on Jewish peoples during the Nazi era. In his work, Lusane analyzes the violence and racial policies enacted on Afro-Germans and persons of African descent by interviewing black survivors of Nazi concentration camps.
In their article “Making the Black Experience Heard in Germany,” authors Jamie Schearer and Hadija Haruna detailed how during World War II, thousands of African-American GIs occupied Germany and had relationships with German women, thus producing bi-racial or multiracial children. German professor Maria Hoehn also discussed the percentage of Black children birthed to African-American GIs and white women in Germany and how animosity arose from many Euro-Germans surrounding the presence of Black children or Besatzungskinder (occupation children) or “Rhineland bastards” in the country. Hoehn explained:
They would always identify them as ‘Black Occupation children.’ Or as mischling kinder, or mixed-race children. In the immediate postwar period, there were over 90,000 babies born of American soldiers, and about three-and-a-half thousands of them were African American. What is interesting is that almost the whole focus of the debate on occupation children was on those black children rather than the larger group of children.”
Moreover, in Adolf Hitler’s 1925 autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), he explicitly outlines his views about “Negroes” in Germany and his distaste for the biracial children who were products of African-German relations. Hitler writes:
Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate. […] The mulatto children came about through rape or the white mother was a whore…In both cases, there is not the slightest moral duty regarding these offspring of a foreign race.”
Adopting U.S. idealisms of eugenics and scientific experimentation on marginalized communities, the Nazis would also enforce forced sterilization, abortions, and other racial policies against Afro-Germans, persons of African descent, and occupation children under the Nürnberg Laws. While the original 1933 Nürnberg Laws did not include persons of African descent in their clauses, the laws would later evolve to be inclusive of them, as “the Afro-German community was ‘a thorn in the Nazi’s eye, and bizarrely linked in Hitler’s mind to the Jews.’” Countless Afro-Germans, persons of African descent, and even African-Americans were persecuted during the Nazi era, including Hilarius Gilges, Valaida Snow, Jean Marcel Nicolas, Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, Gert Schramm, and Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed, “who made history in Germany when he became the first black person to be given a memorial in his adopted country as an individual victim of the genocide of the Third Reich.”
Not only was there Nazi persecution of Afro-Germans and persons of African descent domestically in Germany, but also abroad on the continent of Africa as well. A 2016 New York Times article titled “Germany Grapples With Its African Genocide” by Norimitsu Onishi noted that during Germany’s colonial rule in Namibia, forced sterilization was used as an attempt to exterminate two ethnic groups in the country, the Herero and Nama. According to Onishi, while “the events in Namibia between 1904 and 1908 foreshadowed Nazi ideology and the Holocaust, the genocide in this former colony remains little known in Germany, the rest of Africa and, to some extent, even in Namibia itself.”
Although Germany has tried to grapple with its racist, discriminatory, and xenophobic past, it continues to facilitate advanced marginalization against Black Germans, as there is still a flawed political framework in prohibiting and addressing what Philomena Essed calls “everyday racisms.”1 This intentional neglect continues to perpetuate racial indifference, racial silence, Afrophobia, and cultural homogeneity, which promotes and perceives European societies as only phenotypically and culturally white. Furthermore, the lack of cultural representations and imagery of Afro-Germans further advances their marginalization in media, academic, and socio-political paradigms, as stereotypical uses of Blackface still linger and hate crimes against Afro-Germans and persons of African descent are pervasive.
Stuart Hall’s theory of the politics of representation and his notions of “image regimes” and imagery as a form of domination can certainly be applied to the Afro-German context, as images that are untrue become “true” discourses when connected to power and therefore perpetuate structural racism and chronic disparities. However, Hall also asserts images can be used by marginalized groups as forms of resistance in challenging hegemonic orders that promote racism, segregationism, and discriminatory imagery, rhetoric, and policies. For Afro-Germans to be recognized structurally and discursively, it is imperative they continue to advocate for their humanity and counter such imagery that attempts to render their stories and plight inferior—especially in the context of Nazi Germany.
- In her book Understanding Everyday Racism-An Interdisciplinary Theory (1991), Essed defines everyday racisms as “the integration of racism into everyday situations through practices (cognitive and behavioral) that activate underlying power relations” (40) ↩
Comments on “The Erasure of People of African Descent in Nazi Germany”
Thanks for a terrific article. Take a look at DESTINED TO WITNESS:GROWING UP BLACK IN NAZI GERMANY by Hans Massaquoi (Harper Collins, 2009) Massaquoi became the managing editor if Ebony. The best kind of memoir, full of detail, insight and intelligence.
I was also going to recommend that book as well.
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