Afro-Germans during the Holocaust
The Nazi German regime did not have an organized program to eliminate African Germans. However, the regime discriminated against and persecuted them. Some Black people in Germany and German-occupied territories were isolated; an unknown number were sterilized, incarcerated, or murdered.
Nazi persecution of Afro-Germans occurred despite their relatively small presence in Germany.
The Nazis forcibly sterilized a group of Afro-German children whom they derogatorily called “the Rhineland Bastards.” Most of these children were the progeny of French colonial troops from Africa that were stationed in the Rhineland region after World War I.
Black people fought against Nazi Germany in World War II as members of the Allied militaries. Some of them were held as prisoners of war.
Afro-German Children in the Rhineland
Following World War I, the victorious Allies occupied the Rhineland in western Germany. The use of French colonial troops, some of whom were Black, in these occupation forces heightened anti-Black racism in Germany. Racist propaganda against Black soldiers falsely depicted them as rapists of German women and carriers of venereal and other diseases. The German press derogatorily referred to the children of Black soldiers and German women as the “Rhineland Bastards.”
The Nazis viewed Afro-Germans—children with one African parent and one German parent—as a threat to the purity of the Germanic race. In his 1925 autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Adolf 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.”
Nazi Persecution of Afro-Germans
Once the Nazi regime came to power, Afro-Germans were marginalized in German society, isolated socially and economically, and not allowed to attend university. Racial discrimination prohibited them from seeking most jobs. By the end of 1937, the Gestapo had secretly rounded up and forcibly sterilized many Afro-Germans. Some were subjected to medical experiments; others mysteriously “disappeared.”
In addition to being persecuted for their race, Afro-Germans were persecuted for other reasons. For example, Hilarius Gilges was an Afro-German dancer and Communist activist from Düsseldorf, Germany. Nazis murdered him on June 20, 1933, for his politics, as well as his race. Today, Hilarius Gilges Platz in Düsseldorf memorializes Gilges as a victim of Nazi terror.
African Americans Under the Nazis
In the 1920s before the Nazis came to power, some African Americans traveled to Weimar Germany (1918–1933), where they could freely eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, go to the theater, and perform at mainstream venues. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany was no longer safe or appealing for African Americans. The Nazi German regime was explicitly racist, which included a wholesale rejection of African American culture, such as jazz and swing music that were increasingly popular at the time.
African Americans Interned as American Citizens
After Nazi Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, many American citizens were interned throughout Germany and German-occupied Europe as enemy aliens. This included some African Americans.
The portrait artist Josef Nassy was a Black expatriate artist of Jewish descent who held a US passport. In 1942, he was arrested in German-occupied Belgium as an enemy alien. He was interned 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. Conditions in these camps were much better than in concentration camps. Nassy painted and taught painting lessons. By early 1945, 850 men holding American and British passports, including a dozen Black men, were interned at Laufen and Tittmoning.
Black Prisoners of War
Black people fought against Nazi Germany in World War II as members of the Allied militaries. Black prisoners of war faced imprisonment and mistreatment at the hands of the German military, 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). 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 incarcerated, but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo.
African American Soldiers as Liberators
Despite segregation in the military at the time, more than one million African Americans served in the US Armed Forces during World War II. Some African American members of the US 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, US 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.
After battling for freedoms and defending democracy worldwide, African American soldiers returned home in 1945 only to find themselves faced with the existing prejudice and “Jim Crow” laws.
Series: Experiences of Black People during the Holocaust and World War II
Critical Thinking Questions
- How was the treatment of Black people in Germany similar to the campaign against the Jews, and how was it different?
- Investigate the history of Black people serving in the military of your country. When were they allowed to enlist? What obstacles did they face?