Afro-Germans before 1933
After World War I, the Allies stripped Germany of its African colonies. The German military stationed in Africa, known as the Schutztruppen, as well as missionaries, colonial bureaucrats, and settlers, returned to Germany with racist attitudes. Separation of white people and black people 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 heightened 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.”
Nazi Perceptions of People of African Descent
The Nazis, at the time a small political movement, viewed the “Rhineland Bastards” as a threat to the purity of the Germanic race. In his autobiography, 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 (a person of mixed white and black ancestry) 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 had secretly rounded up and forcibly sterilized many of them. Some were subjected to medical experiments; others mysteriously “disappeared.”
Influence of Black Artists in Culture
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.
In the early 1920s, African American jazz artists could not break through the racial divide in the US, so they took to Europe where they could perform with ever-growing popularity. The cultural movement of this music threatened the expansion of Nazi ideology, which held this music to be immoral. By the mid-1930s Nazi authorities banned all foreign, non-Aryan music in Germany, but the campaign to rid the country of jazz did not stop American artists from going abroad to share their art. The portrait 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.
Black Prisoners of War
Black Europeans and Americans were also interned in the Nazi concentration camp system. 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.
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. Despite segregation in the military at the time, more than one million African Americans were fighting for the US Armed Forces on the homefront, in Europe, and in the Pacific by 1945. 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.
Series: Black People During the Holocaust
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?