photo of Afro-German Hans Massaquoi wearing swastika at Nazi parade, a surviving member of Germany's tiny black minority during the Third Reich
The fate of black people from 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany and inGerman-occupied territories ranged from isolation to persecution, sterilization, medical experimentation, incarceration, brutality, and murder.--United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
When Nazism swept through Germany in the 1930s, culminating in the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler, strict racial policies were enforced. Deemed "inferior" peoples—Jews, Gypsies (Roma), the mentally infirm and others—were segregated or rounded up, some eventually facing the horrors of the concentration camps. Millions would die in places like Buchenwald or Dachau, brutally worked to death or methodically exterminated under the Nazi regime's "Final Solution."
In the middle of this repressive fascist genocidal state lived a most unlikely, and often forgotten, distinct minority— Germany's black population, numbering at anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states, "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." In the midst of a society that glorified the racial science of white supremacy, this small population faced oppression at every turn, and struggled to survive.
Nazi propaganda photo depicts friendship between an "Aryan" and a black woman. The caption states: "The result! A loss of racial pride."
The origins of Nazi Germany's overall black population were diverse. Some could be traced back to World War I, when French troops occupied the German border region of the Rhineland. Some of these troops were black, from France's colonies in Africa, known to the Germans as "Neger." For Germans, who had lost their own colonies in Africa, the placement of black soldiers on their land was considered a purposeful insult by the French. Their presence became known as the "Black Disgrace," part of the grievances of Germany's "national humiliation" after the loss of WWI. Yet despite these racist sentiments, some German women openly consorted or even married soldiers from the occupying forces. The children of these African and German unions became derogatorily known as the "Rhineland Bastards," and would become even more hated than their black fathers.
The emerging Nazi party would exploit these anti-black sentiments in their racial propaganda. In Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, considered the founding literary treatise of the Nazi ideology, he described these bi-racial children as an "insult to Germany," and called German women who had bore them unfit and unclean, whores and prostitutes. Typical of Nazi propaganda, black existence and culture among Germans was placed as a fault of Jews. "The Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland," Hitler charged, "with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily resulting bastardization."
slide for a lecture on genetics and race at the State Academy for Race and Health in Dresden shows the Black offspring of a German womanand an African colonial soldier stationed with French troops occupying the Rhineland after World War I. Some 500 teenagers--pejoratively called the "Rhineland bastards"--were forcibly sterilized after 1937 as part of Nazi policy to "purify" the German population. Ca. 1936. Library of Congress
Most of the small black population however was the result of children ofGerman settlers and missionaries in the former African colonies, or blacks that had voluntarily immigrated to Germany for varied reasons. One of these was Hans Massaquoi. His mother was a German woman, Bertha Nikodijevic, while his father, Al-Haj Massaquoi, was a Liberian law student in Dublin, living with the consul general. When his father was recalled to Liberia, Massaquoi and his mother remained in Germany. In his autobiography, Destined to Witness, he described his childhood and youth in Hamburg, Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. One of the few black children in Nazi Germany, like the other kids his age, he at first admired the Nazis, attending their lavish parades, wearing Nazi paraphernalia, and even aspiring to join the Hitler Youth.
These dreams were abruptly halted however, as the racist nature of Nazism was made plain to him. As he grew older, Massaquoi would find his life increasingly marginalized, as his skin color made him a visible target for racism. During World War II, he did not have to serve in the German army, as by matter of Nazi law he was considered "impure." Unable however to find unemployment under the harsh conditions of Nazi repression, hunger and poverty led him to try to enlist in the German army, but he was rejected.
Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi growing up in Nazi Era Hamburg
Yet Massaquoi's life of economic and social marginalization was still better than many other blacks living under the Nazi regime. TheNazi scientist Eugene Fischer took a particular interest in the so-called "Rhineland Bastards." As fears of "miscegenation" dominated Nazi racial ideology, Fischer logically concluded these bi-racial children should be sterilized in order to protect the blood purity of the German people.
Perhaps up to 500 of these children (teenagers at the time) were rounded up by the Nazi regime and forcibly sterilized in the Rhineland by 1938, under a 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Defects. It has been alleged—though not confirmed—that other teens were simply "disappeared." During that time, as Nazi Germany was still trying to hide its larger racial extremist aims from the world, the Rhineland sterilization order was kept secret and only carried out in that region. This probably explains why the larger majority of black Germans were largely unaffected.
Both before and after World War I, many blacks—usually from African colonies—came to Germany as students, artisans, entertainers, former soldiers, or low-level colonial officials, such as tax collectors, who had worked for the German colonial government. Many of the entertainers would work for groups like the Hillerkus Afrikaschau, a traveling performance troupe of black and bi-racial performers and entertainers. By 1940 however these groups came under the control of the Nazi SS, who considered them racially unacceptable. Rather than being destroyed however, they were co-opted for Nazi propaganda.
Racist Nazi propaganda casting Jews as the impure "bastard" offspring of various types of Africans and Southwest Asians.
Many black entertainers would end up working as film actors for the German Ministry of Propaganda run by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, a keyarchitect of the Nazi regime considered to be part of Hitler's inner circle. Propaganda films such as Kongo Express, Quax in Africa, and Auntie Wanda from Uganda portrayed Germany as an enlightened, benevolent colonial power. Others did their best to support notions of German Aryan supremacy and racial purity.
Bizarrely, because of the power of Goebbels, these troupes provided a certain amount of protection for black entertainers. Black actor Werner Egoimue of the time explained, "We had an agent then, who had all the addresses of black people in Berlin. The Reich's Chamber of Commerce was in touch with him, and when they were casting a film, it was fun—inside the studio. Outside the door you could be arrested. But inside you were as safe as in a bank."
However such "safety" was at the whim of the Nazi regime. While blacks may have been used for propaganda films, black entertainment and culture as a whole was seen as inferior and polluting- especially jazz music and swing, which was claimed to be the foreign importation of Jews. The fate of Lari Gilges was a case in point in this attitude towards black art. A dancer by profession, Lari Gilges was a black entertainer who founded the Northwest Rann—an organization of entertainers that spoke out against the Nazis in his home town of Dusseldorf. For his activism, and his skin color, Gilges was brutally murdered by the SS in 1933, the same year Hitler came to power.
Nazi era propaganda portraying a racist caricature of black jazz singer with a "Jewish star" on his lapel, labeled as "degenerateentertainment."
Other blacks would find themselves the victims of worst brutalities ofNazi oppression as well, particularly those who engaged in active resistance against Nazi occupation in foreign lands—like the Surinamese Anton de Kom, who died in a concentration camp after being arrested as a participant in the Dutch resistance—or black French, British and American soldiers captured or shot down by the Nazis, who were often inhumanely treated as POWs.
Yet, for Germany's black inhabitants, there was no systematic campaign of targeted extermination carried out against them. Though the reasons seem unclear, historian Susan Stamples suggests that due to their small numbers, they may have not been considered a threat, and therefore not incarcerated on a mass scale. For those who even went through the horrors of forced sterilization, there was still the harsh understanding that the Nazis were capable of much worse. "We were lucky that we weren't victims of euthanasia," said black German Hans Hauck, "we were only sterilized." Instead these blacks existed in a state of extreme marginalization, and understood that each moment was a calculated risk at survival.
Massaquoi, Hans. Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany (2001).
Okuefuna, D. and Moise Shuwa. Hitler's Forgotten Victims [documentary] (1997).
Samples, S. "African Germans in the Third Reich" in The African German Experience, Critical Essays, ed. Carol Aisah Blackshire-Belay (1997)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Blacks During the Holocaust" Holocaust Enyclopedia.