CAT | Afro-Germans and the Holocaust
Zwischen (Between) Charleston und Stechschritt: Schwarze (Blacks) im Nationalsozialismus
This is the title of a huge book with 34 articles and several hundreds of fotos and documents from a major exhibition by the NS Documentation Center in Cologne on Blacks under the Nazis in 2004. (The Stechschritt is an especially martial way of parade-marching.) The book was edited by Christine Alonzo and Peter Martin, who is a specialist on slavery and the image of blacks in German history. He also happens to be the younger brother of my wife’s best friend, Jutta Martin.
Since Blacks and Afro-Germans were so few in Germany, they were not in the center of the Nazis’ racist activities; it was never considered to eliminate them. But they were highly important symbolically, the Nazi’s major concern being to keep them separate and not to allow any black “contamination” of the “Aryan race”. Blacks and Afro-Germans were heavily discriminated against, personal defamation or even physical attack was a constant risk. During the war, Nazi actions against blacks radicalized and many were sent to forced labor camps or to KZs.
Of the devious Nazi activities against Blacks and Afro-Germans, I want to mention two in particular. One was the forced sterilization of 385 Afro-German boys and girls, children of black soldiers, mostly in the French army which occupied the Rhineland provinces after WW I, and German women. They were called “Rhinelandbastards” and considered an especially insulting disgrace by the German right even in the Weimar Republic. In his pathological anti-Semitism, Hitler once said the Jews had brought the French blacks into Germany to undermine its “racial purity”. The sterilization took place in 1937 and was illegal even under Nazi law. (Sadly, I must mention that some of the justifications which the involved German physicians and bureaucrats used were based on US writings and practices.)
Another infamous and not well known case is the murder of quite a number of black prisoners of war in the conquest of France, many of them from Senegal. Nazi racist killings of prisoners of war, especially of Jews and Slavs, were common in the East, but they also happened elsewhere. Not only soldiers from the SS killed black French prisoners of war, but also from the regular Wehrmacht.
I want to close with a quotation from a long letter of 1934 to the Colonial Department in the Foreign Office by Kwassi Bruce, who had fought in the German colonial army in World War I and who lived in Germany with a German passport. He was a musician and, like many other blacks, could not find employment any more: “We Africans are not aware of ever having harmed the white race in general and the German Reich in particular. We never came to conquer Europe and never attempted to fight wars against it or to exploit it. Europe came to Africa! (…) Today, the blacks from the former German protectorates are standing in trust before the German people and appeal not for mercy but for justice. We remind it once more that in the hour of danger its poorest sons had been its most faithful ones. Do not forget this, Germany!”
The foto, which I have taken from the book mentioned, shows Anton de Kom, a Surinamese/Dutch intellectual and anti-slavery activist who was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was murdered in Sandbostel, a dependency of the KZ Neuengamme, April 29, 1945.
“Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger”: A Childhood in Germany
Hans J. Massaquoi’s autobiography was originally written in English and first published in 1999 under the title “Destined to Witness”. The German title is also the name of a good movie with one of our best-known actresses as his mother, and it is much more telling. It is a racist children’s rhyme, a “Schornsteinfeger” being a chimney sweeper. As a boy Hans-Jürgen had to hear it quite often.
The book consists of more than a hundred small chapters with many lively stories and anecdotes in chronological order. Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was born in 1926. His father was a Liberian diplomat, politician, and businessman, whom the child and his German mother did not see very often. But Hans-Jürgen had a close and loving relationship with his grandfather who had once been an African king. His father and his grandfather went back to Liberia and left Hans-Jürgen and his mother behind, shortly before the Nazis came to power.
He says his situation was different from that of the Jews and that of his black brothers and sisters in the US in three major respects: As a black man in Germany he could neither flee nor hide. He also was not used to the survival techniques which blacks as a group had learned from their ancestors; he had to develop his own strategies. He did have his mother’s unconditional love and trust, but not the feeling of security and belonging which a community can give. And of course, Nazi racism was much more radical and institutionalized than racism in the US; it was official and everyone practicing it had the government’s support.
Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi survived the Nazis and the war with luck, his life or at least his liberty was in danger several times. Once he was taken for a shot-down American pilot by people in the street in destroyed Hamburg who were about to lynch him; he was saved by a German policeman. He also survived because not all Germans were Nazis or fellow travelers. Some, not enough to make a major difference, remained decent people in spite of the regime’s pressures. And since there were so few blacks in Germany, the Nazis often did not consider them really relevant or regarded them more as a nuisance.
Even Hans-Jürgen came under the influence of the Nazi propaganda for the young; he strongly wanted to join the Hitlerjugend. Later he tried to get into the Wehrmacht, seeing it as a protection against the SS and as a way to belong and to get accepted. Both rejected him. So when he was drawn into the “Volkssturm”, which drafted old men and boys for the “final battle” in 1945, he knew that Nazi-Germany had lost the war.
After the war, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi lived in Liberia for some time where he met his father again. It was a complicated relationship. In the early 1950s he went to the United States to realize his American dream. In spite of a series of heavy disillusionments, he stayed and became an active participant in the black struggle and a well-known international journalist. Beginning in the 1960s, he would visit Germany regularly. He was surprised that the country had come back on its feet again and that it was so different culturally and mentally. But he was also concerned about the Neo-Nazis. I have thought a lot about one of his closing sentences: If Nazism could come over Germany it could happen anywhere – a very sad compliment in many respects.
(The photo from the cover of the book shows Hans-Jürgen as a schoolboy carrying a button with the swastika.)
The Past and the Present – Continuities and Differences
I am sorry for creating such a long gap in this blog. My wife and I were in Berlin for two weeks, for “cultural holidays.” We had intended to avoid the German “past”, the Nazis and the Holocaust – but that is impossible in our old and new capitol. I will write a special blog about this vacation. Before I do that, I will write two more pages on another Afro-German survivor and on the situation of Afro-Germans under the Nazis in general, but I feel the need to tell you and my readers something about the situation of Afro-Germans in today’s Germany first.
As I see it, many Afro-Germans are well and fully integrated and don’t experience any or at least not much racism. As an example, take the black or dark-skinned female soccer players in the German national team who are admired, praised, and celebrated – Steffie Jones from Frankfurt, the daughter of an American soldier and a German lady and now the President of the Organizational Committee for the world championship, or Célia Okoyino da Mbabi, the daughter of a Cameroonian and a French lady who became a German citizen in 2004 and is one of our best young players. But there are also bad and sad continuities, as the story of Ibraimo Alberto shows, which is related in today’s
Sueddeutsche Zeitung by Thorsten Schmitz.
Mr. Alberto grew up in a jungle village in Mozambique and migrated to East Germany in 1981. He wanted to study sports there, but the German Democratic Republic needed butchers, so he became a butcher. After work, he practiced boxing and studied social education. One day, the boxing club of Schwedt, a small town about 80 km northeast of Berlin at the German-Polish border, invited him to move there. He found a German wife and stayed. He became an authorized representative of foreigners, a member of the city’s parliament, worked in the German-Polish youth center, talked in schools about tolerance, taught drums and boxing to teens, and represented Schwedt all over Germany in anti-racist conferences and seminars. Three years ago he received an award from the Federal Minister for the Interior as an “Ambassador of Democracy and Tolerance.”
Last week, after 21 years, he left Schwedt and moved to the south of Germany. He is not a fearful man, but he just could not stand any more the problems which the city of Schwedt and the Schwedtians had created for him and his family. In spite of all his contributions, he had never been offered a permanent job, the buddies network in the bureaucracy would not hire a black man. And people would often call him “negro”, which makes him mad; or they would say: we have nothing against foreigners, but why do they have to live here? And there was open and sometimes violent neo-Nazi racism against him and his family. He was spit at, hit or chased by neo-Nazis. His 17 year-old-son, who played soccer in the local team, was once called “a dirty nigger” and attacked.
Not one of the bystanders came to his help.
Mr. Alberto gave up walking through town with his wife, because she could no longer stand the remarks and the looks. Constant fear about his and their two children’s safety made her sick. The doctors advised the family to move to a place where people were used to “Multi¬kulti”.
On his first weekend in his new place, he joined a summer festival in the inner city. He says it was fantastic. There were blacks everywhere and skin colour did not play any role at all. He has now been invited to work at a local kindergarten. His female colleagues say, isn’t it wonderful to have a black man working with our children now. He also has a found a boxing club, and his family will soon join him.
(The foto shows the clivia in my study in bloom. I consider it a symbol that one day there will be nor more racism in Germany – or anywhere else.)
Who Is Afraid of the Black Man?
I have now read Gert Schramm’s life story. It is a wonderful book about an awful time, and more than that. Gert Schramm has always been a very active, hard-working, and courageous man. From the way he writes, I also believe he is a very warm person.
The story of Gert Schramm’s family is even more tragic than I had thought. His father had gone back to the United States very early in his life, and his mother later married a German, who was soon killed in the war. In 1943, a few months after the Nazis had imprisoned Gert Schramm, his natural father, Jack Brankson, made his way back to Germany – under dangerous circumstances – to search for his former love. After 15 years, they joined each other again and decided to marry. They were so innocently naïve to collect the necessary documents and go to the registry office. Jack Brankson was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Early in 1944, Gert Schramm’s mother was sentenced to forced labor. She was considered “notoriously unreliable,” because she had “fraternized with the enemy” and with someone from an “alien race” (“fremdvölkisch”).
As I had already mentioned, Gert Schramm survived Buchenwald with the help of Communist prisoners who had organized an underground network. It was so effective that they could hide their leaders in the camp when the Nazis got hold of a list of its members. The underground managed to find less burdening work for him than in the quarry, which he would not have survived – he was only 14 in 1944. They also saved him and cared for him when he was buried alive and wounded in an air-raid.
Gert Schramm also has a lot to say about post-war Germany, separated between East and West, and reunited again. He lived in Essen (where my father’s family is from) with his wife and children for about 10 years, but went back to East Germany for private reasons, which was very rare. In the German Democratic Republic, he worked in the uranium mines (well paid, but very dangerous to your health) and later became a respected transport manager. He never joined the party and always maintained his independence. In the book, he vividly describes the practical everyday problems of the Communist economy.
When the wall came down, Gert Schramm brought his private taxi company into reunited Germany and helped others adapt to the new economic circumstances. (In the GDR, only 2% of the working population were self-employed, and he only got his licence because of his endurance and because he knew a high-ranking politician from his days in the camp.) After his late retirement and after a TV documentary about his case, Gert Schramm decided to become a public witness. He was so enraged by the renewed violence against foreigners in Germany that he began to tell his story to pupils in schools and in clubs, wherever young people gathered. He does not talk about politics; he sticks to his experience in the camp. That he finally wrote down his story is not the end, he considers it a beginning.
I have just read a review, in the New York Review of Books, of a new biography of Barack Obama’s mother, a remarkable woman. She lived and worked in Indonesia for a couple of years, together with her son, until she sent him back to Hawaii to her parents. I had not known that skin color was (and perhaps still is) a very important social marker in Indonesia as well. The review led my thoughts back to the situation of Afro-Germans during the Nazi era. I had already seen a film based on a famous book by Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, who survived with the help of his strong mother and other family and friends and left Germany after the war to work in the US as a journalist for Ebony. The book’s title is “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger” (negro, negro, chimney sweeper), a racist nonsense rhyme of the time.
In the 1930s, about 3000 “Blacks” lived in Germany. Some came from the former German colonies in Africa, others were children of liaisons between black soldiers in the French occupation forces (after the First World War) or African/Afro-American diplomats/business men and German women.
Gert Schramm, e.g., born in 1928, was the son of an American engineer and a German lady from Erfurt in Thuringia. The Nazis imprisoned him in 1943 when he was 14 and later sent him to Buchenwald. According to the Reichsrasssegesetz (The Reich’s Race Law) he was “eine Gefahr für Volk und Staat” (a danger for the German people and state). As he said in an interview for the Frankfurter Rundschau (April 2nd/3rd, p. 24), he only survived “because of the Communists” – older prisoners who helped him find easier work in the tool shed and kept him out of sight of the SS. His father, who came back to Thuringia in 1943, was also captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. He left no trace, i.e. he was murdered.
After the war, Gert Schramm worked as an interpreter for the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, as a miner in France, in the Erzgebirge (the mountains in the south of Thuringia), and in Essen in the Ruhr-Valley. In the 60s, he went back to East Germany where he founded a taxi company before the end of the regime. Gert Schramm has four children, many grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. When asked in the interview, whether he had ever thought of leaving Germany, the country which had almost murdered him and even after the Nazi era had called him a “negro-bastard” in an official letter, he answered “no”. A couple of years ago, when a right-winger shouted at him: “I am proud to be a German,”he shouted back: “Me too, blockhead.” If you want to know whether he feels accepted in Germany, he will say “yes, yes, yes.” His autobiography Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann. Mein Leben in Deutschland (Who Is Afraid of the Black Man: My Life in Germany) has just been published.