At the height of the Jazz Age in the 1920s it is estimated that roughly 20,000 – 25,000 Black individuals of African, Afro German, or Afro-Diasporic descent were living in Germany.[i] However, with the rise of National Socialism what little racial acceptance Germany had had would disintegrate.
On January 30, 1933 Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor of Germany, and celebrated with a torch-lit rally where thousands of SA, SS and Stahlhelm formations marched through the Brandenburg Gates saluting their newly appointed leader.
The central focus of Hitler’s racial obsessions would be Germany’s Jews, but they were by no means alone. All other “non-Aryan” people were equally in his sights, and would be subjected to laws and regulations concerned with racial hygiene, including the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Germany’s estimated twenty-thousand-strong Black German community was in particular a thorn in the Nazi’s eye, and bizarrely linked in Hitler’s mind to the Jews. Years earlier in Mein Kampf he had already written that, “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.”[ii] Now they, along with millions of others, would be subjected to his rule.
As thousands of drunken SA, SS and Stahlhelm men marched beneath the torch-lit figure of their leader on that January 30th, life, which for many Afro-Germans had previously been lived in isolation, became life lived in isolation and fear. The Afro-German Erika Ngambi ul Kuo, an eye-witness growing up in Nazi Germany, recounted about looking for a training position in the late 1930s, “I heard at every turn: ‘What, you want to work for us! We only hire “Aryans”’ … One good friend who I had been close to dropped me like a hot potato. Later, in Berlin people spat on us in the street and taunted us with ‘bastard,’ and ‘mulatto.’ It was awful.”[iii]
In the 1940s the SS took over independent preexisting Black establishments and performance groups to present a primitive image of Africa and to subvert them into vehicles of Nazi political propaganda confirming their own racial stereotypes. During the course of the war many performers from such shows would simply disappear, or were deported to concentration camps.[iv] But it was not just Black individuals in the theatrical and live performance world who were used to promote Nazi agendas. Not long after the Nazi seizure of power Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels began exploiting the German feature film industry, the most popular entertainment medium of the time, to spread the Nazi gospel of Aryan supremacy.
As a young extra used by the Nazis, Werner Egiomue, describes in an interview, “they had an agent. He knew all the blacks in Berlin. He had all of their addresses. The Cultural Department contacted him when they were casting a film. They’d say we need six blacks, or four Chinese, three Japanese. All were available in Berlin. Then we’d play the natives in films like ‘Congo Express’, ‘Quax in Africa’ or ‘Auntie Wanda from Uganda.’”[v]
Through such films Black extras and actors were able to network and connect with one another. The film studios also provided some level of protection from the full brutality of the Nazi regime. Others were not as fortunate.
As narrated by James Earl Jones in the documentary Black Survivors of the Holocaust,
“Between 1939 and 1945 an estimated 200 thousand black troops recruited from France’s African colonies were serving in the European theater of war. The Africans were especially loathed by the SS because of the history of the Rhineland occupation. In many POW camps the Nazis segregated the Black prisoners of war from the rest of the camp’s population. Often, in what was a breach of their rights under the Geneva Convention, Black prisoners were denied food and given dangerous jobs…Black civilians in Germany’s concentration camps received much harsher treatment at the hands of their SS guards. No one knows how many Black soldiers and civilians perished in [Germany’s POW and Concentration] camps.”[vi]
The French African soldiers were not alone, they would be joined by thousands of African American and colonial Black British soldiers. The Nazis however were notoriously inconsistent in how they dealt with the Black soldiers they captured in combat. There is evidence of colonial and African American soldiers and Air Force personnel being summarily killed and mutilated across the European theater of war in complete disregard and abuse of their rights as POWs under the Geneva Conventions.[vii]
There are equally many accounts of Black civilian victims sent to work as slave labor in concentration camps and being deported directly to death camps. These stories include the eye witness accounts of Gert Schramm, a Black German survivor who was sent as a young boy to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and also that of his African American father Jack Brankson, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1941 and was never heard from again.
As Paul Gilroy writes in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line,
“Baker, Fanon, and Senghor are probably the best known of many blacks who opposed fascism in battle and in the resistance. There are other, little-known and largely unremembered people who joined the opposition to Hitler, passed their lives in camps and detention centers of various kinds, or who survived quietly and retreated back into the strange ambiguities of their existence as black Europeans. Among those who should be brought to mind here are Hilarius “Lari” Gilges, who was beaten to death by Nazis in Dusseldorf in 1933 and is one of the few black victims of Hitler to have a public memorial of any kind. The Belgian activist Johnny Voste was a member of the resistance movement. He was arrested in 1942 and not only survived Dachau but helped some of his comrades to do so as well. Another was Johnny William, a Frenchman originally from the Ivory Coast who was deported to the Neuengamme camp complex near Hamburg…”[viii]
In an interview Johnny William later described his deportation to the Neuengamme concentration camp, one of the harshest camps in Northern Germany.
“The journey [there] was apocalyptic, horrific. 120 of us packed in a single cattle car. Imagine all of those people locked up together for four or five days and nights, with no air to breathe and hardly any food. We had to relieve ourselves in there too. By the time we arrived some people were dead … in the Neuengamme camp there were 5 or 6 of us [Black prisoners]. As soon as we arrived, the SS separated us from the others. We didn’t know what to expect so we were scared. We thought we would be killed there and then. Then to our great surprise when the SS arrived they inspected us, touched us, and said ‘Ah, blacks…good.’ They had a good laugh at us because they considered us to be sub-human, like animals, chimpanzees…”[ix]
During the Nazi period many Afro Germans also escaped, fleeing the nation, while others stayed aided by friends, relatives, and their own sheer inventiveness. Good examples of survival would include the Afro-German Hans J. Massaquoi, and the Michael family.
Massaquoi not only survived years of Nazi persecution, and the American and British bombings of Hamburg, but would later immigrate to the USA, becoming a journalist, author, and the managing editor of the Black publication Ebony magazine in the US. In 1999 he published his autobiography titled Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany.
The father of the Michael family, Theophilus Wonja Michael, was born in Cameroon and migrated to Berlin in 1894 where he started a family with his white German wife. Four children were born from this union, James, Juliana, Christiana and Theodor. After the death of their mother in 1926, and then the passing of their father in 1934, the children were left to fend for themselves and escape the Nazi regime of terror. Theodor found work in the Berlin film industry and after the war would go on to become one of Germany’s oldest and most distinguished character actors. While Theodor remained in Berlin his surviving siblings gained employment in a variety of traveling circuses, as these provided some protection from coming into close contact and conflict with the Nazi government.Through the nature of this work, and the need for anonymity, the siblings eventually became separated and only decades later would again be reunited in the 1960s in Cologne. And even after all of that time one brother, James, recalled one of the worst moments of his life:
“We were in Paris and had just pulled down the circus tent. My passport had just run out, so I went to the German consulate to have it renewed. I went in and said: ‘Good morning.’ It was early in the morning when I entered. They told me, ‘Here we don’t say, “Good morning”, we say, “Heil Hitler!”’ Had I again done something wrong? So, good, as I didn’t have any other choice, I also said, ‘Heil Hitler.’ ‘What do you want?’ the clerk demanded. ‘To renew my passport,’ I answered. ‘Your passport!’ he said. ‘What are you, are you German?’ ‘Yes, here is my passport,’ I answered. He examined it. ‘Born in Berlin on the October 2, 1916 and so on and so forth.’ Then he took my passport and went away with it. A quarter of an hour or more went by before he returned – but without my passport. I said, ‘I thought you were going to give my passport back to me.’ He said, ‘No, we are going to keep your passport. You are no longer German. Black Germans do not exist.’[x]
Hitler’s Black Victims by Clarence Lusane: Drawing on interviews with the black survivors of Nazi concentration camps and archival research in North America, Europe, and Africa, this book documents and analyzes the meaning of Nazisms racial policies towards people of African descent, specifically those born in Germany, England, France, the United States, and Africa, and the impact of that legacy on contemporary race relations in Germany, and more generally, in Europe. The book also specifically addresses the concerns of those surviving Afro-Germans who were victims of Nazism, but have not generally been included in or benefited from the compensation agreements that have been developed in recent years.
Notes and Sources:
 “Steel Helmet, League of Frontline Soldiers”, one of the many paramilitary organizations that arose after the German defeat of World War I.
 Her story was published by May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye in Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out.
 A good example of this would be the Hillerkus African Show founded by Julietta Tipner and Adolf Hillerkus
 The evidence was first drawn up in a collection of material from postwar investigators into war crimes by Robert W. Kesting, an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
 For more on the subject of Black experience in Nazi Germany please read: Schwarz und Deutsch, by Theodor Wonja Michael; Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, by Hans J. Massaquoi; Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich, by Tina Campt; The Black Military Experience in Germany, by Monroe H. Little Jr.; Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, by Paul Gilroy; “African Germans in the Third Reich” by Susann Samples, published in The African-German Experience, edited by Aisha Carol Blackshire-Belay; Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experience of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era, by Charles Lusane; Black Europe and the African Diaspora, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, Stephen Small; and Rewriting the footnotes : Berlin and the African diaspora, by Paulette Reed-Anderson.
 Hans Massaquoi sadly passed away on January 19, 2013.
[i] Sources: Chiponda Chimbelu, “The fate of blacks in Nazi Germany“. Deutsche Welle. 10.01.2010. Retrieved 9 November 2011. Anne Frank Guide, Black people in Nazi Germany.
Afrodeutsche – Black Germans, <http://german.about.com/od/culture/a/blackhistger.htm>
[ii] Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf (translated by James Murphy, February, 1939) Vol. I, Chapter XI (A Project Gutenberg of Australia)
[iii] Ayim, May, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz. Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak out. Trans. Anne V. Adams. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1992. 56-76. Print.
[iv] Black Survivors of the Holocaust. Film. Director, David Okuefuna ; producer, Moise Shewa ; an Afro Wisdom Films production for Channel 4 and International Family Entertainment. Narrator, James Earl Jones. Publisher, SpiritWorld Entertaiment.
[v] Black Survivors of the Holocaust. Film. Director, David Okuefuna ; producer, Moise Shewa ; an Afro Wisdom Films production for Channel 4 and International Family Entertainment. Narrator, James Earl Jones. Publisher, SpiritWorld Entertaiment.
[vi] Black Survivors of the Holocaust. Film. Director, David Okuefuna ; producer, Moise Shewa ; an Afro Wisdom Films production for Channel 4 and International Family Entertainment. Narrator, James Earl Jones. Publisher, SpiritWorld Entertaiment.
[vii] Gilroy, Paul, Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Belknap Press, October 2, 2001. 303. Print.
[viii] Gilroy, Paul, Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Belknap Press, October 2, 2001. 302. Print.
[ix] Black Survivors of the Holocaust. Film. Director, David Okuefuna ; producer, Moise Shewa ; an Afro Wisdom Films production for Channel 4 and International Family Entertainment. Narrator, James Earl Jones. Publisher, SpiritWorld Entertaiment.
[x] Sources: Africa in Europe: Studies in Transnational Practice in the Long Twentieth Century (Liverpool University Press – Migrations and Identities Edited by Eve Rosenhaft and Robbie Aitken Pp 244, Reed Anderson, Berlin and the African Diaspora, p. 80. Black Survivors of the Holocaust. Film. Director, David Okuefuna ; producer, Moise Shewa ; an Afro Wisdom Films production for Channel 4 and International Family Entertainment. Narrator, James Earl Jones. Publisher, SpiritWorld Entertaiment.