By Joshua Wilson, Museum Educator at The HC –
During Black History Month, we want to honor the memories of Black people who lived through the violent and hateful ideology of Nazism, and make sure their stories are told.
Discrimination and the Third Reich
Before World War II, Germany’s Black population, composed mainly of colonial subjects from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, experienced hostilities. Interracial families were harassed, and lack of citizenship and racism resulted in few opportunities for employment.
Discrimination worsened with the rise of the Third Reich. Laws intended to isolate Jews often affected Black people because they were also disdained as non-Aryan. The 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service, for example, which outlawed non-Aryans from holding government positions, applied to Afro-Germans. In 1935, The Nuremberg Laws, which initially oppressed the Jewish community, were soon broadened to encompass all non-Aryans. Black people had their rights removed and they were dehumanized in the long process leading to genocide and destruction.
As the war continued, and the Final Solution was implemented, Black people who found themselves in Germany or occupied territories were often rounded up and sent to concentration camps or executed in mass killings.
Understanding Through Personal Experiences
Survivor Hans Massaquoi, the son of a German mother and Liberian father, recounted his story of survival as a child under the Third Reich in his book, Destined to Witness. In a horrific account of racism, Hans, who until the rise of Nazism had enjoyed a comfortable life as a German-born child, discussed visiting Hamburg’s Hagenbecks Zoo, where Black people were dehumanized:
“When my mother asked a zoo guide whether there were any Indians to be seen, he told her they were fresh out of Indians but that there was an equally interesting African exhibit, just a few minutes’ walk away. The guide explained that the “primitive peoples” exhibits were part of Hagenbeck’s famous ‘Culture Shows’.”
Even before the war, Hans was often ostracized, and faced hatred from his peers at school. In 1932, on the eve of Nazism, Hans experienced deeply unsettling racism from those around him:
“Soon, other kids had taken up the chant, and within seconds I was the center of attention of the entire school. All of a sudden “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger!” became the rallying cry of literally hundreds of boys”.
Hans’ teachers also emphasized his difference from everyone else. One teacher went as far as to say “after we have finished with the Jews, people like you will be next. That’s all I have to say.”
Acts of Active Resistance
Despite the hatred directed at him, Hans found ways to resist, specifically by reading books:
“Thanks to my books, I was able to escape at will from some of the more painful situations in my daily existence into worlds that, however perilous, were fair, where good was rewarded and evil punished. Reading provided me with an effective buffer against the constant racial attacks…and helped to blunt their impact on my immediate consciousness. Without my being fully aware of it, reading became my indispensable survival tool.”
After the war ended, Hans emigrated to the United States in the 1950s and joined the U.S. Army. He studied journalism and became the managing editor of Ebony Magazine. The father of two children, he died in 2013.
The attention paid to the experiences of Afro-German individuals during the Holocaust has been underwhelming because they were an incredibly small minority in Germany. But each of their stories matter. Collectively, they describe the far-reaching consequences of a hateful ideology of racial superiority. Afro-Germans suffered tremendously under the Nazis. It is important to shine a light on their experiences so that they are not forgotten in the annals of history, and so that we may honor their lives.