How do Europeans see African Americans

African diaspora in Germany

Nicola Lauré al-Samarai

To person

Nicola Lauré al-Samarai, born in 1969. The historian and cultural scientist is currently doing her doctorate at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the TU Berlin on the subject of "Black Germans in the former GDR". Her numerous publications also include the book "Die Macht der Demokratie" (The Power of Representation) (2001).

The history of black people during National Socialism could be presented very simply: as the history of the racial politics of the time, which resulted in physical extermination. But that view is too simple. It hardly does justice to the complex life paths of colonial migrants, Rhineland children or single families.

The history of Black people during National Socialism could be presented very simply: as a history that could result in social isolation, sterilization, or possible physical annihilation. However, this point of view neither reflects the historical facts, nor does it do justice to the complex and often winding paths of people's lives. Research over the last few years makes it clear that only the inclusion of different perspectives allows a differentiated description.

Parents of contemporary witness Theodor Wonja Michael, 1914. (& copy private archive Paulette Reed-Anderson)
Black German history - like every other community history - has its own chronology. It is therefore of great importance to reveal specific key data and to combine them with one another. In contrast to other persecuted groups, the German colonial period 1884-1918, the Weimar Republic 1918-33 and National Socialism 1933-45 show important continuities with regard to the increasing disenfranchisement and persecution of black people. It is also significant that the experiences of black people are very multifaceted and sometimes contradicting, as different groups existed. In addition to Afro-Germans and African migrants living here permanently, there were also Afro-Europeans and Afro-Americans who were only temporarily in the country, e.g. as entertainers or students. The respective history of origin had consequences for the character of the National Socialist persecution, which was determined by both racial guidelines and foreign policy interests.

Colonial migrants and their relatives

The group that has lived in Germany for the longest since the end of the 19th century are the colonial migrants who call themselves "compatriots". Their presence is linked to the violent occupation of German colonies on the African continent in the course of the Bismarck Conference in 1884/85, which initiated a migration movement in which mainly African men moved their center of life to Germany, established communal networks and founded families.

From the beginning, their position in the majority society was determined by their difficult status as immigrants. This not only meant a gradual tightening of the legal situation, which resulted in the loss of German citizenship for members of this group after the Nuremberg Laws came into force in 1935. The situation on the labor market made matters worse. One of the few niches in which many colonial migrants were able to ensure their survival for themselves and their relatives were humiliating appearances in national shows and colonial films.

Artists at the German Africa Show in the 1920s. (& copy private archive Paulette Reed-Anderson)
As part of the complex planning for a future colonial empire, this activity was initially of interest to the Nazis. The compatriots became "living capital" and - as in the "Deutsche Afrikaschau" or in various movies - were supposed to be a reminder of the former German greatness as former colonial subjects. This cultural-political part of the National Socialist policy of "colonialism without colonies" explains the wait-and-see attitude of the official authorities until the beginning of the 1940s, but - as reports from contemporary witnesses show - quite a few were abducted for forced labor, sterilized and interned in concentration camps.