Black Experiences Under National Socialism

Necessary conversations about systemic racism and structural violence that have targeted black people for centuries are happening across the USA, Canada and around the world.  At FSWC, we believe learning about the origins of systemic racism is an essential part of education for all young Canadians and operate on the assumption that through thoughtful examination of our past, we gain key insights into inequalities that persist in the 21st century. Lessons around anti-black racism and other forms of prejudice must be integrated into more facets of student life and learning, ideally beginning as soon as children enter the school system.

We also believe in an inclusive framework of victimhood in the context of the Holocaust and our programs operate on the assumption that students will gain a more comprehensive and empathetic understanding of this period if we examine the variety of ways different racial, social, and political groups were victimized by the Nazi state. This includes thousands of black people, inside Germany and in other European territories, who were persecuted by the National Socialist regime. Students are sometimes shocked to learn that black people were placed at the bottom of the Nazi racial hierarchy,along with Jews and Roma/Sinti peoples, simply because they hear so little about the Nazi’s treatment of black people. Students do sometimes learn about Roma/Sinti, Communists, people with disabilities, and other victim groups, but very rarely are black victims singled out for discussion. Why is this? And how can we better integrate the experiences of black individuals and communities in histories of the Holocaust?

The first question, why black victims often remain invisible in narratives of the Holocaust, has one obvious explanation: the black population in Germany was so small that they were not perceived by Hitler to be a threat to the German racial community in the same way that Jews were. As a result, the Nazis never developed a policy of mass extermination towards black people as they did for Jewish and Roma peoples. Black and mixed race Germans were ostracized and discriminated against, but were viewed as an oddity more than a true threat to Germany.

   While Nazi persecution of black people differs from genocidal policies targeting Jews, Roma, and people with disabilities, the fate of blacks during the Holocaust entailed isolation, persecution, sterilization, medical experimentation,torture, and murder. These experiences should be recognized as a vitally important part of Holocaust history and this should be reflected in the way that we educate Canadian students about National Socialism and the lesson that the rights of every individual are threatened when we allow injustice and hatred to exist in our communities.

   We can gain some insight into Adolf Hitler’s personal brand of racism in his infamous 1923 text, Mein Kampf or My Struggle. In the autobiographical work, Hitler described children resulting from marriages between German women and African occupation soldiers as a contamination of the white race "by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe."  He even found a way to blame Jews for this alleged contamination, writing that "Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate.” Hitler turns miscegenation in post-War Germany into a Jewish conspiracy and the Nazis and conjures a lurid image of white German women entering into sexual relationships with African soldiers in the French-occupied Rhineland territory. The Nazis subscribed to pseudo-scientific theories including eugenics and believed that ‘racial breeding’needed to be carefully controlled. The children of interracial unions were given the derogatory name Rhineland bastards,a group who would eventually face violent persecution in the late 1930s in the form of forced sterilization.

    In 1937, a special Gestapo commission was created and charged with "the discrete sterilization of the Rhineland bastards" to ensure they were unable to further “pollute” the German gene pool. It is unclear how much these minors were told about the sterilization process or how many parents only consented under pressure from the Gestapo. An estimated 500 children were sterilized under this program, including girls as young as 11.

     Hitler’s desire to halt the “contamination” of the German race was put into policy when black Germans were subjected to the restrictive Nuremberg laws, first introduced in 1935 to limit Jewish civic freedoms. These laws made interracial relationships punishable by death and defined black people in Germany as an alien race with foreign blood. Throughout the Nazi era, ordinary black Germans experienced discrimination in employment, welfare, and housing, and were also barred from pursuing a higher education.

     The Third Reich also orchestrated an assault on the creative contributions of black artists to German arts and culture, particularly jazz musicians. In order to reinforce Nazi ideology, the state organized several exhibits in the late 1930s to encourage mockery and public ridicule against “degenerate” art.  In 1938, the Nazis organized the 'Entartete Musik' public exhibition in Germany, mainly held in Düsseldorf. This exhibition included a poster displaying a cartoon caricature of an African-American male playing on a saxophone with the Star of David on his tuxedo lapel. The overall theme of the exhibition was defamation of contemporary American music as "Negro music" and as another Jewish plot upon German culture.

Meanwhile, top Nazi officials were creating plans for Germany to retake former colonial holdings in Africa, which had been lost by Germany in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles following their defeat in the First World War.  The Nazis envisioned a new African colonial empire under German imperial domination, in tandem with fascist Italy’s dreams of a north African empire in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). By 1940,Nazi officials had drawn up legislative plans for an apartheid-like system that could be implemented in the future. These plans were never realized but the inherent disregard for the sovereignty and dignity of African communities, in light of what we know about the Nazi’s hierarchical view of race, is an important consideration if we want to gain insight into how Nazi racial theories translated into disturbing policy.

Another category of black people whose lives were endangered by National Socialism were black prisoners of war captured during the German invasion of France. The German army lacked any official policy towards black prisoners of war, and so the treatment of black prisoners of war varied widely. There are many examples of German brutality towards black enemy soldiers and violence against black soldiers was not prosecuted. Black soldiers were sometimes separated from whites and summarily shot rather than being transported back to POW camps.   From what evidence we can gather, most captured black soldiers (most of whom were French and later some American) were taken prisoner rather than executed. Black prisoners nonetheless experienced deplorable conditions in concentration camps, often forced into segregation from white prisoners and subjected to worse treatment and sleeping conditions.Scholars have found evidence that roughly half of French colonial soldiers,many of whom were black, did not survive captivity. Some died of disease and malnutrition, some were tortured to death or executed. Although it is difficult to provide exact figures on the number of black people who lost their lives in concentration camps, we know that the Nazi disregard for black life as“inferior” made people of colour extremely vulnerable in the concentration camp system.

The above discussion serves as an introduction into the subject of anti-black racism in Nazi Germany, but there is much more to learn.To help you or your students gain a greater depth of understanding on the ways the black people navigated life in the Third Reich, contact us or check out our recommendations for further reading below.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Tina Campt, Other Germans: Black Germans andthe Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich (2004)

Clarence Lusane Hitler's Black Victims:The Historical Experiences of European Blacks, Africans and African AmericansDuring the Nazi Era, 2003.

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