Hitler’s forgotten victims
Posted on January 29, 2012
Black survivors of the Nazi Holocaust are demanding the real story of Hitler’s Germany is told. Their story is largely untold, their battle for compensation mostly fruitless. Thousands of African descent perished in Nazis concentration camps.
Published – New Nation, Feb 5th 2007
Many survivors have since died of old age, their place in history forgotten. This reporter spoke exclusively to two Afro-Germans, both in their 80s, who revealed their extraordinary story of living under an ever-present fear of death.
One was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp. The other became a member of Hitler Youth who wore a Swastika on his sweater until his mother snipped it off. They both suffered at the hands of a terrifying fascist regime. ‘I feared for my life every day’, said 82-yearold Theodor Michael, who has fought for recognition of Hitler’s black victims.
The emotional scars of his imprisonment remain. ‘Even today’, he said mournfully, remembering his friends and neighbours who perished.
Now living in Cologne, he says luck played a part in his survival, but it is clear he perfected the art of avoiding the authorities.
Hitler slaughtered between 10,000 and 25,000 black people, a fraction of the number of Jews killed, but undoubtedly an important part of history.
Black Germans were subjected to medical experiments, mass sterilisation drives and thrown in concentration camps.
In 1930s Germany blacks faced a daily struggle to stay alive. One of them even joined the Hitler Youth ranks. Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, 81, the son of a top Liberian diplomat was raised in Hamburg, miles from other Afro-Germans in the Rhineland region near Berlin.
He said he just wanted to fit in. ‘There was tremendous pressure to join the Hitlerjugend. All my classmates joined the Hitler Youth movement. I wanted to be part of everything, but I did not know what I became a part of.
‘As the only kid with brown skin I had no place to hide. The Jews had a Star of David on their clothes but my very appearance singled me out. From the moment the Nazis came to power they categorised Aryans and non-Aryans. I soon found out I was a non-Aryan.’
Grandson of the Liberian consul general to Hamburg, Massaquoi knew his colour prevented him attending high school.
As Jews lost their jobs and homes, facing ever-higher levels of hatred, Massaquoi was repeatedly warned he would be next. He recalled frequent SS marches and Hitler Youth processions but his first awakening to the real nature of Nazism came when, as an eight year old boy, he experienced a violent race attack.
Both Michael and Massaquoi learnt to keep a low profile. To come to the authorities attention spelt almost certain death.
Michael said: ‘I didn’t cross the street through a red light. If you get into the mill of the system you die. I did nothing to get attention, in no way, either positive or negative.’
With his grandfather a chief from Cameroon, Michael tried to flee from Germany. But like thousands of others his roots in Germany’s former African colonies closed off all escape routes. Britain and France’s decision to deny refuge to Afro-Germans on the grounds that they, or their family, descended from a country once ruled by Germany is an outrage, Michael said.
‘All those people who had passports of another country left Germany, but we couldn’t leave because there was no country to take us. We were stateless. The United Kingdom closed off opportunities for Africans from former German colonies to escape. No one wanted us. It was a trap, yes. We were trapped in Germany. It cost a lot of lives.’
As the war turned against Hitler and Final Solution began with mass concentration camps, Afro-Germans were stripped of their papers sealing the fate of thousands. Michael endured years of forced hard labour working around the clock at a munitions factory before being liberated by the Russians as the war ended.
He is grateful he was not sent confined a more notorious concentration camp like Auschwitz, and was still alive when set free after Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Today, ironically, the absence of material proof that black people suffered under the Nazis has made the fight for restitution harder.
Michael said: ‘If you came as a Jew, that was clear. As a German black person it was not so easy that they understood the situation. Mostly they didn’t even know that people of colour were persecuted.’
While billions of dollars have been paid to Jewish victims. The majority of black victims families have received nothing.
A high level of scepticism about their persecution is made worse by the virtual absence of their story from books on the Nazi era, and Holocaust Museums around the world.
African-American historian Professor Clarance Lusane, who authored “Hitler’s Black Victims”, commented: ‘A lot of people who should qualify for compensation are in their 90s and are now just passing away.
‘It seems unlikely that there’s going to be a big turnaround. There’s little knowledge about what happened to Afro-Germans outside of Germany. To have this big gap in history is unacceptable. We have to correct the historic record so the next generation will get a broader version of what happened. It should be seen as an important part of history. We can’t deal with things today unless we know what happened in the past.’
A recent survey by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust underlined the level of ignorance about mass murder under the Nazis.
Massaquoi left Germany in 1948 an emigrated to the United States where he became a journalist, rising to managing editor of Ebony magazine before his retirement in 1997.
Now living in Florida, he was forced to escape his New Orleans house last year when struck Hurricane Katrina. Hollywood star Whoopi Goldberg was bowled over by Massaquoi’s biography “Destined to Witness” and brought film rights to the book.
But the Ghost actress struggled unsuccessfully for seven years to find Tinseltown backers, and has vented her frustration at Hollywood executives who said the story lacks a “hook.”
Last year it was made into a German TV film called “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger”, a painful German insult which translates as “Negro, Negro, Chimney-Sweep.”
Hitler’s desire to get back the African colonies Germany lost at the Versailles Treaty as part of the WWI settlement saw the Nazis make a series of propaganda films showing Germans as the best rulers.
Michael found employment as an actor in these movies, which may have helped him avoid death. Despite German racism towards black people, they had a taste for black performing artists, so the ability to sing or dance gave a better chance of survival. Jazz played by African-Americans was a favourite and the Nazis jazz ban in 1940 only drove the music underground. There is even evidence of black jazz bands entertaining concentration camp guards, who liked to unwind after a day of brutality and murder.
Several African-American musicians, who made their living in Germany, were apprehended by the Nazi authorities, like Valaida Snow, who was held at the Wester-Faengle concentration camp. Some like trumpeter Arthur Briggs were forced to entertain guards before being sent back to the Saint-Denis internment camp.
John William, a survivor from Cote d’Ivoire, was a singer who also performed in Nazi camps but also suffered terrible beatings by guards.
The battle for recognition of Hitler’s black victims has been going on for many years, yet their stories receive little attention. The question today is whether the last living black Germans will see international awareness rise while they are still alive.
Germany was running death camps long before Adolph Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Their brutal suppression of the Herero people of Namibia at the turn of the last century in many ways appeared like a dress rehearsal for what followed in Europe decades later.
Germans put down a rebellion in the east African colony with such ferocity that they came close to exterminating a whole tribe. The slaughter of the Herero between 1904 and 1907 was overseen by army lieutenant Lother von Trotha, who ordered that “Every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle will be shot.”
In three short years around 60,000 Herero were killed, leaving just 15,000 alive. Officially the German concentration camps in Namibia had a mortality rate of 45%.
Many camps also saw medical experiments, another forerunner to 1930s Germany when the Nazis snatched black families at night, taking them to hospitals for experiments in an attempt prove their theories of racial superiority.
Eugen Fischer, the father of Eugenics, carried out extensive work in southwest African colonies during this period, including Namibia. Two decades later, the case of the so-called ‘Rhineland Bastards’ shows that hostility towards black people was rising in Germany before Hitler came to power.
After Germany lost the First World War, the allies stationed hundreds of African troops in the defeated nation, many of them from French colonies. German resentment against occupation took the form of a campaign of hate against these black troops and the 100 or so mixed-race children they fathered.
Objective historical sources shows that the working class German women were often the ones to make sexual advances, yet the German media whipped up a popular frenzy with tales about rape.
Despite hardly any evidence of sexual aggression by black troops, the controversy that took place in the pre-Nazi Weimar era, led to mass sterilisation drives. Germany sterilised most of the ‘Rhineland Bastard’ children.
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