In my free time I rarely read novels. I mostly read biographies and autobiographies, with a historical interest. From those, more than half center on the times when the nazi’s ruled large parts of Europe. It is not just that those books help me get a grip on what my parents found so hard to talk about. It is neither because those times still form a touchstone for everyday discussions on morality in Western Europe. There is also a philosophical interest. Nazi politics, the ideas it was founded on, and its effects in society, help to better understand – as a school example – other totalitarianisms, wars, medical experiments, and racisms we have seen since then. Ever new autobiographies appear which clear up some new aspect of that system of hate, repression and ideological indoctrination.
Recently I have been involving myself with two life’s stories that highlight the sufferings under nazi racism of a relatively small group of people, which did not get much attention up till now – children which were born out of marriages and relationships of Africans and Germans. The bulk of this group were called in nazi terminology the ‘Rhineland bastards’ – children whose existence was part of those fateful events connecting the first and the second world war. The Treaty of Versailles, marking the end of the first world war had ordered, among other things, a demilitarized zone between Germany and France – the Rhineland. France however, had not kept to this part of the treaty, and had moved, shortly after the war, some forty thousand troops into the Rhineland. They were soldiers from its African colonies, who probably for a combination of adventure and a promise of rewards had joined the army of their colonial rulers. As the soldiers stayed there for a long time, families were founded and babies were born. To Hitler this was a double insult and danger – not only was the occupation of the Rhineland as such an insult and setback for Germany, the existence of what he saw as ‘bastard children’ threatened the purity of his fictional ‘Aryan’ race. Long before the outbreak of the war, in 1936, he therefore moved his troops into the Rhineland zone, to nullify the ‘shame’ of its occupation, but with the intent to do something about this ‘bastardization’ too. As the offspring of the African soldiers were reaching puberty by that time, the idea was to sterilize them before their genes could spread further among the German people. Many of them indeed suffered the fate of forced sterilization, or perished in later years in the concentration camps.
Two children of such mixed ancestry who survived published their life’s stories, in 1999 and in 2013. Their story was a bit different though. One of them was the grandson of the consul to Germany of Liberia, Hans J. Massaquoi. The other was born from the marriage of an enterprising Cameroonian who moved to Germany while his country was still ‘Deutschese Schutzgebiet’. They grew up in Hamburg, and in Berlin. Not being part of a larger group of people of African descent, they escaped the fate of the Rhineland children, and survived, albeit in very difficult circumstances, the nazi era and the war. Theodor Michael’s book was the first that I read. He was born as the fourth child from loving parents. Tragedy struck in their lives, however, when first their mother died at a young age, and some years later their father. From a young age, Michael, banned from further education by the nazi race laws, and reduced to the status of a stateless person, survived by working in ‘human exhibitions’ in zoos and circuses, and later by working for the movies. Whenever exotic looking persons were needed, Michael and others with a dark skin color, played roles in nazi films, like in the scenes in ‘Baron von Münchhausen’, where a harem guarded by black slaves is depicted. After the war, Michael stayed in Germany, raised his own family, and through second chance education made good for what the nazis had taken from him.
Later I started in the book by Hamburg born Hans J. Massaquoi, who, when his grandfather had returned to Liberia (his father lived abroad and did not involve himself with his child) was raised by his single mother. His life’s story after the war continues in the USA, where he became a journalist and worked for Ebony magazine. In his elaborate memoires, I read the background of the story of the Rhineland children. The nazi racist plans to tackle what agriculture minister Richard-Walther Darre in 1933 called ‘the black Shame on the Rhine.’ Just to get a wider view on nazi racism I will cite his words, and that of the ‘Führer’ himself. Darre wrote these ugly words: ‘These mulatto children were created either through rape or by white mothers who were whores. In any case, there exists not the slightest moral obligation toward these racially foreign offspring. […] I demand: sterilization off all mulattoes […] within the next two years. Otherwise it is too late, with the result that hundreds of years later this racial deterioration will still be felt.’ Hitler too had already worded his thoughts on the issue in ‘Mein Kampf’ (written in 1923-24), speaking of ‘the contamination by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe.’ He saw the cause of this ‘negrification’ in the lax attitude towards purity of the French: ‘if the development of France in the present style were to be continued for three hundred years, the last remnants of Frankish blood would be submerged in the developing European-African mulatto state. An immense self-contained area of settlement from the Rhine to the Congo, filled with a lower race gradually produced from continuous bastardization…’
As little attention as Hitler’s anti-black policies have had in literature on the nazi and war period of the 30ties and 40ties of the 20tieth century, as important it is to get this bigger picture of nazi racism. In many aspects the long shadows of those days still loom over our present times. Their racist politicies not only were directed against Jews, Roma and Sinti, but also against Africans and their children. Racism is not yet removed from our present societies. Knowing the ideas of the most convinced racists of modern times might help to look this monster in the eye. Reading how the authors of the mentioned memoires, born as Germans, and raised by African and German adults who loved them, built meaningful lives guided by ‘Prussian’ values, as Theodor Michael says it, is an inspiring lesson in human culture, that has reinvented itself since times immemorial through exchange and migration.
I cited from Hans J. Massaquoi ‘Destined to witness. Growing up in nazi Germany’, Harper Perennial 1999.
The other book mentioned is Theodor Michaels ‘Deutsch sein und schwarz dazu. Erinnerungen eines Afro-Deutschen, DTV, 2013.