How the Nazis Targeted Blacks, and the Impact of the Holocaust on African Americans
In recent years, some in the African American community have expressed a disconnect to Holocaust topics, seeing the genocide of the Jews as someone else’s nightmare. After all, African Americans are still struggling to achieve general recognition of the barbarity of the Middle Passage, the inhumanity of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow and the battle for modern civil rights. For many in that community, the murder of six million Jews and millions of other Europeans happened to other minorities in a faraway place where they had no involvement.
However, a deeper look shows that proto-Nazi ideology before the Third Reich, the wide net of Nazi-era policy, and Hitler’s post-war legacy deeply affected Africans, Afro-Germans, and African Americans throughout the 20th century. America’s Black community has a mighty stake in this topic.
Understanding the German Reich and the Holocaust is important for Blacks, just as it is for other communities, including Roma, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities, the gay community, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other groups in addition to Jews. The dots are well known to many scholars — but rarely connected to form a distinct historical nexus for either the Holocaust or the African American communities. This is understandable. The saga behind these connections started decades before the Third Reich came into existence, in a savage episode on another continent that targeted a completely different racial and ethnic group for death and destruction. But the horrors visited on another defenseless group endured, and became a template for the Final Solution. Students of the Holocaust are accustomed to looking backward long before the Third Reich and long after the demise of the Nazi war machine. African Americans should do the same.
It is settled, everyday history that Nazi Germany aggressed against its neighbors in part because of a twisted concept known as Lebensraum, that is, the self-declared mandate to achieve “living space” for an overcrowded Germany. Lebensraum declared that the Third Reich was inherently entitled to supplant and destroy other nations to advance German biological supremacy. This racist philosophy underpinned Germany’s invasion, subjugation, and rape of much of Eastern Europe. However, students of lebensraumknow it was not a Hitlerian concept. Rather, it was coined in the last gasp of the nineteenth century by German geographer Friedrich Ratzel.
In the second half of the 1800s, Germany suffered massive urban overcrowding due to its shift from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation. As it changed, Germany found itself in the throes of a concomitant population boom and rampant poverty. Low-priced American grain only exacerbated Germany’s economic woes. Germans in large numbers were sleeping on city streets. The social upheaval ignited the so-called “Flight from the East.” In the 1850s, as Beethoven’s Ninth played on for the secure classes, a million desperate Germans boarded steamers with their luggage and their memories, immigrating to American shores. Some 215,000 came in 1854 alone. Things did not improve in Germany. In the 1880s, another 1.5 million Germans came to America, bringing their beer and brats. Upon arrival to this country, they poured west into such centers as Milwaukee and St. Louis. It was an epic population influx for America that in large measure helped build the continental United States and the nation’s social fabric.
But in the Second Reich, rapid multimillion-person population loss and the tearfully destitute conditions propelling the outflow, were devastating to the German national identity. A concept arose: Volk ohne Raum, that is, “a people without space.” As the father of German geopolitics, Ratzel, with his post-Darwinian notions of racial supremacy, insisted that colonizing land to create extra “living space” was the cure for Germany’s urban overcrowding. In those turn-of-the twentieth-century days, a weakened Germany turned its focus from the Balkans and the Slavic realms to Africa. Indeed, Ratzel wrote that Africa was an ideal candidate for the push to achieve Lebensraum.
Africa, with its wide-open spaces and rugged, romantic beauty, had long beckoned white Europe. By the early 1880s, imperialists in England, Belgium, Portugal, France, and other countries were planning or had inaugurated colonies throughout the African continent. Many were incomprehensibly brutal and exploitative regimes. Kaiser Wilhelm feared Germany would be shut out of Africa and its natural resources, including gold.
The Second Reich enthusiastically joined the so-called “Scramble for Africa.” Beginning in November 1884, Germany convened the Berlin Conference of leading European powers to cooperatively carve up the African continent. Out of that international conclave came an agreement, enacted “in the Name of God Almighty,” which would systematize an orderly territorial invasion by European powers, as well as river navigation, land use and the other needed “rules for the future occupation of the coast of the African Continent.” As part of the treaty, European governments also agreed to interdict and suppress the Arab slave trade — a lofty moralistic ideal with a double edge. Stemming Arab slave exports also kept able-bodied Africans on the land and available to labor in abject and cruel, slave-like conditions on colonial plantations.
Beginning in 1884, Germany colonized four territories across the breadth of the continent: Togoland, the Cameroons, Tanganyika and a main coastal presence in Southwest Africa, now known as Namibia. In Southwest Africa, German settlers were able to establish lucrative plantations by exploiting the labor of local Herero and Nama (also known as Hottentot) indigenous peoples. German banks and industrialists combined to provide needed economic support and investment. Berlin dispatched a small military contingent to protect white settlers as they confronted the lightly armed African natives considered subhuman in Germany’s twisted notion of racial hierarchy. Once entrenched, the German minority established a culture of pure labor enslavement. Tribeswomen were subjected to incessant and often capricious rape — and not infrequently, their men were killed while attempting to defend them. Whites routinely stole the possessions of natives, such as cattle, and found ways to seize ancestral lands over trivialities. Confiscation was often facilitated by predatory European lending practices enforced at gunpoint by the German military. In 1903, on the verge of utter dispossession, Nama warriors revolted against the 2,500-strong white community. Later, Herero fighters joined. Scores of German settlers were massacred in a sequence of surprise attacks.
The 700-plus Schutztruppe or “protection force” was overwhelmed. The colonial governor called for reinforcements.
In 1904, Berlin dispatched 14,000 soldiers to suppress the uprising. Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, Supreme Commander of German Southwest Africa, had learned from other European battles in Africa, such as Britain’s costly Boer War. Trotha was determined to quickly and completely exterminate the African natives, leaving the land free for fulfillment of the dream of Lebensraum. Armed with modern cannon and Gatling guns, Trotha’s troops surrounded the Africans on three sides. When Trotha wrote on October 2, 1904, “It is my intention to destroy the rebellious tribes with streams of blood and money,” his men used the German word vernichtung. Vernichtung means extermination.
After decimating the outclassed fighters, Trotha decided to annihilate the civilians as well. His proclamation to the Hereros and the colonists was an open pledge of extermination, unmistakable to all:
I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. … The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.
Understandably, Trotha’s command became known in official circles as a vernichtungsbefehl, that is, an “extermination order.”
Nearly surrounded, more than 3,000 Hereros were cut down by fusillades. But bullets and cannon were only the beginning. German guide Jan Cloete testified, “I was present when the Herero were defeated in a battle in the vicinity of Waterberg. After the battle, all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside … were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men was unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle.”
To avoid staining the honor of German soldiers, von Trotha instructed his troops to fire over the heads of women, children, and weakened men, driving them east into the scorching dry Omaheke section of the Kalahari Desert. In anticipation of their flight, troops poisoned the wells or surrounded them with deadly forces. Starved of food or water, the desperate and weakened Herero wandered from watering hole to watering hole. Thousands, in family groups, gradually fell dead, their rib cages bulging to the limits of their gaunt and emaciated skins. Many who did not die quickly enough were seized — still whimpering — and then stacked by soldiers into human heaps atop makeshift pyres comprised of bush branches and limbs. The “people mounds” of vanquished Hereros, still barely alive and breathing, were set on fire — to finish the business. For many years, their mass-murdered bodies littered the desert in nightmarish aggregations of killed humanity. Whistled by the desert winds and photographed through the lens of eternity, flesh and bones became fleshless bones, as the unburied corpses not completely immolated were finally devoured by desert elements.
A deadly fate also awaited the Nama tribespeople. Trotha sent them a similar message: “The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in German territory will be shot, until all are exterminated.”
With the vast majority of the Africans murdered, Berlin rethought the extermination program. What good was maintaining a colony without a local workforce to exploit? Therefore, at some point, those civilian Herero and Nama people and related clans that managed to escape the bullets, cannon shot, killing thirst, and fiery execution were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Many died on the long march. Others were simply transported to serve in cruel bondage for great German industrial concerns, building roads, berms, and useful holes for the German infrastructure. One of these camps was the notorious Shark Island Concentration Camp. For all intents and purposes, Shark Island was considered an “extermination by labor” camp where Nama and Herero civilians, including women and children, were knowingly and methodically worked to death. Investigators estimate the death rate at 90 percent, as thousands of defenseless Africans perished under the brutal living conditions, the heavy loads, the piercing elements, and the endless whippings with stinging sjamboks made of rhinoceros or hippopotamus hide awaiting all those who showed either weakness, reluctance, or just slowness of step.
A missionary recalled in shock, “A woman who was so weak from illness that she could not stand, crawled to some of the other prisoners to beg for water. The overseer fired five shots at her. Two shots hit her: one in the thigh, the other smashing her forearm.” One surviving family member of a chief later testified to a British commission, “I was sent to Shark Island by the Germans. We remained on the island one year. [Approximately] 3,500Hottentots [Nama], and Kaffirs were sent to the island and [only] 193 returned—3,307 died on the Island.”
Another member of the German settlement wrote, “During the worst period an average of thirty died daily … it was the way the system worked. General von Trotha publicly gave expression to this system of murder through work in an article he published. … ‘the destruction of all rebellious tribes is the aim of our efforts.’”
At the beginning of the German occupation, Herero society was estimated at about 80,000 to 90,000 souls. Some 50,000 Africans comprising other tribal groups, created a total approximate native population of about 130,000 to 140,000. By the time the cannon smoke cleared and the injured stopped breathing, only about 15,000 broken Hereros remained to be dragooned for labor. In 1911, after hostilities had ceased and the extermination policy was challenged in Berlin, an official German census counted an 80 percent reduction of all tribal groups, or about 92,000 dead in the preceding few years. Settlements Commissioner Paul Rohrbach insisted, “To secure the peaceful white settlement against the bad, culturally inept, and predatory native tribe, it is possible that its actual eradication may become necessary.” Even still, Rohrbach bemoaned that so many sheep and cows had to die along with the Hereros, due to the sweeping nature of Trotha’s Vernichtungs Prinzep, or extermination policy. He chastised that it was a waste to lose that much livestock.
Scholars commonly say the Armenian genocide of 1914–1915, perpetrated by the Turks, was the first genocide of the twentieth century. That is wrong. History records the first deliberate effort to systematically exterminate an entire group was by the Germans in Southwest Africa, 1904–1908.
Yet the systematic slaughter of the Hereros and related African groups was hardly a secret genocide. The sanctioned extermination was long debated in the Reichstag—was too much or too little force applied? In one 1906 Reichstag session, Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow read a newspaper letter explaining, “Around 2,000 [Hereros] are presently under German imprisonment. They surrendered against the guarantee of life, but were nevertheless transferred to Shark Island in Lüderitz, where, as a doctor assured me, they will all die within two years due to the climate.”
Coveted medals were awarded to the military leaders. A heroic national myth was invented to glamorize the German conquest and victory, complete with grandiose horse-mounted soldier statuary in public squares both in Germany and Africa. Germany’s military establishment compiled a two-volume official report for study at its academies. The entire campaign was justified and elevated along numerous social and military planes. Published memoirs, artworks, and geopolitical promulgations enshrined the supposed gallantry of the extermination of the Hereros.
After World War I, Germany was stripped of her African colonies as part of the Treaty of Versailles. German Southwest Africa and its other African colonies were set on a path to independence, albeit under close direct and indirect European tutelage. The loss of its colonies might have convinced many Germans that Africa was part of a dark past. Not so.
Conscription and recruitment had been introduced into France’s African territories decades earlier. Nearly half a million fearsome fighters, mainly from Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco — all generally referred to as Senegalese Tirailleurs regardless of their national origins — fought in the French Army in World War I. At times, Africans comprised about 14 percent of the wartime French army. During World War I, French Colonial African regiments fought in great numbers in the European theater.
The Treaty of Versailles, in Article 428, stipulated that the Allies would occupy the Rhineland for fifteen years. In 1919, French troops occupied this part of Western Germany. Between 20,000 and 40,000 of these occupying soldiers were Senegalese Tirailleurs — about half from Arab North Africa, and about half from central and interior Africa. The presence of African soldiers in authority caused hysteria in Germany and shock on both sides of the Atlantic. Germans popularized a national panic over the so-called “Black Horror on the Rhine.”
Deviant racial sexual imagery, including caricatures of monkey-like soldiers — often possessed of giant phalluses — ravaging helpless German damsels spread widely in print and public discourse. By 1920, mass rallies had been convened in 25 German cities, including one with 50,000 attendees at Hamburg’s Sagebiel Hall. Sympathetic rallies by German-American groups were organized across the United States by “The American Campaign against the Horror on the Rhine.” One such demonstration at Madison Square Garden attracted 12,000 protesters of Irish and German descent. In the contentious presidential contest of 1920, some supporters of Warren G. Harding were fond of verbalizing support for his apparent promise that “he would do his best to get those niggers out of Germany.” Even Pope Benedict XV and his successor Pius XI voiced objection to African presence on German soil.
Occupation by African soldiers was seen among the German people as a further wound-salting French humiliation of German honor and prestige. Certainly, there were a number of rapes, but there were also consensual marriages as people mixed. From these came a class of mixed-race Afro-Germans popularly called mulattos. Estimates vary widely, but many observers surmise some 20,000 mulattos, that is, Afro-Germans with legal German citizenship, were now amongst them. Everywhere, fear gripped German society that its racial superiority would be poisoned by Negro blood. The “Black Horror on the Rhine” coincided with the advent of American and international eugenics, a pseudoscience born on Long Island that found intellectual partnership with German racists of the day.
Eugenics was an early twentieth century American crusade to create a white, blond, blue-eyed, Germanic utopian society that would rise following the systematic elimination of all people of color or of unwanted mixed ancestry. A famous founding document of the American movement was a 1912 German study, The Bastards of Rehoboth and the Problem of Miscegenation in Man, which claimed to document the corrupted moral and biological nature of black-white offspring. The author was German biologist and race scientist Eugen Fischer. He was stationed in colonial Southwest Africa, where he studied local Dutch-African families cited in the work. From studies such as Fischer’s sprang the fraudulent science of American eugenics that medicalized racial theory. Propelled by abundant financing from the Carnegie Institution, Harriman Railroad fortune, and Rockefeller Foundation, eugenics ultimately led to the sterilization of some 60,000 Americans under laws in 27 states, as well as racial and ethnic incarceration.
Carnegie and Rockefeller poured millions of dollars into proliferating the pseudoscience in Germany after World War I. Average Germans everywhere embraced the American theories, elevating their visceral racial hatred into an entrenched university science with broad acceptance.
The German and global public outcry against claimed biological and cultural debasement by French African troops finally gave way in May 1920, when Paris announced its troops were almost entirely being transferred to the Mideast to fight the war against Arab nationalism in Syria.
But if in late 1920, Germany once again thought its juncture with Africa was over, they were wrong. Thousands of French African soldiers returned in 1923. The Treaty of Versailles had imposed a massive $33 billion war debt on the newly established Weimar Republic, successor to the Second Reich. Germany struggled to pay its debt in cash and raw materials. When it defaulted on the delivery of 140,000 telegraph poles, thousands of French troops occupied Germany’s Ruhr industrial region to seize the value of local factory output. German workers walked out on general strike. Berlin began printing worthless money to support the striking families — which led to the famous hyperinflation, where worthless cash was carted in wheelbarrows to buy bread.
With Germany roiled by socioeconomic and political chaos and the fright of French African troops in many streets, the militarized rabble of Germany’s recent wars rose again. They were determined to turn back the clock and achieve a racial and territorial triumph. The pervasive ghastly legacy of Southwest Africa and the concomitant panic over the “Black Horror on the Rhine,” combined with unrelated factors such the rise of communism, German imperial humiliation, a global economic Depression, and seething antisemitism to produce a combustible fascist mix. Out of this mix came the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler. Nazi crimes, Hitler’s henchmen, and their methodologies are well known. Their nexus with Southwest Africa is less known.
The Sturmabteilung — the Storm Troopers — wore brown shirts. Why brown? Many early Nazis served in the Schutztruppe, the military units that had operated in Southwest Africa. Recalling German colonial grandeur, Nazi Storm Troopers purchased surplus Schutztruppe uniforms, light brown for service on the Kalahari Desert in the Southwest Africa realm.
Hermann Goering rose as one of the Nazi triumvirate, second only to Hitler. The first Reichskommissar, or Governor, of German Southwest Africa was Goering’s father, Heinrich. The elder Goering was among the first to confront the Herero. For decades, a main street in the Southwest African settlement immortalized his name — Heinrich Goering Street.
For his part, Hermann was captivated by his father’s exploits in Africa. Goering’s 1939 official Nazi biography records reveal that the young Goering “was even more thrilled by his [father’s] accounts of his pioneer work as Reichskommissar for South-West Africa … and his fights with the Herero.” Years later, Goering swore under oath that of the leading “points which are significant with relation to my later development,” he counted among the top four as “the position of my father as first Governor of Southwest Africa.”
Franz Ritter von Epp was an early leading figure of the Third Reich. He formed the Freikorps Epp in 1919, which was one of the many street fighting units that evolved into the Nazis. Indeed, von Epp’s personal aide was Ernst Röhm, who would later become a founding leader of the Storm Troopers. Von Epp hired a young informant named Adolf Hitler. Later, von Epp helped raise 60,000 marks to purchase the official Nazi newspaper Völkische Beobachter. Hitler appointed von Epp Reichskommissar for Bavaria in 1933, and as such, von Epp was involved with the inauguration and oversight of Germany’s first concentration camp, Dachau. During special ceremonial meetings with leaders, such as Mussolini, von Epp was in photos next to Hitler or other ranking Nazis.
Who was von Epp? Von Epp was one of the earlier volunteer German fighters in the Schutztruppe that fought the Herero in Southwest Africa. He served as a company commander under von Trotha, and stayed on as concentration camps were established. During Third Reich years, von Epp was often pictured in his colonial Southwest African military garb with its distinctive upturned desert hat serving as a reminder that Germany’s colonial exploits were part of the Nazi ethos. He also loudly supported the Reich’s push to reclaim its African colonies.
Eugen Fischer was the Nazi doctor who helped pioneer murderous eugenics in the Third Reich. As director of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, Fischer steered racial pseudoscience into a war of extermination. In 1939, Fischer declared in a lecture: “When a people wants … to preserve its own nature, it must reject alien racial elements, and when these have already insinuated themselves, it must suppress them and eliminate them. The Jew is such an alien and, therefore, when he wants to insinuate himself, he must be warded off. This is self-defense. In saying this, I do not characterize every Jew as inferior, as Negroes are, and I do not underestimate the greatest enemy with whom we have to fight.” Fischer’s protégé was the rabid anti-Semite Otmar von Verschuer, who undertook twin studies. Von Verschuer’s assistant, Josef Mengele, continued the twin research in Auschwitz, sending back weekly reports of his macabre dissection of eyeballs and skulls.
Fischer had launched his career in race science with a study of interbreeding between the Nama and Dutch settlers. Working arduously in such concentration camps as Shark Island, Fischer ordered hundreds of executed inmates to be decapitated. Herero women were required to remove all flesh from the heads using shards of glass, to create clean skulls suitable for shipment. These were then packed in crates and sent back to Berlin for Fischer’s eugenic examination at nameplate German scientific institutes. So celebrated were these skull shipments, a popular color postcard sporting a photograph of the packing process was published in Germany in commemoration of the ghastly endeavor.
The list of Southwest African soldiers, colonial overseers, and commercial settlers and their prominent involvement in the Nazi movement is long and odious. A much shorter list of Nazi concepts and mechanisms carries a more than eerie relation to the Southwest Africa genocide.
Jews were termed untermenschen or “sub-human.” This concept underpinned Nazi Jew hatred. The Nazi conceptualization of untermenschen is often traced to the American eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard, a close colleague of Margaret Sanger and a director of her American Birth Control League, a forerunner organization of Planned Parenthood. Stoddard’s writings were a personal favorite of Hitler. In 1922, Stoddard issued his tract The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man. Later, many historians thought this vocabulary triggered the German adoption. However, the racial view that Africans were actually not humans, but rather sub-humans first appears in German usage in Southwest Africa. It was von Trotha who archetypically wrote, “A humane war cannot be waged against those who are not human.” Southwest African colonial officials and military men took the view that the Herero were actually a form of baboon or other monkey, but not human. One German in Southwest Africa wrote: “We should burn all these dogs and baboons.”
African people were commonly thought of as talking monkeys by many eugenicists worldwide. Indeed, in 1906 at the time of Germany’s continual subjugation of the remnant Hereros, a small-statured but well-spoken Congolese man named Ota Benga was displayed in a cage at the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The New York Times brushed off criticism by African American ministers of the day, stating in an editorial: “We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter … It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies… are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place… from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.” The addition to German vocabulary of the term untermenschen as an intellectual fundamental did not arise in Berlin, but in Southwest Africa. That said, whether gilded by the intelligentsia or inculcated as a common man’s deception, it was a view held by too many worldwide at the time.
The Third Reich established thousands of concentration camps and sub-camps where so many Jews were confined under inhuman conditions or were sent to be industrially killed. The German word for such sites was Konzentrationslager. America’s Civil War probably pioneered the cruel concept of the concentration camp with several depraved, high-density stockades for prisoners of war, such as the one known as Andersonville. In the last years of the nineteenth century, civilians in conflict were subjected to the same treatment. During the Spanish-American War period, Spain barbarically herded large masses of Cuban civilians into concentration camps as part of its Reconcentrado — “Reconcentration Program.” The Cubans in those camps were systematically starved to death. Deprived of food and transformed into staggering skeletons, more than 300,000 Cubans died. Spain’s camps seem to be the first for civilians—but not the last. The British in South Africa emulated the idea in the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century.
It wasn’t until Germany inaugurated its camps for the Hereros that the term Konzentrationslager entered the German language. In a letter from Berlin, von Trotha was ordered to cease his extermination policy to salvage usable laborers, that is, to, “establish Konzentrationslager for the temporary housing and sustenance of the Herero people.” This is the first known use in German parlance. Hence, for Germany, the linguistic and structural model of the Konzentrationslager originated not in the Nazi mind but in the Southwest African colony.
Jews were dispatched to concentration camps across Europe in cattle cars. These trains were dubbed Transport. For Germany, the process had happened once before. In Southwest Africa, to expedite the transfer of un-killed Hereros to be worked to death, the Germans loaded them into cattle cars. Germany called those particular Herero transit trains Transport.
To achieve racial purity, the Third Reich introduced race laws, which designated many non-Aryan people as Mischlinge, or “mixed race.” Aryans who married or consorted with Jews were accused of Rassenschande, that is, a racial shame or defilement. Ironically, the first time Germans began using the term Rassenschande was in Southwest Africa when, in 1905, they enacted never-before-seen regulations against intermarriage between Africans and Europeans. Back in Germany, during those colonial and Great War years, the African precedent was debated—and often lauded—in the Reichstag for implementation in the Fatherland. Once the Nazis came to power, however, precedents set in Southwest African were enacted in Germany.
The Nazis spoke of the “Final Solution.” The German word was Endlösung, suggestive of extermination. It was uttered first in German by Georg Hartmann in 1904, decades before the Third Reich. Hartmann, manager of the Southwest Africa Company, prepared a special report asserting that “the final solution to the native question can only be to break the power of the natives totally and for all time.” The German word Hartmann used, for the first time as a code word for murder, was “Endlösung.”
During the Hitler years, hundreds of thousands of Jews and other enemies of the state were held in concentration camps. Each of them was given a number recorded on a Häftlingskarte—prisoner card. The card followed each inmate from site to site. IBM kept track of all the cards and numbers. From 1907, in Southwest Africa, so-called “pass laws” were inaugurated, requiring all Hereros to wear a circular numbered metal neck tag wherever they went and before being permitted on a work assignment.
In the popular mindset of Nazi-era Germans, the callous exploits of Southwest Africa were cherished recent memory. In 1936, German shipyards finished work on two giant new passenger liners, including the Windhuk, the second such vessel bearing that name, built at the Blohm & Voss works in Hamburg, to sail between Germany and Southwest Africa. Popular trading cardsincluded some for Southwest Africa. Historians of the period have noted that numerous bestsellers of the day offered Southwest African themes. These included the 1934 book South West Africa Then and Now by Hugo Blumhagen and the 1935 brisk sellerGerman Africa, End or Beginning? by former Southwest Africa Settlements Commissioner Rohrbach. A plethora of popular movies stoked collective African memories, such as the 70-minute Deutsches Land in Afrika, screened in 1939 and re-released in a shorter version under the title The Dream of Lost Colonies.
No wonder the image of a giant ape capturing a blonde in the 1933 international hit King Kong caused panic in some quarters of Germany. “It provokes our racial instincts to show a blonde woman of the Germanic type in the hand of an ape … For the German people, this film is unbearable,” a leading Nazi academic warned a film censorship committee. When Jesse Owens, grandson of a slave, triumphed over Aryan athletes, garnering a record four medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, his victory was more than an Olympic feat—it was a prodigious defeat for the long-held German concept of racial hierarchy.
During Hitler’s pre-war years, IBM helped the Reich cross-index those identified as Jews in the census with professional and industry registers and organizations. Once German Jews were exposed in their professions, they were summarily fired. Now Nazi policy had a direct impact on African Americans in the United States — but with a great benefit. Under Hitler’s repression, some 2,000 German and Austrian refugee scholars fled to America. They arrived in a nation still staggering under its Depression, and deeply veined with both the scourge of segregation and the sting of antisemitism. More than 50 German-Jewish academics relocated to a number of historically Black colleges and universities, such as Howard University in Washington, DC, North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, and Talladega University in Birmingham.
The influx of German-Jewish academics offered an unexpected stimulus to many African Americans’ educational experiences during the formative years of the pre-Civil Rights era. Refugee professors helped set the stage for the intellectual movement to come. Among the students who credit the inspiration of German-Jewish professors is Joyce Ladner, who went on to organize civil rights protests with Medgar Evers and who would later rise to the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] and the Congress on Racial Equality [CORE]. Ladner’s mentor was Ernst Borinski, a Jewish sociologist who arrived from Germany in 1938 and eventually taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. His sociology student Ladner excelled and ultimately became a board member of the American Sociological Association as well as interim president of Howard University. In 1996, Washingtonian Magazine named her “Washingtonian of the Year.” As for Borinski, he is remembered for fighting Jim Crow all his years in Mississippi. When he died, he was buried on the Tougaloo Campus. His tombstone reads simply: “Ernst Borinski, Inspiring Teacher.” Ladner remembered Borinski’s devotion to overturning segregation, recalling his “affinity with blacks because they experienced a similar persecution.” The Mississippi chapter of the ACLU still grants the “Ernst Borinski Civil Libertarian of the Year Award.”
Another African American student is Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who went from being mentored by a German-Jewish professor to a distinguished career in medicine. In 1993, she became Surgeon General of the United States. Later, Elders reflected on the indispensable years as student of a German-Jewish émigré. “I can read almost any German scientific literature,” Elders told the Wall Street Journal. “The German-Jewish professors had a tremendous impact on young blacks in the South,” summed up African American attorney Jim McWilliams, who attended Talladega College. “They exposed us to new music, art, and academic programs.”
Ironically, the German Jews fleeing oppression found it again, this time in America’s Deep South. A still-cherished relic of the German-Jewish academic presence is a receipt for $28. That was the legal fine Talladega University professor Donald Rasmussen was assessed in 1942 for sitting at a café with Black students in violation of the Birmingham city code prohibiting race mixing in eating establishments.
Dr. Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, summed it up this way: “They found a place where they could make a contribution, and they found a place where they could pursue their intellectual life. They found a place where they could make a difference.”
The importance of Jewish victims of Nazism teaching a generation of African American victims of Jim Crow has been dramatically chronicled in a book, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, along with a PBS special of the same name and a traveling museum exhibit. Ladner told one interviewer that she remembers her professor because, “He taught us how not to be victims.”
The transfer of courage was not limited to academia. While some German Jews in the pre-war years were able to manage their immigration from Germany, thousands of Afro-Germans could not. After World War I, so-called mulattos and others of mixed African-German parentage lived in Germany as ordinary German citizens despite the race hatred. The numbers are approximate, but it is thought that by 1933, the Afro-German population numbered some 20,000.
When the Nazis came to power, like throngs of other loyal Germans, some Afro-Germans tried to join the Nazi Party. Hans Massaquoi, son of a Liberian diplomat and a German woman, was among those who wanted to sign up with his local branch of the Hitler Youth, just like the rest of his schoolmates. Young Hans was astonished to discover that the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, defining German blood and racial status, applied to him — denying him admittance. His teacher reluctantly told him that joining the Hitler Youth was now impossible. “But I am German,” implored Hans, “my Mother says I’m German just like anybody else.” Nearly hysterical, he pressured his incredulous mother to take him to the nearest Hitler Youth recruitment home, where he was roundly told to leave.
From that moment on, Massaquoi learned to live with the twin fears that the Gestapo would knock on his door or that Allied bombs would rain down on the roof. He dated a white German girl and was a one of the “Swing Kids,” who extolled Black Jazz in a Reich that considered it an abomination. His life was trebly precarious. However, his nerve-wracking existence as an Afro-German produced an extraordinary man who became one of America’s most influential civil rights figures.
After the war, Massaquoi was able to emigrate to the United States, where he became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Later, Hans became a marcher alongside Martin Luther King in Chicago. In Chicago, he took a job with Jet Magazine and then Ebony, where he rose to become the managing editor. For years he served with distinction, chronicling the saga of civil rights giants such as Dr. King and Muhammad Ali. Despite his rise in a free post-war country, he always remembered that day in America on a train crossing south over the Mason-Dixon Line when the conductor gruffly demanded that he change seats to the segregated “colored car.” Angry, the conductor shouted, “Go where you niggers belong.” According to his memoirs, Massaquoi could not resist frequent visits back to Germany, which he always considered his “homeland.”
Afro-Germans were under constant threat in Nazi Germany. The Reich was adamant that their bloodlines be terminated. Some offspring were traced to the African colonies. But those with a clear lineage to occupying French African colonial soldiers or American troops were the most detested among Nazi policymakers. These children were labeled with the derogation “Rhineland Bastards.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler denounced “contamination by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe,” which he said, “suits the purpose of the cool calculating Jew.” A key member of the Nazi Party wrote, “It is essential to exterminate the leftovers from the black Shame on the Rhine. These mulatto children were created either through rape or by white mothers who were whores. In either case, there is no moral obligation whatsoever to this progeny of an alien race.” Because they were German citizens, the regime concluded that deportation or expulsion was impractical. Instead, Berlin decided to eliminate the group through sterilization. However, under the 1933 mandatory sterilization law, African descent was not listed as a justification.
So in 1935, a secret working group was ordained, Special Commission Number 3, led by Fischer and two colleagues. Genealogies were evaluated one by one to prove ancestry to French-African or African American parentage. A typical evaluation read: “C.M.B. of German nationality, born July 5, 1923, living in Koblenz, is a descendent of a member of the former Allied occupation forces, in this case an American negro, and shows corresponding typical anthropological characteristics, for which reason she shall be sterilized.” The survey process took two years. Implementation finally began in 1937 after the triumphant visit of Jesse Owens. Approximately 385 youngsters of either French or American occupying troops were quickly sterilized at several hospitals, such as Bonn University’s Women’s Clinic.
Once WWII broke out, the Germans were not willing to limit their animus toward the black race to sterilization. In wartime, mass murder was the frequent solution.
Generally speaking, Allied POWs in Nazi custody were treated according to the Geneva Convention, except those of the Russian army who were, in some situations, killed in large numbers. A second exception was the treatment of black soldiers, either from France or the United States. Scholarship is still emerging, but it is thought no direct order mandated the murder of black soldiers. But when captured, there were many instances of massacre. Those sent to POW camps were often, but not always, singled out for special brutal treatment.
Certainly, French Africans, the Senegalese Tirailleurs, suffered great losses. It is suggested by military historians that 1,500 to 3,000 French African troops were actually summarily murdered when discovered by the Germans during the first weeks of War, known as “the Blitzkrieg.” The first such massacre is believed to have occurred on May 24, 1940 near the French village of Augbigny, when German units marched 50 captured French Africans into the distance and shot them. Some scholars believe the total killed, either in captivity or in combat, is between 55,000 and 60,000.
The record of African American GIs is even more obscure. Historians reviewing the events of 1944 have discovered a case in Salzburg. The SS shot African American airmen as a group. In Budapest, the Gestapo hanged three pilots. On September 1, 1944, the SS murdered eleven young artillerymen of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (FAB) after they surrendered from their hiding place in a private home. These were the so-called “Wereth 11.” Their bodies were disfigured and showed signs of torture. Despite this, Washington did not quickly investigate this war crime. It seems their horrible deaths were not a priority for the Pentagon. Only after villagers came forth with their memories was their fate acknowledged, publicity inaugurated, and a monument built. It is the only monument to black soldiers in Europe. But certainly there should be more.
It is thought that several African American units were among those who liberated the concentration camps where many emaciated Jews were rescued from the membrane that divides life and death. This would include the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in General Patton’s Third Army. In the last days of the war, the 761st helped liberate Gunskirchen, a cruelly operated Mauthausen subcamp for Hungarian Jews. Many of the liberators came away with nightmares and then had to face bitter segregation in post-war America.
Many Jews studiously track the post-war Nazi legacy, and its impact on Arab Countries as well as the details of escaped Nazi SS, Gestapo, and camp guards to Latin America and other havens. Long after Hitler’s bunker fell, African Americans in North Carolina and other states were impacted by the race theories and race science that began in Southwest Africa, which oppressed Europe under Hitler, but did not easily disappear from broad acceptance in America. The scourge of Nazi eugenics found a welcome and official embrace in 27 states. A total of some 67,000 coercive sterilizations targeted many groups, including disproportionate numbers of African Americans.
Initially, before WWI, American eugenics led the way for Germany. After Hitler came to power, the Americans took a back seat and tried to emulate Nazi policy in the United States. North Carolina was just one example. In crafting its sterilization law, North Carolina legislators and its eugenic advocates worked closely with Harry Laughlin, the head of the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenic Record Office located at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. Laughlin was arguably the central irrepressible force in America, framing state-by-state legislation designed to eliminate “unwanted” segments of society. He worked in conjunction with the Municipal Court of Chicago, distributing a massive guidebook to passing similar legislation — found constitutional — in every state in the Union. He was also a principal conduit for Nazi eugenic theories in the United States. In 1937, Laughlin received an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for helping devise the Nuremberg Law formulas that designated who was a full Jew and who possessed just a fraction of Jewish blood.
North Carolina eugenic officials also worked closely with the Human Betterment Foundation, a collection of openly rabid Nazi stalwarts located in Pasadena, California. Human Betterment Foundation founder and president E. S. Gosney had counseled Germany’s newly installed Reich leaders on proper eugenic enforcement, including courtroom “trials” where individuals were accused by prosecutors of hereditary defects and were obliged to prove otherwise with “evidence.” Gosney also maintained regular, congenial, and encouraging communication with Hitler’s chief Nazi doctor, Otmar von Verschuer, renowned for eugenic twin research. Verschuer’s assistant, Josef Mengele, continued his boss’s twin research with monstrous experiments in Auschwitz. The Human Betterment Foundation Annual Report for 1935 cited a congratulatory letter from fellow California eugenicist Charles Goethe to Gosney. After a 1934 trip to Nazi Germany, Goethe wrote: “You [Gosney] will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program … I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”
The North Carolina Eugenics Board’s 1935 report, Eugenical Sterilization in North Carolina, A Brief Survey of the Growth of Eugenical Sterilization and a Report on The Work of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina through June 30, 1935, was typical of dozens of similar agency reports and publications. In the forty-page 1935 report, on page 9, the Eugenics Board sets forth the state’s sterilization targets, namely, “moral degenerates,” the so-called “feebleminded,” and “hereditary criminals.” On the same page, the official report quotes two paragraphs from the Nazi sterilization law. By consulting with the local North Carolina medical, legal, and academic adherents of Nazi eugenics, a Reich-mimicking process designed to subtract unwanted family lines from North Carolina’s population was set in motion.
About 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized. Exactly how many were African American is not completely certain, as the shame kept many in the shadows. But it is known that African American women were disproportionately selected for ligation. The imposed sterilizations continued into the 1970s, long after Hitler fell.
North Carolina’s advisor Laughlin and others held the view that the state’s population was riddled with unfit humans, and that their spawn had infiltrated the entire United States. In 1936, Laughlin was commissioned by Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross to undertake a “Survey of the Human Resources of Connecticut.” The purpose? To bring Nazi-style ethnic cleansing to Connecticut in an organized, scientific fashion. The plan was to trace the ancestry of all 1.75 million residents of Connecticut. Page 63 of the 1938 survey’s final report stated that the eugenic commission would “determine the racial descent of the present population of the state with particular reference to social value — good and bad.” The final report continues: “Make a special study of alien blood in Connecticut … The non-white blood in the state constitutes the subject of a survey of particular value. Investigation should include … their origin, numbers and interracial mixtures, and rates of increase.”
Those considered unfit would be denounced as “aliens.” They would be rounded up, their assets seized, and they would then be “deported” to their ancestral states or regions under a program called “Intertown, intercommunity, and interstate deportation.” This would be the modern equivalent, the state plan asserted, “of being run out of town.” This policy also mirrored the Nazi approach of the day. Page 56 of the report states, “If exile, or ‘encouraged emigration,’ or ‘dumping’ were no longer possible” due to the large numbers to be internally deported, American states that “now permit the production of certain types of human defectives and inadequates would be compelled to consider more seriously a practical means for the reduction of their supply.”
Compelled? How? Reciprocal legislation between states was envisioned.
Specifically, when the limit of re-absorption of the deported masses was reached, special “population control” measures were to be undertaken. Five measures were cited: 1) Migration Control “to enforce deportation”; 2) Marriage Restriction; 3) Sterilization; 4) Segregation and Incarceration “for the prevention of their living again in their handicapped offspring in the next generation,” which would necessitate confinement camps; and 5) Euthanasia.
Laughlin explained, “In some communities ‘mercy death’ has been advocated in certain extreme cases … but the modern American state has not yet worked out ‘due process of law’ nor has it yet decided on who should sit in judgment.” The final Connecticut state report added, “The legality and protection finally found in the eugenical sterilization laws after twenty years of experimental legislation gives some hope that a similarly sound basis for euthanasia might be worked out … for states or communities which desire it.”
Reciprocal “treaties” would be engineered with like-minded eugenic advocates in the legislatures of Connecticut and alien-recipient states using the robust interstate cooperation model perfected during the quest to achieve mass sterilization. To that end, on page 66, in a section headed “Needed Researches,” project 8 “Euthanasia — Mercy Death,” the task was set forth: “Compile and analyze all past and existing statutes of all nations which bear upon the subject.” Euthanasia had been the holy grail of eugenics since the movement’s inception at the end of the nineteenth century.
Among the many ancestral states long under particular scrutiny for their freed slaves were Kentucky, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. These were to receive thousands of Connecticut’s deportees. If the notion spread, similar deportation policies would be adopted by other states. The plan took its first step with mass registration of nearly all 2,190 citizens of the town of Rocky Hill, Connecticut. About half of them were fingerprinted.
But the mass deportations, recipient-state incarceration camps, and euthanasia mills never happened. Within weeks of the plan’s launch in Rocky Hill, Governor Cross lost the 1938 election. With Cross out of office, Laughlin’s entire project was quietly abandoned. World War II broke out in 1939. Nazi atrocities and eugenic fascism shocked the world. After World War II, as the smoke cleared from millions murdered in the name of racial supremacy, international law officially declared that hampering reproduction of any ethnic group constituted “genocide.”
We have only begun to chart the impact of German policy on those of African descent. More would be known, but such research remains almost completely unfunded. However, this much is certain: all misery bleeds the same color blood. Everyman’s persecution is everyman’s crusade.
Human rights writer Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, War Against the Weak, and The Farhud. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.