When an African-American Hero Tried to Stop the Holocaust
In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the prophetic The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Eventually, he became a stalwart friend of the Jewish people.
Studying at the University of Berlin in the 1890s, Du Bois absorbed the volkisch German nationalism of his teacher, Heinrich von Treitschke, who said: “The Jews are our misfortune.” Du Bois remembered that he had “followed the Dreyfus case,” and was aware of “Jewish pogroms … in Russia,” but had no deep sympathy for the Jews.
In 1903, Du Bois claimed, wrongly, that Russian Jewish immigrants to the southern US, together with the “thrifty and avaricious” Yankees, were “squeez[ing] more blood from debt-cursed tenants.” Du Bois’ attitude quickly changed when he worked with Joel E. Spingarn, Henry Moskowitz, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Lillian Wald, and other Jews prominent in forming the NAACP.
Zionism provided a model for Du Bois’ own pan-African ideology: “The African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews.”
Holding up the Jewish people as a “tremendous force for good and uplift,” he reciprocated Jewish support by putting the NAACP on record against The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He condemned antisemitism in Poland and Hungary, as well as in Germany, and commended Albert Einstein.
In May 1933, he editorialized about the dangers of Nazism: “It all reminds the American Negro that after all race prejudice has nothing to do with accomplishment. … It is an ugly, dirty thing. It feeds on envy and hate.”
Even after the passage of 1935’s Nuremberg Laws, street corner “Harlem Hitlers” in New York organized anti-Jewish boycotts. But visiting Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, Du Bois decided that Nuremberg was worse than Alabama.
In 1940, Du Bois warned against African-American antisemitism, inflamed by German and Japanese propaganda. Despite initial doubts about America entering World War II, Du Bois remained steadfast in denouncing Hitler’s war against the Jews and supporting Zionism. As the Nazi war machine rolled east in June 1941, Du Bois joined African-American intellectuals like Ralph Bunche warning of the threat of “a new slavery and barbarism, terrorism and darkness” engulfing the world.
As early as January 1943, Du Bois announced that the murder of three million Jews marked the end of Europe’s leadership of civilization. In September 1943, he reported on the unfolding Holocaust without using the word: “We rightly shrieked to civilization when American Negroes were lynched and mobbed to death at the rate of 400 to 500 a year. Today in Europe and among peaceful Jews, they are killing that number each day.”
Du Bois, in 1945’s Color and Democracy, gave what was an unusually accurate accounting of the loss of “6,000,000 souls … this is a calamity almost beyond comprehension.” In 1948, he called the Holocaust “a supertragedy.”
During World War II, he was an African-American Cassandra warning of an unmatched catastrophe that few Americans of whatever religion or race wanted to hear about or believe.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).