Black Germans in Nazi Germany

By Professor Eve Rosenhaft

Eve Rosenhaft is Professor of German Historical Studies at the University of Liverpool, co-author (with Robbie Aitken) of Black Germany. The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community 1884-1960 (2013), and translator of Black German, the memoirs of Theodor Michael (2017)

Where Hands Touch: Scenes from a Little-Known History

“Where is she..?”

The question that frames Leyna’s story is the one of who is to be allowed to have children, and by whom. When we first meet her, she is hiding from officers who have come to force her to be sterilised. Compulsory sterilisation was a key instrument in realising the Nazi vision of a pure and healthy population. From 1934 onwards, any German suffering from a congenital condition – including “hereditary feeble-mindedness” and forms of socially and sexually deviant behaviour – could be forcibly sterilised. The procedures were carried out on the basis of court orders. Certification that you had been sterilised initially meant that otherwise you could go about your daily life, although from 1939 onwards people whose lives were deemed “unworthy of life” because of their medical or mental condition were murdered outright. Some 700,000 men, women and children fell victim to sterilisation and “euthanasia”.

Sterilisation threatened Germans like Leyna in particular ways. The Nuremberg “race” laws introduced in September 1935 denied Jews the rights of citizens and barred them from marriage or sexual relations with “people of German blood”. Soon afterwards it was officially confirmed that “Gypsies, Negroes and their mongrel children” were subject to the Nuremberg principles. In particular, mixed marriages were to be prevented if there was any danger of their producing children: It was the fear of race mixing that dominated Nazi policy, and as far as Blacks and “Gypsies” were concerned, it was the Mischlinge – “mongrels” or “mulattos” – who were the real danger. As a result, the lives of people of colour were burdened by the threat and reality of sterilisation. The children like Leyna, fathered by French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland after Germany’s defeat in World War I, were targetted for sterilisation as a group in an extra-legal action starting in 1937. Other black Germans were selected in more opportunistic ways – after a hospital visit and especially after bearing their first child, on applying for a marriage licence, or following arrest or detention on other grounds. People went into hiding or fled the country to escape sterilisation, while news of those who had not escaped struck fear into their friends and relatives.

“…to be invisible”

Visibility was a key theme in the lives of black Germans as it is in Where Hands Touch. Germany had a history of welcoming visitors from Africa and the diaspora, including generations of students, academics, journalists and performers from the United States. In the 1920s Germans’ image of America was filtered through jazz culture, and this formed an important point of contact – real and imaginary – between them and African Americans. Germany had also had colonies in Africa (1884-1919), and hundreds of (mainly) men had travelled from there to Germany for training, education and work. Black visitors who settled in Germany became the first Afro-Germans, their children – nearly all of whom had one white parent – the first generation of German-born people of colour. The “Rhineland children” were part of this generation, but the circumstances and location of their birth meant that each of them grew up in relative isolation, surrounded by white family and neighbours, highly visible but also fully part of local and family life. In other places the growing black presence had led to the beginnings of a black community, with families living near one another, meeting and socialising. So on arriving in a big city like Berlin Leyna could have expected to see other black people on the streets and perhaps have been drawn into their networks. But by 1944, her mother’s hope that she might thus be “invisible” in Berlin was unrealistic, in two senses: For one thing, the kind of harassment that we see Leyna suffering, combined with the pressures of wartime, meant that the communities that had been growing before the war were broken: Individuals were interned or in hiding. Those who continued to pursue an everyday existence were more dependent than ever on the support of their immediate family, and were careful not to be seen on the streets if they could help it. Neighbourhood connections were undermined by the Allied bombing raids that devastated the city. In 1944, then, it was even more difficult than before for someone with “non-German” features not to stand out.

At the same time, the official mood was hardening; being black in public was more dangerous than ever. In the late 1930s and early years of the War, having the “right” papers offered some protection. There was never a clear plan for eliminating all Blacks, and there was no mass internment. The process that ended in a concentration camp usually began with a charge of deviant or anti-social behaviour; dark skin colour exposed people to police scrutiny and became a reason not to release them once they were in custody. (This was the case with “Gypsies”, too, and it reflects how the Nazi persecution of those groups built on pre-existing and self-fulfilling racist stereotypes that are entirely familiar to us in America, Britain and Europe today.) There was no official category for “Blacks” in the camps, and so when she is interned Leyna wears the black triangle that signifies “antisocial”. But the arbitrary destruction of her papers, followed by the summary arrest of her mother and then Leyna herself, is in keeping with the evidence that by 1944 at the latest black people were being picked off the streets simply for being black. The statement “There are no black Germans”, which many a black German heard as his or her identity documents were withdrawn or destroyed, was never a statement of fact but had become a matter of deadly policy.

“no black Germans”

From the Nazi point of view, the destruction of Leyna’s papers is an act of political necessity as well as of racist brutality. For Leyna it confirms the existential question that is a source of both confusion and motivation: Is it really possible to be both black and German? Leyna belongs to a generation who grew up as Germans, only to have their identity challenged by the German state and, increasingly, their compatriots. Like most of the “Rhineland children”, she has German nationality; because her parents did not marry, she has inherited her mother’s nationality. Other Afro-Germans born in Germany were rarely citizens, because as legitimate children they took their fathers’ nationality, and very few African migrants were naturalised. Nevertheless, most had learned to see Germany as their fatherland. In Leyna’s case, her conviction of being German is confirmed by her papers; this is one reason why they have to be destroyed. That she has been born German in spite of the fact that her father was an enemy of Germany adds to the painful paradoxes out of which the 16-year-old has to build her own identity. Her responses when faced with the conflictual choice of where, how and with whom to make her life, are echoed in the testimony of real black survivors of the Holocaust.

“They will hang you”

The story of black Germans is the story of how they made their way in a society that was overwhelmingly white, and so it is also the story of the white people who belonged to their worlds, people whom they loved and who loved them. The character of Leyna’s mother reflects the historical experience of the many white women who faced harassment as “traitors to their race”, were forced to separate from their black partners, fought to protect their children and suffered emotionally and physically as a result. The focus of the story is of course the relationship between Leyna and Lutz, which defies the Nazi principles that Lutz seems to have internalised and precipitates an identity crisis for him, too. The Nuremberg Laws effectively criminalised relationships of that kind, so that a young man in Lutz’s position really did place his future and possibly his life at risk; we know that it was difficult for couples stay together in the face of official harassment and threats of unofficial sanctions, though some did. What this might mean for someone like Lutz is played out in his relationship with his father, at least an opportunist and deeply ambivalent himself about the regime he serves, but focused above all on his son’s survival. His actions bring home in a particularly vivid way the motivating power of the terror that the Nazi system generated around questions of “race”.

Where Hands Touch is the first feature film to imagine black lives in Nazi Germany for a global audience, and it does so from the perspective of the African diaspora. It is a timely reminder both of the multiplicity and complexity of the human dimensions of the Holocaust, and of the variety of black diasporic experiences.