September 26, 1997
The Nazi's Űfinal solutionÝ had a dress rehearsal in Namibia, writes Delroy Constantine-Simms
At a time when the fight for justice for Jewish Holocaust victims makes front-page news, few people know that a significant number of black people suffered, too, under Nazi rule. Revelations about their experiences are made in a documentary, to be screened in Britain next month, entitled HitlerÝs Forgotten Victims.
It reveals that sterilisation programmes of blacks were instituted by GermanyÝs most senior Nazi geneticist, Doctor Eugen Fischer, who developed his racial theories in German South West Africa (now Namibia) long before World War I. In Namibia, Fischer claimed there were genetic dangers arising from race mixing between German colonists and African women.
The documentary also provides disturbing photographic evidence of German genocidal tendencies in Africa. In 1904 the Herero tribe revolted against their German colonial masters in a quest to keep their land. It was a rebellion that lasted four years and led to the death of 60 000 Herero people ˇ 80% of their population. The survivors were imprisoned in concentration camps or used as guinea pigs for medical experiments, a foretaste of things to come.
HitlerÝs Forgotten Victims shows that GermanyÝs 24 000-strong black community were the number-one target for HitlerÝs sterilisation programme. The film makes it clear that HitlerÝs view on racial superiority did not develop in a vacuum. He was influenced by the work of the 19th- century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, whose views were based on distorted versions of Darwinism. He wrote of woolly- haired Negroes incapable of higher mental development.
The film shows that the NazisÝ obsession with racial purity and eugenics was provoked and intensified in 1918, following GermanyÝs defeat in World War I. Under the terms of the peace treaty signed at Versailles, Germany was stripped of its African colonies and forced to submit to the occupation of the Rhineland. The deployment of African troops from the French colonies to police the territory incensed many Germans.
To many it was the final humiliation that began with their 1918 defeat in the World War I. The film shows Germans complaining bitterly in newspapers and propaganda films about African soldiers from the French colonial army having relations with their women.
As soon as Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, he retaliated by targeting black people living there. At least 400 mixed- race children were forcibly sterilised in the area by the end of 1937, while 400 others disappeared into camps.
Hans Hauck, a victim of HitlerÝs sterilisation programme, says: ýWe were lucky that we werenÝt victims of euthanasia; we were only sterilised. We had no anaesthetic. Once I got my vasectomy certificate, I had to sign an agreement that we were not allowed to have sexual relations whatsoever with Germans.
In 1932 in Bresau, Hitler gave a speech in which he ordered Africans, Jews and anyone not Aryan to leave Germany or go into the camps. But most blacks in Germany could not heed HitlerÝs warning as they were German citizens with German passports and had nowhere else to go. While a fair number escaped to France, others tried to return to the former German colonies, taken over by the League of Nations in 1920. The British colonial authorities in the newly named South West Africa would not allow black Germans refugee status on the grounds that they had fought for the Germans in World War I.
HitlerÝs Forgotten Victims does not give enough insight into the lives of black Germans who resisted the Nazis, such as black activist Lari Gilges, who founded an organisation of entertainers that fought the Nazis in his home town of Dusseldorf. He was murdered by the SS in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. More insight is given into black and mixed-race Germans who toured in the Hillerkus Afrikaschau circuses, films and shows to escape persecution.
Says interviewee Elizabeth Morton: ýMy father was one of the founders of the Afrikaschau. There was everything: dances, songs and acrobatics, music breaking, tap dancing. It was like a variety show. The Afrikaschau actually became the place to go for all black people; it was something new.
These shows were eventually taken over in 1940 by the SS, who considered them racially unacceptable and used them for racist propaganda. But eventually HitlerÝs propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, realised that in order to spread the Nazi gospel of Aryan supremacy, he needed to exploit the most popular medium of the timeˇ German feature films. Propaganda films such as Kongo Express, Quax in Africa, and Auntie Wanda from Uganda presented Germany as a benevolent colonial power.
Says black actor Werner Egiomue: We had an agent then who had all the addresses of black people in Berlin. The ReichÝs chamber of commerce was in touch with him when they were casting a film. It was fun inside the studio. Outside the door you could be arrested. But inside you were as safe as in a bank.
Another experience is given by the Michaels family, who were orphaned and separated at an early age. Theodore Michael, one of GermanyÝs greatest character actors of the time, gives a gripping account of how he survived.
He says: ýBlack people in Germany were aware that if the Nazis wanted to get rid of us, they could catch us in one swoop. I was eventually sent to a munitions factory, where I was liberated by Russian soldiers. They were surprised to see a black man still alive.
Not only black Germans suffered at the hands of the Nazis black soldiers were also targets. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated 200 000 black troops from African colonies were serving in Europe. The Nazis segregated black inmates for extra special treatment of the fatal kind. In breach of the Geneva Convention, black prisoners were denied food, and given dangerous jobs. In film never seen before, black soldiers and civilians are seen scavenging for scraps of food in garbage heaps at the Hemer POW camp near Dortmund in north-west Germany. No one knows how many black soldiers or civilians died in the camps at the hands of the SS guards, producer Moise Shewa says, because where Jews were noted as Jews, blacks were noted by nationality.
One description of concentration camp life is given by Johnny William, born to an African mother and white Frenchman, who was transported by the Gestapo to the Neugengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. ýThere were five or six of us. As soon as we arrived, we were immediately separated from the white deportees by the SS. They considered us to be subhuman beings like animals, chimpanzees.
HitlerÝs Forgotten Victims makes it clear that the treatment of blacks in the Holocaust should be acknowledged. Most black Germans were stripped of their nationality, so it has been difficult for them to claim reparations. Hopefully, this film will go some way to force the German government to acknowledge their experience at the hands of the Nazis and recompense black Germans in the same manner as the Jewish community, who suffered the same fate.
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