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The Holocaust’s Forgotten Black Victims

FORGOTTEN HISTORY: A black German prisoner with a fellow inmate in Dachau concentration camp

HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL Day, (held today, Friday January 27), was primarily set up to remember the six million Jewish men, women and children who had been murdered by Hitler’s Nazi regime in the 1930s and throughout the Second World War.

While a great deal of information has been documented and made public about Jewish victims, the Nazi’s persecution and killing of other groups is still to be fully researched and documented.

When Hitler was the ruler of Germany from 1933 to 1945, many Germans of African descent were rounded up by the Gestapo (the German ‘secret police’) and made to “disappear.”

In 1937 all local authorities in Germany were asked to submit lists of children of African descent. These children were taken from their homes or schools without the consent of their parents and sterilised. At least four hundred mixed-race children were forcibly sterilised in the Rhineland area alone by the end of 1937.

Some black Germans avoided imprisonment by working as extras in Nazi propaganda films. Between 1933 and 1945 nearly one hundred films were made by order of the Propaganda Ministry. Some of them were set in colonial Africa.

TARGETTED: Renowned singer Paul Robeson

When they went into production the demand for Germany’s African citizens and their mixed-race children to work as extras helped most of them avoid internment in Nazi death camps.

After America entered the war on 7 December 1941, African American GIs who were captured and made prisoners of war found that they could also avoid internment by working as film extras.

African American jazz musicians who failed to escape the Nazi invasion and occupation of Europe, were also imprisoned.

Before he came to power Hitler had spoken favourably of the world famous actor and singer Paul Robeson, but he was also reported as saying: “Negroes must be definitely third-class people…a hopeless lot. I don’t hate them. I pity the poor devils.”

In 1934 a group of German stormtroopers expressed hatred and contempt for Robeson when he was forced to spend a day in Berlin on his way to Moscow.

FANATIC

In 1930, on his previous visit to Germany, the Nazis were in a minority, and Hitler was regarded as a fanatic who was not taken seriously. Robeson acknowledged that a lot had happened in the four years he had been away. In 1934 Robeson likened Berlin to America’s Southern states.

The stormtroopers gathered menacingly on the train station platform. Robeson and his friends were waiting for Robeson’s wife Essie to join them.

He said: “This is like Mississippi. It is how a lynching begins. If either of us moves, or shows fear, they’ll go further. We must keep our heads.”

Robeson and his companions made a fortunate escape when their train arrived, but he had been preparing for the worst, and fully expected a violent confrontation with the stormtroopers.

It is not known how many people of African descent in Germany and occupied Europe died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. No accurate records exist and so it is impossible to determine how many black citizens were persecuted by the Nazis.

PERSECUTION: Black holocaust victim with an SS guard

However it has been estimated that there were between 20,000 to 25,000 black people living in Germany when Hitler came to power.

Some were Africans who had travelled from the German colonies. Others were French African troops who had settled in Germany after the First World War.

Then there those who came from different parts of the world and were working or studying in Germany, often as entertainers and musicians. Many of them would have been persecuted, sterilised, brutalized, and murdered during the Nazi regime.

FATE

During the Second World War black British citizens, and those who lived in the colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, were fully aware of what their fate would have been if Hitler had invaded Britain.

That is why so many of them supported the British war effort by joining the British army, navy and Royal Air Force, or working in munitions factories.

In 1944 a young Jamaican called Sam King seized the opportunity to join the Royal Air Force.

King, who became the first black mayor of Southwark in south London, later reflected that, after the war, given the choice, he would rather live under British colonial rule and fight for Jamaica’s independence than live under Hitler. “I don’t think the British Empire was perfect, but it was better than Nazi Germany,” he said.

STEPHEN BOURNE has been specializing in black British histories since 1991. He has written over 15 books, including the award-winning Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War. His latest book, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen (Jacaranda Books, £12.99) is out now.

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