The fate of black people from 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany and in German-occupied territories ranged from isolation to persecution, sterilization, medical experimentation, incarceration, brutality, and murder. However, there was no systematic program for their elimination as there was for Jews and other groups.
After World War I, the Allies stripped Germany of its African colonies. The German military stationed in Africa (Schutztruppen), as well as missionaries, colonial bureaucrats, and settlers, returned to Germany and took with them their racist attitudes. Separation of whites and blacks was mandated by the Reichstag (German parliament), which enacted a law against mixed marriages in the African colonies.
Following World War I and the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the victorious Allies occupied the Rhineland in western Germany. The use of French colonial troops, some of whom were black, in these occupation forces exacerbated anti-black racism in Germany. Racist propaganda against black soldiers depicted them as rapists of German women and carriers of venereal and other diseases. The children of black soldiers and German women were called “Rhineland Bastards.” The Nazis, at the time a small political movement, viewed them as a threat to the purity of the Germanic race. In Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler charged that “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.”
African German mulatto children were marginalized in German society, isolated socially and economically, and not allowed to attend university. Racial discrimination prohibited them from seeking most jobs, including service in the military. With the Nazi rise to power they became a target of racial and population policy. By 1937, the Gestapo (German secret state police) had secretly rounded up and forcibly sterilized many of them. Some were subjected to medical experiments; others mysteriously “disappeared.”
The racist nature of Adolf Hitler’s regime was disguised briefly during the Olympic Games in Berlin in August 1936, when Hitler allowed 18 African American athletes to compete for the US team. However, permission to compete was granted by the International Olympic Committee and not by the host country.
Adult African Germans were also victims. Both before and after World War I, many Africans came to Germany as students, artisans, entertainers, former soldiers, or low-level colonial officials, such as tax collectors, who had worked for the imperial colonial government. Hilarius (Lari) Gilges, a dancer by profession, was murdered by the SS in 1933, probably because he was black. Gilges’ German wife later received restitution from a postwar German government for his murder by the Nazis.
Some African Americans, caught in German-occupied Europe during World War II, also became victims of the Nazi regime. Many, like female jazz artist Valaida Snow, were imprisoned in Axis internment camps for alien nationals. The artist Josef Nassy, living in Belgium, was arrested as an enemy alien and held for seven months in the Beverloo transit camp in German-occupied Belgium. He was later transferred to Germany, where he spent the rest of the war in the Laufen internment camp and its subcamp, Tittmoning, both in Upper Bavaria.
European and American blacks were also interned in the Nazi concentration camp system. Lionel Romney, a sailor in the US Merchant Marine, was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Jean Marcel Nicolas, a Haitian national, was incarcerated in the Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau concentration camps in Germany. Jean Voste, an African Belgian, was incarcerated in the Dachau concentration camp. Bayume Mohamed Hussein from Tanganyika (today Tanzania) died in the Sachsenhausen camp, near Berlin.
Propaganda illustration from a Nazi film strip. The caption states, in German: “The Jew is a bastard.” The illustration links Jews with others the Nazis deemed inferior—eastern peoples, blacks, Mongols, and east Africans.— US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Black prisoners of war faced illegal incarceration and mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, who did not uphold the regulations imposed by the Geneva Convention (international agreement on the conduct of war and the treatment of wounded and captured soldiers). Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, an African American pilot, was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison in Butzbach. Black soldiers of the American, French, and British armies were worked to death on construction projects or died as a result of mistreatment in concentration or prisoner-of-war camps. Others were never even incarcerated, but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo.
Some African American members of the US armed forces were liberators and witnesses to Nazi atrocities. The 761st Tank Battalion (an all-African American tank unit), attached to the 71st Infantry Division, US Third Army, under the command of General George Patton, participated in the liberation of Gunskirchen, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, in May 1945.