BLACK GERMANS and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2004University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11360-6

Chapter One


The Rhineland Campaign and Converging Specters of Racial Mixture


I was born in Frankfurt [in August 1920]. Since my mother had a very hard time here when they saw she was pregnant, she went to Frankfurt. My father had been transferred to Frankfurt. Even though they weren't married, she had nobody else, so she followed him there.... Sure, there were problems, according to the statements of neighbors who are still alive.... Problems-with an occupation soldier, with a colored occupation soldier, you have to emphasize that. And then in a good Catholic family-first off, just the stigma of illegitimacy and then, along with that, the worst, with "one of them," with a colored. Back then that was really bad.

France's recruitment of approximately 190,000 African soldiers (la force noire) before and during World War I was motivated by strategic military considerations aimed primarily at offsetting deficits in the French army that dated back to the mid-nineteenth century and resulted largely from demographic stagnation and a declining French birthrate. The government initially began recruiting soldiers from French West Africa in an effort to build a stabilizing force to be deployed in North Africa, particularly in Morocco. The conflict that became the Moroccan Crisis of 1912 played a prominent role in the decision to create a Black military force for use as a colonial army, as such operations could free up French troops for European operations. Yet even in its recruitment and eventual use of African soldiers, French officials were concerned with striking a delicate balance between arming and training its colonial subjects as instruments of war and maintaining the country's position of dominance over these subjects within the colonial hierarchy. The French government was well aware of the fact that this new military force presented a potential threat to the balance of power within its colonies because these troops could quickly be redirected at the colonizing nation.

The question of why France chose to include its African colonial troops in the post-World War I occupation force is complex. Keith Nelson argues that there were both strong practical reasons for France's use of these troops and more subtle motivations related to the devastation France suffered during the course of the war. Citing the papers of Major Paul Clark, an American liaison officer, and the remarks of the commander of the French occupation forces in the Rhineland, General Charles Mangin ("the father of the Black forces"), Nelson explains,

At least in the beginning, it was likely that the morale of these troops would have suffered if they as a group had been deprived of what was widely considered to be the reward for hard fighting. In addition, because a renewal of hostilities was always possible during the armistice period, the victors clearly ran a certain risk in deviating from the manpower practices which had won the conflict. Furthermore, if only French national troops had advanced into the Rhineland in 1918-19, the effect would have been to increase the proportion of colored forces in the reserve areas behind the French frontier.

As both Nelson and Pascal Grosse contend, another motivation for using Black troops in the occupation was France's belief in the strategic psychological effect of these troops on their military adversaries. Indeed, Nelson maintains that the French government was engaged in a "subtle kind of psychological warfare against the Germans." France's original motivations for recruiting these troops also explain in part some of the reasons for the decision to deploy them in Germany after the war. The issue of the particular qualities attributed to Africans played a central role because the racial/anthropological traits associated with Africans were seen as making them especially well suited to contemporary warfare and an invaluable source of military manpower. Mangin introduced the plan to recruit la force noire as early as 1910, explicitly emphasizing the qualities that made Africans particularly desirable soldiers:

They have exactly the traits demanded for the long struggles of modern war: robustness, endurance, tenacity and instinct for combat, an absence of nerves, an incomparable power to shock [intimidate] their enemies. Their appearance on the battlefield will produce a considerable moral effect on their adversary. Precisely these valuable assets regarding their quantity and traits are significant factors that will manifest themselves from their first battle. But if the battle should be prolonged, our African troops offer us almost immeasurable reserves whose source is well beyond the reach of the opponent, and which allows us to continue the battle through to our first success, and once this success has been attained to continue through to victory.

Grosse emphasizes that this conception of the African troops relied on a eugenic interpretation of their innate physical capacities and aptitude for war that attributed these qualities to Blacks and Africans on the basis of an essential, biological construction of their race. As Grosse contends,

French military strategists relied here first and foremost on "natural capacities," which in the European mind compared less civilized peoples to frail and nervous European men in military conflicts. This construction was based on the opposition of nature peoples to cultured peoples, where European cultural development had succeeded in domesticating natural instincts, including aggressive tendencies. A German commentator on French military affairs affirmed this perception, according to which he asserted that "the West African Negro is more suited than the overworked urban adult European to the craft of the soldier through his ... primal strength and the hereditary warrior's predisposition he has retained."

The French military relied on these racial stereotypes in hoping and planning that these troops would have a negative psychological impact on their opponents in battle. In point of fact, these soldiers had already elicited precisely this response in prewar Germany. As Grosse's study shows, long before the occupation of the Rhineland, Germany had responded to the project of la force noire through the trope of the schwarze Gefahr (Black threat). This xenophobic construction, along with the related tropes of the slawische Gefahr (Slavic threat) and the gelbe Gefahr (yellow threat), demonized each of these groups on the basis of a racialized threat to German culture and civilization. As Grosse explains,

This demonization of the potential enemy is much more to be understood in the context of a psychological preparation for war. The "Black threat" thus became the symbol of the anticipated brutality of the coming war.... The discursive brutality that the characterization of the "Black threat" evoked anticipated projected the violent potential of war into an image of dehumanized French colonial troops as its eventual source. In this way, a war-ready German Volk (or, in other words, "the white race") could stylize itself as the sole true protectors of European culture that saved "the dignity of Europe from ... African barbarians" and prevented a return to the era of the Thirty Years War.

It seems clear that France was aware of and consciously chose to disregard Germany's discomfort with the idea of "colored" troops: German fears about these troops were already apparent and could thus be exploited by the French government. It is quite plausible that French military commanders such as Mangin, Obissier, and Marceau supported the use of these troops in the occupation precisely because of their awareness of the negative response such a deployment would provoke. Indeed, the older arguments justifying the recruitment of African colonial troops were based on this positive strategic assessment of the value of the racial attributes of Africans. As Hans-J��rgen L��sebrink points out, following the war the Rhineland propaganda campaign employed much of the same anthropological discourse used by the French military ten years earlier. However, the biologistic argumentation that the French had employed in a positive sense was turned on its head by the Germans in the Rhineland campaign.

In the context of the German campaign against the "Black Shame," the descriptive attributes Mangin had used, such as "l'ob��issance aveugle," "l'agressivit�� inn��e," "penchant mat��riel pour la guerre," among others, as well as the "uncivilizedness" of the African soldiers, took on a radically different meaning. Instead of being regarded as positive character traits-as in the colonial anthropology of prewar France-these "grands enfants" and "��mes simples," who were previously regarded as subjects to be educated, were transformed in the German public into symbols of barbarous savagery.

France's decision to deploy these troops in the occupation of the Rhineland provoked a concrete response from Germany as early as 1918, when the German Foreign Minister Wilhelm Solf urged his representative at the armistice negotiations to prevent German territory from being occupied by Black French or U.S. soldiers. In April 1919 the German delegation to Versailles was specifically instructed to insist that "colored troops" not be included in the army of occupation, and in June German negotiators included this statement in their protest against the treaty, seeking to make it more "difficult for our enemies ... to bombard us and then send in their Black troops."

The Black troops used in the French occupation of the Rhineland represented the first large-scale Black presence in Germany. Until the Rhineland occupation, direct contact between Germans and Blacks had for the most part been restricted to German colonial territories on the African continent and to individual Black immigrants to Germany. As Germany's first domestic encounter with a substantial Black population, the Rhineland occupation also holds symbolic importance as the first German confrontation with Blacks within its national boundaries. The total number of French occupation troops in the winter of 1919 was estimated at two hundred thousand men. This number was reduced to approximately eighty-five thousand by January 1920, when the Treaty of Versailles came into effect. The number of Black soldiers among these troops varied seasonally. In the summer of 1920, German officials estimated the number at between thirty and forty thousand, while Allied officials cited much lower figures, ranging from fourteen to twenty-five thousand. These Black troops were mustered from France's colonial holdings in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, and Senegal.

The post-World War I military occupation of Germany lasted from 1919 to 1930. Exactly how long the Black troops remained is unclear. France renounced the use of colonial troops in 1923, when the occupation of the Ruhr valley began, although France had already withdrawn most of its Senegalese and Madagascan troops in 1920. After the Locarno pact was signed on 1 December 1925, the number of remaining French colonial troops was significantly reduced. Approximately two thousand Black troops remained stationed in Germany in 1927, and one thousand remained as late as 1929. However, they received little attention. The propaganda campaign against their presence had effectively ended in 1922, when the Ruhr conflict began to dominate international political discussions in Germany.

Black occupation troops became the focus of international attention in April 1920, when French forces occupied the German cities of Darmstadt, Hanau, Homburg, and Frankfurt following an outbreak of civil unrest in the demilitarized Ruhr territory. During the taking of Frankfurt, French Moroccan soldiers fired on civilians, causing a number of casualties. In response to these incidents, the London Daily Herald published an article by an English journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, "Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine," which marked the beginning of an international outcry against the alleged sexual misconduct of Black troops in Germany. A prominent member of the Independent Labor Party and one of the founders of the Union for Democratic Control, Morel had been involved for many years in the fight against the exploitation of Africans in the colonies (in particular, under the regime of King Leopold in the Congo). He went on to publish other articles on this topic as well as a longer pamphlet entitled The Horror on the Rhine.

In the chronology of the Rhineland campaign, Morel's publications effected an important change in the focus of the debates about the Black occupation troops, complicating the emphasis on race with sex and sexuality as the primary issue of contention. This new emphasis on the sexual element set off a chain reaction of outrage and exaggeration among the various international actors involved. On 23 April 1920, in response to Morel's Daily Herald article, six parliamentary delegates petitioned the German government for an inquiry into rapes and assaults allegedly committed by Black soldiers on civilians in the occupied territory.

Our youth in the Pfalz and the Rhineland are being disgraced, our people polluted, the dignity of Germans and the white race trampled. An English journalist calls this "a well-considered political strategy." Should our people in the Rhineland have to stomach this: the disgrace of the honor and dignity of the German people and the white race; is this fact, which was called by an Englishman the well-considered political strategy of our well-known enemies, known to the imperial government?

The language of these charges links alleged rape incidents to the trampling (zertreten) of German national honor and dignity as well as to the purity of the white race. In this way, the initially racist objections to a Black military presence in the Rhineland were refounded on the basis of the purported sexual misconduct perpetrated by these soldiers, in addition to the most serious consequence associated with this uncontained sexual menace: miscegenation. The inextricable coupling of Black sexuality with the threat of interracial sex and miscegenation was a primary element around which the discourse of the campaign against the post-World War I Black occupation troops was structured. Nineteenth-century scientific discourses on racial mixture also played a significant role as an important vehicle for the campaign against the Black troops. Scientific conceptions of the negative genetic consequences of racial mixture had by this time won widespread acceptance and were circulating at many levels of society. Consequently, they offer an important key to understanding how anxieties stemming from German defeat came to be displaced onto Blacks and Afro-Germans in this period.


The images of Blacks and Africans used in this period to represent the threat posed by the Black occupation troops during the post-World War I Rhineland campaign did not originate in the Weimar Republic. In fact, they have a much longer history that considerably predates the contentious debates and inflammatory rhetoric of the postwar period. These representations were products of a scientific discourse on race that defined race as essence, locating its origins and meaning in nature and biology. As part of a long tradition of scientific thought, the notion of race as a biological human trait has been the focus of scientific research for centuries. Yet this research was never limited to the strictly "scientific" goal of understanding the biological basis of race. More often, and perhaps more importantly, this research also sought to explain the meaning of race for society as a whole and its implications for human interaction in particular.


Excerpted from OTHER GERMANSby TINA CAMPT Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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