V is for Veteran

Back at the end of February 2010, I did a presentation for the Underground Railroad conference about Black Soldiers in Post WW II Germany. I’m certainly not to replicate it here, but a few points I’ll mention.

Even though the first casualty of what would become the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre of 1770, the American colonial powers fighting Great Britain were resistant to allowing black soldiers to serve. It wasn’t until the British offered freedom to black fighters that ultimately got George Washington’s attention. Ultimately, blacks fought on both sides of the conflict, but their reason was singular: freedom.

Again, in the American Civil War, many black men felt that serving in the military was a way they might gain freedom and full citizenship. As Frederick Douglass asserted that if blacks fought, “no power on earth can deny that he has earned the right” to freedom.

General David Staunch took it upon himself to free slaves, not just on islands controlled by Union forces, but in south Florida, where he recruited men capable of bearing arms to form the first black regiment. This was ultimately opposed to, and disbanded by President Lincoln, fearing moving more quickly than “public opinion would bear.”

There was a modicum of freedom for the newly emancipated but this was negated by the Jim Crow laws and other restrictions. During World War I, WEB DuBois wrote in The Crisis magazine, “First your Country, then your Rights”. A by-then familiar refrain.

So, most of the wars fought by the United States, starting with the Revolutionary War, included a subtext, even the promise, of justice for, and fair treatment of African-Americans. World War I and especially the Civil War brought the issue to the fore.

But it was with World War II, with large numbers of black soldiers in uniform, that the contradiction between fighting for freedom for others and a lack of freedom back at home reached a tipping point. Germany in post World War II was occupied by thousands of American soldiers, many of them black. While Hitler’s mantra of racial superiority might suggest that the black soldier might have a difficult time in the former Nazi-led country, the experiences were far more mixed. A huge part of this involved the black GI and the German fraulein, something that clashed with the norms of two countries. What took place during that period changed both the condition of African-Americans back in the United States and the occupied German people as well.

Due, in part to the pressure by the black press, reporting on the superior conditions for the black troops in what was Hitler’s country, the armed services were integrated in 1948.

So, was it a sense of history or a more personal connection that my father to keep a Newsweek article delineating this phenomenon for 54 years, from 1946 until his death in 2000, or was there something more? My father was in the European Theater of operations from February to November 1946, but we never really talked to him about the war.

There is a surprisingly large bit of literature on this topic of race and Germany after the war. It doesn’t cite the Newsweek article, but rather an article from a then- relatively new magazine called Ebony (October 1946).

I would particularly recommend The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany, a research project and digital archive. The creators received a prestigious award from the storied civil rights organization, the NAACP.
I’d also note Historians study black vets’ role in civil rights for the very first paragraph: In the words of retired Gen. Colin Powell, postwar Germany was “a breath of freedom” for black soldiers, especially those out of the South: “[They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date, whom they wanted, just like other people.” Or, as it notes in the Ebony article, Berlin was freer than Birmingham (Alabama) or Broadway (New York City).

Additional bibliography:
Blacks during the Holocaust.

An unexpected freedom: Black U.S. soldiers found acceptance and tolerance in post war Germany – and sometimes even the love of their lives. By Peter H. Koepf

Democratization in Germany after 1945 (video).

Post War “German Brown Babies” enter the U.S.A.

Race after Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America by Heide Fehrenbach (chapter)

Should They Be Allowed? What happens when German historians research racism in America?

ABC Wednesday

0 thoughts on “V is for Veteran”

  1. A great post Roger. I recently watched an episode of Foley’s War (an add on depicting the period after the war) in which the treatment of black soldiers by the American Army was what I considered to be appalling. I am grateful that some sense of reality as to the equality of all has finally overtaken us.


  2. I always look forward to your posts to see what it is that I will gain from your knowledge! What an in depth ‘report’! I knew some of this, but no where near the details that you presented here.
    Bravo!An excellent “V” selection.


  3. I watch quite a few German documentaries, but have yet to encounter one concerning this topic. I have however been to several museums in the UK and they all state the freedom many of the Black GI’s felt over there. So I guess post-war Germany will have been slightly similar.

    Great post as usual!


  4. Fascinating! I’ve always been intrigured by war, especially WW2, but never really knew much about the Blacks’ involvement. Another day of learning something new for me! Thanks, Roger.


  5. History gets smaller and less historic all the time. My father generally declined to talk about his war experiences. People were more reticent in those days than they are now. Good information!


  6. The President who ordered the integration of the armed forces was a southener,Harry Truman, while another southener, Lyndon Johnson, pushed through civil rights legislation. Nortern politicians were on the whole,gutless. Still a dark shadow on the history of America.


  7. An excellent post on a rather less than excellent period in your history. It’s very sobering to realise that black men were expected to fight and lay down their lives for … what? The ‘privilege’ of going back home to be treated like second-class citizens? It seems unbelievable now.

    Should I thank you for taking part in ABC Wednesday, fellow team member? 😀


  8. Most informative post, Roger. I enjoyed your post on the Gay/Lesbian parade and applaud your church for its involvement. I suppose we’ll never be free of bigots, though . . .


  9. Fascinating post. I’ll bet that took a lot of research. That’s my favorite part – the tidbits of information learned along the way. Can’t wait to see what you have for us next week.


  10. My colleage was entertained when reading this line on your blog “… black troops in what was Hitler… country, the armed services were integrated in 1948.
    So, was it a sense of …
    ” this is it, you just crushed it down pal.


  11. Some subscribers just don’t understand, like my little brother who couldn’t interpret the actual intention of this line on your article “…, blacks fought on both sides of the conflict, but their reason was singular: freedom.

    Again, in …” this is it, you just crushed it down buddy.


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