The Strange and Awful History of Blacks in Nazi Germany
Some were sterilized, others imprisoned—a few wanted to fight for the Reich
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hated blacks almost as much as he hated Jews.
In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Hitler referred to Afro-Germans as “Rhineland bastards”—a reference to the children of German and African parents.
Among other forms of oppression, the Nazis sterilized German blacks. The intent was to prevent Afro-German men from having children with white German women and “diluting” the Aryan race.
In the 1997 documentary Hitler’s Forgotten Victims, black German survivors talked about the forced sterilization. After the procedure, often administered without anesthesia, the blacks were free to leave after getting a certificate … and vowing to never sleep with German women.
What’s less known is black Germans’ involvement in World War II—as Nazi soldiers and sometimes high-profile prisoners of the Reich.
Weirdly, some Afro-Germans wanted to fight for Germany, according to Hans J. Massaquoi, a black German during the war and author of Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.
The book reflects Massaquoi’s bizarre desire to be a Hitler Youth, even though he was a self-described “kinky-haired, brown-skinned, eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blonde and blue-eyed kids filled with patriotism.”
The Free Arabian Legion provided an opportunity for German blacks who wanted to fight for the Reich. The unit’s founder was Haj Amin Al Husseini, an anti-Semite Muslim.
The Legion included Arab volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa, war prisoners who opted to fight instead of go to prison … and blacks. In the end, the Legion saw very little combat action—and most of that during the Allies’ Operation Torch in French North Africa.
Germany held many blacks hostage during the war, including more than a thousand blacks with American passports. Among the prisoners was a black Jewish painter named Josef Nassy.
Nassy was born to a black mother and Jewish father in Suriname in 1904. As a teenager, he went to live with his father in New York. He studied painting in Belgium starting in 1939.
While working as a portrait artist in Belgium in 1942, German officials arrested Nassy on the charge of being an “enemy national” and sent him to an internment camp.
Not as grim as a concentration camp, Nassy’s internment camp in Laufen let him keep painting, using materials provided by the Red Cross and the YMCA. He painted hundreds of pieces as a prisoner, many of which are now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection in Washington, D.C.
After his release in 1945, Nassy elected to stay in Germany to oversee the transportation of his art back to the United States. His had his first U.S. show in 1946.
“[Nassy’s] paintings clearly demonstrate that the human spirit cannot be enchained,” read the invitation for the ’46 exhibition. “The power of the artist Nassy’s work springs from the [prisoners’] painful experience, imbuing the paintings with a deep feeling of humanity.”
After Nassy’s passing in 1974, Holocaust survivor and art collector Severin Wunderman purchased Nassy’s entire body of work, honoring the artist’s desire that his paintings only ever be displayed as a whole.
Touring African-American jazz musicians suffered similarly during the war. Germany banned what it termed “Negermusik.” Black singer, trumpeter and vaudeville actress Valaida Snow was a prisoner of the Nazis in Denmark from 1941 to 1942, according to Mark Miller’s biography High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow.
Snow struggled with drug addiction but continued entertaining until her death in 1956. She was quoted saying that her health—and her career—never recovered from her years in a Nazi prison.