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Forgotten History

For the first time an exhibition in Cologne attempts to piece together the story of the Nazi persecution of blacks living in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933.


In the shadow of the Nazi regime

Jews, Roma, Communists, homosexuals: the Nazis’ objects of scorn and persecution are well-known and well-documented. The lot of black people under the Nazis, however, has received little attention in the past.

Now the Nazi Documentation Center in Cologne is showing the first exhibition on the subject. Called "Distinguishing Feature: Negro" – Blacks in National Socialist Times’, the exhibition shows Germany in the 1930s and 1940s caught in the grip of jazz fever.

Black music seduces Germany

At that time black entertainers, in particular musicians, singers and dancers were wildly popular in Germany and black music was considered hip in the Weimar Republic.

Josephine Baker in ihrer Westindien-Nummer in den Ziegfeld Follies, 1936

Josephine Baker

Berlin’s opulent ballrooms and dance salons swung to jazz tunes and melodies. Not just black musicians, but also an increasing number of immigrants from the Caribbean and European colonies in Africa, black Americans who fled from the US economic crisis to Germany, diplomats, business people, students and sailors began to make their presence felt in Germany at the time.

The initiator of the exhibition, Dr Peter Martin of the Hamburg Foundation for the Cultivation of Culture and Science, estimates that some 10,000 black people lived in Germany before the Nazis came to power.

Documenting little-known history

However, with the rise of national socialism in Germany, the life of the blacks became increasingly difficult. They became the target of a vicious propaganda machine unleashed by the Nazis. Along with Jews and those politically opposed to the Nazi regime, the blacks began to be hounded by Hitler’s followers.

Konzentrationslager Dachau 1945: Quelle: Gedenkstätte Dachau

Concentration camp Dachau 1945

The fate and stories of some of those unfortunate people have now been painstakingly restored in the exhibition through a collection of posters, flyers, films, audio recordings and photographs.

The venue itself could hardly be more appropriate: The Cologne Nazi Documentation Center is housed in a building used by the Gestapo for torture and interrogation.

Life made hell

The Nazi’s 1933 racial law, which applied to blacks as well as Jews, institutionalized racism and made it impossible for them to lead normal lives. Propaganda on the streets and in the media labeled blacks as a "dangerous plague" and "bastards". Black men were said to be a danger for German women.

Black Germans who had married white Germans were subjected to additional persecution. Many were forcibly sterilized.

Historians still don’t know what happened to most blacks in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Many simply disappeared from public life.

Plakat: Ausstellung Besonderes Kennzeichen Neger. Schwarze im NS-Staat.

Exhibition "Besonderes Kennzeichen Neger".Schwarze im NS-Staat.

Some were able to leave the country, while others were sent to concentration camps. Hundreds or even thousands may have been killed. According to Martin, historians have only been able to document just over two dozen cases of blacks being killed by the Nazis.

"White gaze – black object"

The exhibition meanwhile has also attracted criticism from groups that represent blacks in Germany. They say that it objectifies blacks.

The Black People in Germany Initiative (ISD) and the organization Black Women in Germany (ADEFRA), believe that the exhibition is another example of how German society deals with and views black people as objects. The groups welcome bringing the history of Germany’s black population to the public but are opposed to the exhibition's name.

"At the cost of black people, a historical term is updated according to long-standing white-colonial thought patterns," said a spokeswoman for the ISD in a statement. "Black survivors and the murdered victims of the Holocaust are hardly receiving a dignified monument."

The exhibition runs until February 23, 2003.

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