Making Visible the Invisible: Germany's Black diaspora, 1880s -1945

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10 October 2019  |  15 minutes

Making Visible the Invisible: Germany's Black diaspora, 1880s -1945

Professor of Imperial History

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REF 2021

This case study was included as part of the Research Excellence Framework for 2021:

Today, nearly a million Black people live in Germany. But the longer history of a Black community stretches back to the 1880s – and, until now, this story has remained largely untold.

Here I present this hidden history – from the beginnings of the community in Imperial Germany to the impact of the Nazi regime on Black Germans in the 1930s and ‘40s1.

Part 1

Imperial Germany: the emergence of a community

The beginning of a permanent Black presence in Germany was an unforeseen result of German ascendancy as both a colonial and a maritime power from the late nineteenth century onwards2. Although no exact figures exist in the period prior to the outbreak of World War One we can say that several thousand people of African descent from almost all regions of Africa as well as from further afield such as the Caribbean, South America and the United States were present in Germany. 

In particular, the creation of a German empire in Africa in 1884, served by direct shipping links from 1890, led to a continuous flow of colonial subjects from the new colonies: foremost from Cameroon and Togo, but also from German East Africa (GEA, made up of parts of present-day Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania) and to a far lesser extent from German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia). 

Pre-World War One, the Black presence in Imperial Germany was characterised by three main features. Firstly, Black people were found throughout the country and not just in the larger cities. Secondly, this was a male-dominated population; very few Black women spent time in Germany. (Almost all colonial subjects who arrived from the colonies were young men.) Thirdly, this was a fluid population:few Africans viewed their stay in Germany as being anything other than temporary, and few remained long-term. 

Black people travelled to Germany by a variety of ways and means. An unknown, but likely large, number of men came as members of European merchant fleets or as stowaways and adventurers. More, including several dozen women, arrived as participants in human zoos, touring ethnographical exhibitions in which they 'performed' their native cultures. There was also constant and considerable traffic of servants from the colonies, brought to Germany by missionaries, private individuals and colonial officials on home leave. A handful of men arrived as language instructors, employed to teach future German colonists African languages and customs. With the exception of the latter, in most cases these visitors' experiences of Germany were limited and their period of stay was brief. 

A key driving force behind the migration flow from the colonies came from the indigenous African populations. Wealthy Togolese and Cameroonian coastal elites – traditional and religious leaders, notables, and traders – paid or sought sponsors for their children to be educated or serve apprenticeships in Germany3. They envisaged this as an opportunity to increase political influence and prestige and this process fed into a wider tradition of elite families along the West African coast ensuring that their children be trained in Europe4.

The German authorities were particularly concerned about the movement of men and women from the African colonies to Europe. As long as their presence in Germany was deemed beneficial to the aims of the colonial project the German colonial administrations in Africa and the authorities in Berlin were willing to support temporary migration. At no time was it ever intended for them to take up permanent residency. Arrivals from the colonies were never German citizens. Instead, the indigenous populations of Germany's African territories occupied an inferior, ill-defined legal position as German colonial subjects (Schutzgebietsangehörige). The restrictions associated with this legal status – which was developed with the racial hierarchy of the colonial arena in mind, were not, however, always applicable in Germany itself, where German law guaranteed colonial subjects rights that they could not enjoy in the African colonies. 

This created the potential for unforeseen tension. Therefore, early on much emphasis was placed on controlling the movements of these young Africans as well as on constricting their exposure to German society. It soon became apparent that monitoring Africans' movements and actions was exceedingly difficult. Worse still, their presence was having a destabilising influence on politics at a local level back in the colonies. Continuing ties with the homeland meant that several colonial subjects in Germany, notably the Cameroonians Alfred Bell (Belle Ndumbe) and later Mpundu Akwa, were active in publicly promoting the interests of their home territories against the colonial regimes, sometimes in cooperation with German anti-colonialists. Both men would be deported back to Africa. This was the beginning of a tradition of anti-imperial protest among German-based Africans

The authorities’ response was to retreat from support for migration from Germany's African colonies. Starting with Cameroon in 1893, followed by GEA in 1896 and Togo in 1899, the colonial administrations in Africa began implementing travel restrictions5.

The Colonial Department in Berlin also took steps to warn colonial officials from returning home with African servants6. On the one hand, this was the result of negative publicity stemming from a newspaper article in which a German officer was reported to have physically beaten an African servant he brought with him on home leave. On the other hand, the Colonial Department was concerned that increasing numbers of servants were being abandoned by their masters once in Germany and that it would be left to meet the costs of returning them to Africa7. And, by 1901 legislation had been introduced in all four African territories prohibiting  African colonial subjects from being brought to Germany to perform in human zoos8.

With or without permission to travel, and in spite of even harsher restrictions which were later imposed, African men and women continued to travel to Germany up to the outbreak of World War One9.

In the immediate pre-war period, there is evidence of a gradual transition in the nature of the Black presence – from one of largely isolated individuals to clusters of connected people who were now living in close proximity to one another in several German cities. In particular, the sprawling metropolises of Hamburg and Berlin emerged as key centres of migration. 

Black Germany

Part 2

The Weimar Republic: the challenges of life in Germany

It was war and its aftermath that ended migration from Africa to Germany. For the duration of the fighting Black people living in Germany had no means of returning home whether they wanted to or not; they were largely cut off from family and friends in their homelands. While a handful of colonial subjects fought for the German army in Europe and others worked in munitions factories, Black men who were holders of British passports were liable to be held as prisoners of war. 

In the post-war period all German-based Blacks were confronted with a changed political landscape – but this was particularly true for those from the colonies. Under the terms of the Versailles peace they were no longer German colonial subjects: Germany had been stripped of its colonies. Instead, in theory, they were placed under the diplomatic protection of the relevant mandate authority. For the vast majority of ex-colonial subjects this was the French who exercised authority over Togo and most of Cameroon, while the British controlled a small section of the latter as well as large parts of GEA. Those wishing to return to Africa were therefore dependent upon the permission of the French and British mandate authorities. 

Such requests were routinely rejected or purposely delayed by French and British Commissioners, who believed that would-be returnees had remained too long in Germany and would likely bolster the perceived subversive elements in the mandates that were unwilling to submit to French or British rule10.

This meant that the several hundred ex-German colonial subjects still living in Germany were now effectively stranded there. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey has described them as 'nobody's people', a term which aptly describes their increasingly indeterminate civil status, especially during the interwar period11. To combat this lack of legal protection/status several dozen Cameroonian and Togolese men, who often falsely assumed themselves to be German, either asked for confirmation of their status as citizens or actively applied for naturalisation. In all but three cases their requests were denied. 

In general, the German authorities were unenthusiastic about taking any responsibility for their now-former colonial subjects. German policy towards them, up to around 1939-1940, was shaped by hopes of regaining the lost colonial territories. In this respect their presence was to be tolerated in order to avoid adverse publicity in the international press. This would eventually even extend to offering financial support to unemployed Africans. Throughout the 1920s, however, the long-term goal of German authorities was to ensure their return to Africa.

This lack of a clear citizenship status imposed constraints on Black Germans' everyday lives and their ability to set down roots in Germany. It complicated their chances of finding accommodation, as well as their ability to get married. 

But between 1897 and 1933 there is archival evidence of well over four dozen mixed marriages taking place. A new generation of Black Germans developed out of these as well as other, non-marital relationships. Crucially, under the terms of German citizenship law both the wives and children of these men inherited their liminal status.    

A further challenge faced by Black residents was finding employment12. The fluctuating fortunes of the Weimar economy, coupled with increasing levels of discrimination, made finding work a growing problem. 

As a consequence Black residents increasingly turned to performance – in particular on the Weimar stage and screen, as musicians, and in the circus - as a way to make a living13. With the emergence of mass popular culture and the rapid growth and development of the film industry new opportunities started to open up. In particular, from the mid-1920s popular enthusiasm for cultural products associated with the United States such as jazz, created a demand for Black performers. 

This brought touring African-American performers to Germany, such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, while also creating employment for ex-colonial subjects and their children. The roles they were asked to take on tended to present an image of the black as primitive or exotic. 

Such performance work was often seasonal and unstable, but it also potentially offered considerable financial rewards14. At the same time the film set, theatre and circus also functioned as spaces which brought Black people into contact with one another, helping to foster a sense of community. Oral testimonies  suggest that it was common for touring Black performers to establish contact with resident Black Germans in the towns they visited or who were also on tour15.

Further evidence of an evolving community can be seen in the formal and informal networks that Black men and women formed in Germany, beginning with the creation of a mutual aid organisation, the African Welfare Association, in June 1918 and extending to the more overtly political, Communist sponsored anti-colonial group the League for the Defence of the Negro Race in Berlin in 192916. Both groups were nationwide in their composition and both reflected the numerical dominancy of ex-colonial subjects among the resident black population. The League's networks briefly extended beyond Germany to a sister group in Paris, to groups of African anti-colonial activists in Belgium and London and to Communist activists in Moscow as well as back to Africa. With the coming to power of the National Socialists in January 1933, however, these political activities were brought to a sudden end.  

Black Germany

Part 3

Nazi Germany: Life in the Third Reich

From the outset, the Jews were at the forefront of the Nazi's racial policies and practices. But; in the Nazis' evolving racial state people of African heritage were now all deemed to be racial outsiders to be excluded from the people's community in development. Thus the lives of Black residents were also undoubtedly affected by popular expressions of racial prejudice, encouraged by the Nazis, as well as by open harassment from the regime itself. Indeed, the Nazi takeover of power has been remembered by members of Germany's Black community as a watershed moment in their personal histories17.

Nazi policy towards Black people was complex and at times appears to be contradictory. Overall, however, as a group and as individuals, the deteriorating living conditions that they, their children, and their wives experienced during the final years of the Weimar Republic became increasingly critical over the course of the Third Reich. 

Equally, there is growing evidence to suggest that Black people were targeted and increasingly subjected to coherent policies and practices of exclusion by the regime, although these were never applied with any consistency. Especially during wartime, the trajectory of policy suggests that Black Germans were being assimilated into the spiralling radicalisation of racial policy towards Europe's Jews in particular and other 'racial aliens' in general and they at least hint at a goal of racial annihilation.

Under the conditions of the new regime, ex-colonial subjects and their families faced increasing marginalisation. Now they were explicitly viewed as being stateless; the identity papers they had previously held were replaced by the Fremdenpass (Alien's Passport). This documentation removed any mention of their previous positive connection to Germany, and instead they were frequently classified as 'N****' and therefore marked as 'racial aliens'. 

At a local level some individuals were singled out for victimisation by party fanatics - for example, already in 1933 the performer and activist Hilarius Gilges was murdered by a mob of local Nazi officials and supporters in Dusseldorf. Victimisation extended to German-born Black children. The latter were often exposed to racial abuse at school where they were liable to be humiliated during 'racial science' and biology lessons18. Equally, they were routinely excluded from Nazi youth organisations. Meanwhile, discriminatory legislation introduced at a national level and directed primarily against Jews and/or 'racial aliens' in general was also applied to Black people.

In particular, it was the Office of the Nazi Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick that was behind anti-Black initiatives. These ignored any sentimental attachment to the former colonies and actively sought to prevent the growth of future generations of Black Germans. 

Pre-1933, Frick attempted to introduce discriminatory policies against Germany's Black population at both state and national level, including a failed attempt to introduce a ban against mixed marriages in 193019. In 1935, with the Nazis now in power, he was more successful. In December the same year he publicly extended aspects of the Nuremberg Race Laws – originally directed at Jews to explicitly cover all those deemed to be 'N****' as well as their children and the Sinti and Roma20. Under the new legislation marriages between men and women of African heritage and white Germans which were capable of producing children were now prohibited.

His inclusion of all Blacks as targets of this legislation should be seen in the context of a decision taken on the initiative of his ministry months previously to carry out the secret sterilisation of the so-called 'Rhineland children', who were reaching adolescence and were viewed as a significant racial threat21. The sterilisation of over 385 of these youths followed in 193722. Out of concerns about repercussions abroad the systematic sterilisation of the German-born children of ex-colonial subjects and of other 'alien races' was ruled out. The application of parts of the Nuremberg Laws, however, opened up another way for race-policy activists to prevent the further growth of a Black German population. While existing marriages and extramarital relations were not specifically criminalised on a ground level when the policy was put into practice, there is clear evidence that mixed couples were exposed to scrutiny and harassment, leading to the break-up of families. 

With the outbreak of World War Two Black Germans were exposed to heightened levels of violence, partly because colonial revisionism and concerns about international opinion were no longer priorities. Increasing numbers of Black Germans were incarcerated, while their German-born children, much like the Rhineland children, faced the very real threat of sterilisation. 

Despite the general lack of archival information about the fate of Black German residents, particularly during this crucial period 1940-45, there are hints that plans were being made within the upper echelons of the regime to assimilate Blacks into the Nazis’ murderous racial policies, which had become increasingly unrestrained towards Europe's Jew and the Sinti and Roma. 

An order issued in October 1942 by Heinrich Himmler, SS Reichsführer and Chief of the German Police, for the statistical registration of all Black people living in Occupied Europe  is reminiscent of a similar process of registration he initiated against the Sinti and Roma in 193823. The latter resulted in Himmler's decision of late 1942 to deport most of them to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

While, there was no systematic internment of Germany's small resident Black community  nonetheless, there is at least limited evidence to suggest that during the final years of the Nazi regime Black people were being persecuted on the grounds of 'race' alone24

The Black population which survived the Third Reich was markedly smaller, and the community that had been developing since the late nineteenth century was scattered and in rupture. Families had been forcibly separated, Black men and women had been forced into exile or hiding, and others had been incarcerated. 

Although a few individuals had lived through the Nazi period having experienced less punitive interference from the state, no one was left unscathed by the policies and practices of the regime. 

It would not be until the Afro-German movement of the 1980s when issues of identity emerged, and individuals from African diasporic heritage would come together to form a new, visible and vocal Black German community. 

This article is an edited version of the essay 'Germany's Black Diaspora: The Emergence and Struggles of a Community, 1880s-1945', originally published in BDG Network (eds.), The Black Diaspora and Germany: Deutschland und die Schwarze Diaspora (Munster: Edition Assemblage, 2018), pp. 84-100, ISBN-13: 978-3960420354.


1. There is a growing literature on the Black presence in Germany pre-1945. See May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz (eds.), Showing our Colors. Afro-German Women Speak Out, trans. Anne Adams (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1992); Clarence Lusane, Hitler’s Black Victims (New York: Routledge, 2003); Tina Campt, Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2004); Robbie Aitken and Eve Rosenhaft, Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). In German see Katharina Oguntoye, Eine Afro-Deutsche Geschichte. Zur Lebenssituation von Afrikanern in Deutschland von 1884 bis 1950 (Berlin: Hoho Verlag, 1997); Peter Martin and Christine Alonzo (eds.), Zwischen Charleston und Stechschritt: Schwarze im Nationalsozialismus (Hamburg: Dölling und Galitz Verlag, 2004); Asoka Esuruoso and Philipp Khabo Koepsell (eds.), Arriving in the Future: Stories of Home and Exile (Berlin: epubli, 2014).

2. On the black presence prior to this period see Anne Kuhlmann-Smirnov, Schwarze Europaer Im Alten Reich: Handel, Migration, Hof (Göttingen: V&R, 2013); Peter Martin, Schwarze Teufel, edle M***en: Afrikaner in Geschichte und Bewusstsein der Deutschen (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2001). 

3. Robbie Aitken, 'Education and Migration: Cameroonian School Children and Apprentices in Germany, 1884-1914' in Martin Klimke, Mischa Honek and Anne Kuhlmann-Smirnov, Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 (New York, Berghahn, 2013), pp. 213-30.

4. David Killingray, 'Africans in the United Kingdom: An Introduction', in David Killingray (ed.), Africans in Britain (Ilford: Frank Cass, 1994), pp.2-27, here pp.7-9

5. 'Decree of 11 December 1893', in Deutsches Kolonialblatt, 5 (1894), p.105; 'Decree of the Imperial Governor of Togo, 15 November 1899', BArch R1001 5576, p.31; 'Ban on the recruitment of workers, 26 March 1896', Deutsche Kolonial-Gesetzgebung Band 2 (Berlin: E.S.Mittler, 1898), p.214. The Governor of German Southwest Africa argued that a previous law of 1891 was sufficient to prevent Africans from leaving the territory.

6. 'Edict of the Imperial Chancellor concerning the Taking of Native Servants, 3 May 1900', in Die Deutsche Kolonial-Gesetzgebung Band 5 (Berlin: E.S.Mittler, 1901), pp.73-74.

7. Robbie Aitken, 'Forgotten histories: Recovering the precarious lives of African servants in Imperial Germany', in Mark Stein, Felipe Espinoza, Caroline Kögler, Deborah Nyangulu (eds.), Locating African European Studies: Interventions—Intersections—Coalitions (Routledge, forthcoming, 2020)

8. Harald Sippel, 'Rassismus, Protektionismus oder Humanität? Die gesetzlichen Verbote der Anwerbung von "Eingeborenen" zu Schaustellungszwecken in den deutschen Kolonien', in Robert Debusmann, János Riesz (eds.), Kolonialausstellungen - Begegnungen mit Afrika? (Frankfurt/M: IKO, 1995), pp.43-64.

9. Decree of the Governor of Cameroon, 15 October 1910, Bundesarchiv Berlin (BArch) R100 4457/6, p.54.

10. Letter, French Commissioner Cameroon to the Minister of the Colonies, 30 October 1923, Centre des Archives d’outre-mer, Fonds Ministeriels Affaires Politiques, 613-1071.

11. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, ‘Nobody’s People: Colonial Subjects, Race Power and the German State 1884-1945’ (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2004), pp.2-3, and chapter 8.

12. See Robbie Aitken, 'Surviving in the Metropole: The Struggle for Work and Belonging among African Colonial Migrants in Weimar Germany’, in Immigrants and Minorities, 28/2-3 (2010), pp.203-23.

13. On Black performers see the work of Tobias Nagl, in particular, Die unheimliche Maschine. Rasse und Repräsentation im Weimarer Kino (Munich: edition text + kritik, 2009), chapter 6. 

14. Nagl, Die unheimliche Maschine, pp.540-47.

15. Manuela Bauche, '"Im Zirkus gibt es keine Hautfarbe – nur gute und schlechte Artisten"', in Heike Schmidt (ed.) Mündliche Geschichte – Afrika Erinnern. Lebensgeschichten afrodeutscher und afrikanischer BerlinerInnen (Unpublished Manuscript, Seminar für Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2004), p.39; Oguntoye, Eine Afro-Deutsche Geschichte, p.154

16. On the AH see Peter Martin, 'Anfänge politischer Selbstorganisation der deutschen Schwarzen bis 1933', in Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst and Richard Klein-Arendt (eds), Die (koloniale) Begegnung: AfrikanerInnen in Deutschland 1880-1945. Deutsche in Afrika 1880-1918) (Frankfurt/M: Lang, 2003), pp.193-206. On the LzVN see, Robbie Aitken, 'From Cameroon to Germany and back via Moscow and Paris: The Political Career of Joseph Bilé (1892-1959), Performer, "N****arbeiter", and Comintern Activist', Journal of Contemporary History, 43/4 (2008), pp.597-616.

17. See the comments of various contributors made in David Okuefuna's documentary film Hitler’s Forgotten Victims (1997). Also Erika and Doris Diek, 'Our Father was Cameroonian, Our Mother, East Prussian, We are Mulattoes', in Opitz et. el., Showing our Colors, pp. 56-76. For a contemporary take, letter, Kwassi Bruce to the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office, Pol.X, ca.1934, BArch R1001 7562, pp.91-100.

18. Erika and Doris Diek, 'Our Father was Cameroonian', pp.61-61; Hans J. Massaquoi, Destined to Witness. Growing up black in Nazi Germany (London: Fusion, 2001), pp.110-11.

19. Verhandlungen des Reichstags 1930, vol. 440, item 1741; vol. 427, p. 4476; vol. 428, p. 5567. Frick attacked black performers and jazz while Interior Minister in Thuringia. Donald R Tracey, 'The Development of the National Socialist Party in Thuringia', Central European History, 8/1 (1975), pp.23-50

20. Wilhelm Frick, 'Das Reichsbürgergesetz und das Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der Deutschen Ehre', Deutsche Juristen–Zeitung, 40 (1935), pp.1389-94, here p.1391.

21. See Minutes of the Meeting of Working Group II of the Council of Experts for Population and Racial Policy, 11 March 1935, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes, Inland I-Partei R99166.

22. Campt, Other Germans, p.73.

23. 'Registration of "N****"', Ministerialblatt des Reichs- und Preussischen Ministeriums des Innern, 103 (1942), col. 1977f. On the Nazis’ policies concerning the Sinti and Roma see Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

24. Aitken and Rosenhaft, Black Germany, pp.271-8.

REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.