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The Black experience in Germany

The cover photo, and photo used in the article are the copyright of Jana Pareigis (289760)
The cover photo, and photo used in the article are the copyright of Jana Pareigis
Theodor Wonja Michael, Jana Pareigis and Gertraud Michael. Copyright photo courtesy of Jana Pareigis (289770)

For many Non-Europeans, Europe is considered mostly White.

Especially Germany.

But Germany is also home to many second- and third-generation German citizens who are not White, fair-haired, and blue-eyed.

According to the “German law of citizenship,” being born in Germany would not make that individual a German citizen automatically, one parent has to be German. But even so, many Black Germans – or Afro-Germans – feel like they are not considered “German,” but foreigners.

Although Germany has many immigrants from African countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia and Senegal, who mostly migrated to Germany in the 1980s, the first African in Germany who received higher education was brought to Germany as a “gift” for the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1720. The Ghana native, Anton Wilhelm Amo, was treated like a family member, not a servant, and was encouraged to study at the Duke’s University of Helmstedt.

Then, before the transatlantic slave trade, “servants,” were brought to Europe from Africa to help with resident’s household tasks. Toward the end of the 18th century, however, African slaves were brought to Germany from West Africa, since German estates were established in the African Great Lakes and West Africa. Many Africans migrated to Germany to work and receive higher education.

“Africans had a dream to come to Europe, like many Europeans had the dream to go to the United States,” German author and actor Theodor Wonja Michael said in the 2017 documentary ‘Afro.Germany’. for the broadcast channel “Deutsche Welle“ (German Wave). In it, Afro-German journalist Jana Pareigis focuses on the topic “Being German and Black.” Political scientist, human rights activist and Ph.D. student Joshua Kwesi Aikins also appears in the documentary.

The first genocide by Germans

Berlin, which has one of the largest African quarters, still contains many street names given during colonial times. However, a lot of those street names receive criticism since they represent colonial rulers who mistreated and even killed many Africans, such as Adolf Lüderitz and Lothar von Trotha.

Aikins, who’s of German and Ghanaian descent, has been actively trying to change those street names for more than 15 years. Aikins is also a member of the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Black People in Germany Initiative) and is involved in promoting human rights-based empowerment on behalf of Black people and other people of color.

“In our culture the image of a White Germany is handed down. There are the Whites and the others, who are considered inferior or underdeveloped. Allegedly they do not belong. This creates a self-perception based on feelings of superiority – and a structure in which these ideas are passed on,” Aikins mentioned in an interview. “Nearly everybody refers to a treasure of prejudice, even without being racist. These patterns can be traced far back into the past. They were already developed in the 16th century at the time of the Brandenburg enslavement trade and were passed on via the colonialism of the Weimar Republic and National Socialism until the present.”

Lüderitz and von Trotha (whom the current streets are named after) were associated with the German genocide against the Herero and Nama tribes that took place between 1904 and 1907 in West Africa—now modern day Namibia. Many Germans have forgotten that part of their colonialism-period—or are in denial. Therefore Germany didn’t—and somewhat still doesn’t – acknowledge the genocide and has not officially apologized.

Human zoos

Between 1870 and 1930, many Africans were brought to Germany by Carl Hagenbeck to be displayed in a “human zoo.” The captives had to dress in their native clothing and “perform” or demonstrate their traditional dances. According to historians, the way the captives behaved was not native but staged to feed into the stereotyped expectations of the German viewers, since they judged them as “primitive.”

Michael was one of the involuntary participants who performed in the human zoos. In his memoirs and various interviews, he talks about how he was displayed like a wild, exotic animal that was tamed enough to be petted by a crowd of curious White Germans. His curly hair was touched, to feel its texture and his skin was rubbed to see if his color would change or come off. In the eyes of the German population, he was not considered human, but foreign.

The 94-year-old, who passed away last October, said that those memories were still painful to him, when he was reminiscing about the past events of his life. The shocking part was that Michael was still questioned about his ethnicity in present times, although Germany is anything but an all-White country.

Being Black in Nazi-Germany

Michael was born in 1925 in Berlin, and was the son of a Cameroonian father and German mother. His father migrated to Germany from Cameroon – which was a German colony back then – to study and work but he wasn’t able to find work in Berlin; therefore he participated in the human zoos. Michael accompanied his father and performed as well, which he hated. After his parents’ death he became a foster child and his new foster parents operated a circus, in which he was forced to participate. When he got older, he did have White friends and didn’t feel different necessarily but that all changed once the Nazis gained power and the Nuremberg Laws were established. He was denied his education and could not join the Hitler Youth because of his skin color.

What saved him from the concentration camps and the fate of many African-Germans as well as Jews, was his participation in movies about colonial times, which the Nazis were obsessed with. But he still had to live like he was invisible. And having contact with White women was prohibited.

“They didn’t kill us, but they didn’t let us live either,” Michael said in an interview.

Racism in Germany in modern times

“Being Black in Germany still feels strange and alienated,” Michael mentioned in an interview with Pareigis. Although the Black community in Germany is relatively big, one still must fight for self identity, as mentioned in “Black German: An Afro-German Life in the Twentieth Century,” Michael’s memoir.

Pareigis, who was born and raised in Hamburg, is of German, Swedish and Zimbabwe descent but also lived and studied in New York City. She mentioned in an interview that she felt more comfortable living in the Bronx than living in Germany, although she said that racism is felt in the U.S.—especially cities like NYC.

“I feel ‘segregation’ is worse in the U.S.,” Pareigis said in an email. “We do have neighborhoods in Germany where mainly people of color are living and those neighborhoods are often more socially deprived due to racism, but in general, the neighborhoods are not as strictly for ‘segregated’ as in New York. Yes, institutional racism is a huge – and not often discussed problem – in Germany, and the social background of children has a big impact on their educational achievement. Children from middle class parents or parents with an academic background are much more likely to go to college in Germany than children from parents with a working class background.

“This impacts especially children of color,” Pareigis added. “On the other hand though, education is free in Germany, contrary to the U.S. where it is even more difficult for people from working class backgrounds to get a higher education due to the ridiculously high tuition fees.”

In regards to Germany’s racism, there was an undeniable increase over the last few years. Although most of Germany rejects right-wing parties, Neo Nazis and Alt-Right groups are still active throughout Europe, including the current right-wing political party AFD (Alternative-For-Germany).

“In the last four years the political discourse has shifted to the right in Germany due to the rise of the right-wing political party AFD,” Pareigis wrote. “Party officials of the AFD are known for their comments relativizing the Holocaust and making racist remarks about people of color, Muslims and refugees. Like in the U.S. and in other European countries there is institutional racism in Germany.”

According to Chicago native Jennifer Neal who moved to Berlin in 2016, the hate crime attacks against people of color have jumped in the last three years. In an article that she wrote for the German newspaper “Handelsblatt Today,” she talks about her own experience that hit close to home being Black and living in Germany. In the building where she used to live, her neighbors would let her know that she wasn’t welcome by urinating in front of her door or leaving racist slurs such as “You don’t belong here,” and “Go back to where you came from.”

And although Neal has called the police countless times, “hate crimes” although acknowledged here in the U.S., aren’t often recognized as such in Germany. Although there is no formal can ategory of ‘hate crime’ offenses, police in Germany nonetheless keep track of racist attacks or other crimes motivated by hate.

According to data between 2011 and 2017, attacks on refugees have increased. In 2016, there were 2545 attacks on refugees outside their asylums.

“But I wasn’t surprised in the slightest, because I’m Black,” Neal wrote. “Since I arrived in Germany more than a year ago, I’ve been yelled at, berated and verbally abused by people telling me to leave the country about a dozen times. And my experiences pale in comparison to those of my friends.”