Black Germany. The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884–1960

Aitken, Robbie; Rosenhaft, Eve
364 S.
€ 84,01
Rezensiert für den Arbeitskreis Historische Friedens- und Konfliktforschung bei H-Soz-Kult von:
Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin

In charting the rise, the decline, and the fallouts of an African community in Germany from the 1880s until WWII, this book, co-written by two U.K.-based historians of Germany, forms part of a recent renaissance of studies interested in the effects that colonialism had on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany. Whereas older works scrutinizing the pre-WWII African presence in Europe chiefly concentrated on the biographies and the politics of a few outstanding individuals[1], Robbie Aitken and Eve Rosenhaft adopt a social-history approach indebted to the questions typically raised by migration and diaspora studies. Building on the insights culled from an array of multinational archival sources, they use these questions to shed new light on pan-African anticolonialism in the interwar period as well as the long-term trajectory of the Black presence in Germany. The outcome is a marvelously written account of Africans in pre-WWII Germany that spotlights the potential benefits of co-authorship and years of painstaking research.

In spite of its title, the book deals with Cameroonians alone, who seem to have constituted only about half of Germany’s African-origin communities. This narrowing down runs certain risks. For instance, the authors’ claim that the entire Black community was characterized by its “liminal status defined as much by […] colonial origins, association with a lost empire and unsought affiliation with the competing colonial power France” (p. 21) seems to be extrapolated from the specific case of Cameroonians. But as Aitken and Rosenhaft rightly point out (p. 8), the focus allows for the better collection of longitudinal data on individuals, who would normally hide behind anonymous data sets. Digging their way through obscure provincial archives in Germany as well as better known ones in other countries (including France, Cameroon, and Russia), this procedure permits piecing together long-buried life stories that are not only a joy to read, but also provide exemplary windows into the general workings of community-building, official discrimination, and an emergent diasporic politics.

The book’s overall architecture, built on eight chapters that blend a chronological with a thematic dynamic, opens with a social-history analysis of the reasons and practices of migration and community-building. Before 1914, roughly 240 Cameroonians, almost all male and Duala, set foot on metropolitan Germany, arriving as students and apprentices meant to work for the colonial administration upon their return home, as sailors for the merchant fleet, language instructors, and household servants. Even though most of them had returned by the outbreak of WWI, a relatively small community existed throughout the interwar years. After 1919, its mobility was hampered by the complicated legal ramifications of Cameroon’s change of status from German colony to French mandate after WWI. Thus immobilized in the former metropole, Cameroonians in Germany were obliged to weigh their options as for building a stable life and creating a community that would help them articulate their worries and needs.

Aitken and Rosenhaft reveal that the twin pillars of family and work crucially shaped the community. In an intriguing parallel to the situation in France, the German authorities sought to impede mixed marriages in the metropole. Although, in contrast to some colonies, no formal law before 1933 forbade these marriages in Germany, the authorities feared the potential repercussions that such liaisons and their offspring could unleash overseas. Everyday racism in Germany, culminating in the campaign against the so-called Schwarze Schmach (“Black Shame”) of the French Rhineland occupation supported by African troops, compounded the matter (pp. 111–114). Although chapter 7 shows that the Nazis’ repression of the African community was on the whole arbitrarily brutal rather than ruthlessly systematic, life in Germany gradually grew unbearable for Cameroonians. “The experience of Blacks is a reminder that the ‘racial state’ [envisaged by the Nazis] remained a work in progress, as uneven in its operations as it was fantastical in conception,” the authors underline (p. 232). But even as tiny pockets of the community continued to survive into the war years and after, the majority resettled to France. In passing, the authors clarify previously unknown details, such as the circumstances of the death of Malian activist Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté in the concentration camp of Mauthausen in 1944, where he was deported from Paris.

While the book makes valuable contributions to several fields of historical study, the most important one to my mind is elucidating the link between local community life and a wider pan-African anticolonial imaginary. In their chapter on the community’s politics (pp. 194–230), the authors corroborate the extent to which the rise of a diasporic consciousness bound to the visions of pan-Africanism originated in the everyday experiences of a community that brought together peoples of African origin of different national backgrounds; under the umbrella of an imagined Black solidarity. A “politics of petition” (p. 195) emerged, which, addressed to the metropolitan public and policymakers, demanded colonial reform and political freedoms heretofore withheld from colonial subjects. Many of the concrete demands raised by interwar anticolonial activists therefore related to everyday migratory experiences, for instance when they campaigned for the legitimacy of mixed marriages (p. 200). Mutual-aid societies in Germany typically became politicized and disembarked in a wider pan-African anticolonialism. When the Comintern, through the League against Imperialism, sought to muster anticolonialists from the Global South it drew primarily on the spokesmen of diasporic communities, who were first and foremost answerable to a rank and file of migrants, even if their networks kept alive intimate ties with the homeland (p. 223).

Occasionally the book’s sample of protagonists is too small to justify generalizations. For instance, the analysis (pp. 119–129) of residence patterns in the two prime cities of settlement, Hamburg and Berlin, seems to bespeak dispersion rather than the existence of a stable community with its own neighborhoods, as implied by the authors. It does testify, however, to the crucial importance of migratory networks and their eventual impact on the birth of a pan-African consciousness. Along the way, the book nuances our understanding of the importance of race and colonialism in twentieth-century Germany. Scholars and students interested in these topics will greatly benefit from reading it.

[1] E.g. Philippe Dewitte, Les mouvements nègres en France, 1919–1939, Paris 1985; Jonathan Derrick, Africa’s Agitators: Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918–1939, London 2008.

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Die Rezension ist hervorgegangen aus der Kooperation mit dem Arbeitskreis Historische Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. (Redaktionelle Betreuung: Jan Hansen, Alexander Korb und Christoph Laucht) http://www.akhf.de/
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