Natalye Pass Harpin on the Lives of Black Germans under NazismHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, racism, German history, Black Germans
History really came alive for Natalye Pass Harpin in college, where she saw herself reflected in the stories and events they were learning about in class, and was also learning about other groups of people. It was in that environment where history wasn’t just about what happened in the past, but its relationship to the present.
“I wanted to be able to create that environment for others, so that they could feel more connected to it,” says Harpin, a continuing lecturer at UC San Diego, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history. She’s also an associate professor at Grossmont College. “Also … to be able to connect it to the things that are happening today and how many of these communities are still affected by the legacies of the histories that we’re learning about.”
She’s heard people describe history as “boring,” but she wants to make it accessible and meaningful. Part of that effort will be in her upcoming lecture at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library in downtown San Diego, “Afro-Descendants in Nazi Germany.” To close out Black History Month, Harpin will share the history of the Nazi’s racial policies toward Black Germans during the 1930s and ‘40s, and how they were inspired by the racism of America’s Jim Crow-era South. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: Can you talk about what initially brought Black people to Germany before World War I? Where did they arrive from? What were their circumstances in Germany before the Nazi party came to power?
A: I’m not saying this is the definitive history, but from the research that I’ve done, it looks as if some of the people emigrated from the continent of Africa, in the different areas that had German occupation, to Germany to do things like go to school. Some of these people were children of dignitaries or other important people in their home countries. Around the time period of World War I, there were talks about if and how they would restrict people based on the fact that they were a different race. If they could be German citizens, what would it look like for children who were mixed race? Oftentimes, it would have been African men having children with German women. Sometimes, in the colonies, you’d have German men who would have marriages to African women. If those children [from those relationships] would be “legitimized” and have German citizenship, there were concerns about giving people access to citizenship because of this racialized aspect. From what I understand, there wasn’t a set of rules, like we had in the American South, because there wasn’t a very large population of Afro-Germans and they weren’t all segregated to one area. They were more spread out, so when you see some of the primary sources of people who did grow up then — like Theodor Michael and Hans Massaquoi, who were biracial and had German mothers and African fathers — they describe how they stood out because they were darker than their peers, but it wasn’t as hostile, with regard to them not being able to go to formal school, until the Nazis came to power.
Q: From what I’ve read, Black people in Germany were already dealing with anti-Black racism in Germany, so what was different once Adolf Hitler was leading the country?
A: There was a lot more push to forcibly sterilize, for example. So, because these people were non-Aryans [by Nazi ideology] — there were terms like “mischling kinder” (mixed children) or “Rheinlandbastarde” (Rhineland bastard)— and were considered to be a result of colonization within continental Africa, a lot of them were forcibly sterilized because [the Nazis] didn’t want them to be able to have their own children who would be German citizens because of where they were born, sort of like in the United States. If you’re born here, on the soil, generally, you’re regarded as an American citizen.
There was also the delegitimization of a lot of these people’s relationships, so they weren’t allowed to be in public spaces with their non-Black partners anymore. It sort of became a Jim Crow situation, like in the U.S. The Nazis borrowed a lot from the Jim Crow South and applied it to their populations of non-Aryans in Germany, so that included people who weren’t Black. [There were rules like] not being able to go to parks or other public spaces on certain days and only having a certain time where you could go to those places if you wanted to. A lot of anti-Blackness had already been a thing, but now there was more of an incentivized push to encourage people to do that type of anti-Black violence, even with adults doing it to children just to prove that they were part of the Aryan group, part of the Nazis.