Who am I? It seems like a simple enough question, but it is one that thousands of Germans of African descent have to ask themselves every day. In a country that defines identity with a great deal of precision, those who fall outside the norm find themselves trapped in a kind of limbo, neither here nor there.
After World War II, tens of thousands of African-American GIs participated in the occupation of Germany. Many of these young men, barred from combat units by segregation, found homes in supply units. In a country where food was in short supply, not only were these soldiers “exotic,” but they held the keys, if not to the kingdom, then certainly to survival.
Like many of their fellow white soldiers, black troops made connections with German women. Soon thereafter, children were born, and German society has struggled with what to do with them for the seven decades since. Multigenerational Afro-Germans have struggled to find their place in a society that often doesn’t accept that they belong.
Professor Maria Hoehn, a German scholar at Vassar College who has studied the struggles of black GIs and their offspring in Germany, explained the challenges these children faced by using an example of how one child-welfare office labeled them.
“They would always identify them as ‘Black Occupation children.’ Or as mischling kinder, or mixed-race children. In the immediate postwar period, there were over 90,000 babies born of American soldiers, and about three-and-a-half thousand of them were African American. What is interesting is that almost the whole focus of the debate on occupation children was on those black children rather than the larger group of children,” she said in a telephone interview.
While the children of white soldiers were accepted, Germans struggled with the idea that a child born of mixed-race parentage could be one of them.
Starting in the 1960s, both East and West Germany offered scholarships to talented African students, some of whom would go on to have children of their own.
Thomas Hurst was born in the 1960s, the son of a white German mother and an African student, and he spoke at length about his struggle to find acceptance.
“I was confused about myself, who I am, what is a good way to explain to other people that I don’t know where my father came from. And the only reason they ask me is because of my skin color. For most of the white German people … there is no way to be German when you are not white. That is still the general interpretation of being German. I always expect some kind of racist attack. If you enter a room, first of all, people believe you are a stranger,” he said during an interview at a central Berlin café.
“Well … I believe there is some post-traumatic stress syndrome as a part of growing up in Germany. You never know if you can go through the day without any racism. I really believe I do have some mental problems, a part of racism,” he added.
For the second postwar generation of Afro-Germans, the struggle for recognition wasn’t any easier. It was this generation of Afro-Germans who came together and created the Initiative of Black People in Germany. Fifty-three-year-old Tahir Della, the son of a black GI and a white mother from Leipzig, is a member of the board of the organization, and he talked about how he thinks other Germans see their fellow citizens of African descent.
“I would say the society has changed a lot. I think the society changed more than the structure. What hasn’t changed is that still the black community [is] still seen as not a regular or normal part of the society. We’re still seen as something strange,” he said. “And that’s the problem generally here in Germany, that racism is still a taboo. It’s still not being named as racism. We have a colonial history of 500 years, and that means there is a thinking, there is a philosophy in the society, which is very, very deeply rooted, and you do not get rid of it in 30 years.”
For the younger generation of Afro-Germans, the struggle continues.
Melody Makeda Ledwon grew up in what was then West Berlin in the 1980s, the child of a black U.S. serviceman and a white German mother. She recalls a childhood filled early on with the idea that she had to explain and defend who she was.
“I didn’t have language for it growing up. I felt very German. In terms of my racial identity, I really didn’t have the language. I felt like my blackness was hindering me from really being fully connected because I would get all these questions or comments that would place me outside of the context of Germany. Mostly it was around ‘How is it possible that you are from here? You don’t belong here,’” she said.
For Ledwon, that racism forced her to leave Berlin as a young adult. She moved to New York, where she studied in the City University system. There, she said, she feels she was truly able to both discover and accept who she is. After nearly a decade in the United States, Ledwon returned to Germany a few years ago and found that in some ways, the place she left had changed nearly as much as she had.
“From my experience coming from New York, it seems still very closed off, but at the same time, I do realize the things that have changed in the last 10 years. And that’s really the work of other Afro-German activists,” she said.
During her time back in Berlin, she noted that “there is a critical mass of white Germans that I had no contact with before I left. I do see the transformations that have happened. For example, now I volunteer at a space called Each One Teach One. It’s a library and youth space, and it’s just a phenomenal place. It’s a library that’s run by black people, and something like that was just a dream that seemed so far away when I started college. Things like that are really amazing.”
As Germany struggles to integrate more than a million refugees who have come seeking sanctuary, the experience of Afro-Germans illuminates both the struggle they and their children will experience and the promise that an evolving German idea of national identity is still possible.
This article was made possible by a Holbrooke fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and is based on a radio documentary produced for KSFR-FM in Sante Fe, N.M.