Review by Delroy Constantine-Simms
University of Essex
June 18, 1999
Review of: “Hitler’s Forgotten Victims” by David Okuefuna and Moise Shewa
At a time when the fight for justice for Jewish Holocaust victims continues to make front-page news, the horrific experiences of Black people in Nazi Germany are virtually ignored. These experiences are brought to light in a documentary film entitled Hitler’s Forgotten Victims, directed by David Okuefuna and produced by Moise Shewa (Afro-Wisdom Productions). The film uses interviews with survivors and their families as well as archival material to document the Black German Holocaust experience; it also explores the history of German racism, suggests links between German colonialism and Nazi policy, and examines the treatment of Black prisoners-of-war.
Hitler’s Forgotten Victims reveals that sterilisation programmes for Blacks had been instigated by Germany’s most senior Nazi geneticist, Doctor Eugen Fischer, who developed his racial theories in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) long before the First World War. It was in this colonial context that Fischer identified what he considered genetic dangers arising from race-mixing between German colonists and African women. The documentary also provides disturbing photographic evidence of German genocidal tendencies in Africa, which began with the Heroro massacre. In 1904, the Heroro tribe of German South-West Africa revolted against their colonial masters in a quest to keep their land; the rebellion lasted four years, leading to the death of 60,000 Heroro tribespeople (80% of their population). The survivors were imprisoned in concentration camps or used as human guinea pigs for medical experiments, a policy that was a foretaste of things to come for German Blacks and the Jewish community.
This film shows that Nazi obsession with racial purity and eugenics was provoked and intensified in 1918, following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Under the terms of the peace treaty signed at Versailles, Germany was stripped of its African colonies and forced to submit to the occupation of the Rhineland. Hitler’s Forgotten Victims emphasizes that the deliberate deployment of African troops from the French colonies to police the territory incensed many Germans, who saw it as a final humiliation. Germans complained bitterly in the Rostrum newspapers, and these complaints were reflected in propaganda films regarding soldiers from the French colonial army having relationships with German women. Indeed, the documentary suggests that the intense German anger on this score contributed to 92% of the German electorate casting its vote in support of the Nazi Party.
Hitler’s Forgotten Victims shows that as soon as Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland in 1936, he retaliated against the African soldiers’ occupation by targeting all Black people living in the Rhineland first. In particular, and in a departure from previous accounts of the Holocaust, this film claims that Germany’s 24,000-member Black community was the number one focus for Hitler’s sterilisation programme. At least 400 mixed-race children were forcibly sterilised in the Rhineland area alone by the end of 1937, while 400 others just disappeared into Hitler’s concentration camps.
Hans Hauck, a Black Holocaust survivor and a victim of Hitler’s sterilisation programme, reveals on the film that “We were lucky that we weren’t victims of euthanasia–we were only sterilised. We had no anesthetic. Once I got my vasectomy certificate, we had to sign an agreement that we were not allowed to have sexual relations whatsoever with Germans.”
While many Blacks may have considered themselves lucky to escape Nazi persecution, even via forced sterilisation, Hitler’s Forgotten Victims recalls that early on, Hitler had announced plans for more complete eradication of unwanted populations. In a speech in Bresau in 1932, for instance, he had ordered all Africans, Jews, and other non-Aryans to leave Germany or go into concentration camps. According to this documentary, however, the majority of Blacks in Germany could not heed Hitler’s warning as they were German citizens with German passports and had no where else to go. A fair number escaped to France, but many attempted to return to the former German colonies that had been taken over by the League of Nations in 1920. The British colonial authorities then administering the newly named South-West Africa, however, would not allow Black Germans refugee status on the grounds that they had fought for Germany in the First World War.
My only criticism of Hitler’s Forgotten Victims is that it does not give enough insight into the lives of Black Germans who resisted Nazi Germany, such as Black activist Lari Gilges, who founded the Northwest Rann–an organisation of entertainers that fought the Nazis in his home town of Dusseldorf–and who was murdered by the SS in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. The film does, however, attend to the way various parts of the entertainment industry, such as film studios and touring ethnic shows like the Hillerkus Afrikaschau circuses, provided at least temporary refuges from Nazi persecution.
Interestingly, by 1940 these operations were taken over by the SS, who considered them racially unacceptable and converted them to serve their own racist propaganda purposes. For instance, Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels realized that in order to spread the Nazi Gospel of white Aryan supremacy, he needed to exploit the most popular entertainment medium of the time–German feature films. Propaganda pictures such as Kongo Express, Quax in Africa, and Auntie Wanda from Uganda were made to present Germany as an enlightened, benevolent colonial power. Thus, even under Nazi control, the film industry provided a certain amount of protection for Black Germans. As Black actor Werner Egoimue explains, “We had an agent then, who had all the addresses of Black people in Berlin. The Reich’s Chamber of Commerce was in touch with him, and when they were casting a film, it was fun–inside the studio. Outside the door you could be arrested. But inside you were as safe as in a bank.”
Hitler’s Forgotten Victims also presents the experience of Black POWs. The Nazis segregated Black prisoners from the rest of the camp population for extra special treatment of the fatal kind. Often, in what was a breach of the Geneva Convention, Black prisoners were denied food and assigned highly dangerous jobs. Footage never aired before shows Black soldiers and civilians scavenging for scraps of food in garbage heaps at the Hemer POW camp near Dortmund in Northwest Germany. No one knows how many Black people died in the camps at the hands of the SS guards, producer Moise Shewa says, because Jews were demarcated as Jews, but Black people were demarcated by nationality.
Although there does not seem to be a huge amount of documented evidence concerning the Black experience in German concentration camps, the film does provide compelling glimpses of how the Nazis treated their Black victims. It presents visual testimony, such as the art of Black American painter Joseph Nassy, who was working as a sound engineer in Brussels before his arrest by the Gestapo, which portrays the harsh realities of concentration camp life. It also presents oral testimony, such as that from Johnny William. Born to an African mother and a white French father, William was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to the Neugengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. “There were 5 or 6 of us,” he explains. “As soon as we arrived at Neugengamme, we were immediately separated from the white deportees by the SS. They considered us to be sub-human beings like animals, chimpanzees.”
Hitler’s Forgotten Victims also recalls the impact made by Black inmates on other inmates. A case in point is Johnny Voste, the Belgian Resistance fighter who was arrested in 1942 for sabotage in the tow of Malignes, near Antwerp, and was deported to Dachau. The film’s interview with Wily Sel reveals that “Johnny got the possibility to organise boxes of vitamins . . . and gave them to all his friends and buddies he had there. The survivors will say he saved our lives at that moment because it is true. The main technique to survive in the concentration camps was to like to live, not to die, to say ‘No, you can’t have my life: I will fight for it.'”
Without doubt, Hitler’s Forgotten Victims is a documentary that should not be forgotten. It makes clear that the ‘special treatment’ of Blacks should be acknowledged as an important part of the Holocaust. Sadly, the Nazi victimization of Blacks has remained unacknowledged by every German government since 1939. One simple reason for this convenient amnesia is that–compared to the massive amounts of film and record-keeping testifying to Nazi treatment of the Jews–there is relatively little shocking celluloid evidence showing specifically how Blacks were dealt with. The film corrects this historical gap by relying mainly on survivor and family narratives.
The ‘lack’ of evidence heretofore may explain why German authorities have consistently refused to meet compensation claims launched by Black survivors, their relatives, and victim’s famalies. Further, most German Black people were stripped of their nationality to the Nazis, making it extremely difficult for them to claim reparations as citizens of the German state. As German MP Bernd Reuter stated, “After the war it was difficult to come up with proof that one was stateless but had been German.” One hopes this film will help force the German Government to acknowledge the Black experience at the hands of the Nazis and to compensate Black Germans. One also hopes that the distribution and viewing of this film will make people everywhere realize the hydra-headed nature of the Nazi racist imaginary and its atrocious practices.
UK Title: Hitler’s Forgotten Victims. Screened on England’s Channel Four, October 2, 1997.
USA Title: Black Survivors of the Holocaust. To be screened on the Family Channel, date pending.
Reproduced from: social.chass.ncsu.edu
Get this book:
Destined to Witness Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany,
by Hans Massaquoi
Non-Jewish Holocaust Victims – the 5,000,000 Others
Copyright (c) 1997 by Delroy Constantine-Simms, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.