July 8, 2014

Coming in from the Cold: The Black German Experience, Past and Present

Marion Kraft

Black people have lived in Europe for centuries, but their experiences in different countries have followed different trajectories. Immigration from the (former) colonies has reshaped French, British, and Dutch society, but the situation in Germany is somewhat distinct. Germany’s colonial period ended early, after World War I, and until recently, there has been little opportunity to immigrate. As a result, Blacks comprise only about one percent of the German population.

The presence of fewer Black people has not, however, meant less white racism. In fact, Germany has a long history of anti-Black racism. During the German Empire (1871-1918) and the Nazi era (1933-1945), widely accepted “race theories” portrayed people of African descent as sub-human. Racism has long been deeply embedded in German society. The main pillar of racist discrimination in German society is the widely held assumption that Germany has an ethnically homogeneous population.

In the early 20th century, this belief was even written into the law: By definition, only people with “German blood” could be German citizens (ius sanguinis). Therefore, until recently there was a dominant belief that Blacks cannot be German, in other words that by definition there cannot be any Afro-Germans. As a result, discrimination (both behavioral and structural) and even physical violence are still a part of Blacks’ everyday life.

Generally speaking, there are two main groups of Black people in Germany. Black Germans, or Afro-Germans, were mostly born to white German mothers and African (or African American) fathers after World War I and – in particular – World War II. African immigrants arrived in Germany more recently. The last decades have seen an awakening within both groups as well as increasing collaboration between them. African migrants have organized protests opposing laws that discriminate against them, such as the Residenzpflicht, which requires them to live in communities they have not themselves had a say in choosing. At the same time, Black Germans, inspired by the late African American poet and activist Audre Lorde, have self-organized and formed the Initiative of Blacks in Germany (ISD) and are making themselves heard in German society.

In this study, Marion Kraft outlines the history of Black Germans as well as the persistent racism of German society. She herself has been active in the Afro-German movement, and as an educator and literary critic she has worked to analyze and acknowledge Black women’s writing. In this text, Kraft analyzes the historical trajectory of Black history in Germany, and she contributes to the discussion of how we can move forward in the fight against racism and for the full liberation of people or African descent in Germany and beyond.