Black POWs Under the Nazis
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Black POWs Under the Nazis

WWII

Black POWs Under the Nazis

The Third Reich’s treatment of black soldiers was harsh, in keeping with its doctrine of racial superiority.

The Third Reich’s treatment of black soldiers was harsh, in keeping with its doctrine of racial superiority.

By G. Paul Garson

On May 13, 1940, the German army invaded France, crossing the River Meuse at Sedan. Upon France’s capitulation, the Franco-German armistice was signed on June 22, and a portion of France was placed under German occupation, with the remaining area ostensibly left to its own, with the Vichy collaborationist government in control.

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When the Germans surprised even themselves by conquering France in six weeks, they were confronted with a somewhat unanticipated problem of coping with thousands of prisoners, among them a large number of colonial conscripts from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal French West Africa, and even some from French Indochina.

Pursuing a Twisted Racial Ideology

While the Germans considered the Senegalese and Moroccan soldiers fierce fighters, the Third Reich, in its racial war, classified blacks as subhuman and many were executed upon capture. Others were worked to death in Nazi construction projects or died of abuses suffered in concentration camps.

This treatment of blacks was foreshadowed in 1936 when the Germans reoccupied the industrial area of the Ruhr Valley. They were faced with the problem of racially mixed children, the result of French colonial troops stationed in the Rhineland following World War I. The area had been ceded to the French in 1923 when the Germans defaulted on their war reparations payments mandated by the Versailles Treaty. Virulent propaganda characterized the black soldiers as rapists and the spreaders of venereal diseases.

When the Germans annexed the area and reoccupied it, they discovered some 800 children who were the offspring of the black colonial soldiers. Hitler’s fledgling Nazi Party used the opportunity to blame the Jews for allegedly importing blacks into the area to contaminate German blood. The children were rounded up and “relocated” while many of the older progeny, called “Rhineland bastards,” were forcibly sterilized to “cleanse” German soil.

A number of German soldiers’ snapshots that survived the war focus on the French colonials. Often the Germans seem amused by their captives and with smiles show them off to the camera as “souvenirs.” Other German soldiers photographed with colonial prisoners stare at them with unbridled malevolence.

The Nazi agenda of biological racism found general assent throughout the German population and eventually transferred to the treatment of those black POWs who came under the domination of the Third Reich. In this world view, the German aryans stood at the zenith, all others were beneath them in descending order beginning with the Nordic Scandinavians followed by the western Europeans. Far down the Nazi hierarchy were the Slavs and below them the blacks, who were surmised to occupy the obscure boundary between human and primate.

The Third Reich’s treatment of black soldiers was harsh, in keeping with its doctrine of racial superiority.

A German soldier drives a captured Senegalese conscript in his sidecar.

Jews were not even included in this breakdown of racial distinctions. The delineation emphasized the Nazi viewpoint that Jews lacked even a connection to the inferior races but existed as a separate “anti-race.” While there was no formalized Nazi program for the systematic elimination of black peoples, they were subjected to sterilization, medical experimentation, incarceration, brutality, and murder.

Anti-Black Racism in Germany

While few Germans outside large cities had ever seen a black person, anti-black racism had developed in Germany’s African colonies to the extent that the Reichstag, or German parliament, enacted legislation banning mixed black and white marriages in the colonies. This racism was imported to Germany after World War I by German colonialists who returned to the Fatherland after control of those African colonies was revoked by the Treaty of Versailles. Both before and after World War I, some Africans had emigrated to Germany where they would eventually become victims of the Third Reich.

In his post-Mein Kampf writings, Hitler, a veteran of World War I, often expressed his anti-black attitudes hand in hand with his anti-Semitic pronouncements. For example, he wrote in 1928, “…as France declines in her own people’s power, this state proceeds to the opening up of her reservoir of black people. Thus a danger of unimaginable proportions draws near for Europe. The idea of French Negroes, who can contaminate white blood, on the Rhine as cultural guards against Germany is so monstrous that it would have been regarded as completely impossible only a few decades ago. Surely France itself would suffer great harm through this blood-pollution….”

The Third Reich’s treatment of black soldiers was harsh, in keeping with its doctrine of racial superiority.

The number of French Colonial soldiers killed or executed by the German military is unknown.

German laws went into effect prohibiting mixed black-white children from attending universities and excluding them from most occupations, including military service. Just as Hitler ordered a moratorium on overt anti-Semitic activities during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 18 black athletes on the U.S. team were “allowed” to compete.

Much to Hitler’s displeasure, Jesse Owens won four gold medals and became the star of the XI Olympiad while other black athletes also stepped onto the podium to receive medals. After the Olympics ended, the Third Reich again targeted those, including blacks, whom it deemed undesirable. The following year, the Gestapo was searching out “mixed” individuals for sterilization while others were funneled into experiments or simply disappeared.

Even some African American civilians were interned during the war, including jazz singer Valaida Snow and artist Josef Nassy. Jazz itself was characterized in Germany as a black cultural and racial threat, even though swing music was very popular with young Germans and members of the SS formed swing bands made up of prisoners in concentration camps. As Germany ignored the Geneva Convention, American black servicemen faced horrific treatment in concentration camps and at the hands of their captors. Among these were U.S. Merchant Marine sailor Lionel Romney, who was sent to Mauthausen, and pilot Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, who suffered in a Gestapo prison.

While estimates of French military deaths during World War II range from 40,000 to 120,000, the number of French Colonial soldiers killed or executed by the German military is unknown. Some estimates run as high as 10,000, while thousands of others succumbed in POW camps.

While many spent years as prisoners, those who came under the authority of Vichy France were often sent to protect French interests abroad against the foes of the collaborationist government. By 1943, the tirailleurs, or colonial riflemen, were again utilized by Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces, fighting for the liberation of Europe.

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