Growing up as Black in Nazi Germany

Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was one of the few Blacks in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. He was torned between being black but dreaming to be part of the German Third Reich.

Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was born in 1926 in the port city Hamburg, Germany to a white German mother, Bertha Baetz, and Al-Haj Massaquoi, a Liberian businessman,. His grandfather, Momulu Massaquoi, was a politician and diplomat who served as Liberia's consul generalto Germany 1922–1930. Momulu Massaquoi was also the heir to two African royal families and served as the youngest-ever King of the Vai people, a tribe in Liberia.

"I associated black skin with superiority, since our servants were white," said Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi in an interview with Atlantic Time. The luxurious spoiled upper class life changed abruptly with the 1929 political crisis in Liberia and the three-year-old Massaquoi saw his father and grandfather return to Monrovia, Liberia. Massaquoi’s mother insisted on staying in Germany, afraid that tropical climate would harm her son’s fragile health. Instead she raised Massaquoi in Germany, poorly surviving on her nurse's aide salary. She would later lose her job for having a black son. The life quality had changed radically. The two moved out from the big villa to the working-class area Barmbek, in a small attic flat that only had cold water. And Massaquoi began to understand that he was different as the other kids would scream "Nager', Nager', ashen-fager! Negro, Negro, chimney sweeper”, whenever he passed by.

Like anybody else

"It was a constant problem. I was always pointed at because of my exotic looks. I just wanted to be like everyone else," Massaquoi remembered. Like the other boys, he wished nothing more than to join the the youth organization of the Nazi party. Massaquoi protested when a teacher told him that he was ineligible to join. “But I am German. My mother says I’m German just like anybody else,” said the little boy who could not understand why he was different.

"Of course I wanted to join. I was a kid and most of my friends were joining," he said. "They had cool uniforms and they did exciting things — camping, parades, playing drums," Massaquoi told Contra Costa Times in an interview.

In 1933, seven- year-old Massaquoi managed to persuade his babysitter, to sew a swastika on to his sweater to prove to others what a good German he was. His mother later unstitched the Nazi symbol, unlike her son she did not sympathize with them. But a teacher of Massaquoi had already perpertuated the bizarre image: the only dark-skinned child in the photograph was also the only one wearing a swastika.

The grown-ups at school were not better than the students. Massaquoi’s teacher, who proudly wore his Nazi uniform daily, once took Massaquoi aside and told him: “Let me tell you something, man. Don’t feel so smug because after we have finished with the Jews, people like you will be next. That’s all I have to say. Heil Hitler!”

No plan

Massaquoi believed being part of an extreme minority saved him from deportation to concentration camp, as he was more a rarity than a threat. Although, Blacks were an obvious threat to the Aryan race, there was no consistent or clear plan on how to deal with the Black population in Germany. Massaquoi believed that being part of an extreme minority saved his life. "Unlike Jews, blacks were so few in numbers that they were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis' lineup for extermination," he said in a 2001 interview with London's Independent newspaper.

Massaquoi was grateful of some good German samaritans that helped him and his mother. “I know that a large number - unfortunately not enough to have made the crucial difference - remained decent human beings despite pressures exerted by the Nazi leadership. It is owing to some of these individuals who resisted the temptation to go with the prevailing flow of racial madness and who never regarded me as anything less than a worthwhile fellow human being that I survived largely unscathed."

Admiring Hitler

Massaquoi admired Hitler despite being a target. “Like everyone around me,” recalled Massaquoi in his autobiography Destined to Witness, “I cheered the man whose every waking hour was dedicated to the destruction of ‘inferior non-Aryan people’ like myself, the same man, who only a few years later would lead his own nation to the greater catastrophe in its long history and bring the world to the brink of destruction.”

He was thrilled when he witnessed Hitler motorcade in Hamburg and saw the Führer passing by. Massaquoi explained in an interview with the British Independent newspaper, that indoctrination at school and from the media most likely played a role in the admiration the German population had for Hitler. “Hitler was praised day after day as the savior of Germany, who would bring new respect to our country that had been torn down by the Allies. We went for that and I was no exception. It had very little to do with ideology. Most of us didn’t know what National Socialism meant or what it stood for.”

Left on their own

But the young Massaquoi could no longer pretend that he was like any other German. In July 1943 the bombs started falling on Hamburg during the Operation Gomorrah that killed 42,600 civilians and wounded 37,000 more. He and his mother were rejected entry to a bomb shelter after they tried to seek refuge.

At one point, after realizing that he was the only young man left in his neighborhood who did not wear a uniform, Massaquoi voluntarily tried to join Germany Army himself. “This Lieutenant Colonel bawled me out saying how dare I even presume to ask,” Massaquoi recounted in the Independent interview. “So that did it for me. That was the real turning point. By then, I had got all the Nazi stuff out of my head, and it was the final insult.”

As, Black, non-Aryan, Massaquoi was not only banned from joining Hitlerjugend but he could not attend a higher education as well. Instead, he served an apprenticeship as a machinist. A supervisor who was impressed by the young boy’s work, friendly told him that he could “be of great service to Germany one day” when technically-qualified Germans would be needed to go to Africa to train and develop a local black workforce as Germany reclaimed its African colonies.

Unknown fates

Exactly how many Afro-Germans died in Nazi concentration campsis not known, but the estimation figure is around 25,000 and 50,000. The relatively low numbers of Black Germans, their wide dispersal across the country and isolation from each other, and the fact that the Nazis targeted more on the Jews, Romanis and other groups distracted focus from the Afro-Germans. These are some possible factors that made it possible for many Afro-Germans to survive the war.

But like Massaquoi, many Afro-Germans experienced that being black was not compatible German as he became a stranger in his own country. "I observed first-hand how the Nazi poison transformed decent, caring, reasonable men and women into fanatical racists who approved the destruction of anyone and anything that did not conform to their vision of the world."

Massaquoi left together with his mother the war- torn Germany in 1948 for a reunion with his father in Liberia. He emigrated in 1950 left to the United States where he became the editor-in-chief for Ebony Magazine, one of the most leading African-American magazines of all time. He died 87 years old.

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm