"The Black Shame"

The Black Occupation of the German Empire

The end of the Great War saw Belgian, British and French colonial troops deployed as part of the allied occupation force in Germany. An international propaganda campaign protesting against the presence of the black soldiers had its roots in the Germany of the 1920s. Now a sociologist has put the phenomenon under the microscope

​​The First World War saw Belgium, Britain and France deploying troops from their colonies to fight in Europe, usually in regiments of their own, while black troops were also amongst those sent over by the United States.

German war propaganda denounced the use of French colonial troops as a threat to European culture and civilisation and later, negotiators at Versailles, acting on instructions from the German Foreign Office, attempted to ensure that there would be no black soldiers included in the occupation force. It was a wish that was to fall on deaf ears, however.

The fifteen year occupation saw the French government making use of a variety of colonial troops including Algerian, Malagasy, Moroccan, Senegalese and Tunisian regiments who were deployed along the left bank of the Rhine and at the bridgeheads of Cologne, Coblenz and Mainz.

The objectors were not by any means all in Germany, and for several years voices protesting the deployment of black soldiers would continue to be raised in other European countries too, as well as in the USA. Sociologist Iris Wigger's analysis looks at the 1920 German-initiated "Black Shame" campaign against the use of these troops.

Complementary discrimination

Wigger makes clear how race, nation, sex and class as complementary elements of discrimination come together in a compact conglomeration of racism.

photo: NS Dokumentationszentrum Köln
French-Senegalese boots on Wilhelmstraße - the Tirailleurs Sénégalais was part of the occupying force in Germany's Rhineland

​​Reports of alleged brutal acts of violence and mass rape perpetrated against German women by the colonial soldiers became central to the propaganda campaign. The descriptions were nothing if not pornographic, clearly allowing plenty of scope for the accusers to indulge their fervid, if somewhat brutal, sexual fantasies.

The "Black Shame" propagandists portrayed German women as victims, imputing an animal sexuality to the black soldiers, which was attributed to their racial inferiority and primitive nature, traits thereby contrasted to those of the superior white culture. The concept of race, therefore, became strongly sexualised with the idea of white supremacy becoming linked to the idea of "possession" of the white woman.

Moreover the concepts of female honour and German national honour seem to have become closely connected. Because the "Black Shame" was so closely associated with France, the outraged German nation unequivocally attributed all blame to the national failings of her near neighbour.

France the degenerate

Culture, so the eugenic assumption went, provided France with nothing more than a façade; the truth was that France was an example of a European state that had become degenerate, defiled through overly intimate contact with its colonies. The biological degeneration of France implied its cultural degeneration also.

Many European politicians and intellectuals, such as Swedish Prime Minister Hjalmar Branting, the Dutch Baron van Vredenbruch or the British writer Lady Francis Evelyn Warwick, shared the German sense of outrage at the deployment of black soldiers, reports of whose atrocities fanned the flames of indignation. Former Italian Prime Minister Francesco S. Nitti, voiced sentiments shared by many when he claimed that the "Black Shame" was a cultural shame, a shame which disgraced all of Europe.

Nitti was not alone in judging what he saw as the subordination of the highly civilised, advanced German people to the "Negro soldiers" as the ultimate humiliation, an outrageous degradation and violation of Germany by its enemies.

"The cannibal races of yesterday," the Italian claimed, were today standing "in a country that was home to Europe's greatest thinkers." It was the sort of thinking which would afterwards be so potently utilised by Hitler.

The author interprets the dimensions of cultural and power politics that characterised the "Black Shame" as an expression of the growing uncertainty over the hegemony of white imperialism in the face of the breakdown of colonial rule, a system, previously taken for granted, and now being convulsed by the impact of the First World War.

What becomes clear is that racism is eternal, an ever-present dehumanising accompaniment to the history of the power structures and power relations of societal development. The complex nature of racism, however, should not be allowed to act as a deterrent to our continuing efforts to overcome it.

Reiner Pommerin

© FAZ/Qantara.de 2007

Iris Wigger: Die "Schwarze Schmach am Rhein". Rassische Diskriminierung zwischen Geschlecht, Klasse, Nation und Rasse. Published by Westfälisches Dampfboot, Münster 2007. 347 pp., 29.90 Euro.

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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