Berlin can be a historical mine field. Escaping the fact that genocide, division, tyranny, even the colonial division of Africa began on this ground is an impossible feat. As American tourists wander through the many memorials to the lost, murdered, and persecuted that saturate the city with this remembrance of tragedy, I have to ask myself: Do we Americans think that we were always the “good guys” in this mess?
Germany may have a particularly difficult past, but the catastrophes of the 21st century – and the ill which permeate them – were in no form a European phenomenon, let alone a product of everyone’s favorite enemy: Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. American mythos about WWII would like to position a liberating force of Justice against a tyrannical force of Evil (usually inaccurately embodied by one Charlie Chaplin-mustache-wearing leader doing a special kind of rigid salute). Villains of this type, the kind meant for blockbuster films and theatrical reenactments, often detract from the other kind of villain – our own. Demonizing Germany as the dramatically viscous perpetrator can detract from the other transatlantic evil-dooers, namely, those who held other human beings of darker skin in socioeconomic captivity for centuries (see the New Jim Crow for its present manifestations). No other history of slavery, segregation, and integration is as dynamic and disgusting as the American story. And yet, Nazi Germany steals the show; the Americans arrive with massive tanks and candy for children; evil is blighted out with a swift hand of justice and freedom…so goes the myth of the “good guys”. And so this myth must be, once again, popped.
I know just the documentary to do it – Arte’s “Brown Babies” in German or its English counterpart “The Mischlingskinder Story“. I watched “Brown Babies” on Arte this past Thursday. Here are some scenes, impressions, maybe even a splash of critique. Most importantly, here is a snapshot of an oft-forgotten part of history, giving America’s good-guy image a run for its money.
A 50-something black man with slight European features, hair combed back into waves, drives a tractor through the wheat fields of a farm just outside Washington D.C. He uses the back of his hand to wipe sweat from his eyes. In those eyes is nothing but wandering, the search for self and whatever comfort the solidification of one’s biography might provide.
He is one of more than 100,000 so-called Besatzungskinder, War children, born shortly after WWII to a German mother and an American father, a soldier, stationed on temporary duty in post-war Germany, when the country, especially Berlin, was divided into strict military zones. Dan belongs to smaller sub-set within this statistic, a sub-set not so often discussed. Dan is black, well mulatto…well he isn’t sure, and in the 1950s, neither Germany nor the United States saw him as ‘integratable’, rather as “racially problematic”. Germany suggested the return of such children to their ‘origins’, that is, to families with similar ‘racial’ composition. America accepted such children under the pretense of segregation – they would be kept out of white public places, situated in families of their own kind. And all this after the Holocaust, after the scandal of rejected Jewish refugees from American shores leading up to the genocide, all this after moral imperatives were touted as reasons to enter to the war.
And so in 1951, shipments of darker-skinned children began, sent to strangers in a land which forbid them most basic rights. 7,000 of these so-called brown babies were adopted by families in the United States, almost exclusively into African-American families, as Jim Crow and general trends within the Union would dictate. Their German mothers gave them up for many reasons, often rooted in a combination of state and community pressure to rid society of un-integratable elements. The United States took them in officially, but did little to ensure their well-being, ensuring rather their subjection to segregation.
In the 1950s, shipping half-white, half-black children to African-American families was a political act and often a dangerous one. Civil Rights protests were just beginning to take root in student communities, church congregations, workers’ strikes; the pavement of Montgomery and even Chicago were already tainted with the blood of black Americans and the rubber bullets of an oppressive state. Many of these children were put into the American South, but even in the North, racial discrimination was social custom even if it wasn’t outright law. It was in 1955 that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, unleashing lynchings and riots across the South. In this same year the corpse of young Emmit Till was found flogged and bloated in a river of impunity. Into this oppression and brewing revolution young children speaking only German, the language of the former enemy, arrived, hearing the term Kraut for the very first time, often followed by N***** or Negro. Quite confusing nomenclature for a confusing situation!
“We did not choose to be a part of a movement. But living in the black family I was in, I had to participate”, Dan describes. His parents took in many other “brown babies”. But not as an act of charity, rather as an economic calculation with a full farm to run, he tells the camera. European-black children did not share the history of the ‘freed’ slaves. The movement felt foreign to him; his family estranged.
Peggy, also in her late 50s, decides to track down her biological mother in Germany. She flies to Karlsruhe, finds herself wandering among clean cobble-stone streets, searching for the small graveyard where her mother is buried. She pulls weeds away from the headstone, planted in an untended cemetery in 1992 – she waited too long.
Peggy seeks relatives, rings the apartment building of her biological sister, clutching papers with information of living and deceased family members. It is amazing what the internet can provide. A small blonde-haired woman opens the door, shocked as Peggy explains their relation. The encounter in the apartment is quaint, even restrained. Peggy sits with a Lakers baseball cap and a “USA” T-shirt, her hands nervously folded in her hap. She asks for photos. “You look like her”; “your father is Peurto Rican”; “she just didn’t want kids; she would rather go dancing than stay home with the children”. A niece visiting from American conveniently interprets.
The other 4 stories of unwanted birth, migration, adoption, black or multiracial identity in the United States dash across the screen. Stories of the falsified Afro in a time in which hair was political, vignettes of a childhood growing up in families struggling to identify themselves as revolutionaries, subservient, fighters, blacks, or former slaves, Afro-German-American children asking too many questions about their own lighter skin color, getting often in the middle of fights, hearing the repeated “you are lucky I took you in”.
Germany and the United States are two very different countries compared to their pasts – both dealing with racism publicly and productive, though there is much to be done. The project is just beginning. Part of a complete Vergangenheitsbewältigung (German for confronting or even overcoming the past) is recognizing times of complicity and complacency, integrating these moments of ethical weakness within our teaching and reproduction of historical narratives. For the stories we tell of ourselves are only as true as the breadth of their inclusion. Until this point, WWII narratives have heroized Americans as Liberators and Germans as evil-dooers. Within the greater spectrum of historical experience, America continued to inhumanely repress its ethnic minorities, long after the tragedy of Auschwitz was unleashed. What does this say about America? And what does this say about the good guys?
What cannot be explained in a documentary is the complexity and variation in experience between regions of the United States, family dynamics, configurations of urban versus rural upbringing, and even color-based hierarchies within American black communities. The German documentary could have spent a few more minutes devoted to these differences and what cannot be examined, even made sense of within the pictured narratives. “Brown Babies” comes highly recommended, despite its inability to make all complexity of a generation and a movement accessible. It can be moved anytime from Arte‘s Mediathek.
-By Kelly Miller
For more information on Afro-German children born directly after the war, including those not necessarily shipped out to black American families, check out the Wikipedia page as a starting ground, this interesting article (in English) from Der Spiegel, and the website Black Germans US – a networking, research, and media project by Afro-German-Americans living either in the United States or in Germany.
Photo source – Spiegel Online, IMDB