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Fehrenbach, Race after Hitler, cover

Reconstruction of Race in Post 1945 Germany

Book Essay on: Heide Fehrenbach,
Race After Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 263 pages. UCSB: HQ777.9.F44

by Caitlin Rolla
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Caitlin Rolla

I am a 4th year Communication major and am pursuing a minor in History as well. I chose to write about Fehrenbach's book because I am interested in the concept of race in Germany after World War II compared to the construction of racial identities during the Nazi era.

Abstract (back to top)

The post-1945 era in Germany ushered in a time when Germans had to rethink their conceptions of race. Through the discussion of the United States military presence, African American GI and white German womens' relationships, occupation children, and German popular culture, Fehrenbach explores the dimensions of race in Germany as well as how the biracial occupation challenged the idea what it meant to be a traditional German. The American occupation of West Germany greatly influenced the 'narrowing down' of racial ideas by reinforcing the acceptability of racism based on skin color. The United States military and social policies toward African Americans supported the German ideal of racial purity and perceived differences based on skin color.

Essay (back to top)

Central to German identity has traditionally been the idea of race and the ‘volk' in defining what it means to be a German. Prior to World War II and during Hitler's rise to power, Germans based their idea of race on biological principles and considered race in terms of Jewish, Slavic, or eastern European descent. Consistent with the ‘us' versus ‘them' mentality, Germans struggled with the concept of race in post 1945 Germany as well. Heide Fehrenbach's book Race After Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America explores the transformation of the idea of race, primarily in West Germany, in light of military defeat and occupation (the presence of African American GIs), the children born out of wedlock to white German mothers and black American fathers, and the influence of the United States' own social policies and practices in attempt to democratize West Germany. Using German and American government documents, periodicals, personal testimonies, and German films, Fehrenbach argues that the concept of race, and the racism that ensued, changed in Germany after World War II. Not only did German government and culture support the traditional conceptions of racial purity, but American racism influenced the transformation of racial definitions from Jewish/non-Jewish categories to skin color, primarily black and white. The biracial children of black fathers and white mothers also contributed to the change in racial ideology and challenged German perceptions of the ‘volk' as these children struggled to integrate into Germany society.

Fehrenbach structures her book in six chapters, each building on the previous chapter in explaining the transformation of the definition of race in Germany. The book begins with a chapter discussing the American occupation of Germany, focusing on the perceptions of race within the American military and how their practices toward African Americans encouraged both already held and evolving negative attitudes of Germans toward blacks. The second chapter explores the concept of postwar German masculinity and femininity. The German defeat resulted in a simultaneous loss of young German men and an influx of American GIs and. considered most problematic with regard to German women, African American GIs. This chapter also discusses how German government and society dealt with the accounts of consensual sexual relations, rape, and abortions after the war. The third chapter addresses the ‘mixed blood' children or ' Mischlingskinder' and how their births forced Germans to redefine race in terms of skin color. Fehrenbach argues that “for the decade following 1950, biracial occupation children became a nexus around which social, cultural, and scientific debates about the meaning of race – and its implications for postwar German society whirled” (Fehrenbach, 75). The fourth chapter uses the popular German film Toxi as a very public example of how Germans constructed race as a social phenomenon, and explores Germans' attitudes towards biracial children. The fifth chapter addresses the question of the belonging of these biracial children through examining adoption practices. The final chapter reviews the legacies of this transformation of race in postwar Germany. The structure of Fehrenbach's book lends itself to a chronological explanation of her thesis – that the idea of race underwent a change in Germany from the time of the occupation to the birth of biracial children, and how German society dealt with this perceived violation of German identity and racial purity.

Fehrenbach makes clear the idea of the symbolic nature of racialized troops in the transformation of race as a Jewish/white definition to a black/white definition. Though the American presence further encouraged anti-black sentiments, Germans already had a deep seated discomfort with racial ‘others.' African American GIs were not the first black troops to occupy the German nation. Fehrenbach argues that the Germans associated African American troops with defeat. As a result of their loss in World War I in 1918, French occupation troops from Senegal, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco occupied Germany (Fehrenbach, 53). The symbolism of racialized troops, or the idea of racial ‘others' occupying the homeland and challenging the purity of the volk proved to be a deciding factor in the strengthening German anti-black sentiment. Postwar Germans paired loss with occupation, but especially with black troops. Germans already had an entrenched dislike of blacks prior to American influence, but during World War II the German government focused its energy on discriminating primarily against Jewish individuals.

These previously held negative attitudes in the loss of the German nation supported the changing notion of race through the creation of the black race as a symbol of defeat, further encouraging German ideas of race that antisemitism was no longer acceptable and forcing Germans to redefine their conception of race.

Not only did the German dislike of black troops (mainly those who had relations with white German women) contribute to the reformation of the idea race in postwar Germany, but the American occupation of West Germany and the democratization of the western occupation zone greatly influenced and encouraged the changing concept of race. Where in years prior to 1945 Germans based race on Jewish descent (greatly influenced by Hitler's ideology), but post 1945 ushered in the dissolution of this previously held ideal. In its attempt to eradicate antisemitism, the United States inadvertently brought with them their racial prejudices against their black community. Interracial relations between African American GIs and white German women not only disturbed German men, but also white American GIs and American military officials. Fehrenbach notes an interview of a white American lieutenant about “Colored Soldiers” where the official claimed that German women's social interaction with black GIs presented a grave problem as it gave the soldiers a false sense of equality while they were “overstepping the limits of propriety” (Fehrenbach, 40). The American military's own racist attitudes toward their own soldiers made a clear statement to the Germans as to the acceptability of racism in American democracy. Not only did the American military internally make known their disapproval of black and white relations, but Fehrenbach argues that American military police “routinely hauled women dating or socializing with black GIs into custody for venereal disease checks” which demonstrated two critical views of interracial fraternization: one being that relationships with black GIs was deemed not only unacceptable but dangerous, and the second being that white German women risked not only their health but their reputation (Fehrenbach, 44). This public demonstration intended to humiliate the women and discourage them from contact with black GIs, as well as communicating white racist attitudes toward their own black soldiers. Antisemitism was no longer a politically correct form of racism, but the influence of American social policy during the occupation years tapped the German nation's long held racist attitudes of ethnic ‘others,' only this time American racism encouraged the transformation of racial constructs that now focused primarily on the differences between black and white skin color.

Fehrenbach explains the direct influence of how the American military's racist attitudes and practices contributed to the transformation of race in postwar Germany, and she also discusses how the attitudes toward mothers of biracial children also transformed with the growing German attitudes of race on a black and white spectrum. During the early postwar years, though rape did exist, propaganda often exaggerated the numbers as the German press “portrayed the soldiers as a herd of sexually rapacious, syphilitic black beasts, intent on the rape, torture, or murder of German women, girls, and boys,” when relationships were often “mutually elective” (Fehrenbach, 53). Women who were purported as victims of these rapes were always ascribed traits of “ethnic identity” or more blatantly in terms of white German nationality (Fehrenbach, 55). This was an attempt to reinforce the German racial ideal. By victimizing white German women, the government attempted to reinforce the new creation of race in Germany; white skin color was equated with purity and black skin color was equated with evil and ‘non-German.' White and black skin color represented opposite constructs in addition to the former racial construction of Jewish and non-Jewish individuals being seen as incompatible. American military policies only supported the changing German racial ideas and encouraged racism against blacks by portraying them as sub-human and uncivilized, antithetical to the conception of the traditional white German.

Initially, the German public viewed these white German women as innocent victims of rape and offered government sponsored abortions for those who were carrying children of black paternity in an attempt to continue the purity of the German race. Fehrenbach argues that aborting biracial fetuses changed the “diagnostic focus from offspring to mother,” as German officials “anticipated a crucial postwar development in the rhetoric and rationale of social policy: namely, the transition from emphasis on the biology of race to the psychology of racial difference” (Fehrenbach, 61). Biracial children were seen as not compatible with the traditional white German race, furthering the argument that racism was transforming from biological principles, to social constructs of blackness and whiteness. As the children of white mothers and African American fathers were born, the blame ascribed to their fathers transferred to the mothers. These women were seen as members of the lowest levels of society for their perpetrations against the unspoken rule of continuing the white German race. Biracial children posed a new challenge to German society on the question of belonging in a socio-cultural context and how their African American paternity prevented them from full integration. These children were not considered German because they did not fit the traditional German ethnic identity, or more specifically they were not simply white. Whereas during World War II Jews were not considered fully German, biracial occupation children suffered a similar fate post World War II. The shift of the German racial ideology that focused on race in terms of black and white skin color left no room for integration of these children. Their blackness was a direct contradiction of racial constructions and therefore were forced to live on the edges of society, never fully accepted as German.

The period of postwar Germany represented a time when the German people, intellectuals and government officials alike, “struggled to articulate a suitable terminology and coherent social policy toward the children that was consistent with both Allied mandates for democratization and the postwar need to rethink the racial dimensions of German identity” (Fehrenbach, 76). The birth of biracial children forced Germans to consider alternative ideas of race, racial differences, and German belonging. Fehrenbach notes that the postwar construction of race centered around “skin color and, even more narrowly, blackness” (Fehrenbach, 78). The preoccupation of skin color refocused attention to these occupation, biracial children from other “racialized identities” that the Germans deemed incompatible with a pure German race (Fehrenbach, 78). In surveying occupation children, German officials focused singularly on biracial or " Mischlingskinder" or “mixed-blood” children. Therefore, the statistical analysis separated occupation children as either white or black, allowing other types of paternity, like Soviet or Jewish, to be completely undisclosed (Fehrenbach 80). These government records on occupation children narrowly defined these children in simple terms of black and white, lumping other ethnicities (formerly considered as different races) as white.

In further attempt to define race, a surge of German anthropologists shifted their studies of race away from Jewish or Slavic decent toward these biracial occupation children. Fehrenbach details an anthropological study by doctoral student Walter Kirchner on black occupation children. Kirchner focused his attention to black biracial children only because, as Fehrenbach writes, “it was politically impossible to contemplate studying Jewish or Russian Mischlingskinder after the death camps, Nazi defeat, and the onset of the Cold War” (Fehrenbach, 89). This study further emphasizes the transformation of race in postwar Germany as based solely on black and white skin color, as well as the attempt to integrate (or prevent the integration of) black occupation children. After studying the behavior, health, and psychological development of children only from African American descent, Kircher suggested that racial differences were evident in the biological and psychological qualities of these children, but also that proper socialization could successfully integrate them into society (Fehrenbach, 91). Though the findings of this study were somewhat ahead of the time in that he argued that nature could be tempered with nurture, it still reinforced the concept that racial differences existed between black and white children based purely on skin color. These anthropological studies exemplified the German obsession with definitions of race and racial purity, but also illuminate their attempt to rethink racial dimensions. No longer were studies conducted on Jews, but were focused primarily on individuals with a non white skin color, mainly blacks.

Biracial occupation children were often poorly integrated into society, and sent to live in institutions where their negative influence on society could be properly contained. Facilitating integration between white German children and black German children was not a priority for Germans in the postwar period – to be black and German were incompatible constructs. Fehrenbach analyzes the hit film Toxi in order to uncover German ideas on race. Ultimately, the film “exhibits more concern about rehabilitating the German patriarchal family through the maintenance of racial boundaries” (Fehrenbach, 124). The film preached tolerance as a more conducive method in upholding the German racial ideal, than integration of the occupation children. Not only did American racism support the German ideal of racial purity, but German government practices and documents, and popular culture did so as well. Again, the separation of the races and the struggle to successfully integrate biracial children into German society encouraged the transformation of racism as an ideology directed against some whites, to an ideology focused solely on skin color.

The concept of racial purity was always present in the German consciousness; it changed forms in the postwar period. During World War II, Germans based race on Jewish or Slavic descent whereas in the postwar period they based race on skin color. Either form of racism supports the idea that whiteness and racial purity was a defining factor of what it meant to be German. Previously held anti-black sentiments, American military practices, American social policies, and the births of biracial occupation children influenced the transformation of the idea of race in postwar Germany. This book could greatly benefit both German and American historians, but more importantly German and American citizens interested in the interplay of these two countries and how great the influence of one country can shape another.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • Bungert, Heike. Journal of American History ; September2006, Vol. 93 Issue 2, p581-581, 3/4p
    This review summarizes the chapter topics, from reformulation of the idea of race in Germany to biracial children. The review concludes with a discussion of Fehrenbach's three main theses, namely that antisemitism was no longer considered an acceptable form of racism and racism against blacks became prominent.
  • Kundrus, Birthe. Central European History ; June 2007, Vol. 40 Issue 2, p379-382, 4p
    This review provides a brief overview on the organization of the book and discusses the various sources Fehrenbach used, such as German church records, German and African American periodicals, and United States military documents.
  • Mazón, Patricia. American Historical Review, February 2007, Vol. 112 Issue 1, p169-170, 2p
    Mazón praises Fehrenbach's “thoughtful and carefully researched book” in its discussion of race within post World War II Germany. This review argues that the strength of the book resides in the fact that Fehrenbach weaves the story of biracial or Afro-German children into the larger picture of German culture.
  • Allison Capozzoli's UCSB Hist 133c review of Fehrenbach (2008)
  • Andrea Small's UCSB Hist 133c review of Fehrenbach (2008)


  • Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afro-Germans> [ca. November 2007]
    This website gives a brief overview of Afro-Germans in the 1600s to the post World War II period, including the Wiemar Republic and Nazi Germany as well as links to relevant art, cultural, and political information.
  • Afro-Germans and the Problems of Cultural Location [ca. May 2003]
    <http:// www.africawithin.com/asante/afrogermans.htm>
    This link gives the reader insight into the construction of race within Germany and discusses the German obsession with the idea of racial purity. In addition, this website touches upon the victimization of the Afro-German population as a result of the German myth of purity, and the Afro Germans' struggle to integrate into society.

Books and Articles

  1. Gregor, Neil, Roemer, Nils, & Reseman, Mark. German History from the Margins Indiana University Press. Bloomington, Indiana. 2006. (google books page)
    This book examines German history from the perspective of the various minorities within the German nation. It includes a chapter on Afro-Germans and the idea of race after 1945.
  2. Ericsson, Kjersti & Simonsen, Eva. Children of World War II: The Hidden Enemy Legacy Berg Publishers. Oxford, UK. 2005. (amazon.com page)
    This book documents the lives of children during and after World War II in Europe and the east with an extensive section on German children, specifically black occupation children.
  3. Biess, Frank, Roseman, Mark & Schissler, Hanna. Conflict, Catastrophe and Continuity . Berghahn Books. New York, NY. 2007. (google books page)
    This compilation of essays on German history includes an essay by Fehrenbach on race and the masculinity of the German nation.
  4. Schroer, Timothy L. Recasting Race After World War II: Germans and African Americans in American-occupied Germany. University Press of Colorado. Boulder, CO. 2007. (publisher's web page)
    Schroer focuses his attention on how the relationships between African American GIs and white German woman forced the German nation to reconsider the idea of race. It also discusses the influence of American racism in the attempt to democratize Germany.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/11/08; last updated: 12/13/08
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