Many people, even those with no more than a passing interest in sport, have heard of Jesse Owens, the American athlete who ruined Adolf Hitler’s moment in the sun. For there can be no question that Hitler saw the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as the ideal platform from which to amplify Nazi propaganda and demonstrate his white supremacist ideology. But Owens, the grandchild of a slave, shattered that illusion.
Owens became the first US track and field athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympiad. For most of the watching world, his dominance in the 100m, 200m, long jump, and 4x100m relay was a powerful repudiation of Hitler’s myth of a superior race of humans, the Aryans. So stung were the Nazis by Owens’ exploits in their own backyard that their chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, would later write in his diary that “white humanity should be ashamed of itself”. By this he meant that it had been a mistake to allow black athletes to compete at the world’s grandest sporting event.
While antisemitism was at the core of the Nazis’ ideology of hate, black people, Roma and Sinti people, gay people, physically and mentally disabled people – among other groups – were also under severe persecution. Owens’ spectacular achievements did little to change Nazi perceptions about black people. Policies directed against them – many of whom had come from Germany’s colonies in Africa – were cruel and inhumane. Seen as subhuman, black people were marginalised socially and economically. But even with the shadow of Nazism hanging over them like a dark cloud, many found expression in art and music. All the same, Nazis condemned the influence of “Negro culture” on German art and music, calling it “degenerate” and “racially alien”.
Although no exact figures exist, it is known that a significant number of black people were detained in concentration camps and forced labour camps during the Nazi reign, and that many were murdered. Nonetheless, there seems to be little interest in Hitler’s black victims. Their plight is not talked about enough. This is partly because unlike Jews, Roma and Sinti, black people were not marked for destruction. But they were denied their human rights, sterilised, persecuted, experimented upon and murdered in camps.
This racist philosophy underpinned the decision to deny German citizenship to people of African descent, thus complicating their employment prospects and their ability to get by in society. Being born in Germany did not make the slightest difference. Nazi fears of “racial pollution” led to the traumatic break-up of many mixed-race families. The derogatory term Rheinlandbastard (Rhineland bastard) was used to describe children from interracial relationships. They were viewed as symbols of racial “disgrace”, and many were forcibly sterilised to prevent “alien blood” from being passed on.
Nazis were virulent racists. In 1935, after the enactment of the notorious Nuremberg racial laws, which designated black people as a minority with “alien blood”, many left Germany. Those who remained were isolated and suffered horrendous racial abuse. And while the exclusion of black children from public schools became official policy in 1941, it is a matter of record that they had long suffered racist abuse in their classrooms.
In reflecting upon the fate of black people during the Nazi reign of terror, it is clear that any honest dialogue about racism must include Nazi treatment of black people. Black people’s pain and suffering should not be reduced to a footnote in the history of Nazism. Their pain and suffering should not be marginalised because they were not also targeted for annihilation. Understanding the full extent of Nazi anti-black racism is important for everyone whose ancestors were targeted by the Nazi regime, just as it is for all communities in general in contemporary society.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day we remember 6 million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis and the millions of people, including black people, who suffered and were murdered under Nazi persecution, as well as those murdered in genocides that took place in the decades that followed. At the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, we ask those commemorating to light candles in their windows at 8pm as a tribute to those who were murdered for who they were – and to symbolise a stand against racism, prejudice and hatred in the world today. Tonight, we will be lighting ours.
Olivia Marks-Woldman is the chief executive and Farayi Mungazi is the senior communications officer at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.