African Experiences in East Germany Are Erased but Not Forgotten

The stories of Black people who came to the GDR for training and work are slowly being recovered, but Cold War alliances have left bitter legacies

African Experiences in East Germany Are Erased but Not Forgotten
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

In early July 2023, a Germany-based journalist pointed out a curious development in German public media. In a Twitter post, he noted that two German broadcasters of color posted tweets explaining that they would no longer be hosting their respective news programs in Germany because the broadcaster had moved to the east of the country (the former German Democratic Republic, or GDR) and wanted to feature broadcasters from the region. Unfortunately, this type of move has often meant focusing on white-presenting Germans. The broadcaster’s decision is the latest example of the decadeslong history of the erasure of Blackness in East Germany.

This media shift to the states of the former GDR touches on the often overlooked history of Black residents and Afro-Germans in East Germany. The history of African Americans and Africans in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War has often focused on their experiences in the Soviet Union. The USSR, in its competition with the capitalist West, enticed Africans and African Americans to the country by promoting itself as an anti-racist and anti-imperialist country in the face of waves of racist and imperialist violence in the United States and across the decolonizing African continent. While readers may be aware of the experiences of Black cultural figures such as Paul Robeson and Angela Davis in the Soviet Union, they may not be aware that both also spent time in the GDR.

Like the Soviet Union, East Germany emphasized socialist solidarity and its active anti-racist and, particularly, anti-imperialist approach to socialism. In this vein, East Germany opened its doors to African students in the early 1950s. As the historian Sara Pugach has argued, East Germany’s approach to these African students was influenced by its ideological dedication to anti-imperialism and the Cold War political currents of the time. From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were upswings and downswings in the numbers of students from different African countries who came to East Germany for technical and university education. By the 1960s, students could only come to East Germany if their home countries had educational agreements with the GDR.

Pugach’s research provides a timeline of the variations among African students studying in East Germany. The first 11 students arrived from Nigeria in 1951, followed by students from Zambia, Ghana, South Africa and other decolonizing countries. However, Cold War politics were a critical influence on which students could come to East Germany. As the Soviet Union and the U.S. fought for power on the African continent, their ideological lines defined who could study where, as Western-aligned countries sent their students to West Germany while socialist-aligned countries sent theirs to the GDR.

There is more coverage of African students in the Soviet Union, but the literature on African students in East Germany is growing. From the 1950s to the late 1980s, thousands of African students converged on East Germany for education, particularly in technical and medical subjects. Those from socialist-leaning countries received scholarships from East Germany, including full tuition and room and board. Additionally, these students, like those in the Soviet Union, had freedom of movement and could vacation in West Germany and other countries in the West that were forbidden for East German citizens to visit. Beyond the ability to travel as they pleased, these students were feted as representatives of newly independent countries. East Germans were expected to welcome them in the name of socialist solidarity. Part and parcel of this solidarity was the theoretical absence of racism toward Africans in East Germany.

However, as in the Soviet Union, many African students understood that East German anti-racism was more ideological than real. In a 1966 letter to Langston Hughes, the South African journalist Bloke Modisane compared being Black in East Germany to being like an animal in a zoo as children and adults gaped at him, as recorded by the historian Simon Stevens. Pugach has written about a 1963 incident at a bar in Leipzig, in which a brawl broke out between African students and East Europeans and Germans over fraternizing with white German women. Continued instances of racism led the Union of African Students to pen letters of complaint to the then-leader of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, in 1965. It is striking that, in a similar time frame, African students in the Soviet Union were organizing and protesting about their own racist treatment at the hands of their Soviet classmates and colleagues.

African students and workers also received media attention in East Germany. One fascinating example is the film “Glueck auf! Bilder einer Begegnung” (“Good Luck! Images of an Encounter”). “Good Luck!” is a 1981 East German short documentary that features the daily lives of a handful of Mozambican technical apprentices in a small German town. The film depicts how the students focus on their studies and interact with their German managers as well as their lives beyond the factory. A 1963 film, “Drei Briefe” (“Three Letters”), features vignettes of three international students pursuing higher education in East Germany, including a female nursing student from Togo. The viewer sees how foreign students study and behave in the classroom along with their relationships with their German professors. Both films emphasize the native African cultures of the students as backward and highlight the myriad hardships they experienced in their homelands. The benevolence of East Germany and East Germans in providing these Africans with a better life and better educational opportunities is present throughout the film. This “East German man’s burden” is a common trope in how East German media covered these foreign students. It also shaped how East Germans responded to their African counterparts.

University students were not the only African visitors and residents in the GDR. As East Germany’s economic outlook worsened by the 1970s, it began to recruit “Vertragsarbeiter” (contract workers) from socialist-aligned countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. These workers were promised technical training, on-the-job experience and education in East Germany in exchange for their labor. However, their experiences diverged significantly from those of traditional university students from Africa. Why did thousands of Africans, particularly Angolans and Mozambicans, go to East Germany? The key reason is that many sought to gain experience and training that would prepare them to be the foundational technical experts for the burgeoning postcolonial economies of their home countries. Another is the promise of higher salaries than were available at home, as well as remittances.

Mozambican contract workers are a unique group within the wider Vertragsarbeiter community. Nearly 20,000 Mozambicans moved to East Germany for technical training and job placement under the guise of a program that would hold a portion of their pay in savings accounts for their use once they returned home. These men and women, now known as the “madgermanes” (meaning “made in Germany”), found themselves in an impossible position after the dissolution of East Germany in 1989. Instead of going home with large enough savings to take care of their families, they had nothing.

Since the 1990s, these former contract workers have sought reparations from the German and Mozambican governments. They have consistently received the runaround. They were told that the East German state did pay the funds to Mozambique, and the Mozambican government still lays the blame on Germany. Ultimately, these men and women have been left to fend for themselves, have often been socially ostracized because of their time in East Germany and face economic precarity because they were robbed. On any given Wednesday afternoon in Maputo, Mozambique, you can see the public protests of madgermanes, refusing to allow the Mozambican and German governments to forget their promises to them.

Day-to-day life for contract workers diverged from that of students. Unlike African university students, contract workers lived in isolation from their German counterparts, often in small towns and cities outside metropolises like East Berlin and Dresden. Many workers had only scarce interactions with Germans. Contact tended to happen in the workplace or in social situations like clubs or movie theaters after the workday. Contract workers were relegated to dormitories and boarding houses that often did not allow visitors, particularly East German women.

Gender also influenced the experiences of foreign contract workers. African women were a minority within the contract workers’ groups and faced the double burden of being foreign and female in East Germany. Former contract workers have reported that African women who became pregnant while working in East Germany were often deported back to their home countries or had to obtain illegal abortions to avoid jeopardizing their ability to make a living. Unfortunately, African women workers are understudied and there was much less East German media coverage of them than their male compatriots. Yet their harrowing experiences with sexism and racism in East Germany reveal how the “double burden” facing women in the Eastern Bloc had significant repercussions for foreign women in these countries.

One aspect that was similar for both African students and contract workers in East Germany was the negative view of mixed-race relationships between African men and East German women. Pugach has illustrated how these romantic entanglements were often at the root of anti-Black violence toward African men in social situations. More surprising was the social ostracization of East German women romantically involved with African men. These women were often portrayed as loose and immoral.

If these relationships produced children, however, these mixed-race kids were claimed by the East German state as citizens and were discouraged from following their African fathers back to their native countries. The East German state’s behavior contrasts with the West German treatment of mixed-race children, many of whom were sent to the U.S. to find homes with Black families or were adopted out to white German families rather than being allowed to remain with their white West German mothers. There were seemingly more mixed-race children born of African-German relationships than in the Soviet Union. However, these numbers are hard to find, considering neither country used race to count or categorize their respective populations.

Despite the reports of racism against African students and workers, East Germany maintained its facade of anti-racism until the East German state dissolved, leading to the reunification of Germany by 1991. However, in the two years during which the status of East Germany was in flux, there was an explosion of racist violence against foreigners, particularly former contract workers from Africa and Southeast Asia.

The most infamous example of this violence is the attack on the housing for contract workers and refugees in Hoyerswerda. On Sept. 17, 1991, groups of neo-Nazis began to throw bricks, Molotov cocktails and other objects at the residential center. Over 200 foreign workers and their families were trapped in the residential tower as they were called racial slurs, their homes were vandalized and the center was set ablaze. Worse, the local police stood aside and watched the destruction occur. Racist chants of “Auslaender raus!” (“Foreigners out!”) and “Germany for Germans” rang out in the streets for the seven days of the riot.

Another post-unification incident of racist violence occurred in Rostock in August 1992. For three days, apartment residences for Vietnamese contract workers and a reception center for foreign asylum-seekers were vandalized and attacked by mobs of neo-Nazis and spectators. At the end of the terror, after the last victimized foreign residents were bused out of the town, the xenophobic residents of Rostock declared the city free of foreigners. At least in Rostock, police did try to intervene on behalf of the besieged foreign residents. Survivors of the Hoyerswerda and Rostock attacks recalled fear and terror as they realized that the entire town they had lived and worked in had turned against them and was calling for their removal or even their deaths.

Academic and popular explanations for these horrific scenes of violence vary. Some argue that the violence was rooted in long-standing East German resentment toward foreigners who appeared to enjoy privileges that East German citizens did not. Others say that it was due to the East German state’s approach to Germany’s Nazi past, which it refused to acknowledge or engage with. Another argument is that racism was always an issue in East Germany. Because of the state’s ideological viewpoint, East Germans masked their feelings of anti-Black racism and xenophobia. There does not need to be a single explanation for these violent acts, but they reveal the cracks in the facade of East German socialist solidarity.

In the post-reunification German context, Germans of color have had difficulty asserting their German identity, particularly in the former east. As the issue of newscasters has shown, the presumption of the former East Germany as a white region has continued to erase the experiences and histories of Germans of color in these states, many of whom are mixed-race descendants of the African contract workers and students who came to East Germany for better opportunities. Additionally, there have been long-term effects from the East German state’s push to prevent African students from remaining in Germany after they completed their education or technical training.

Hundreds of mixed-race East German children grew up without their fathers, who had to return to Africa, often in families that looked nothing like them. A heartbreaking example is seen in the documentary “Becoming Black” by Ines Johnson-Spain. Viewers witness Johnson-Spain’s harrowing personal history as she unravels her experiences as the sole Black person in her family, a constant reminder of her mother’s affair with a visiting African student. Johnson-Spain navigates her identity as a Black East German in a country that, by connotation, saw Germanness as whiteness. Black German academics such as Peggy Piesche and Fatima El-Tayeb have written about contemporary Germany’s issues with recognizing Germans of color as German. The struggles of Black East Germans reveal how far the country still has to go to embrace their presence and histories.

The legacies of the East German experiment with anti-racism and anti-imperialism are entangled in the broader German history of race and empire. Contemporary issues of racism, xenophobia and rising support for white nationalist politics underscore the complicated relationships between Blackness and belonging in Germany. The 2021 “Afrocensus,” a survey on Black experiences in Germany, highlights the many issues Black Germans continue to face. The groundbreaking survey’s results illustrate that African residents of Germany and Afro-Germans have experienced verbal and physical assaults across all age ranges. Moreover, Black Germans reported incidents of racism in both the former East German and West German states.

The decision to remove anchors of color from their posts reinforces this long history of erasure of people of color. Research on the history of Africans and people of Afro-German descent is growing. Black Germans and Black German organizations have worked for decades to provide support and resources for Afro-Germans and to push German society to come to terms with the persistence of anti-Black racism and systemic racism in contemporary Germany. With the rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a far-right political party, particularly in the former East Germany, the struggle against racism and for recognition of Black Germans will continue for many years to come.

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