On Reading Two Recent Memoirs by Afro-Germans
Two recent memoirs by German authors with an African connection emphasize that German history cannot be written without including the histories and perspectives of black Germans (as well as that of many other non-white people).
In Deutsch sein und Schwarz dazu [Being German and also Being Black], published in 2013 with Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, author Theodor Michael takes a long and probing look back at his experiences as a black German. Born in 1925 to a white German mother from the Eastern Prussian provinces and a black Cameroonian father, Michael’s childhood and youth coincided with the decline of the democratic German Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism.
In a low key style Michael recollects his participation in the infamous Völkerschauen [colonial peoples exhibits] organized by circusses and zoos. He describes his attempts to get by as hotel page and as extra in some of the Third Reich’s anti-British colonial films. And he details the toll that life under the Nuremberg race laws took on his body and mind. While his siblings managed to get out of Germany, Theodor Michael stayed behind, spending the last years of the regime as a forced laborer in a factory outside of Berlin, where he survived the war. After liberation, he managed to get into the Western zone, where he then tried to rebuild his life.
This period barely covers half of Michael’s memoir, for his life in the new Federal Republic of Germany is equally fascinating in a different context. But his reflection on the 1930s and 1940s is especially relevant for a revision of mainstream German history as not just a white history. Simply put, since the National Socialist racist ideology envisioned a “pure” white German race and murdered those it deemed unworthy of belonging, even well-intentioned commemorative projects often tacitly reaffirm the perpetrators as white Germans and their victims as non-white “others.” Let me hasten to emphasize that this should not be understood as an argument to expand the perpetrator category to include representatives of the racial and ethnic groups persecuted by the Nazis. Rather, it is an argument to open up and diversify the meaning of Germanness not just for the 21st century but also in a historical perspective.
Theodor Michael’s memoir does just that in an accessible and convincing way. He talks about these historical periods as a German and as a black person, just as the title of his book suggests. Precisely because he describes the persecution he had to endure in such poignant ways, it is all the more striking that he questions whether he should not have put up more resistance against interrogating Gestapo officers and other Nazi officials. In these moments, and in many later episodes in which he reflects on an individual’s responsibility to stand up for others in need, Michael speaks from a decidedly German perspective and thus offers a powerful reminder that the National Socialist connection between Germanness and whiteness was indeed nothing but an arbitrary and peudoscientific ideology.
Jennifer Teege’s memoir, Amon: Mein Großvater hätte mich erschossen [Amon: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me], published in 2013 with Rowohlt Verlag, addresses the topic from the perspective of the second postwar generation of Germans. Teege, born in 1970 to a white German mother and a Nigerian father, grew up in an orphanage and later was adopted by a white middle-class German family. Decades later she finds out that her mother’s father, her grandfather, was Amon Göth, the concentration commander of Plaszow near Krakow, whose brutality and inhumanity are depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. For Teege, who has lived in Israel for several years and worked with Holocaust survivors, the sudden discovery of a biological connection to one of the most infamous Nazi perpetrators was surpassed only by the shock that the grandmother to whom she has been attached so closely was Göth’s girlfriend and one of his most ardent defenders.
Teege’s conflicted loyalty to her late grandmother fit right into the current resurgence of memoirs published by the children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators, and yet it is also different. Like Theodor Michael’s autobiography, her account cuts across the boundaries that have reserved the category of Germanness for the white perpetrators and offers an access route for a more diverse and nuanced perspective of Germanness.
Both books are well-written examples of a necessary revision of the perspective on twentieth-century German history. Their publication in wellknown German publishing houses makes one hope that the particular historical perspective offered by Michael and Teege will not remain exotic but become part of the popular historical record.