Black Berlin* – Book Review By Eric Singh ANA Snr Editor

Black Berlin is a book published and edited by Oumar Diallo (1953), a Guinean born sociologist, and Joachim Zeller(1958), a historian whose birth place is Swakopmund/Namibia. It deals with different phases of black migration to the city over the past three centuries.

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The strength of Black Berlin lies in the fact that Omar Diallo and Joachim Zeller have enlisted a large number of authors, a number of them with a migration background, to present an all round look. Even more interesting, they represent different political and ideological hues. These authors, some of whom are specialists in their field, deal with the various phases of Black life in the city during the past three centuries. Blacks are made up of Africans, Black Germans, people of colour, Afro-Americans; Caribbeans, Asians and Turks. That itself makes it a must read book which is divided into four main sections. Future scholars, researchers and historians will be happy to have such a work as reference material.

The inputs deal with the various aspects of life of the migrants and their struggle for emancipation and social justice. Integration is a key word but a very difficult undertaking.

The first part introduces the subject.

Then there is the section headed “African Life in the Spree Metropole 1918-1945” in which Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst portrays people from an African background in Berlin during the period 1918-1945. Stefan Gerbing looks at the political intervention between the November Revolution of the sailors in Northern Germany and the Weimar Republic, whilst Rainer E. Lotz portrays the dancer, choreographer and actor Louis Douglas.

The section dealing with the Highlights of Afro-German History in Berlin from 1945 is very alive with events and people, whereas the last section – Black Germans – Portrays and Interviews – looks at the achievements of a number of people, dead and alive, who made their mark in the city. Most prominent being the late May Ayim (3 May 1960 – 9 August 1996).

In her input Chantal-Fleur Sandjon talks of a very troubled person looking for an identity, a fate suffered by many children born to black and white parents. In May Ayim’s case the problem is compounded by the fact that she never knew her mother. Her father, a Ghanian appeared at a later stage but as “Uncle E”. Ayim was brought up in children’s homes and by foster parents. Ayim, the “Mischlingskind”, later claimed to have suffered racist abuse and insults in her entire childhood. Even beating by the foster parents who believed in the strong hand tactic in bringing up children.

Ayim’s childhood experience was a major basis in shaping her life in the fight against discrimination and injustice. She pursued an academic career and became a popular educator and poetess. Here too, there were many hurdles to overcome. The thesis of her degree was titled: „FARBE BEKENNEN – Afro-deutsche Frauen auf der Spuren ihrer Geschichte“ (Showing our Colours – Afro-German women speak out).

This work was rejected by a German Professor in 1986. The reason advanced by the gentleman in question was “There is no racialism in Germany. Maybe in the USA, but not here”. The printed version of Farbe Bekennen became one of the most read books in Germany and the original print was sold out in no time and had to be reprinted a few times.

May Ayim was a “kingpin” in the Afro-German movement fighting for justice and recognition. Therefore, it is not surprising that together with other young people, she founded the ISD (Initiative Schwarze Deutsche = Initiative of Black Germans) in 1985. ISD is a very strong and influential body in Germany.
Unfortunately, in 1996 the terrible illness multiple sclerosis invaded her body and her health deteriorated rapidly throwing her into bouts of depression. She took her own life by jumping off a high building.

In 2009 the suburb of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg has honoured her by renaming a bank on the River Spree – a pedestrian thoroughfare – to May-Ayim-Ufer.

After the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich in 1945, Germany was divided into four occupational zones by the victorious allied nations. These were the USA, Soviet Union, Great Britain and France. Their terms of reference was to help destroy the remnants of fascism and guide Germany to recover from the horrors of war and destruction. Almost the whole of the country was lying in rubbles caused by allied planes bombing strategic areas involved in the war production of the Nazi regime.

To facilitate the work of the Allied Command, Berlin, which was in the Soviet Occupational Zone, and with the approval of the USSR, was also divided into four. Then came the anti-communist cold war unleashed by American Senator Joe McCarthy which threw a spanner into the work of the Allied Command. High ranking Nazis were suddenly dyed into highly respected democrats. The position was worsened when, with backing of the western powers the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) was established in September 1949 and claiming to represent the whole of Germany with Bonn as their capital.

A month later, the German Democratic Republic (DDR) was born in the zone occupied by the Soviet Union and rejected the claims of Bonn. They set up their capital in the divided City of Berlin. West Berlin (in the western occupational zones) had a special status and allied itself with the BRD.

The division of Germany brought in its wake the question of the position of black people in the two states and Berlin in particular. Up till 1945, the blacks that inhabited the city came mainly from the former colonies under German occupation. After the end of World War II there were “home grown” blacks resulting from the cross-breeding between the Afro-American soldiers and their local partners in occupied Germany. The off-springs of such partnerships did not have it easy. Neither in Berlin or elsewhere in the country. Then there are the children of African students and their German mothers. These kids were regarded as a “problem” and sidelined.

Was this “problem” confined to the BRD only? Contemporary writings talk of wholesale discrimination in the DDR. Ulrich van der Heyden deals with this aspect in his input on page 133.

What must be borne in mind is that both German States inherited active supporters of the Nazi regime. In the BRD and West Berlin, high-ranking members of the Nazi hierarchy were give very senior posts in the administration, especially the police, army and foreign ministry.

That was not so in the DDR. Whilst many of the brown followers accepted the status quo, some of the others became mercenaries and indulged in acts of sabotages in different spheres of the DDR economy. All with one intention. To destroy the state. The state came down very hard on these saboteurs, a number of whom were executed. The rest decided to keep a low profile. Biding their time and quietly contaminating their children. Then came the Wende in 1989 and “liberated” them.

My own experience with the latter group is interesting. These are the people who displayed their shining “Pepsodent” teeth when conversing with us. But a racist is a racist. For us blacks, coming from our backgrounds of discrimination, it was very easy to identify these bullshitters. Especially those who were exceptionally nice and pleasant, giving an impression that butter will not melt in their mouths. The most dangerous ones are without doubt those claim to have nothing against people of a different colour. These are the bastards who resented us most and we learnt not to trust them.

On the other hand the majority of the people in the DDR were genuinely friendly. As mentioned above there were those, who, driven by their racist teaching at home hated us most. Let me mention two anecdotes. When I arrived in East Berlin in 1967, I spent the weekends with a friend in the city. I was studying at a place called Bernau about 30-40 kilometres from Berlin.

At the Prenzlauer Allee S-Bahnhof was a pub where I had a few drinks before moving further. One day, one of the customers was thrown out by two others. The man literally flew out through the door. The response to my question was: Rassist. I was the only black in the pub.

The other incident took place in Dresden after a European Cup Soccer match around 1988. This was before the Wende. Because Dresden fans did not have a high reputation, whenever they played a home match, every shop and restaurant was closed in the vicinity of the stadium. Even in the station. This particular evening was no exception. To make matters worse, there were no trains out of Dresden until around two in the morning. Not even when such a big event was staged in the city.

I was almost killed that night in Dresden. There was nowhere to go and most of the “fans” came from surrounding areas. With the match ending around 22:00 hours, the crowd assembled in the station where they had deposited their alcoholic drinks in the lockers. Those guys had six hours to go mad and that is what they did. Vandalism and destruction was high on their agenda. This is something I experienced with my own eyes. My surprise was that they were given a free hand with the police as disinterested onlookers.

Suddenly, some of them discovered me sitting on a bench patiently waiting for my train to Berlin. Insults and curses against blacks and foreigners were not short in supply. I decided to find another place. This gang followed me and suddenly I was surrounded. Some of them carried knives. I stood my ground and played it cool. I moved slowly in such a way that led me to a bored policeman and sought his help. That was a close call. There were many other such incidents especially in the period leading to the Wende. I had my fair share of fascist tirade in the city – on both sides of the wall.

To claim, as some quarters do, to accuse the DDR of racialism is absolute nonsense. Nothing could be further from the truth. I did a lot of travelling in the DDR in the pursuit of my work in making people aware of the horrors of apartheid and soliciting their support. I was always well received and the support was overwhelming. Off course, there were exceptions as stated above.

Humiliation; discrimination; insults; degradation and racism suffered by people with a migration background is not something of the past. These abnormalities are very much alive and looming over like the “Sword of Damocles”. The reappearance of fascism is a threat not only here in Germany, but throughout Europe. The swing to the right on the continent is shocking. The forces of peace and justice have also emerged enormously, thereby not allowing the ultra-rightwing to have their own way.

What is true of Berlin, is also applicable to all major cities in Europe. Blacks were always the object of scorn by the ruling class and the population at large. Unfortunately, that attitude has not changed, albeit, not to the same degree as before.

What this book brings to the fore is that despite all the hurdles placed in their path, the blacks refused to cow down. On the contrary they have made enormous contributions to the culture, economy and welfare of the city and the whole of Germany. They are not anonymous anymore. More so in the sports world particularly football. The victory of Raphael Holzdeppe in the pole vault at the World Light Athletic Championships in Moscow last week is a point in mind. Suddenly, this unknown black man is the darling of the whole country.

Black Berlin is printed in German and I hope it could be translated into other languages. It is really an interesting book especially for the challenges it throws out.


Oumar Diallo & Joachim Zeller (Hrsg.)
Metropol Verlag , 280 Seiten, € 22,00
ISBN 978-3-86331-132-2

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