Look who wanted to join the Hitler Youth!

Hans J. Massaquoi: Destined to Witness
William Morrow, New York 1999

Not long ago I heard a strange voice on radio: it was a BBC interview with an elderly man who spoke with a marked German accent, yet with the phrasing and intonation of a Black American. The combination was very odd, and I began to listen attentively. It turned out that this was a man who was born and raised in Germany, arrived in the United States as a young man, served in the US armed forces during the Korean war, and later became a journalist and editor. This would not have been an exceptional story, but for the fact that the speaker was black, the son of an African man and a German woman, who was born in Hamburg in the 1920s, and lived in Germany through the Nazi and post-war period. When he reached the US he found himself attached not to the German-American community, in which he had many relatives, but to the African-American community, the descendants of the slaves. The fascinating interview concluded with details about the speaker’s autobiography, which had just been published in the States.

If the interview was strange, the book turned out to be even stranger. If James McBride’s ‘The Color of Water’ is a remarkable story, this one is even more so. The common denominator between the two is the figure of the mother - in both cases a white woman of extraordinary strength of character.

Hans-Jurgen was the child of a young Liberian man, the son of Liberia’s official representative in Germany, and a young German woman, a practical nurse by training. He was born in Hamburg in 1926 and lived there to the age of 22. His early childhood was spent in the spacious villa of his diplomat grandfather (the ex-king of one Liberia’s principal tribes). When some political row ended diplomatic relations between Liberia and Germany in 1929, ‘Mutti’ (mother in German) and little Hans-Jurgen found themselves without means. The child’s father was a spoilt young man who caroused around the world and forgot his son. Mutti found a cold-water attic and a job in a public hospital and supported herself and her son to the best of her ability.

So far the little boy’s life was normal enough, despite the privations and his unusual origins. He was exotic-looking, but enjoyed friendship and affection on all sides. With the coming of the Nazis to power he became increasingly subject to taunts, but his mother’s friends, neighbours and relatives continued to dote on him. Then the mother lost her job in the hospital, and conditions grew harsher. The amazing thing is that little Hans-Jurgen was captivated, like most German children, by the Fuehrer’s charisma, and paraded proudly with a swastika emblem on his chest. The awful stories about Jews disturbed him, and he asked Mutti why the Fuehrer did not round them all up and put them in prison. The mother told him quietly that he must not believe those stories, and to his astonishment pointed out some of his favourite acquaintances who were Jews. At school, however, a Nazi headmaster made his life as miserable as he could. All the same, during the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Hans-Jurgen, a gifted and athletic child, basked in the popular admiration for the Black American athletes, notably the great Jesse Owens.

It took him a long time to comprehend the true state of affairs in Germany. At first he still tried to join the Hitler Youth, but was rejected as a ‘non-Aryan’, and this status began to affect his whole life. Curiously, the authorities made no attempt to tear him out of German society, as it did to the Jews - probably because his category, that of a half-African German, was too insignificant, and Nazi bureaucracy did not bother itself. Though he was repeatedly told that Africans were inferior creatures, that American ‘Negro’ music was barbaric, and so on, there were no physical consequences. Hans-Jurgen and his mother passed the war mainly in Hamburg. Their house was bombed, and for a while they joined relatives in the country, but missed the city and returned to it - just in time to experience the intense bombing by the Allies that almost anihilated it. Nearly fifty-thousand inhabitants were killed, mostly burned alive. Towards the end he and his mother cowered in the cellar of a bombed house, like many Hamburg inhabitants, living mouselike on rubbish and diminishing poor rations. The book reveals that there was some quiet, passive opposition to the Nazies throughout their rule, at any rate among the working class, and it intensified towards the end. This was expressed in ironic remarks, sarcastic jokes about the Nazis and their pretensions. Among young people this subtle rebellion expressed itself in long hair, forbidden by the Nazis, in jazz music - Negermusik, as the rulers called it - and dancing in the American style. Here Hans-Jurgen even enjoyed a certain prestige thanks to his dark complexion, like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole - just as in his childhood he had benefited from the triumph of the black boxer Joe Louis over the Nazi Max Schmeling.

Being a ‘non-Aryan’, Hans-Jurgen was barred from completing his secondary schooling, and at 16 was apprenticed to a factory which produced aircraft parts. Late in the war he was even called up by the army - this time they did not say, ‘Germany is not and never will be so hard up as to need the likes of you to win the war!’ Fortunately, he was not conscripted and remained in town. One evening he came out of the plant after dark, in the blackout, and the people waiting at the bus-stop saw a dark-skinned young man in khaki overalls with a pair of goggles dangling from his neck, and assumed he was an American airman who had bombed their city and parachuted down. He was almost lynched, but a local civil defence man recognized him and assured the people, ‘I know him, he’s one of us, a German!’ After the war Hans-Jurgen, an amateur musician, made friends with black American sailors who came to Hamburg, and became intensely ambitious to go to the United States. Instead, he found himself in Liberia, living at the house of his rich and selfish father. The transition from Germany to Africa is brilliantly described. He became closely attached to one of his many half-brothers, but was horrified by many things - from the lack of hygiene in matters of food to the judicial system. An uncle of his was a senior judge, and Hans-Jurgen was appalled by what he saw and heard in court and around the jail - until he recalled what happened in ‘civilized’ Germany. Thanks to the efforts of his German relatives, who had emigrated to the US long before, he managed to get there at last on a student visa. The United States was embroiled in the Korean war, and he was conscripted by the Air Force - in a black company officered by white southerners! The US armed forces had not yet been integrated, and Hans-Jurgen learned a lesson in American racism. Luckily, he was not sent to Korea, and after the war studied journalism, the profession in which he made his career. His beloved Mutti joined him in the States. In time he became the editor of the established, bourgeois African-American magazine ‘Ebony’.

But despite the Harlem jive that flavours the text, Hans-Jurgen remains profoundly a German. The book is rich in German associations, sayings and imagery. He continues to love Germany and, above all, his native Hamburg, which he frequently visits and where he has become a celebrity. His writing reveals a cheerful, optimistic disposition, a love of life. At the end of the BBC interview he was asked about his visits to Germany and his feelings about Hamburg. Despite his criticism about the new racism in Germany, which affects a whole generation of young mixed-race Germans, he still loves his native city. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘it is heimat!’