African Americans - German reconstruction and racial segregation




In 1945 the Allies claimed victory over a German state that had taken racism to its logical extreme in the pursuit of eugenic purity and the destruction of millions of lives. African-American troops were part of the force that occupied Germany from 1945 to 1955, when efforts were made on all fronts to reform its institutions and reconstruct it physically. From the beginning of the occupation, U.S. racial practices in the military contradicted the essence of its mission in Germany and led to confusion and resentment among the conquered.

In the American zone of occupation, commanding officers could approve soldiers' marriages as they saw fit. Many of those holding conventional American ideas about race often prohibited mixed marriages even when children were involved. When individual soldiers appealed these prohibitions, military judges relied on the laws of the various U.S. states to determine whether a proposed union could be approved and compiled the relevant statutes for their own use. If a soldier resided in a state where interracial marriages were illegal, his application to marry outside his race would be turned down. Racial record keeping on marriages began in 1947. German courts followed this example. The Allies, having struck down the racist Nuremberg laws, oddly found themselves reapplying them in the American zone of occupation, where the German courts followed suit.

Military opposition to mixed marriages gradually declined, but in the interim approximately three thousand biracial children were born in Germany between 1945 and 1951, almost all the offspring of African-American servicemen. As a result of the continuing ambivalence among all parties about the children's prospects for adoption in the United States, the West German state, autonomous in 1955, was charged with the responsibility for absorbing them into German society. Germans witnessed the contradictions between U.S. opposition to nazi racism and policies governing intermarriage. The first cohort of biracial children reached their teens as violence associated with segregation in the United States made international headlines. While some Germans continued to believe that homes in the United States should be sought for those who were not already adopted, the prevailing opinion was that the orphans should not be sent into a society characterized by racial violence. If the United States' goal had been to transform Germany into a democracy characterized by tolerance, the biracial orphans provided them a paradoxical opportunity to show the world they had shed Hitlerism.

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