Old Wounds


Europe and Africa roiled by Raffael Scheck's revelations of racial crimes against black soldiers in World War II

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Fred Field

Photo by Fred Field

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225#Revelations that the German army massacred thousands of black African soldiers rather than take them prisoner during World War II roiled Europe and Africa earlier this year when research by Professor Raffael Scheck (history) was published in the leading German newsmagazine, Die Zeit.

The story, picked up across Europe and in West Africa, summarized work that Scheck did for his latest book, Hitler's African Victims: The German Army Massacres of French Black Soldiers in 1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2006). And as Scheck tried (without complete success) to keep track of its wide-ranging impact, he got some help from Tomasz Zajaczkowski '06, a student from Poland.

"I had never met him but he sent me this e-mail: 'Hey, you're becoming famous in Poland,'" Scheck recalled. After Poland's biggest newspaper ran the summary, "it triggered an intense debate," he said. "There were over a hundred letters."

Explaining that a distinction has been drawn between actions of the regular German army and the genocidal SS troops, which were affiliated with the Nazi party, Scheck said his research helped to cast the army in a new, less honorable light. "It obviously hit a sore spot in Polish memory"victimization in Poland. Many Poles apparently who read this felt vindicated, and said, 'Here you see it. The German army was not outside the fray of racially motivated crimes; it was a participant.'"

Scheck saw a similar reaction in Francophone Africa. "There was a big article in a Congolese online newspaper that also triggered even more responses with the same tenor: 'We have known this all along,'" he said, characterizing the reaction in Africa. "'The facts have been denied or have not been taken to heart by the French, and now a German historian who teaches at an American university publishes a book with one of the most renowned presses in the world. Now can it no longer be denied.'"

Not all the reaction was supportive. On a neo-Nazi Web site, "they were viciously angry with me," Scheck said. "They found that I had studied at Brandeis and said 'Well, that's a Zionist university,' which is basically a code-name for anti-Semitic slander."

Scheck tracks his interest in the little-known events to a French textbook he was reading that made reference to a massacre of black Africans in Lyon. "There was no footnote and I had never heard anything else about it," he recalled.

Scheck set out to explore the topic, visiting French and German national archives and traveling throughout France to read documents in libraries and municipal offices. His findings were extraordinary.

French records, when collated, indicated that during the 1940 campaign the German army massacred 1,500 to 3,000 Africans rather than hold them as prisoners, killing individuals or groups of up to 50 or 80 at a time. German diaries shed light on racist attitudes toward the Africans and, though they didn't admit to massacres, the diarists often recorded specific numbers of white soldiers captured and black soldiers killed. Where there were no blacks captured it suggested a double standard based on race, supporting the allegation that black soldiers were slain en masse.

Today's students may view the Vietnam War primarily as a chapter from history, but for Scheck (despite being young enough to hold his own in pickup soccer games with his students) World War II is an era that is still accessible, ripe for research, and of deep personal interest. He was born in Germany of parents who as children survived the devastating Allied air raids. He grew up in Switzerland in the 1960s. As a second grader, "In Geneva I was called 'Hitler' by schoolmates and beaten up almost every day to and from school" before I even knew what Hitler was," he said.

He recalls one grandfather who didn't fight because he was blind in one eye and the other who was too old for military service. One was a member of the Nazi party but, Scheck says, didn't really understand or support the party's anti-Jewish policies. "When he got an order to report everybody who was Jewish in his apartment block"working-class housing in Berlin"he sensed that there was something dangerous going to happen with these two ladies who lived next door, and he did something tiny that saved their lives," Scheck said. "He just put their folders always to the bottom of the pile in the local party office so they were never worked on. And they survived the war.

"I asked my mother, 'During these bomb raids, did he ever bar these two Jewish ladies from entering the basement?' because I knew there was a law against admitting non-Aryans to the bomb shelters. . . . She said, 'No, he never did that. He actually carried their mattresses for them.' So there I have a Nazi grandfather who saved two Jews."

"Then," he continued, "I had another grandfather who had been a communist and who hated the Nazis"absolutely no question that he hated the Nazis. He was condemned to death in 1945 because he didn't show up for the last military draft to defend Berlin and, as the Russians were closing in, he just ran away. He had done everything to not serve in the war because he really hated the Nazis, but he hadn't done anything that great. He was very proud of it after 1945, sometimes to me disturbingly so."

Such contradictions, Scheck says, are a part of history often lost. And that, in fact, is what happened with Die Zeit. The press release issued by the magazine lost all the nuance that he tried to preserve in his longer treatment of the story. "I've always been fascinated by these shadings in my own family history, and I've tried to make sense of it. And my book, I think, has a very different shading. I don't portray every German as a bloodthirsty monster, which is how it came out in the press release of Die Zeit."
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