History Professor Raffael Scheck’s 2006 book, Hitler’s African Victims, opened old wounds in Europe and Africa when it revealed that the German army massacred thousands of black African soldiers rather than take them prisoner during World War II. Now he’s spawned a new round of news stories, interviews—and controversy—throughout the francophone world with a serendipitous discovery he made doing follow-up research last year. He identified a report on German prison camps written by the most famous successful African statesman of the 20th century.
While working in the French National Archives in Paris in summer 2010, Scheck discovered an anonymous report written by a prisoner of war from Senegal describing life in a German prison camp. Months later he determined, and laboriously verified, that the narrative was written by Léopold Senghor, an intellectual and political giant of French letters and African politics during the 20th century.
Senghor survived the war and gained acclaim as a poet and as the first African in the Académie Française. He became one of the leading intellectuals and philosophers of the 20th century. A cultural theorist even before the war, he was one of three students who developed Négritude, a literary and ideological movement that finds solidarity and pride in black identity and rejects European colonialism and racism in favor of traditional African values and culture.
Senghor was the first president of Senegal when it gained independence, he wrote the Senegalese national anthem still in use, and he is revered as a father of democracy in Africa, both for his leadership of Senegal and for the unusual move of stepping down voluntarily from the presidency in an African nation. “He is considered an African Gandhi,” Scheck said.
Scheck’s latest research has been featured in Le Monde, as the cover story of the independent newspaper El Watan in Algeria, and in radio interviews in Europe and francophone North and West Africa. And, again, his findings are stoking old and simmering hostilities.
Scheck uses the French archives to study original documents from World War II as he researches the plight of French colonial soldiers brought in from Africa to defend France from the Germans. He’s allowed to examine 10 boxes of documents per day and will spend two or three weeks at a stretch going through his maximum allotment each day. But last year, one seven-page typed report arrested his attention for three or four days.
In the document Scheck discovered, Senghor writes about conditions in two Nazi prison camps where he was interned. He dwells on an extensive Nazi propaganda campaign directed at recruiting Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, and he is critical of North Africans whom he characterizes as collaborators with the Nazis.
Algerians commenting on the Le Monde and El Watan stories take great offense at being cast as Nazi collaborators by a West African, particularly because they remember the role of West African troops used by the French to repress Algerians during the revolution there (1954-62), Scheck explained. After the story came out in Algeria last summer, bloggers and comments online objected to what Senghor had written. Recalling the West African troops as tools of the colonialists, Algerians described those black soldiers as “terribly frightening,” “abusive,” and “brutal,” Scheck said. “They go so far as to say, ‘The evils of French colonialism in Algeria were much worse even than the Holocaust,’” Scheck said. “Some extremely troubling comments.”
Most African soldiers in the camps were illiterate, Scheck said, so finding an account written by a highly literate black soldier was of great interest. Where most such documents are written in very poor French and complain about conditions, racial tensions, and corruption in the camps, the seven-page typed report Scheck found was different.
When he read that the author had a prestigious French teaching certificate, it was a strong tip that Senghor, the first African so credentialed, might be the author. But confirming it took longer. “It was a very complicated process. I also read his poetry and I found very close correspondence between some of his most famous poems and what he describes in the captivity report.” Now there is no doubt.
The regional and racial tensions stirred by Scheck’s discovery aren’t the only controversies the document brought to the surface. There are contradictions between Senghor’s description of his life in the camps and the image he curated later as a “resistor of the first hour,” who worked to facilitate escapes. “This report casts doubt on that,” Scheck said.
The Négritude movement as it exists today was heavily influenced by Senghor’s experiences in those camps, said Assistant Professor of French Mouhamedoul Niang, who was born in Senegal, studies francophone literature, postcolonial theory, and African philosophy, and has taught at Colby since 2009. And Négritude remains influential still, with ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociologists as well as in literary criticism, Niang said.
Though the boxes of documents in the archives are labeled, Scheck says he’s never sure what he’ll find. He ordered one expecting records about POWs and instead found blueprints annotated by French police showing the names and locations of all Jews living in Paris before they were sent to concentration camps.
Scheck, who learned French as a German schoolboy in Switzerland, reads the original documents and does media interviews in French, English, or German. He’s working on a book about French colonial prisoners of war, and the Senghor document is a key piece of that.
“I think it [the discovered material] will change how people see him,” Scheck said. The report shows how Senghor’s relationships with guards and commanders, and his readings of German literature ranging from Nazi propaganda to Cosmopolitan authors like Goethe, revealed the divergent views, attitudes, and beliefs among the Germans. That diversity, Scheck said, “is crucially embedded in this shift that he made away from a very exclusive and somewhat supremacist concept of Négritude toward a much more inclusive concept.”
“This encounter with very different types of Germans, that’s very important for this new concept of Négritude that’s much less stereotyping,” Scheck said. The newly discovered document “fills in the context of what he really experienced that triggered a lot of these changes.”