“All’s well that ends well,” Hans Massaquoi wrote in his memoir in which he described his childhood in Nazi Germany. “I’m quite satisfied with the way my life has turned out to be. I survived to tell the piece of history I was a witness of. At the same time, I wish everyone could have a happy childhood within a fair society. And that was definitely not my case.”
Many times, Massaquoi has been asked how he came to be raised in Nazi Germany as a Black boy. Grandson of the Liberian consul general to Hamburg, Massaquoi was born in 1926 to Liberian businessman Al-Hajj Massaquoi and a German nurse Bertha Baetz.
Being the grandson of a diplomat, Massaquoi lived a life of luxury. “I associated black skin with superiority, since our servants were white,” Massaquoi said of his childhood. “My grandfather was ‘the man.’”
But his conditions changed when his father and grandfather went back to Liberia in 1929 after Hamburg found itself in a state of political turmoil.
Massaquoi and his mother stayed behind in Germany. Despite not earning much from her nursing job, Baetz, who did not want to expose her son to a tropical climate, decided not to leave with her husband and in-law.
Having spent his early years in a villa, Massaquoi soon found himself in a cold-water flat in the working-class neighborhoods of Hamburg, alongside his mother. But what pained him was being the “oddity on the block.”
“I was always pointed at because of my exotic looks. I just wanted to be like everyone else,” he was quoted in a report.
In Hamburg, there were other Black Germans, just a few. Some were children of European colonial troops who occupied the Rhineland after World War I, according to records. Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, Massaquoi wanted to be like other boys in his class to the extent that he requested to join the Hitler Youth Movement in his third grade but was denied largely because he was “non-Aryan.”
For the Nazis, the Aryan race (the Nordic people of Germany, England, Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden and Norway) is pure and should not be mixed with any other race.
Massaquoi said of the Hitler Youth Movement, “They had cool uniforms and they did exciting things — camping, parades, playing drums.”
It was distressing that he wasn’t allowed to join the group but later events in the summer of 1936 gave him “genuine pride” in his African heritage, a Library of Congress report said. Two Black American athletes made the headlines. Boxer Joe Louis knocked out Germany’s Max Schmeling Schmeling in the first round in a rematch but what infuriated Adolf Hitler and the rest of the Nazi party was when athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.
Massaquoi, years later, met Owens and Louis and thanked them for allowing him “to walk a little taller among my peers that summer.” But the result of that Olympic games — a “non-Aryan” winning over German athletes — was not what Hitler had expected.
Soon, he began targeting Black people. Sources say that “non-Aryan” kids were not allowed to enter parks or play on swings while Jewish teachers started disappearing from schools. Massaquoi survived it all, including being almost recruited by the German Army when the war began but was rejected after found to be “underweight.”
Amid the racial hatred he faced from the Germans, Massaquoi also survived the Allied bombing raids of 1943 that ruined parts of Hamburg. Denied from pursuing an education or a professional career, Massaquoi worked as a machinist’s apprentice while following his hobby — boxing.
When the war ended, he played saxophone in different Allied night clubs in Hamburg and was as a translator for the British occupying forces until 1948 when he went to Liberia to reunite with his father. He eventually moved to the U.S. on a student visa to attend an aviation mechanics school.
While in Chicago, Massaquoi was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 and served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army during the Korean War. He later became a U.S. citizen, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois, and began a career as a journalist.
He first worked for Jet magazine before moving to Ebony, where he climbed up the ladder to become the managing editor of one of the most influential publications for African Americans. For 40 years, he stayed with the legendary African-American magazine, interviewing some of the most prominent African Americans at the time, including civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and then Owens, Diana Ross, and other celebrities.
By the late 1990s when he was nearing retirement, he decided to tell his story in an autobiography, “Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany”, which was published in the U.S. in 1999, followed by a German translation. The book was widely received in Germany to the shock of Massaquoi; it was even made into a movie in 2006 by German television.
Before Massaquoi’s death in January 2013, he was asked how he survived Hitler’s reign of terror. He explained in a 2001 interview cited by LA Times that unlike Jews, Blacks were so few in numbers that they were relegated to low-priority status in the Nazis’ lineup for extermination.
What’s more, “the rapid advance of the allied troops gave Hitler more to worry about than Hans Massaquoi,” according to the Library of Congress.
In the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945, African Germans were in their thousands. Servants, students, sailors and entertainers from present-day Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Cameroon, Togo, and Tanzania came to Germany, said a BBC report. In time, many African Germans were excluded from education and employment and were not allowed to have relationships with white people. Some were also sterilized while others were sent to concentration camps.
In effect, while Black Germans were not subject to mass extermination as in the cases of Jews, Romani and Slavs, they were targeted too, though not in the “same systematic way”, researchers say.