I believe there is wisdom to be gained from the past, but specifically, what is it we are supposed to learn?

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

I wasn’t born yet, but I do remember the distinctive voice of FDR in his radio address, and I remember many of the words he spoke.

I was thinking about this around 9/11 this year. Of course, most Americans don’t remember Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago, directly anymore, as the population ages. But if we did, what lessons are we to glean now?

“Never forget” is the mantra after many significant disasters. But Japan, and for that matter, Germany, are our allies now; maybe that’s the new message.

Incidentally, of the 16,112,566 Americans who served in the armed forces during WWII, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in November 2011 that only 1,711,000 nationwide are still living, and a greater number die each year.

And, as the population ages, we will forget 9/11 too, maybe not any time soon, but eventually, in a few generations. I believe there is wisdom to be gained from the past, but specifically, what is it we are supposed to learn? I think about this regularly, yet have no tidy answers.

V is for Veteran

Most of the wars fought by the United States, starting with the Revolutionary War, included a subtext, even the promise, of justice for, and fair treatment of African-Americans.

Back at the end of February 2010, I did a presentation for the Underground Railroad conference about Black Soldiers in Post WW II Germany. I’m certainly not to replicate it here, but a few points I’ll mention.

Even though the first casualty of what would become the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre of 1770, the American colonial powers fighting Great Britain were resistant to allowing black soldiers to serve. It wasn’t until the British offered freedom to black fighters that ultimately got George Washington’s attention. Ultimately, blacks fought on both sides of the conflict, but their reason was singular: freedom.

Again, in the American Civil War, many black men felt that serving in the military was a way they might gain freedom and full citizenship. As Frederick Douglass asserted that if blacks fought, “no power on earth can deny that he has earned the right” to freedom.

General David Staunch took it upon himself to free slaves, not just on islands controlled by Union forces, but in south Florida, where he recruited men capable of bearing arms to form the first black regiment. This was ultimately opposed to, and disbanded by President Lincoln, fearing moving more quickly than “public opinion would bear.”

There was a modicum of freedom for the newly emancipated but this was negated by the Jim Crow laws and other restrictions. During World War I, WEB DuBois wrote in The Crisis magazine, “First your Country, then your Rights”. A by-then familiar refrain.

So, most of the wars fought by the United States, starting with the Revolutionary War, included a subtext, even the promise, of justice for, and fair treatment of African-Americans. World War I and especially the Civil War brought the issue to the fore.

But it was with World War II, with large numbers of black soldiers in uniform, that the contradiction between fighting for freedom for others and a lack of freedom back at home reached a tipping point.

Germany in post World War II was occupied by thousands of American soldiers, many of them black. While Hitler’s mantra of racial superiority might suggest that the black soldier might have a difficult time in the former Nazi-led country, the experiences were far more mixed. A huge part of this involved the black GI and the German fraulein, something that clashed with the norms of two countries. What took place during that period changed both the condition of African-Americans back in the United States and the occupied German people as well.

Due, in part to the pressure by the black press, reporting on the superior conditions for the black troops in what was Hitler’s country, the armed services were integrated in 1948.

So, was it a sense of history or a more personal connection that my father to keep a Newsweek article delineating this phenomenon for 54 years, from 1946 until his death in 2000, or was there something more? My father was in the European Theater of operations from February to November 1946, but we never really talked to him about the war.

There is a surprisingly large bit of literature on this topic of race and Germany after the war. It doesn’t cite the Newsweek article, but rather an article from a then- relatively new magazine called Ebony (October 1946).

I would particularly recommend The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany, a research project and digital archive. The creators received a prestigious award from the storied civil rights organization, the NAACP.
I’d also note Historians study black vets’ role in civil rights for the very first paragraph: In the words of retired Gen. Colin Powell, postwar Germany was “a breath of freedom” for black soldiers, especially those out of the South: “[They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date, whom they wanted, just like other people.” Or, as it notes in the Ebony article, Berlin was freer than Birmingham (Alabama) or Broadway (New York City).

Additional bibliography:
Blacks during the Holocaust.

An unexpected freedom: Black U.S. soldiers found acceptance and tolerance in post-war Germany – and sometimes even the love of their lives. By Peter H. Koepf

Democratization in Germany after 1945 (video).

Post War “German Brown Babies” enter the U.S.A.

Race after Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America by Heide Fehrenbach (chapter)

Should They Be Allowed? What happens when German historians research racism in America?

ABC Wednesday