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"Prussian Lovebirds" The story of a German family with African roots

Gorch Pieken

The history of the Sabac el Cher family begins with a murder. Prince Albrecht of Prussia kills a man out of jealousy, in his beautiful palace in Berlin – but a brother of the King of Prussia does not go to jail. Instead, he is sent on a long journey, until the dust has settled. It is no accident that he chooses Egypt as his destination, since all Berlin is talking about the major archaeological expedition being led by the famous Egyptologist, Richard Lepsius. An initiative of Alexander von Humboldt's, it is being financed by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV himself. Prussia is the hotbed of "Egyptomania", which will soon have all of Europe in its grip.

In April 1843, Lepsius meets the Prince and his entourage by chance in Cairo, at the court of the powerful Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali. The famous scientist's diary contains the first written mention of a small, dark-skinned boy, who has been "given" to Prince Albrecht by the Viceroy. Abrecht calls him August Albrecht Sabac el Cher. "Sabac el Cher" means, in effect, "Good morning" and is a common greeting in Egypt. It was probably one of the first Arabic phrases which the Prince had learned and so it suited him to make a name out of it.

The family history of the Sabac el Cher is also the story of a family of soldiers in three different German armies: under the Kaiser, Hitler and Chancellor Adenauer. Just as the dark hue of their skin became diluted from generation to generation, so their own history was gradually forgotten. The last member of the Sabac el Cher still alive has never heard of Prince Albrecht, nor of his adjutant, Freiherr von Reitzenstein, to whom he is related, nor even of the clock given to the first Sabac el Cher by the Russian Tsar in St. Petersburg. The research done by staff of the German Historical Museum shows him his roots for the first time.

A wealth of interesting textual and visual material makes the story of the Sabac el Cher one of the best-researched family histories of the "African diaspora" in Germany. Travel sketch-books, photos and photograph albums, letters and other documents, objects, newspaper cuttings and a tape recording were all discovered scattered throughout the country in archives and people's homes. The search began with the painting entitled "Prussian Lovebirds" from 1890. It shows the dark-skinned son of August Sabac el Cher in Prussian uniform, tenderly embraced by his white-skinned fiancée. The young woman nestles at his shoulder and his face reflects happiness and pride. To many viewers, this seems to be an Arcadian scene of trust and love, a sensitively-painted allegory of a better world. Only now has research done by staff at the museum shown that its subject was real.

The story of the Sabac el Cher is closely interwoven with the fate of Germany during the last one hundred and sixty years. As members of the court and soldiers, they were affected directly by political changes. The post-war partition of Germany also severed the bond between two branches of the family. The East German line died out in the nineteen-eighties, unkown to the last member of the West German line, who is still alive today. His death will mark the end of the line of the Sabac el Cher in Germany.

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