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Research Aims, Objectives and Questions

Robbie Aitken

The aim of the research project is an investigation into the political and social ecology of the African community of Germany in the period between high colonialism and the conclusion of World War Two. This community was composed of around 2-3000 individuals of African descent, with Cameroonians constituting the largest single group. A particular focus is on those of Cameroonian descent because this group enjoyed a relatively high visibility in the public life of the Afro-German community, as political activists and as performers in theatre and film (and in many cases, both).

Thus, the project examines their experiences in the German metropole where they lived, worked,

established families and formed social and political networks. Among other things it poses the questions: To what extent was there a group identity, was there a self conscious collective race awareness and what influence did national and class differences have on the African experience? Further, the project explores the survival strategies open to Africans within Germany.

The German metropole is envisaged as an example of Mary Louise Pratt’s ‘contact zone’ – an environment which brings into contact peoples who were geographically and historically separated and leads to the negotiation and establishment of a relationship. Such relationships were primarily marked by coercion, inequality and often by conflict. The Africans, as historical actors, actively participated in and directly experienced the negotiation of relationships between black and white in Germany as well as its consequences. Of primary interest is the African view of the relationship between black and white which develops out of this contact zone. For these individuals, in the context both of everyday life and of their political activities, explaining what they wanted involved saying who and what they were. Among native Africans, the (at least) rhetorical self-identification as Germans was very common, while in Germany, and Europe as a whole, they were often called upon to ‘perform’ blackness as entertainers or political speakers. In particular, attention is paid to the political activities of the Cameroonians who actively participated in the Communist International dominated anti-colonial and anti-racist movement in Germany. During and after the First World War they claimed the role of spokesmen for African interests in debates about the fate of Germany’s colonies and led moves for the political defence of the interests of former colonial subjects in Germany itself. This was against a backdrop of Germany losing her colonies to France and Britain under the Versailles Settlement which had significant legal implications for the African Diaspora rendering many stateless, and causing others to seek German citizenship.

The rise of the Nazi party and increased racial tension in Germany limited employment opportunities and survival strategies for Africans. Many members of the community were forced to flee to France or to return to Africa. Further I am hoping to add a new aspect to the current research field by looking at this Afro-German population in connection with Paul Gilroy's concept of a 'Black Atlantic'. I am keen to trace the biographies of this generation of Afro-Germans before and after they were outside of Germany. By this I mean that the vast majority of Africans left Germany prior to 1933, returning either back to Africa (primarily Cameroon) or heading to France. As yet, no research has been carried out into this pre- and post-German experience. Thus, the aim is to investigate their (Afro-Germans) relations (political and social) with other Africans and migrants from overseas, their continuing contacts with their families and associates in Africa, and their careers in (principally) France and Cameroon after leaving Germany.


Taking the form of a biography of a generation, the project aims to relate the collective and individual experience through the utilisation of textual studies to focus on the relationship between the material conditions in which the Africans and those of African descent found themselves, their politics and identity formation. As a piece of empirical historical research concerning a group of relatively obscure individuals (over 250 have been identified by name) the reconstruction of life-histories and networks requires that a range of scattered sources be sifted and disparate data combined. Preliminary archival research has been carried out in the Bundesarchiv, Berlin and the state archives in Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen. Equally, a considerable amount of unused archival material and, in particular, local history sources have been collected. The nature of the sources, many of which stem from governmental and public agencies such as police reports and prosecution files, frame the subjects in a particular manner, foregrounding themes such as criminality and dependency. In light of this, techniques of deconstruction and reading against the grain are required. Such a project represents an important case study of the history of Afro-Germans and the Black Diaspora as well as providing an insight into the migrant experience and the construction of modern forms of identity and categories of identification. This builds upon research carried out within the context of Black Studies such as Paul Gilroy’s key work on double (multiple) consciousness, the nature of the Black experience of modernity and the associated development of new forms of culture and identity. Whilst all the workshops sound intriguing, I would be particularly interested in the first, second and fifth workshops.

Suggested Questions

  • What role did the Comintern play in organising Africans politically and establishing political networks prior to World War II ? i.e., – the influence of the Comintern in the creation of groups such as the ‘Liga zur Verteidigung der Negerrasse’ in Berlin and the ‘Ligue de défense de la race nègre’ in Paris.

  • What linkage/contact was there between touring Afro-American artists and more permanently based Africans from the colonies within Europe during the wars and how did their European experiences differ?

  • How did the European experiences of members of the African Diaspora influence the African independence movements?

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