“Since We are Germans, We Demand Equality”: Black Germans’ Quest(s) for Full Citizenship (1884 – 1921)

In this analytical piece, Jessica Varela dives into the history of black Germany in their quest for full citizenship from the late nineteenth century until 1921.

Summer School

This article is an output of the International Summer School for Young Researchers “Citizenship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe” which took place in Košice, Slovakia, in September 2023 and was organised by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung offices in Prague and Warsaw, Leipzig University and the University of Rzeszów.

As a 2023 survey by the EU reports, anti-Black racism has risen across the continent, with Austria and Germany ranking among the most discriminatory states. [1] In this context, recovering how Black migrants and Europeans of colour have actively contested their exclusion from full citizenship is fundamental to building a different – and better – future. In the German case, scholars are unearthing how Black Germans have individually and collectively organized to acquire full citizenship since the late nineteenth century. However, their efforts to challenge “normative” German history and citizenship were unacknowledged by German civil society until roughly the 1980s. Why did these communities “disappear” from public discourses about Germany and German citizenship until the latter half of the twentieth century? More importantly, what can Black Germans’ early activism teach us about the inequalities of German citizenship laws before the Weimar years?

The First Generation:  Black Colonial Subjects (1884 – 1914)

Germany is not traditionally remembered for its colonial past. However, after what became known as the “Scramble for Africa,” by 1885 it possessed the African territories of Togo, German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), East Africa (now Tanzania), and Cameroon (a German protectorate since 1884). Mobility between German colonies and the metropole took place and happened frequently for various reasons, as academic publications demonstrate. Regarding African migration to Germany, some of the reasons for such travel included professional training, religious missions, and educational/vocational opportunities, as scholars Robbie Aitken and Eve Rosenhaft clarify in their comprehensive historical research, Black Germany The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884–1960. [2] Through rigorous archival research, Aitken and Rosenhaft found that thousands of African children, adults and families moved to Germany from Cameroon, Togo, East Africa and, in smaller numbers, Southwest Africa. However, German representatives did not intend for African peoples from the colonies to become German permanent residents and considered that their presence should be only temporary.

The assumption that foreigners should eventually leave, even those from German colonies, is not entirely new within the history of German citizenship, as scholar Eli Nathans clarifies in the excellent The Politics of Citizenship in Germany: Ethnicity, Utility and Nationalism. [3] However, what is unique about the black German case is that it sheds light on how intimately citizenship and migration policy have been tied to border control technology since the late 19th century. For example, in 1893, Cameroonians interested in traveling to Germany were required to ask for the Governor’s permission to go, and on 15 October 15 1910 a new decree limited their length of stay away from the protectorate. The same decree determined that Cameroonians must apply for a “Native Passport (Eingeborenen-Reisepaß),” which contained the expected dates of travel and return, ensuring the natives would “go back home”. [2] As Aitken and Rosenhaft note, even once settled in Germany, this first generation of Africans and their German-born children were not considered German citizens but colonial subjects. In other words, they were subject to German sovereignty but lacked citizenship rights and were not “legal subjects in either colonial or metropolitan jurisdictions.” This lack of legal subjectivity meant that African colonial subjects still needed to be naturalized to receive full citizenship in Germany. [2]

In the German colonies, naturalization required that natives proved they had “a level of ‘civilisation’ equivalent to that of a European.” [2] Meanwhile, in Germany, the naturalization process was the same for natives of the colonies and foreigners, which under the constitution of 1871 meant applying for citizenship in one of the federal states. One of the few African migrants to successfully go through that process in Germany was Mandenga Diek, naturalized in 1896. [2] He would later represent other African colonial subjects while negotiating with German institutions, since he was a legal subject. Diek’s case is emblematic of how naturalization would become significantly more bureaucratic after the 1913 German Imperial and State Citizenship Law (also known as the Nationality Act). [4] That law determined that “a German is one who has citizenship in a Federal State” and to be naturalized in a Federal State, applications needed to be reviewed by all other federal states even after being approved by the applicant’s local and regional authorities. [4] On the other hand, the 1913 Act asserted that natives from the German colonies “may be granted” direct imperial citizenship upon request, but this still meant they lacked the status of a legal subject. [4]

Most German colonial subjects, however, did not need to apply for citizenship if they wanted to remain in Germany, excluding Cameroonians who arrived after 1910 since they held passports with an expiry date. Aitken and Rosenhaft note that this first generation of Black Germans created a small but strong network that mutually supported each other in formal and informal ways prior to the Great War. Formally, collective cases of legal representation amongst community members took place, especially to ask for official documents. Informally, Black Germans in big cities socialized through institutions such as schools and churches, in addition to hosting gatherings and events in each other’s homes. Nonetheless, in the eyes of the general public this small population was generally understood as being foreigners from elsewhere, an understanding that would haunt black Germans until the 1980s, as several publications attest. It is no surprise, then, that their citizenship status– as well as that of their German-born children – was about to change during (and due to) the Great War.

Resistance Amid Unrest (1914 – 1919)

Archival evidence shows that the outbreak of the Great War put migration between Germany and its protectorates on hold. Black African children and adults in Germany had to stay put for the foreseeable future. Aitken and Rosenhaft note that this unstable political scenario brought African colonial subjects closer together as they allied to protect each other, creating networks that would legally and discursively fight for their rights.

Informally, religious networks such as the Basel evangelical mission acted as a bridge during wartime by exchanging correspondence between African colonial subjects in Germany and their families in the African continent. Meanwhile, former colonial subjects continued to live in bigger cities, such as Berlin and Hamburg, sometimes sharing accommodation to split living costs. Toward the end of the war, in 1918, Black African men created the African Welfare Association in Hamburg, a mutual aid association that helped people of African descent find jobs. [5] Another important form of political action was a series of petitions sent to the Reich Colonial Minister, the National Assembly in Weimar, and the Reich Colonial Ministry in 1919. [6] Spearheaded by Martin Dibobe, these petitions drew upon colonial rhetoric to argue that former German protectorates should not become British or French. Somewhat controversially, the petitions argued that the former protectorates should still belong to Germany by invoking the Treaty of 1884 and pledging alliance to the new German state so long as it “acted humanely” and granted the natives “autonomy”.[2] The petitions did not amount to much more than an acknowledgment that the Colonial Ministry was aware of these demands, with a heavily edited version of one of the petitions published later.

It is more interesting to contextualize how Black Germans argued for full citizenship by examining some of the demands they made. The most radical version of the petitions sent was the last one, which contained 32 demands to be met in exchange for “Africans’ continued allegiance to Germany”.[2] Apart from general points that concerned the state, the law, and the economy within the realm of colonial rule, the 18 signatories of the last petition also shared an understanding of political participation that challenged how normative German institutions functioned at the time. For instance, the signatories asked for a permanent representative “of [the] race in the Reichstag”, for the police and its formations in the colonies to include natives, for the legitimacy of marriages between “natives and whites” to be recognized, and for guarantees that natives could “emigrate from the colony to the metropole”. [2] More importantly, petitioners demanded equality [with Germans] since they were Germans, even if in “public [they were] always described as foreigners”. [2] The signatories further requested that the government release a public statement clarifying their Germanness. This demand opposed Black Germans’ “alien” status at the level of politics and language. In one move, the petitioners pronounced themselves legitimate German citizens, rejecting the premise of “alien” citizenship while simultaneously opposing anti-Blackness by refusing to be publicly described as “foreigners”. In other words, the petitioners’ rejection of their social and political alienation demanded full citizenship while combating anti-Black racism.

If on the one hand, the forms of political organization exemplified above demonstrate that Black Germans, even when depleted of resources, stood their ground as citizens worthy of dignity, on the other hand, the end of the Great War meant the future looked bleak. The socio-political atmosphere was one of uncertainty and precarity. Black Germans who wished to see family members in the former German protectorates risked not being able to return to Germany, considering that carrying a passport and/or Personalauweis became mandatory for anyone traveling to or from Germany in 1916.[2] Aitken and Rosenhaft define a Personalauweis as “new identity papers that would be valid for travel for anybody unable to acquire a valid passport […] This was the document that German colonial subjects and […] former colonials would need to carry, as long as they possessed neither German nationality nor the nationality of any other state empowered to issue passports. A Personalausweis, like a passport, could be endorsed for travel only within the Reich, apparently at the discretion of the issuing authority. It had to be renewed regularly, at a passport office operated by the local police authorities in Germany or a consular office abroad, and a fee was charged on each occasion.”[2] Moreover, after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, German protectorates came under French and British sovereignty, but the process of transference among the three states proved lengthy and complicated.

“Just Like Every Other German”:  Citizenship and Political Subjecthood (1919 – 1921)

By 1919, Black Germans who had neither naturalized nor sought to receive official documents had a hard time finding employment and accommodation, being further excluded from welfare benefits. Some Black Germans with official documents asked for repatriation or temporary passports from the French or British governments; others asked to be naturalized but faced difficulties due to the 1913 Nationality Law, which demanded all other federal states review such applications. Moreover, the law stated that women with German citizenship would lose their German citizenshipif they married a foreigner, and the couple’s children would have the father's nationality. For instance, in 1919, a Black German citizen, Erika Mandega Diek, became effectively stateless after marrying a man from Togo who was not naturalized. [2] Comparatively, if a man with German citizenship married a foreigner, he would retain his citizenship and his child would be German. [4]

Another set of difficulties was faced by Black Germans after the French deployment of Black soldiers in the Rhineland when, in April 1920, racial tensions escalated after French Moroccan soldiers shot nine civilians in Frankfurt with some casualties. This shooting, according to scholar Tina Campt, “marked the beginning of an international outcry against the alleged sexual misconduct of Black troops in Germany”. [7] These events became known as the (Black) Horror on the Rhine or the Black Shame. Scholar Julia Roos refers to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” as “one of the most important propaganda efforts of the Weimar period”. [8] The mobilization was effective because it tied together racist discourses about citizenship, gender, sexuality and miscegenation. Explaining how gender was instrumentalized, scholar Iris Wigger identifies that Black African men were villainized as hypersexual beasts, whereas white German women became the battlefield for the defence of the honour of the white race itself. [9] The campaign increased instances of verbal and physical violence against Black people and mixed-race couples in Germany. It is also credited for the increased policing of Black Germans, who were at a higher risk of having official documents revoked or not renewed them, as was Thoy Esomber’s case, who had his passport confiscated in 1925 after the Munich police assumed “that the original decision to certify his German nationality must have been an error”. [2]

Despite the dire circumstances Black Germans faced from 1884 until 1921, they continued to insist on positioning themselves as German citizens and political subjects. Their individual and collective acts of resistance did not stop after 1920, but became even more attuned to the activism of other Black communities in France and the U.S. [10] In the late 1920s, Black Germans would create and participate in associations that were openly anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist. [11,12] Of course, the rise of National Socialism in 1933 crushed all forms of organization which Black Germans had established. It is well-documented that the Nazi regime systematically targeted those with “alien blood”, including Jewish, Roma-Sinti, and Black populations. By the collapse of the regime, these communities of colour had been scattered and reduced. This is one  reason why their histories of resistance, community building, and activism disappeared from public discourses about and in Germany. Nonetheless, post-1945, a new generation of Black Germans was born, and this generation would eventually recover the histories of the first generation, in addition to coining the term “Afro-German”. [13] Likewise, Black students and workers from the African continent were still migrating to both East and West Germany, as more evidence demonstrates. [14]

In this context, remembering Black Germans’ quests for full citizenship does shed light on how German citizenship laws were arbitrarily interpreted and applied even before the Weimar years. Their case further exposes how gendered inequalities explicitly embedded in the 1913 Act made full citizenship considerably more inaccessible for women. Black Germans’ quests for full citizenship until 1921 are perhaps best summarized through Louis Brody’s 1921 article titled “The German Negroes and the ‘Black Shame’”. [15] In it, Brody, a member of the African Welfare Association, denounced the increased hostility against Black Germans. Brody reminded white Germans that they too held colonies in the African continent, and that Black Germans were suffering “just like every other German” in the aftermath of the Great War. [15]


The views and conclusions expressed in the text represent the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. 


[1]          “Shameful” rise in anti-black racism - EU survey, BBC News (2023). https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-67217771 (accessed November 2, 2023).

[2]          R.J. Aitken, M.E. Rosenhaft, Black Germany the making and unmaking of a diaspora community, 1884-1960, Cambridge University Press, London, UK, 2013.

[3]          E. Nathans, The politics of citizenship in Germany : ethnicity, utility and nationalism, Oxford ; New York : Berg, 2004. http://archive.org/details/politicsofcitize0000nath (accessed November 1, 2023).

[4]          German Imperial and State Citizenship Law. July 22, 1913, The American Journal of International Law 8 (1914) 217–227. https://doi.org/10.2307/2212311.

[5]          Founding an African self-help association (1918), Black Central Europe (2016). https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1914-1945/founding-a-african-sel… (accessed October 31, 2023).

[6]          Petitionen an die Deutschen Behörden (1919), Black Central Europe (2020). https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1914-1945/petitionen-an-die-deut… (accessed November 1, 2023).

[7]          Tina. Campt, Other Germans : Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich., (2009). http://qut.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=3414477.

[8]          J. Roos, Nationalism, Racism and Propaganda in Early Weimar Germany: Contradictions in the Campaign against the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine,’ German History 30 (2012) 45–74. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerhis/ghr124.

[9]          I. Wigger, Race, Gender, Nation, Class: The Social Construction of the ‘Black Shame,’ in: I. Wigger (Ed.), The “Black Horror on the Rhine”: Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender and Class in 1920s Germany, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London, 2017: pp. 113–305. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-31861-9_3.

[10]       The Negro Worker comments on terror in Germany (1933), Black Central Europe (2015). https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1914-1945/the-negro-worker-comme… (accessed October 31, 2023).

[11]       The German section of the League for the Defense of the Negro Race (1929), Black Central Europe (2016). https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1914-1945/the-german-section-of-… (accessed October 31, 2023).

[12]       The first international conference of negro workers in Hamburg (1930), Black Central Europe (2016). https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1914-1945/the-first-internationa… (accessed October 31, 2023).

[13]       May. Opitz Adams, Anne V.,., Showing Our Colors : Afro-German Women Speak Out, Univ. Massachusetts P., 1992.

[14]       M.C. Schenck, Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany, Springer International Publishing, Cham, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-06776-1.

[15]       Louis Brody on Black Germans and the “Black Shame” (1921), Black Central Europe (2018). https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1914-1945/louis-brody-on-black-g… (accessed October 31, 2023).





This article first appeared here: cz.boell.org