Photo: Screenshot from Maischberger – Die Woche.
The protests beginning with the murder of George Floyd in the United States have spread to other parts of the world, including Germany. Local Black Lives Matter groups and other Black-German organizations protested both what was happening in the US and the racial inequality in Germany all around the country. Despite this, the mainstream discussions focused on the protests in the US. For some, it was such an external matter, they did not see any problems with inviting only White commentators to their TV shows to talk about the situation in the US [Barry and Layne 2020]. In the meantime, a satirical piece on the police force written by Hengameh Yaghoobifarah  has been targeted by the Minister of Interior, Horst Seehofer, who said he was considering suing the author. Mr. Seehofer later declared that there is no need for an investigation of racism within the police because racial profiling is banned in the German police force [DW 2020].
Armanc Yildiz is a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.
This maneuver amid protests is made possible by the mainstream opinions about racism and Whiteness in Germany. That is, these are seen as issues of the US rather than Europe [Wekker 2016], although constantly challenged by activists and scholars. This is especially so in a country like Germany where the constitutive event of Whiteness and race is considered the Holocaust [Karaca 2021], rather than other histories of German colonialism, genocide, slavery, dispossession, and exploitation [Ayata 2016]. The US, on the other hand, is considered “guilty of racism” because of the transatlantic slave trade, even though it was the Europeans who perpetrated it. In this constellation, the geographical distance between the United States and Germany allows for a mental space that absolves Germany of racism and displaces it onto the US. In this post, I aim to focus on the entanglements between the US and Germany that would hopefully contest this constellation.
What generally allows for this displacement of racism is that Anti-Semitism is not considered (the same as) racism and that supposedly, Germany was not involved in the transatlantic slavery. After all, the official German colonialism started in 1884, some 19 years after the abolition of slavery in the US. However, before the unification of Germany in 1871, some of the German kingdoms were involved in transatlantic slave trade. For instance, in 1682, the Prussian Duke Friedrich Wilhelm ordered the foundation of the Brandenburg African Company, mainly to participate in the transatlantic slave trade [Raphael-Hernandez and Wiegmink 2017]. Moreover, German traders were heavily involved in the making of the Atlantic plantation economy; they ran plantations, and oversaw slave ships, albeit under the flags of other colonial empires [Weber 2009]. Slaves were sold to German families and the Roman law was invoked to provide legal status to slavery in the 18th century, so that the slaves bought from other countries would not become free in Germany [Mallinckrodt 2020]. Although the antislavery discourse was eminent at the time of official colonialism, this was only so due to the “humanitarian turn” in colonialism, when the humanitarian discourse was used to justify colonies [Wildenthal 2001]. Despite this, the use of forced labor is known within German colonies [Zimmerer 2008].
The US-Germany entanglements are not limited to the slave trade. German-Americans are the largest ethnic group in the US right now [Economist 2015]. Starting from the 1820s, Germans immigrated to the US on a large scale. German authorities were worried about this after the foundation of Germany. In fact, they tried to limit immigration to the US and instead, tried to encourage Germans to move to colonies, arguing that they would be assimilated to the US culture while they could protect their culture in the colonies [Conrad 2012]. These efforts did not succeed, given the 44 million people with a German ancestry in the US [Economist 2015].
Immigration to the US on such a large scale has very concrete effects on Germany today. Moving to the US and being categorized as White means occupying a privileged position, thus, benefitting from the structures that are based on indigenous genocide, land dispossession, and slave labor [Bhambra 2020]. Most definitely German immigrants have occupied this position. Nevertheless, one could argue that these emigrants have nothing to do with Germany anymore. Yet, considering the 2.8 billion US Dollars sent to Germany in the form of remittances just in the year 2017 [Pew Research Center 2017], it is hard to speak of such a disconnect.
The most present entanglement of Germany and the US in the German public discourse is the occupation of part of Germany by the US in the Second World War. The slippages between liberation and invasion while referring to this history are quite telling to understand the tensions within how even some of the most liberal Germans see the US today: On the one hand, it is seen as a land of freedom; and on the other, it is an imperial force.
Such a positioning, once again, ignores complicities.
The US and its openly race-based immigration legislation have been an inspiration to Adolf Hitler [Whitman 2017]. Even before then, during the official colonization, German authorities had sent researchers to the southern states of the US, and corresponded with diplomats and historians to better understand the racial governance [ibid.]. In the meantime, German anthropologists such as Eugene Fischer were producing racial knowledge which would later make up the basis of eugenics policies [Campt 2010]. The miscegenation laws of the US were also invoked to decide who is properly “Aryan” during the Third Reich [Whitman 2017]. One could argue that the lessons learned from the German colonies [Zimmerer 2011] and the racial governance in the US made up the basis of the Nazi racial ideology. Considering how Germans benefitted from the slave labor of the Jews during the Second World War [Aly 2006; Buggeln 2014], the movement of racial technologies between these two imperial forces becomes more apparent.
As I hoped to do in this post, a closer look at these three hundred years of intimacies between the US and Germany distorts the clean separation between the two countries. The Atlantic, however vast, could not obstruct their mutual histories. Therefore, the US “over there” and Germany “here,” the US “slavery” and Germany’s “Holocaust,” and the US as “racist” and Germany as “post-racial because it came to terms with its history” simply do not hold. As the Black Lives Matter movement has become global, isn’t it time that we talk (more) about the global construction of Whiteness?
I’d like to thank Çiçek İlengiz, Derya Özkaya, and Sophie Schmalenberger for their generous comments on this text.
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