It’s 1933 and Adolf Hitler’s Nazis have already seized control of Germany. An impressionable seven-year-old boy gets his babysitter to sew a badge on to his sweater. The badge shows the Nazis’ instantly recognizable symbol, the swastika. But what makes this seemingly trivial incident astonishing is that the boy is both German and black.
The other thing that makes the tale of Hans Massaquoi’s sweater swastika more than a forgotten moment in history was the fact that a teacher recorded it on camera. Indeed, that same evening, disapproving of this naive display of political affiliation, Massaquoi’s mother had removed the badge.
Years later, in a 2001 interview with CNN, Massaquoi remembered that, “My babysitter was an old lady who was politically, totally unsophisticated. And of course when my teacher saw it, she saw the contradiction. She happened to have a camera, and she took this picture.”
So how did this dark-skinned little boy end up living in 1930s Germany of all places? Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi took his first breaths in Hamburg in January 1926. His African father, Al-Haj, was Liberian, and of Vai ethnicity. His mother, Bertha Baetz, was a white German who worked as a nurse.
Hans’ father was studying law in the Irish capital, Dublin, and was absent for prolonged periods during his son’s childhood. His grandfather, Momulu Massaquoi, was Liberia’s consul general in Germany, the first African to hold such a rank anywhere in Europe. Momulu had formerly been a tribal king in Liberia.
Hans spent his early years living at his grandfather’s home. In an essay published in 2000 by the Library of Congress and written by Audrey Fischer entitled Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, Massaquoi recalled that, “I associated black skin with superiority, since our servants were white. My grandfather was ‘the man.’”
His parents never got wed, and Hans was little more than a baby when his father and grandfather went back to Liberia in 1929. Massaquoi remained in Germany with his mother, who was now effectively a single parent struggling to get by on a nurse’s salary.
After the luxury of his grandfather’s residence, Massaquoi now found himself living in an apartment with no hot water. In her Library of Congress essay, Fischer quoted Massaquoi’s memories of being different, “It was a constant problem. I was always pointed at because of my exotic looks. I just wanted to be like everyone else,” he remembered.
Black or mixed race people were rare in Germany when Massaquoi was a child. As far as he knew, he was the only mixed race child in the whole of Hamburg. In later years, Massaquoi said he’d felt accepted by his peers at school and was as excited as many of them were by the apparent glamour of Nazi regalia and ceremony.
But Adolf Hitler, writing in his now-notorious 1925 anti-Semitic autobiography Mein Kampf, left no room for doubt about his feelings towards black Africans. His racist rants in the work were triggered in part by the fact that some black French colonial troops had been stationed in the occupied Rhineland after World War One.
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate.” The Nazi leader’s views were undoubtedly evil, but he couldn’t be accused of inconsistency in his hatred of non-Aryans.
And the young Massaquoi soon came up against Nazi racism. At his school, a contest was announced. The winning class would be the first to have every pupil becoming a member of an organization called the Deutsches Jungvolk, part of the Hitler Youth.
Massaquoi’s naive enthusiasm meant that he was desperate to join. He explained the attraction of the Nazi’s youth movement to CNN in 2001. “The Hitler Youth was an organization that had the boys marching through the streets, blowing trumpets and fanfares and beating drums and walking around with flags waving,” he said.
To keep a track of who had joined the youth group and who had not, Massaquoi’s class tutor created a chart on the blackboard. One by one, all of Massaquoi’s classmates got recorded as having enlisted. But Massaquoi’s name would never join those of his fellow pupils.
The Nuremberg Laws – Nazi racial purity legislation – were introduced in 1935, meaning that Massaquoi was now classed as “non-Aryan.” It was absolutely clear that he was ineligible for the Hitler Youth. In his 2002 autobiography Destined to Witness, Massaquoi recalled protesting, “But I am German… my mother says I’m German just like anybody else.” His pleas fell on deaf ears.
So it was now clear to Massaquoi that he did not have the status of his white schoolmates – he was even barred from his neighborhood playground. But there was one event that cheered the young boy. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, giving the lie to the Nazis’ white superiority narrative.
Although he did well at school, Massaquoi’s non-Aryan status meant he was not allowed to study for any of the recognized skilled professions. Instead he had to become an apprentice machinist. Massaquoi was also forbidden from having relations with white women. Nevertheless, he did have a white girlfriend. Spotted with her one night by a Nazi policeman, the youth had a lucky escape when he was vouched for by another officer who knew him.
As World War Two ground on, Massaquoi even tried to enlist in the German army as the country collapsed around him. This was in search of a square meal as much as anything, but in any case his application was refused. When his home city of Hamburg was reduced to rubble by bombing, Massaquoi and his mom hid out in a basement in the devastated city.
After the war ended, Massaquoi’s father managed to get him to Liberia in 1948. In 1950, he emigrated to the U.S. There he served in the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper in Korea and later took American citizenship. He studied journalism at the University of Illinois, then studied for a masters degree at Northwestern University. A successful career in journalism culminated in him becoming editor-manager at Ebony magazine.
It had been a long journey from the streets of Hitler’s Germany to a pinnacle of American journalism. Hans Massaquoi died on his 87th birthday in 2013. The measure of the man is clear from his words to CNN in 2001, “Racism is a universal thing, and I think all people – all decent people in the world – have to stay extra-vigilant to make sure the kind of excesses that happened in Nazi Germany will not re-occur.”