What in the world are you doing here among these Krauts?”
That was a black American soldier in 1945, after the Allied victory, addressing a young man who had always lived “among these Krauts.” As Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi explained, he was born in Hamburg in 1926 to a Liberian father and German mother. More than half a century later, as a naturalized American citizen, Massaquoi would author Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, a remarkable account first published in 1999 and highly relevant in 2020.
“If you were of the opinion that the United States wasn’t nearly as bad as Nazi Germany, how wrong you are,” contends sports commentator Jemele Hill, citing Caste, a “masterpiece” of a book by Isabel Wilkerson. Hill also charged that Nazi Germany “learned their systems of genocide by watching America,” and Nazis “borrowed significantly from American racial laws.” In fact, Hill said, “some Nazi scholars were in America studying racial terror in the South.”
Astonished Americans might wonder if these charges square with Massaquoi’s account.
According to his German grade school teacher, “Hans-Jürgen is a remarkable pupil who has made a good adjustment to school. He is unusually talented in reading, writing, drawing, music, and athletics” and “a born leader who is always willing to help slower classmates.” The trouble was, as a “non-Aryan,” Hans was barred from university and routed into an apprenticeship as a machinist. Still, the remarkable pupil did not let that inhibit his education.
He read James Fennimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, and Robert Louis Stevenson. For modern leftists, most of these are worthless Dead White Males, but for Hans-Jürgen, reading such authors became an “indispensable survival tool” against “constant racist attacks.”
Hans-Jürgen survived because “unlike Jews, blacks were few in number and relegated to low-priority status.” Destined to Witness recalls the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938, when Nazi thugs destroyed more than 1,000 Jewish places of worship, killed 91 Jews, and arrested some 30,000 others.
The German National Socialists hailed their own virtue and blasted Communist evil, but Hans-Jürgen found their propaganda “a distortion of facts.” The truth was, “in their many bloody clashes for dominance in Germany, the Nazis and Commies were virtually indistinguishable. Both were totalitarians, ever ready to brutalize to crush resistance to their respective ideologies.”
The Allies crushed National Socialism and Hans-Jürgen soon decamped for Liberia, where his father held a low opinion of “American Negroes.” For his part, Hans-Jürgen finds the black U.S. embassy staffers “refined, articulate” and college-educated. When a relative secures him a student visa, the remarkable pupil and born leader set off to America on his own.
In Harlem, Hans-Jürgen recalled, “I saw neighborhoods peopled by active working-class folks not much different from those in my old Hamburg neighborhood. The only difference was that everyone—from the mailman to the barber to the police man to the garbage collector to the occasional big shot in a Cadillac convertible—was black.” The German immigrant also found racism, even in the north.
After he is hired at a machine shop, some white workers walk out. Management keeps the German newcomer and tells the walkouts to look for another job. Around the time of the Korean War, Hans-Jürgen joins the 82nd Airborne, where a white paratrooper asks why he has a picture of a white woman on his shelf.
“That woman is my mother,” explains the German immigrant, a skilled boxer who proceeded to knock the racist to the floor. After that, nobody bothered him, and “we black recruits got on well with our white comrades, and many interracial friendships formed.” In a military band, “we and our white buddies were like peas in a pod” and “our new integrated band not only looked like one harmonious ensemble, but it sounded better than either of the two groups had sounded alone.”
After his service, Hans-Jürgen took advantage of the G.I. Bill “which enabled me to earn the college education denied to me in Nazi Germany.” The veteran lands a job with Ebony magazine, where he gets to meet the heroes of his youth, accomplished Americans such as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. And when leaders such as Adlai Stevenson and Sékou Touré show up for an interview, “it seemed to me that coming to America had not been such a bad idea after all.”
If Hans-Jürgen had ever thought America was as bad as Nazi Germany, he never would have showed up in the first place. His mother Bertha also immigrated to America and married a Serbian man the Allies had freed from a POW camp. The couple lived in a Chicago suburb in “exactly the kind of home with a small vegetable garden I used to dream about in Germany, when home ownership was beyond our reach.”
Hans J. Massaquoi passed away in 2013, one year into the second term of America’s first black president. The German immigrant dedicated Destined to Witness to his mother and closed out with one of Bertha’s favorite sayings: “Ende gut, alles gut.”