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New Article by
Film “The West Point -
Vassar College Initiative“
A Breath of Freedom
By Maria Höhn &
Palgrave Macmillan October 2010
Paul Robeson (1898–1976) was an internationally renowned actor, singer, intellectual, and activist. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, Robeson was among the first African Americans to enroll at Rutgers University, where he graduated valedictorian of his class and an All-American football player. He received a degree from Columbia Law School in 1923 but decided on a career as a singer and actor, playing, for example, Shakespeare’s Othello in London and later in New York.
By the 1930s, Robeson had become a world-famous entertainer, using his renown to speak out relentlessly against fascism, racism, and imperialism. His support for the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, his activism on behalf of anti-colonialism and African liberation movements, as well as his open sympathy for the Soviet Union and its people rendered Robeson a target for anti-communist sentiments in the USA.
During the McCarthy era, the U.S. government revoked Robeson’s passport, precluding any further travels from 1950 on. With his passport restored in 1958, Robeson spent the next five years abroad, starring in Shakespeare plays at Stratford-on-Avon, performing throughout Europe, and being showered with awards and recognitions worldwide. His health declining, Robeson returned to the United States, where he passed away in 1976.
Paul Robeson was a recurrent guest in East Germany during the 1950s and 1960s, where he was a widely popular entertainer and revered for his political activism. When his passport was revoked, East Germany honored Robeson with a concert in absentia for his sixtieth birthday on April 9, 1958, at the Friedrichstadt-Palast in East Berlin.
After resuming his travels, Robeson visited East Berlin in October 1960, where he was regaled with admiration, awards, and honors. He gave several concerts, cheered on by thousands of people, and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Humboldt University. During the festivities, Robeson, overlooking a crowd of East Germans on Unter den Linden (a boulevard in the center of Berlin), sang “John Brown’s Body” and “Ol’ Man River” flanked by East German professors.
He also received the German Peace Medal by the German Peace Council, the “Großer Stern der Völkerfreundschaft” [Great Star of Friendship among the Peoples] by East German communist party leader Walter Ulbricht, and he became a corresponding member of the German Academy of Arts. In 1983, he appeared on an East German stamp with the inscription “For Peace Against Racism, Paul Robeson 1898–1976.”
- Foner, Philip Sheldon ed.: Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918–1974 (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978).
- Robeson, Paul: Here I Stand (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).
- Robeson Jr., Paul: The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939–1976 (Hoboken: Wiley, 2010).
- Friedensrat der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik: Days with Paul Robeson (Berlin: Deutscher Friedensrat, 1961).
- Höhn, Maria and Martin Klimke: A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), chapter 7.
- Robeson, Paul: Mein Lied – meine Waffe, transl. Georg Friedrich Alexander (Berlin: Kongress-Verlag, 1958).