Although the idea and research for this digital archive started almost five years ago, it could not have come at a better moment. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States represents a historic turning point, not only for the U.S., but also for the many millions of people that watched this election from all four corners of the world. As the British historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash observed the weekend before November 4 in the New York Review of Books, “This is our election. The world’s election. Our future depends on it, and we live it as intensely as Americans do. All we lack is the vote.”
If nothing else, the recent election underscored once more the many ways in which events in this country, for better or worse, can affect the hearts and minds of people across the globe. In a very similar way, the civil rights movement in the United States during the late fifties and, in particular, the early sixties, received the worldwide attention. With its spectacular nature and the imagery of civil rights actions, as well as its moral implications set in the propaganda battles of the Cold War, it transcended national borders and was formative for a variety of people outside the U.S. The iconography and content of the African-American struggle also seized the attention of many Germans, East and West. Its leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were very much aware of this global impact, which they used as leverage in their struggle to bring about domestic reform.
Few people saw this interconnectedness and the global dimension of American history clearer than Dr. King. When invited to Oslo in December 1964 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, King circled around themes that were of global significance, then and now: racial injustice, poverty, and war. In a world threatened by nuclear extinction and the Cold War confrontation between East and West, Dr. King stressed that, “In one sense, the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development.” King argued that all human beings were tied together in a “worldwide fellowship” and that “However deeply American Negroes are caught in the struggle to be at last at home in our homeland of the United States, we cannot ignore the larger world house in which we are also dwellers.”
Dr. King’s visit to Germany and the city of Berlin three months before had undoubtedly sharpened this belief. Invited by Mayor Willy Brandt to come to the city which had only one year before prepared a triumphant welcome for President John F. Kennedy, King completed a whirlwind tour in his only two and a half days in Berlin. Most importantly though, King used the opportunity to extend his spiritual message of brotherhood to the situation of Berlin in his sermon at the Waldbühne, arguing that although the city “stands as a symbol of the division of men on the face of the earth,” it was clear that “on either side of the wall are god’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”
King even went a step further and compared the civil rights struggle in the U.S. to the political struggle of the divided city:
“Here in Berlin, one cannot help being aware that you are the hub around which turns the wheel of history. For just as we are proving to be the testing ground of races living together in spite of their differences, you are testing the possibility of co-existence for the two ideologies which now compete for world dominance. If ever there were a people who should be constantly sensitive to their destiny, the people of Berlin, East and West, should be they.”
Regrettably, historical memory has largely ignored King’s visit to Cold War Berlin at the invitation of Willy Brandt. Even when Barack Obama was welcomed by more than 200,000 enthusiastic Berliners this summer, only very few people noted this historical connection. This lack of tradition is particularly astonishing given the role the civil rights movement and Dr. King played in Obama’s campaign rhetoric—not only as mere references, but also in terms of signature phrases such as “the fierce urgency of now.”
In fact, Obamas’s speech in Berlin reads like a response to Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture on the “world house” from the vantage point of the twenty-first century. Obama not only presented himself as “a fellow citizen of the world,” but employed the same transatlantic connection and global vision when he proclaimed:
“People of the world – look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one. […] While the 20th century taught us that we share a common destiny, the 21st has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.”
The story of our research project and this digital archive is thus a story of this entanglement and shared destinies on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the twentieth century. By tracing the encounter between African Americans and Germany, we seek to expand the geographical boundaries of the civil rights movement and are trying to illustrate how America’s struggle for democracy reverberated across the globe. Since American forces occupied Germany in 1945, almost 3 million African American soldiers, their families and civilian employees of the U.S. Department of Defense have lived and worked in the country.
For many African Americans, the encounter with Germany left a deep impression. Remembering his tour of duty in West Germany as a young officer in the U.S. Army, the later general and Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked in his memoirs that for black soldiers, “but especially those out of the South, Germany was a breath of freedom. [They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date whom they wanted, just like other people.”
This website will focus, among other things, on this “breath of freedom” and the interactions between African-American civil rights activists and Germans, East and West.
Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke