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POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- Since 1945, almost three million African American soldiers have served tours of duty in Germany, including Colin Powell (in 1958), who later wrote in his memoir that, "[For] black GIs, especially those out of the South, [post-World War II] Germany was a breath of freedom -- they could go where they wanted, eat what they wanted, date whom they wanted, just like other people." Yet the social impact in both Germany and the U.S. from the deployment of these soldiers, particularly in relation to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, has only recently begun to be examined by scholars.
The first of these scholars was Vassar history professor Maria Höhn, beginning with her 2002 book GIs and Frauleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany, and Höhn has now joined forces with colleague Martin Klimke of the German Historical Institute (Washington, DC) and Heidelberg University. In fact earlier this year the NAACP honored Höhn's and Klimke's newest project -- "The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs and Germany" -- an Internet-based research archive uncovering the role black GIs played in advancing the cause of civil rights in the U.S., as well as in sparking civil rights debates in Germany.
As Hohn and Klimke continue to investigate this revealing and overlooked piece of history, they are about to convene at Vassar the five-day international conference "African American Civil Rights and Germany in the Twentieth Century" (September 30-October 4), a gathering of nearly 40 scholars, veterans, activists, and students, many of whom have lived and served in post-World War II Germany.
And in conjunction with the conference, dozens of related historical photographs and other archival materials from Höhn's and Klimke's online archive will be exhibited October 1-29 at Vassar's James W. Palmer Gallery. Included will be never-before-seen memorabilia from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s largely forgotten 1964 trip to East and West Berlin. Only for this exhibit, conference participant Roland Stolte from Berlin's St. Mary's Church will bring to Vassar such items as the guest book King signed at the church, recordings of the sermon King delivered there, as well as photos of him out and about in East Berlin.
"Americans generally don't think about the places where they send their military, so the stories get lost about the impact of U.S. troops on other societies, and about how the soldiers in turn were affected by their experiences abroad. Sharing their experiences and preserving their encounters as part of the larger history of America and Germany has been the major goal of our work," said Höhn, who herself grew up during the 1960s and 70s in West Germany's Rhineland-Palatine region, where millions of U.S. soldiers have been based since WWII.
Since authoring her book GIs and Frauleins, Höhn has gone on to write extensively about the social impact of African American soldiers serving in Germany, and more broadly of the U.S. military overseas. Among her subsequent collaborations with historian Martin Klimke, their project "The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany" became the first scholarly work to receive the NAACP's annual Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award, given since 1994 by the organization's Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Awards Program. Klimke and Höhn are also the co-authors of the forthcoming book "From Dubois to Obama: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany," a history of the intersection of African American soldiers, activists, and intellectuals in Germany in the 20th century (due in 2010 from Palgrave MacMillan, with a German version also due out in 2010 from VBB).
ABOUT THE CONFERENCE
Jointly organized by the German Historical Institute (Washington, DC) and Vassar College, and supported by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), the upcoming conference "African American Civil Rights and Germany in the Twentieth Century" will feature nearly 40 participants from Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and the U.S. Presentations and discussions will include:
-- "Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: A Black Sergeant Remembers Buchenwald," with WWII veteran Leon Bass, who participated in the liberation of the concentration camp (9/31).
-- "Tracing an Untold History: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Visit to Cold War Berlin in 1964," including panelists Roland Stolte from the Marienkierche (St. Mary's Church) where King spoke, and Alcyone Scott (Midland Lutheran College, Nebraska), one of King's translators during the trip (10/1).
-- "African Americans, Nazi Germany, and the Struggle for Human Rights," with Christina Oppel of the University of Munster (10/2)
-- "Creating a New Home: Black Soldiers and German Women in Postwar America," with Daniel Lee of the University of California-Berkeley (10/3).
-- " Between Critical Theory and Civil Rights: A Sixties Journey from Boston to Frankfurt to San Diego," the keynote address by Angela Davis, professor emerita (University of California-Santa Cruz) and political activist who studied in Germany from 1960-1962 (10/2).
Overall the conference will consist of seven sections, ranging from "Black Soldiers, Germans, and World War II" to "Debating Civil Rights on Both Sides of the Atlantic" to "Bringing the Cold War Home" to "Jazz and Civil Rights in a Divided Germany," the latter concluding with a piano performance by Vassar music professor Brian Mann.
Conference presenters and panelists will include: Debra Tanner Abell (Boston, daughter of a German mother and an African American father stationed in Germany); Kenneth Barkin (University of California- Riverside); Manfred Berg (University of Heidelberg); Sabine Broeck (University of Bremen); James Danky (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Eve Dunbar (Vassar College); Moritz Ege (Humbold University, Berlin); Katharine Gerund (Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf); Gerald Horne (Houston University); Andrew Hurley (University of Melbourne); Helma Kaldewey (Tulane University); Christine Knauer (University of Tübingen); Daniel Lee (University of California-Berkeley); Brian Mann (Vassar College); Mia Mask (Vassar College); Frank Mehring (Free University of Berlin); Quincy Mills (Vassar College); Maggi Morehouse (University of South Carolina-Aiken); Eli Nathans (University of Western Ontario); Christina Oppel (University of Münster); Anke Orlepp (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC); Peggy Piesche (Vassar College); Dan Puckett (Troy University); Matthias Reiss (University of Exeter); Robert Sackett (University of Colorado); Christian Schmidt-Rost (Free University of Berlin); Alcyone Scott (Midland Lutheran College); Tyrone Simpson (Vassar College); Laura Stapane (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC); Roland Stolte (Marienkierche/St. Mary's Church, Berlin); Penny von Eschen (University of Michigan); Harriet Washington (University of Rochester); Judith Weisenfeld (Princeton University); and KD Wolff (Frankfurt, editor of Rotern Stern and Stomfeld Verlage, former head of Students for a Democratic Society and founder of the Black Panther Solidarity Committee).
ABOUT THE COMPANION EXHIBIT
Curated by Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke, the traveling exhibit of photos and other archival objects from their honored multimedia project "The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany" will be on view at Vassar's James W. Palmer Gallery from Thursday, October 1, through Thursday, October 29. The gallery is open Monday- Friday from 11:00am-6:00pm, and Saturdays 12:00-6:00pm.
The opening gallery reception will be at 6:30pm on October 1, immediately preceded at 5:30pm by the panel discussion "Tracing an Untold History: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Visit to Cold War Berlin in 1964," in the college's Villard Room. Both the Palmer Gallery and the Villard Room are located in the College Center section of Vassar's Main Building.
The exhibit received wide praise from both sides of the Atlantic during its initial showing November 2008-January 2009 at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Its German tour began May 29, 2009 at the Ramstein Air Base Documentary & Exhibition Center (housed at the headquarters of U.S. Air Forces in Europe), and will continue through 2010 at additional sites throughout Germany. [After Vassar, further U.S. showings of the exhibit will shortly be confirmed.]
In addition to 50 historical photographs, and related archival materials, the exhibit will feature memorabilia of Dr. King's 1964 visit to East and West Berlin from the collection of St. Mary's Church (Marienkirche) in the former East Berlin. The exhibition is organized around six historical themes: "From WWI to WWII"; "Occupation and Fraternization"; "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Germany"; "Black Power Solidarity"; "Angela Davis in East and West Germany"; and "The GI Movement." The combined works illuminate how Germany emerged as a critical point of reference in African American demands for an end to segregation and for equal rights.
In particular, the combined works illustrate how Germany emerged as a critical point of reference in African-American demands for an end to segregation and for equal rights. From as early as 1933, African American civil rights activists used white America's condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow racism at home and to argue that "separate" will never be "equal", according to Maria Höhn.
"America's entry into the war allowed these activists to step up their rhetoric significantly and to call for an end to segregation. The defeat of Nazi Germany and the participation of African American GIs in the military occupation only strengthened their determination," explained Höhn. "Drawing on the experience of soldiers stationed in Germany, these activists claimed that it was in post-Nazi Germany that black GIs found the equality and democracy denied them in their own country."
Once the civil rights movement gained momentum in the late 1950s, black GIs deployed overseas became crucial actors in the struggle. By 1960, sit-ins to integrate lunch counters were taking place not only in Greensboro, NC, but also in establishments on and around U.S. military bases in Germany. Because military deployments to Germany usually lasted 2 to 3 years, African-American GIs were able to establish contacts and often friendships within neighboring German communities.
Beginning in the early 1960s, collaboration began between black GIs and German student activists in places like Frankfurt and Berlin to support demands for civil rights in the United States. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Berlin in 1964, the rise of the Black Power movement, and Angela Davis's solidarity campaigns in both East and West Germany in the early 1970s, African American GIs only intensified their collaboration with German student activists to fight racism both in the U.S. military and in German communities.
MORE ABOUT MARIA höhn AND MARTIN KLIMKE
Maria Höhn is a scholar of the American military presence in Germany, and her seminal book GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany was the first ever to address the experience of black U.S. soldiers in postwar Germany (University of North Carolina Press, 2002, also in German from Verlag Berlin Brandenburg, 2008). She joined the Vassar faculty in 1996, and teaches classes in history, as well as in the colleges' multidisciplinary programs in American Culture and Jewish Studies. Höhn has published numerous articles in both the United States and Germany on the topics of Americanization, German gender politics after the war, German attitudes toward race and anti-Semitism in the postwar years, and the interaction of German and American forms of racism.
Martin Klimke is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, and at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) at Heidelberg University in Germany. He is the co-editor of the publication series Protest, Culture and Society (Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford) and, among others, 1968 in Europe: A History of Protest and Activism, 1956-77 (New York/London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Since 2006 he has been the director and coordinator of the international research network "European Protest Movements Since 1945" supported by the European Union. A widely published historian on protest movements, his latest book is The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and the United States in the Global Sixties (Princeton University Press, 2009).
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