Racist protests against the occupation of the Rhineland

1919

Germany

Discrimination & Inequity

Following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, formally German territories on the left bank of the Rhine are occupied by French troops, around a third of whom are black recruits from France’s African colonies. German politicians and the German press respond with an openly racist campaign.

The occupation of German territories left of the Rhine was a provision of the Treaty of Versailles. Of the 85,000 French soldiers stationed in the occupied zone, between 25,000 and 30,000 came from colonies in North or West Africa. The presence of black soldiers in the Rhineland was quickly met with massive protest on the German political and public stage. Many political parties demanded the withdrawal of the troops and warned of the “defilement and pollution of the German race”. Then Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert saw in the fact that soldiers from “the lowest of cultures” would presume to “watch over such an intellectually and economically prominent people” a violation of the rules of “European civilization”. The campaign against the so-called “black ignominy on the Rhein”, initiated by politicians and propagated through the national press, met with broad consensus among the population. The colonial soldiers were portrayed as brutal “savages”, inclined to violence and criminality, driven by exaggerated sexual impulses, and set on “contaminating” the “German race”. By stationing African soldiers in the Rheinland, France was accused of violating the “solidarity of the white race.”

These reactions made it clear that Germany understood itself as a white “people’s community” (Volksgemeinshaft), based on the assumed existence of distinct “races” and their hierarchical organization. The campaign thus drew upon social-Darwinistic “race” theory and colonial stereotypes with their roots in the nineteenth century.

Children born to the colonial soldiers during the years of the occupation had to later struggle with racist discrimination (see also: Children of the occupation in the FRG, 1950). In 1933 the first “racial hygienic” studies were conducted on children with black and white parents; in 1937 the first illegal forced sterilizations were carried out on interracial citizens (see also: black people under National Socialism, 1934)