No Go Germany
John A. Kantara, a Black German from Berlin, writes about his country
Why is it so difficult to love this country? When my mother, a good catholic from the Rhineland area met an African student from Ghana in the mid-sixties and fell in love with him, Germans were busy trying to forget the lost war. Nazi Germany was twenty year old history and the new Germany (West) had become a success story, economically, politically and, of course, in football. Word Champion 1954 – the miracle of Bern! But in the Germany of 1964, the racist Nazi laws still resonated in the new republic. I was born in Bonn, the city of Beethoven, but also of Hans Globke, who wrote the judicial commentary to the „Law for the Protection of the German blood and the German honour“. The law was enacted on September 15, 1935. Globke had provided the interlectual foundation for the persecution of Jews and the murder of all those who were not considered „Aryans“ under the Millennial Empire. But that was then. In his later years Hans Globke established a career in the Chancellery of Konrad Adenauer. He also wrote the standard commentary on West-Germany’s „Basic-Law“ or Constitution. A truly successful career.
Not far from the Chancellery in Bonn, near the Venusberg, lies an area called the Waldau. Here in the forest, you find a „family friendly“ restaurant, which has been there for over hundred years. My sister and I loved the Waldau. Playgrounds, ice cream, family bliss. But the picture of an African man, a proud father from the Ashanti people in Ghana, holding hands with a white woman while pushing a pram through a German forest, apparently left a strong impression at that time. For most white Germans, we must have been such a despicable disgrace that my mother, even today, rarely speaks about it. Over the hostilities and insults, the difficulties to live a normal with a black man and two Afro German children in Germany in the 1960s, my parents’ marriage faltered.
In 2006, Germany again wanted to become Football World Champion with the help of two Afro German players. The country was looking forward to it. But there was one troublemaker – Uwe Karsten Heye. The former government spokesman under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and now Editor-in-Chief of the left paper „Vorwärts“ put an end to the German football bliss, when he publicly warned Black tourist to stay away from certain areas in Berlin and Brandenburg. He claimed that it could be potentially dangerous for people of colour. For that remark, two Brandenburg lawyers filed charges against Heye for sedition. Their claim: „Mr. Heye’s remarks are fit to defame parts of the Brandenburg population. As people of Brandenburg we take offence in our human dignity by Mr. Heye’s claims, since he seems to think that in our federal state, we do not respect the Constitution and are operating outside the law.“ Such words are insulting to all Black people who in Brandenburg or elsewhere have become victims of racist violence. My family and I as well as many of our Afro German friends have decided long time ago not to spend our money in Brandenburg.
Bundeskanzler Konrad AdenauerAccording to the organisation „Gesicht zeigen!“ (Show your face!), of which Uwe Karsten Heye is chairman, hate crimes in the former GDR have claimed the lives of at least 17 people every year since reunification. Are we surprised? For years, there have been discussions about the phenomenon that in Germany, particularly in the areas with a small non-white population, hate crimes are particularly common“. But such racism cannot be reduced to Eastern Germany.
One of my earliest childhood memories is the funeral of Konrad Adenauer. My grandmother, a vivid disciple of the then German Chancellor, took me to what was the greatest spectacle of 1967. This event had a profound impact on me. The masses of people, the simple wooden coffin decorated with a brass crucified Jesus hanging at his cross, my grandmother who pushed me to throw a handful of sand and a flower into the grave. Although I was only three years old, I know that this event was significant for many Germans, including myself. But it took some time to understand something else. As an acolyte during the my First Communion, as a member of the Catholic youth, in the church choir, as a boy scout, I gradually realised that I was different from all the others – a bastard, someone, who did not fit the picture of being German, not even in Western Germany of the 1970s.
The 1980s mainly meant a lot of fights for me. Anyone not quick enough or strong enough was doomed to fail. In the schoolyard, within the Clique “Roots” was the subject to talk about – the first television series, that swept the streets of the Federal Republic. “Did you see Kunta Kinte last night?” Even today, twenty-five years later, I still here the title song in my ears. Alex Haley’s “Roots” was a revelation, not only to African Americans. Years later, I was talking to director Spike Lee on one of his visits to Berlin about “Roots”. We were sitting in the Berlin Club “Jungle” and realised to our surprise, how much we were fascinated by Haley’s search for his roots, which were also our roots.
In the mid-eighties I was sitting on a train to Westerland, Sylt. I had finished school and not a clue as to the things to come. Everything seemed to be an adventure. I was enlisted as a sailor for the medical corps at the Marineversorgungschule (MVS). List is the most Northern city in Germany, near Denmark, far away from home. And the MVS was the home the “Blaue Jungs” (Blue Boys” – the Navy choir. When I arrived at the gate, they would not let me enter. Indeed, I was too late. The corporal on duty was very suspicious of the whole situation. A black guy with an induction order? Excuse me! But nobody seemed to have seen a black person before at the MVS, at least not with a German passport. Nearly throughout my service, I kept thinking that I was the only black guy in the whole of the Navy.
Nevertheless, my comrades elected me their spokesman – white sailors, Blue Boys. In order to „survive”, I joined the Navy choir. We were all baited with a trip to the United States to sing at the Steuben Parade in New York City. My comrades went to the parade without me. The official reason was that I could not sing – despite having sung in the Church choir for several years and a previous successful concert in Westerland. Eventually, my Petty Officer explained to me that a Black German would be inappropriate at the Steuben Parade. I still wonder inappropriate to whom? The Americans or the Germans? It would not be the only humiliation.
Amadeu 2005And then the Wall came down! Our “brothers and sisters” from the East jumped the queue. Turbulent times! The picture changed. The multicultural idea was no longer on the agenda. The East had older rights. Now they were queueing in front of the sex shops at the famous train station „Bahnhof Zoo“ with their 100 Deutschmarks welcoming money. Nobody could be bothered with multicultural diversity; the term was almost considered offencive. This was the time, when the so-called “parallel societies” became a refuge for people like me. It was also the time, when the first wave of racial hate crimes swept through the reunited Germany.
In 1990 Antonio Amadeu, a contract worker from Angola, is brutally beaten up in Eberswalde in the (Eastern) State of Brandenburg. During the night of 24th November, a group of 50 skinheads with baseball bats are on a rampage through the city in order to hunt black people. In a restaurant, they encounter three Africans, beating them up severely. While his two friends from Mozambique manage to escape despite their injuries, Amadeu Antonio Kiowa falls into a coma. He dies three weeks later. Shortly afterwards, his son is born, his name is Amadeu. I held him in my arms, then. A Black German boy destined to grow up without a father. Déjà vu.
His father is officially considered the first hate crime victim in the reunited Germany. And there was more to come. In 1991, a home for asylum seekers in Hoyerswerda (East) was burning. In August 1992, neo Nazis set alight another home for asylum seekers in Rostock (East-Germany). Bystanders are cheering and applauding. In November 1992, an arson attack on the home of a Turkish family kills five women and girls in Mölln, West-Germany. Certainly, there was shock, outrage, and the cry for political intervention. People, white or black alike, held vigils for the victims, organised discussions about right wing extremism, but the killings continued. 1999: A young Algerian is bleeding to death when he ran into a glass door trying to escape a thug of skinheads in the Eastern town of Guben. In 2000, an African family father living in the East German town of Dessau for twenty years is beaten to death on his way home by three neo Nazis. On Easter Sunday 2006, an Afro German is beaten unconscious in Potsdam, Brandenburg. The list is by no means complete and could be extended endlessly.
A few days after the incident in Potsdam attack, I received a call from Amadeu, Kiowa’s son. He is 16 years old now and still living in the East. He asked if I could come and visit him sometime. So I went to see him last Christmas and took my four year old son with me. My wife only agreed to bring him along, after I promised that we would only stay inside. We did. When my son asked me to visit a festival in Brandenburg, just like his white friend, I made up a lot of excuses, about sparing him the long car trip and suggested something else. I did not tell him the truth, explaining to him that a black family should not go to Brandenburg if not necessary. Why should I scare him? He will find out eventually.
After Potsdam, everyone was outraged – again. This was particularly embarrassing as Germany was preparing to be the host of the 2006 Football World Cup. Its motto: “Zu Gast bei Freunden” – “Come and be among friends”. Well, as it turned out, the World Cup was a huge success, a great party that lasted for four weeks. Germany indeed was a perfect host to the thousands of fans from all over the world. My family and I celebrated too – with a German and a Ghanaian flag hanging from our balcony.
A German version of this article was published at DIE ZEIT Online on May 19th, 2006