The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany

“[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.”

Colin Powell about his tour of duty in West Germany in 1958, from My American Journey (1995)

“I like this goddamn country, you know that? …It is the first place I was ever treated like a goddamn man.”

William Gardner Smith about the experience of black GIs, from The Last of the Conquerors (1948)

Transatlantic Research Project conducted by:

• Maria Höhn, History Department, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

• Martin Klimke, German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C. and Heidelberg Center for American Studies, University of Heidelberg

Our research project explores the connection between the establishment of U.S. military bases abroad and the advancement of civil rights in the U.S. We investigate the role that African American GIs played in carrying the civil rights movement to Germany, which was host to the largest contingent of U.S. troops deployed outside the U.S.

Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, some 15-20 million American soldiers, families and civilian employees lived in Germany, and between 2-3 million of those Americans were African American. By giving voice to their experience and to that of the people who interacted with them over civil rights’ issues, we will expand the story of the African American civil rights movement beyond the boundaries of the U.S.

If you want to share your personal experience by contributing to our oral history collection or in any other way, please do not hesitate to contact us at:

About the Project Participants:

Maria Höhn, who teaches German history at Vassar College, is an established scholar of the American military presence in Germany, and her book, GIs and Fräuleins, published in 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press was the first book ever to address the experiences of black soldiers in Germany. A German translation of her book will be published under the title Amis, Cadillacs, und "Negerliebchen": GIs und deutsche Frauen in den fünfziger Jahren with Verlag Berlin Brandenburg in summer 2008. Together with Seungsook Moon, she is currently editing Sexuality, Race and Gender in the Global U.S. Military Empire: Germany, Japan, Korea, (forthcoming Duke University Press, 2008) a collection of essays that compares the impact of U.S. military deployments on gender and race relations in three very different military deployments.

As a result of her ongoing research project, African American GIs, Civil Rights, and German and American Debates on Race, 1945-1975, she has published numerous essays in both Germany and the U.S. Those essays explore how African American GIs stationed in Germany enunciated their demands for civil rights, and how both German and American society responded to those demands. Höhn has also published essays that explore German and American debates on interracial marriages, and on the collaboration between German students and African American GIs during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. She is the past recipient of an NEH Faculty Humanities Grant, and other prestigious fellowships.

Martin Klimke is a research fellow at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. His 2005 dissertation The "Other" Alliance: Global Protest and Student Unrest in West Germany and the U.S., 1962-1972, was awarded the prestigious Ruprecht-Karls Prize for best doctoral thesis at Heidelberg University in 2006, and will be published by Princeton University Press in 2008. Klimke has been working extensively in the area of transnational history and social movements and has published numerous articles on processes of cultural transfer and global protest networks. 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 (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming April 2008).

Since 2006 he has been the director and coordinator of the international Marie-Curie project European Protest Movements Since 1945 which is supported by the European Commission. Klimke has already published essays on Black Power in Germany in the 1960/70s and is currently a Visiting Fellow for North American History at the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C., where he is working on his second book entitled The African-American Civil Rights Struggle and Germany after 1945.

Höhn and Klimke are currently writing a history of the experience of African American soldiers in Germany, 1945-1991.

Associated Scholars and Collaborating Institutions

Dieter Brünn, Director of Archive of Soldiers’ Rights, e.V. Berlin, Germany

James Danky, Project Director African American Journals and Newspapers, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Michael Geib, Director of Ramstein Air Base Documentary & Exhibition Center

Leroy Hopkins, German Studies, Millersville State University

Sophie Lorenz, History Department, University of Heidelberg

Mia Mask, Department of Film, Vassar College

Anke Ortlepp, German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Judith Weisenfeld, Department of Religion, Princeton University


Maria Höhn:

- "The Black Panther Solidarity Committees and the Voice of the Lumpen," in: German Studies Review, XXXI, 1, February 2008, 133-154.

-"'We will Never Go Back to the Old Way Again': Germany in the African American Debate on Civil Rights," Central European History, vol. 41, no. 4 (December 2008).

-"'When Negro-Soldiers Bring Home White Brides': Deutsche und amerikanische Debatten über die 'Mischehe' (1945-1967)" in: Werner Kremp und Martina Tumalis, eds., Amerikaner in Rheinland-Pfalz. Alltagskulturelle Begegnungen (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2008), 147-164.

-"Ein Atemzug der Freiheit": Afro-amerikanische GIs, deutsche Frauen, und die Grenzen der Demokratie (1945-1968)," in Arnd Bauerkämpfer, et al., eds., Demokratiewunder. Transatlantische Mittler und die kulturelle Öffnung Westdeutschlands, 1945-1970 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 104-128.

Martin Klimke:

-"The African American Civil Rights Struggle and Germany, 1945-1989," in: Bulletin of the German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C., Fall 2008).

-Black Panther, die RAF und die Rolle der Black Panther-Solidaritätskomitees,” in: Wolfgang Kraushaar, ed., Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2006), 562-582.

Student Research Team

Student Research Team

American Cultures Senior Colloquium:
"African Americans, Military Service and Civil Rights"
(Vassar College, Spring 2008)

Participants: Katherine Linhardt, Patrick Donachie, Julia Hirsch, Rebecca Flanagan, Jenny Hartman, Caitlin Russi, Marissa Drell

Permanent Project Assistants

- Jessie Regenburg (Vassar College)

- Laura Stapane (GHI Washington)

- Thea Brophy (Calvin College)

African American GIs. Box 711 . Poughkeepsie, NY 12604 .
Vassar College