Professor of History Maria Höhn was working on a book about American G.I.s in Germany after World War II when she kept encountering the same surprising anecdote.
Her research led her to look at the experiences of Black soldiers during their service. What she found was not what she expected. Again and again, African American veterans described the freedoms and privileges they enjoyed in Germany after Nazism would have been unimaginable back in the Unites States.
Höhn’s research eventually became a book named “A Breath of Freedom,” which has been adapted into a documentary of the same name premiering next week on the Smithsonian Channel.
The movie and the book on which it was based interview veterans stationed in Germany during the post-war years and how the experience impacted thousands of young Black men’s lives, igniting a spark that would blaze into the Civil Rights Movements in the years that followed.
In anticipation of the documentary’s American premiere next week, Vassar College held a screening last Tuesday Feb. 11 in Blodgett Auditorium.
What shocked Höhn and drove examine the legacy of African G.I.s was the story’s central paradox. Nazi ideology revolved around the belief of the inferiority of the non-Aryan races, yet the American forces perpetuated its own racial hierarchy .
“They were sent to Germany to de-Nazify Germany and rid the country of racism they came after World War II and after the Holocaust,” she said. “So the army was in Germany to teach the Germans not to be racist yet they came with a segregated Jim Crow Army.”
Enduring this discrimination, African Americans discovered in Europe a new status that had been denied to them both the South and the North.
“There was no legal color line. There was no Jim Crow. So having the uniform of American soldiers gave them enormous power.”
The military command, wary of arming black soldiers, relegated black soldiers to labor and supply line. A consequence of this, Höhn discovered, was that Black G.I.s held control of food, and blankets, and fuel, hugely important necessities in a post-war economy.
Höhn herself learned the story of African American G.I.s in Germany little by little. There were a few signs she remembered that clued her in on what she had been missing.
The title of her book and its adaptation “A Breath of Freedom” comes from Colin Powell’s Autobiography in 2003. In which he talked about how it was easier for black soldiers to live in Germany than in America. Page 52
Whenever she met with Black veterans during the course of her research, they would talk about Germany. Höhn said that even taxi drivers would want to talk to her about it.
“As soon as they would hear my accent they would ask, ‘Where are you from?’” said Höhn, relating the types of conversations she had. “And I would say, ‘Oh, I’m from Germany.’ Oh my god, my dad was stationed in Germany, my uncle was stationed in Germany.’ And they still talk about that. Again and again.”
If Germany made a mark on African Americans during the post-war period, then the relationship worked both ways; Germans alive during the occupation still remember the encounter with Black soldiers. Höhn found that both groups identified with each other.
The Germans saw in Black G.I.s their own humiliation “There are people who always said, ‘We always felt that the black soldiers could understand better how defeated we were or awful it was because they were treated as badly by their white comrades as we were by the Americans,’” said Höhn. “The Americans treated the Germans really well but no one wants to be occupied.”
The austerity of the post-war years in Germany, meanwhile, reminded some stationed African Americans of the poverty their own communities faced. “The black soldiers really talk about how they felt that they were able to empathize more with the German population because they felt that they themselves had had such a hard time at home,” described Höhn. “If they saw a child without shoes or a child begging for food their heart went out.”
The documentary, which is narrated by actor Cuba Gooding Jr., features interviews with policy makers like Colin Powell and Congressman John Lewis. But the filmmakers also spoke with common veterans, ordinary men who witnessed and participated in extraordinary times.
The director, Dag Freyer and his team traveled to every corner of the country, meeting with veterans in their own homes. “These are images and moments in the film that you an only get when people give you the privilege of letting you into their private lives,” said Freyer. “You can’t get those moments when you take them to a studio or anywhere else I could do an interview.”
Both Höhn and Freyer agreed that it should be the veterans telling the veterans’ stories. “We didn’t want talking heads. I thought it was really great to tell the story not through historians, but through the veterans themselves,” said Höhn. “All these stories that are not to be found in history books.”