Document created: 20 July 06
Air & Space Power Journal Book Review - Spring 2007
Hitler’s African Victims: The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940 by Raffael Scheck. Cambridge University Press (http://www.cambridge.org/us), 32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10013-2473, 2006, 216 pages, $65.00 (hardcover).
In Carl G. Gustavson’s A Preface to History, the author asserts that when viewing any historical event, one should examine and try to understand any and all underlying influences that led up to a specific episode because such events never take place in a vacuum and simply do not “just occur.” Rather, situations always go into motion on the heels of other occurrences. In his excellent book Hitler’s African Victims, Raffael Scheck does this seamlessly and to great effect.
An associate professor of modern European history at Colby College and holder of a PhD from Brandeis University, Scheck has authored the books Alfred von Tirpitz and German Right Wing Politics, 1914–1930 and Mothers of the Nation: Right-Wing Women in Weimar Germany, along with several articles on German right-wing politics. In Hitler’s African Victims, Scheck brings to light an area of history that until now people have either intentionally ignored or unfortunately forgotten.
During the desperate summer of 1940, German forces ran largely unchecked through Western Europe. One of the many countries to feel the wrath of Hitler’s army was France. Burning with an intense desire to seek revenge for the abomination imposed on the German people—the Treaty of Versailles—Hitler and his minions assumed a special attitude toward forcing a quick and humiliating surrender from France. The ranks of the French army held more than 100,000 black soldiers whom the French had recruited and mobilized from the areas of Mauritania, Senegal, and Niger in French West Africa, placing them into either all-black or mixed-race regiments and then making them part of Colonial Infantry divisions. During hard-fought battles against the Germans, these African soldiers—often armed with the feared, long-bladed coupe-coupe, with which they hacked their way through enemy soldiers in close combat—found themselves pitted against the best the Germans could muster. One rarely hears the story of the losses that the Africans imposed on the Germans.
Tragically, during the hardest-fought period in the French campaign, up to 3,000 of these Tirailleurs Senegalais prisoners were evidently massacred by German soldiers. The murder of enemy prisoners—by members of both sides—did occur during the war, but the sheer number of losses incurred by the Tirailleurs over a relatively short period of time raises serious questions. The author does a masterful job of crafting coherent background information to explain the circumstances surrounding these massacres.
As part of his analysis, Scheck discusses many aspects of the history of the racism in Germany that likely led to attitudes prevalent within Nazi society at the time—for example, what became known as the “Black Horror,” involving the stationing of black soldiers in the Rhineland following World War I. Several incidents took place between these soldiers and the indigenous population, especially the births of many mixed-race children. Appalled, Nazi leadership called for the forced sterilization of these children, and German propaganda worked overtime to portray blacks as savages and “sex crazed perverts.” Because of these efforts, a strong antiblack foundation arose in the new Germany. Likewise, as a colonial power in Africa (1904–7), Germany eliminated more than 150,000 blacks during a series of uprisings. In addition, Germans noted similar treatment of blacks caught fighting for the Union during the US Civil War, as well as US treatment of Mexicans, native Americans, and Filipinos during conflicts with those people.
All of these factors helped to create an atmosphere conducive to committing the atrocities described in this book. The author eloquently explains concepts such as the criterion for sanctioned massacre and five situational factors that led to the killing of black prisoners. Interestingly, Scheck’s research revealed that when all is said and done, apparently no German government directive ordered soldiers to kill these prisoners. Most likely, the ferocity of battle, latent racism, and the effects of having seen fellow soldiers killed in combat—many hacked apart by knife-wielding West Africans—combined to motivate the Germans to act as they did. In fact, many German units refused to kill black prisoners at all, and after August 1940—the most desperate time for the Germans and French—little or no killing of prisoners occurred.
Although I sing this book’s praises, I do have some disagreements with the author. Scheck states that the Germans would “immediately shoot dispersed blacks without giving them the opportunity to surrender. This was illegal as a massacre but easier to cover up. . . . The practice of not giving quarter to black soldiers, although illegal, was certainly facilitated by the fact that the legal provisions for surrender could be difficult to apply in close combat” (pp. 61, 66). According to the Law of Armed Conflict, however, it is not illegal to kill fleeing or dispersing soldiers. Only after they have surrendered and the enemy has taken control of them do they become immune from being killed. Likewise, it is legal to decimate entire formations of enemy soldiers—by not killing them today, one may have to fight them tomorrow. However “rude” it may be to kill fleeing soldiers or to decimate an entire enemy formation, it remains perfectly acceptable and legal to do so.
Overall, those minor points in no way detract from this most excellent book. It is not often that one finds a study of World War II that uncovers an entirely new page of history. Complete with 10 photographs, four pages of tables that outline the killings, and one map of the areas in question, Hitler’s African Victims makes its mark as an important contribution to an already cluttered history of the war.
Lt Col Robert F. Tate, USAFR
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.