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Hans J. Massaquoi Dies

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Hans J. Massaquoi
Hans J. Massaquoi

Former Ebony magazine managing editor wrote about growing up black in Nazi Germany

by Frederick H. Lowe
Hans J. Massaquoi, retired managing editor of Ebony magazine, who wrote one of the groundbreaking books of the decade, has died. Massquoi was author of Destined To Witness: Growing Up Black In Nazi Germany, a memoir that explored an ignored subject associated with pre-World War II Germany and that country during the war.

He died on Saturday at a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., where he had been treated over the Christmas holidays. He was 87.

Massaquoi retired from Ebony, which is headquartered in Chicago, in 1997 after 39 years. He then moved to New Orleans.

destined-to-whitness-nsn012913He wrote Destined to Witness at the request of friends, who knew his history, he said in a 2000 interview with me for an article that the Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper, published. He was born in 1929 in Hamburg, Germany, to a German mother and a Liberian father.

A photograph of Massaquoi as a young boy is featured on the book’s jacket. He is shown wearing a wool sweater vest decorated with a swastika. Like all Germans, he wanted to fit in, and he initially embraced the Nazi Party, which came to power in 1932.
Massaquoi was eight when he first saw Adolf Hitler in 1934.“I arrived at school to hear our third grade teacher, Herr Grimmelshauser, inform the class that Herr Wriede, our Schulleiter [principal], had ordered the entire student body and faculty to assemble in the schoolyard,” Massaquoi wrote. “There, dressed in his brown Nazi uniform, Wriede announced that  ‘the biggest moment of [our] young lives’ was imminent, the privilege of beholding our beloved Fuhrer Adolf Hitler with our own eyes.”Massaquoi and his classmates lined the Alsterkrugchaussee, one of Hamburg’s main thoroughfares, where they cheered wildly as Hitler rode by in a black Mercedes-Benz convertible.Wriede, who wore a Hitler-style mustache, disliked Massaquoi and harassed him because he was black. Some of classmates also subjected him to racial taunts.But they did not represent all Nazis. Massaquoi’s  best friend’s father was Wihelm Morell, a Nazi block captain. Massaquoi ate most of his meals at the Morells’ home, and Herr Morell treated him like a son.

After World War II, Massaquoi moved to Liberia, where he reunited with his father, the son of a Liberian diplomat.  Massaquoi’s father was killed three years later in an automobile accident. He then moved with his mother to Bartlett, Ill., where he experienced his first taste of American racism from a train conductor.

Massaquoi enlisted in the U.S. Army, and when he was discharged, he attended Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., and the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill. John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jetmagazines, hired him to write for Jet, a popular newsweekly. He later transferred to Ebony, a widely circulated monthly.

Destined to Witness’s story is important for a number of reasons.  It spotlights other books about blacks who lived in Nazi Germany.  Until Destined to Witness, stories about blacks who grew up under Hitler were either ignored or  given little publicity.  Most of us assumed Germany was an all-white country.

Some of these nearly ignored books include Other Germans: Black Germans and Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich;Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans and African Americans in the Nazi Era; andBlack Nazis II: Ethnic Minorities and Foreigners in Hitler’s Armed Forces. The reports on Afro-Germans who fought in the regular German Army during World War II.  Some were even members of the dreaded SS, according to the book.

In the Chicago Reader  interview, Massaquoi  told how African troops occupied Germany’s industrial heartland between World  War I and World War II. Great Britain and France disarmed Germany after World War I under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

Cameroon, a west African country, was a French colony. France deployed troops from Cameroon to Germany, where they patrolled important parts of the country.

Two years ago, my wife, Susan, and I visited the German Historical Museum in Berlin to see the exhibit “Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime.”  In the museum’s permanent collection were photographs of African troops who were stationed in Germany between the two world wars.

William Morrow and Co. published Destined to Witness in 1999. Although it became an instant bestseller in Germany, it never received the attention it deserved in the United States, particularly given its compelling and groundbreaking subject.

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