- A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany
Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke's A Breath of Freedom, which takes its title from a phrase by Colin Powell (1, 175), interweaves US military, African American, and European histories to explore the transnational dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement from 1945 onward. By assessing this often overlooked but important chapter in the Civil Rights Movement and Cold War European politics, the authors shed light on the centrality of African American soldiers' experiences overseas and Germany's critical role in the history of US race relations and postwar Europe. A Breath of Freedom also serves as a companion to the website and digital archive, "The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany" (www.aacvr-germany.org). Intended for a general audience, the volume, website, and archive will benefit educators, scholars, and students interested in transnational activism, internationalizing US history, and Cold War culture in Europe.
Höhn and Klimke analyze how African American GIs' exposure to a country without an American-styled color line motivated them to agitate for civil rights at home and abroad. They contend that it was in Germany, during the Allied occupation and then the Cold War, that the international community witnessed the contradictions of America's ideals. The US military's efforts to democratize and denazify postwar Germany coexisted with officially sanctioned Jim Crow segregation in the army.
The book is organized into eight mostly chronological chapters. The strength of the volume lies with its ability to integrate diverse sources—oral interviews, military records, newspapers, photographs, cartoons, and speeches—to [End Page 249] illuminate the significance of African Americans in Germany. Höhn and Klimke's first chapter surveys events leading up to World War II, including W. E. B. Du Bois's tenure in imperial Germany, the budding civil rights movement in World War I, and the Great Migration. In doing so, the authors describe how these developments resulted in not only a more urban and educated black population, but also one that was increasingly international in perspective. Yet, it was not until World War II, they posit, that African Americans became more politicized and determined to dismantle Jim Crow and combat racial oppression worldwide.
During World War II, a number of elements converged that emboldened African Americans in their quest for equality. First, the indictment against European fascism motivated white liberals to advocate for justice as they witnessed "the American dilemma" between the principles of democracy and African Americans' daily reality. Second, black GIs involved in the occupation and reeducation of Germany (1945-1949) experienced a "breath of freedom," as many found themselves treated like human beings for the first time in their lives. In their campaigns, civil rights activists, white progressives, and black and white periodicals emphasized this newfound acceptance, juxtaposing it with the US military's racist practices. These publications also reported that military officials transplanted American patterns of segregation into German neighborhoods, often ordering economic sanctions against German businesses that failed to withhold service to black troops.
Moreover, the Soviet Union's propaganda on the hypocrisy of American democracy impelled the United States to reevaluate its segregationist policies. Together international and domestic criticisms from actors with a variety of ideological views persuaded Harry Truman to issue several Executive Orders that created a President's Committee on Civil Rights (9808), desegregated the federal work force (9980), and ended segregation in the armed forces (9981)—setting the stage for a series of NAACP court cases that challenged segregation in the South. Yet, these acts alone did not end segregation in practice, as white supremacy still reigned. African American soldiers continued to endure harsh reprimands, discrimination in promotion, violence from white soldiers, and racism in garrison towns.
African American GIs also became increasingly radicalized based on numerous developments including: Dr. Martin Luther King's visit to West and then East Berlin in 1964; the transatlantic Black Power movement; New Left revolutionary political alliances; West and...