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‘Black Shame’

In the Iraq war a radical Muslim group claimed that they prefer to attack black American soldiers, because ‘To have Negroes occupying us is a particular humiliation. Sometimes we aborted a mission because there were no Negroes’*. As Dick van Galen Last shows here, such prejudices were also common in the 20th century when an occupation by black soldiers was considered an exceptional humiliation: in the years after the Great War the German people called it the Black Shame.

When the German army conquered France in June 1940, the Nazis pressed Jean Moulin, then prefect of Eure-et-Loir, to blame the black African soldiers in the French army for raping and murdering women and children. Moulin recognized these grisly remains immediately as victims of bombing and he refused to sign ‘any such infamous statement’. Fearing that he would not be able to resist the German torture any longer, he attempted to take his own life – the first act of resistance of a man who would become the icon of the French Resistance.

Contemporary German propaganda referred to the French deployment of African soldiers as the Schwarze Schande (Black Shame), a term first coined during the Second Moroccan crisis of 1911 but one that owed its notoriety to the Allied occupation of the Rhineland (1918-30), when French colonial troops were accused of raping German women and spreading venereal diseases. During the invasion of France in 1940, Josef Goebbels prescribed that German propaganda should seek to intensify hatred against the French who had brought the Africans to the Rhine, insisting that ‘we have to denounce the French as sadistes négrifiés (negrified sadists)’. The memory of the Black Shame campaign against the black soldiers in the Rhineland goes a long way to explaining the barbaric actions against black soldiers during the campaign of 1940 and the harsh treatment meted out to the 20,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais, as the black soldiers were known, taken as German prisoners of war. In northern France and later near Lyon 1,500 to 3,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais were massacred in a way that presaged the German war of annihilation in the East. As one German officer commented, ‘an inferior race did not deserve to fight against a race so civilizing as the German race’.

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