Black in Germany: What to Expect

Black in Germany: What to Expect

Most Hollywood films about Germany take place during World War II. It’s no wonder, then, that most people’s impressions of the country can be summed up in a few words: Nazis, lederhosen, beer, bratwurst, and more Nazis. But to be deterred by the Hollywood version of Germany is to miss out on a modern country that is home to far more black people than many people realize. Although it’s still experiencing the growing pains that comes with any changing society, Germany is a place where black people can—and do—thrive.
by Tatiana Richards Hanebutte

Today on Young Germany we’ll be answering many of the frequently asked questions black expatriates have about life in Germany.

Are there black people in Germany?

Yes. There has been a black presence in Germany since the 1720s, when Ghanaian Anton Wilhelm Amo studied at the University of Helmstedt.  Today, according to a 2009 report from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, there are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 black people living in Germany.  In addition to its native population of Afro-Germans , some of whom trace their lineage back to 19th century immigrants from German-controlled colonies, Germany’s black population consists of people from people from Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Of that last group, many are former and current U.S. soldiers and their families. One of those is Marisha Johnson, a 25-year-old healthcare worker from the United States whose husband is in the Army. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” said Johnson, laughing, when asked what she expected to find in Germany. Currently six months into a three-year stay, Johnson and her husband live on an American military base in Wiesbaden. Like many expats whose careers or spouse’s careers bring them to Germany, she said she “…really didn’t know what to expect.”

Neither did Stacie Graham, Ph. D., who has spent more than a decade studying and working in various German cities. “To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about the culture,” she said. “I knew what [high school German teachers] taught us:...the broad strokes of beer, wurst, lederhosen, industriousness.” The Germany she’s found has contained that, and more, although she says that a more definitive and complex definition of what it means to be German continues to elude her.

Meanwhile Johnson, who has now settled in and visited several German cities—including Stuttgart, Berlin and Frankfurt— is smitten with her new home. “I love it here,” she said.

Unfortunately, however, there is very little media that shows people of color in German society, and this could help explain why Germany ended up atop a hotly debated list of the “worst countries for black people” to visit.

Is Germany safe for black people?

Any person who moves to a foreign country will have concerns about safety, but many black people can feel an extra level of anxiety. Most black Americans have heard of sundown towns and wonder if there are similar places in Germany, especially given the recent visibility of organizations like Pegida.

“My dad was a little iffy about me moving here,” admits Johnson, “but he got over it.” Living on a military installation means she didn’t share his concerns about safety. His worries were not about race per se, she said; he just didn’t know what her experience would be like. Turns out, though, that even if you don’t live on a military base, Germany is a relatively safe place. According to a Civitas crime report, the U.S. had the third highest homicide rate while Germany had the 30th. In 2009 the  Deutsche Welle reported that there were only eight fatalities at the hands of German police in the past two years, compared to several hundred per year in the US.  Statistically, black expats of US-origin have less to worry about in Germany than they might back home.

“On a very general level I’ve never felt unsafe,” Graham said, though she said that like in any big city, there are areas to avoid.   

“It is a very real thing to be black in Germany, specifically in Berlin. There’s no way that I as a black woman will take an S-Bahn in Brandenburg,” said Graham.  “I’ll ride my bike at two in the morning in Berlin and feel safe.”

Though the German constitution prohibits racial discrimination, according to a 2013 Deutsche Welle article, "a legal framework remains missing to actively prevent it."

Should I come to Germany?

“I would tell them to come,” Johnson said. “It’s an experience for anyone; you wouldn’t see places like this in the States. And,” she added, “It’s better to experience it yourself.”

Like all places, Germany has its issues, but many people who come here can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m one of them. Even with the occasional racist interaction or the depiction of archaic images of black folks, overall Germany feels decidedly less racist than the United States.

Black expats having trouble coping with the transition to life in Germany can take Graham’s advice: “You need to have a routine in place for your own self preservation practice whether that’s reading bell hooks or James Baldwin or finding a black community to connect with relatively quickly.”  Or check out some of the resources collected below.

Links and resources

ISD: The Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD)  is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to represent the interests of black people in Germany.

Black German Cultural Society: The American-based Black German Cultural Society is an organization serving as a resource, networking organization and forum to facilitate awareness, discussions, and reflection of important issues that impact Black Germans, post-WWII Afro-Germans (known as Brown Babies and Mischlingskinder), and their descendants.

Black History and Germany: An overview of black history in Germany on About.com

Edition assemblage’s Witnessed series: This print book series features black writer’s perspective on life in Germany, both in fiction and non-fiction.

ADEFRA Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland: A cultural-political organization and forum for black women in Germany.

Expat bloggers

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by Tatiana Richards Hanebutte