(W)Archives: Occupation and the “Black Shame” on the Rhine

May 29, 2015

As the United States has relearned in recent years, the military occupation of a country is a difficult business. And it is fraught with the potential for disputes and opportunities for both the occupiers and the occupied to do the wrong thing. A 1921 U.S. Army report entitled “American Representation in Occupied Germany” makes this all too clear. It also illustrates how disputes, even over ill-founded accusations, can bring out important and disturbing elements of a nation’s culture.

After World War I, the United States joined the Allies in the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland. This occupation did not just bring Britons, Frenchmen, Belgians, and Americans to Germany, however. It brought troops from all over the world. The French Army, in particular, included numerous African units both from the French colonies in North Africa and also many from sub-Saharan Africa. Typically, the French units from sub-Saharan Africa were referred to as Senegalese, though not all of them were actually from Senegal. The presence of these Africans on German soil caused a great deal of resentment among the Germans. In fact, the U.S. Army report discusses this under the rubric of “The Black Troop Question” starting on page 94 of the report.

The French Army’s occupation of Frankfurt occasioned a vicious propaganda campaign in German newspapers against the presence of the French African troops. In particular, the German press was full of inflammatory stories of Africans raping German women. The report notes:

[T]he propaganda was so extensive and so long continued that there was considerable repercussion in the United States. Many protests against the use of ‘black troops’ in the occupation of ‘white territory’ were made in Washington.

The result was that the Secretary of State asked the American commander, General Henry T. Allen to report on the matter.

As this week’s document shows, General Allen reported back on July 2, 1920, that discipline among the French colonial troops was generally good though “hardly of the same order that … we would require.” However, the discipline among the Senegalese troops “was not always good.” The only evidence he could provide for this claim was stories that had been reported that Senegalese troops in Marseilles — hundreds of miles away in France — had resisted getting on troops ships to be deployed to Syria.

Nevertheless, there had indeed been some rapes, according to Allen, but their actual number was overblown. He wrote:

[I]t is unquestionably a fact that many gross exaggerations were circulated in the German press concerning the conduct of the French Colonial troops. The allegations in the German press have been, for the most part, so indefinite, as to time and place, and circumstance, as to leave it impracticable to verify the alleged facts, or to disprove them.

He cited as one particularly egregious case of exaggeration unverified claims that “numerous” women from the Saar “are said to have been forcibly abducted, raped, mutilated, killed and their bodies thrown into manure piles.” When there had been indiscipline, the French Army had made “very earnest efforts” to “do justice and to stamp out the evil by stern repressive measures.”

Allen concluded that the scarcity of tangible facts and the behavior of the German press gave the “impression of an adroit political move which would tend to sow antipathy to France in the other lands of the Allied and Associated powers, especially in America where the Negro question is always capable of arousing feeling.” He noted further that the “attitude of certain classes of German women towards the colored troops has been such as to incite trouble.” By this he meant that German prostitutes were willing to cater to African soldiers and that some white German women had developed romances with African soldiers.

Neither the Germans nor the Americans come out of this dispute looking good. One cannot read about the German objections to African troops on their soil after World War I without thinking of the racist Nazi regime that was soon to come to that country. Medallions protesting the presence of the French colonial troops were even struck in Germany that managed to be obscene at once on racial and sexual grounds.

The story of the “Black Shame,” as it was called in both Germany and the United States, was widely reported in the American press, including the New York Times. This should not be surprising in a country where the Ku Klux Klan was undergoing a resurgence and lynchings were still common — with the rape of white women often being given as the excuse, as in the infamous 1920 lynching of six black men in Duluth. Many Americans made their voices heard in support of the German side of this dispute. General Allen reports that Americans in the Rhineland believed that “it was unwise to utilize semi-civilized colored troops, whether brown or black, as an occupying force in the territory of a civilized white people.” In fairness, the Senegalese troops had their defenders in the United States, among whom was Frederick W. Galbraith, national commander of the American Legion, who said that the rape charges were being touted in the United States by people of the “hyphen,” i.e. German-Americans. For his part, Allen’s report, while intended to be fair to the African soldiers, betrays his own racial feelings, not least when he engages in cringe-worthy differentiations among “pure negro,” “approximately pure negro,” “negroid,” and “colored” troops.

The best propaganda has an element of truth to it and can gain some sympathy in the population of the target country. Sometimes, as in this German case, it does so by appealing to the baser instincts. Often it happens by playing on things that the occupier truly should feel guilty about. Hence the traction attained by the exaggerated stories of American atrocities in Vietnam or the reporting in the American media of a video of American soldiers raping Iraqi women that turned out to be fake even while genuine sexual abuses took place at Abu Ghraib. Occupation is definitionally a non-consensual activity but the ability of the occupied to fight back is limited, so propaganda must often substitute for force of arms. War will find a way.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.