Black in Nazi Germany, Hans Massaquoi

Hans Massaquoi, the former managing editor of Ebony magazine, died this month.  Here’s his unusual story.

Hans was born in Germany in 1926 to a German mother and a father who was the son of the Liberian consul general in Hamburg, Germany.   Hans’ mother was a nurse and his father a law student in Dublin who periodically lived with his family in the consul general’s villa. The diplomatic status of Hans’ grandfather afforded him a life of privilege during his first few years.  Hans viewed Black skin as superior to white skin because their servants were white and his grandfather was the man in charge.

When Hans was in second grade he dreamed of joining the Hitler Youth Movement because its members wore “cool uniforms” and “did exciting things – camping, parades, playing drums.”  One day Hans convinced his babysitter to sew a swastika on his sweater, but his mother removed it later that night. Unfortunately, earlier that day his teacher had taken a picture of him wearing the sweater while standing among his classmates.  That photo appears on the front cover of his 1999 memoir, “Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany.”

In 1929 his lifestyle dramatically changed after his grandfather was called back to Liberia.  Hans and his mother went from residing in a villa, to living in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Hamburg. The thing that troubled him the most about their new environment was the fact he was shunned and pointed at because of his “exotic looks.”  He was one of a very few bi-racial children and they were targets of racism and were considered second-class citizens.

Although African pride was something Hans rarely felt, that changed in 1936 when Joe Louis went up against Germany’s Max Schmeling and Jesse Owens won Olympic gold in Berlin, Germany.

Hans said he managed to survive Hitler’s reign of terror because there were so few Blacks in Germany that the Nazis made them a low priority for mass extermination, unlike in the case of Jewish people. He also credits the advancing allied forces with playing a role as well.

Germany barred him from pursuing higher education and from preparing for a professional career, so Hans served as a machinist apprentice.  In 1951 he traveled to the US on a student visa.  Due to a clerical error, Hans was ordered to serve as a paratrooper in the 82 Airborne Division during the Korean War, although not a US citizen at the time. He made the most of the GI bill and earned a journalism degree from the University of Illinois. Hans was a journalist at Jet magazine and then moved to Chicago and worked for Ebony magazine where he served as the managing editor until he retired in the late 90s.

Hans married Katharine Rousseve and their union produced sons Steve and Hans, Jr.  Hans Massaquoi passed away on January 19, 2013.  He was 87-years-old.

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