Article by Opa for the Manhattan, Kansas newspaper- The Mercury Chronicle
Nazis Use Our Treatment of Negro As Propaganda
Editor's note: Thomas Doeppner, a student at Kansas State College, was for a short time with the United Press at Amsterdam. He is a German refugee, and his interpretation of developments in the European war theater carries the weight of his internment camp experiences in Nazi Germany, as well as that of previous years of travel on the continent. The Mercury Chronicle each week brings you his interpretation of the war in Europe.
By Thomas W. Doeppner
The war on the battlefronts of Europe has come to a temporary lull, while Germany is throwing 22 divisions into Italy and the Allies are preparing to wrest the initiative from the Germans. The war on the propaganda front, however, is raging with full fury.
Taking advantage of our domestic troubles, Dr. Goebbels tries to get Europe to believe that the United States is ready for another Civil War. This is by no means a new-born baby in Goebbel's ministry of propaganda; it has been tried with varying degrees of success ever since F.D.R. received his third term. To the non-Nazi population of Europe, America has always meant a country with democratic resources: a background of security, which would never permit a Nazi victory. Roosevelt's speeches on foreign policy strengthened this feeling tremendously and it did so before the war had officially started.
During the 1940 elections, Goebbels had complete faith in the defeat of Roosevelt, and therefore centered all his propaganda on the foreign field in the supposition that the American people, since they would not re-elect Roosevelt, proved they would have nothing to do with any kind of interventionist policy. When Roosevelt was reelected in spite of Goebbels' prophecies, the German propaganda system was seriously shaken.
The next chance for Goebbels came soon: strikes. The fact that strikes were possible during wartime means to many of us a guarantee of our democratic institutions; it was a sign that we cling to the ideas of democracy even at a time when democracy seems to be inefficient; to Goebbels, the labor strikes in America came just at the opportune time. Since strikes are not even thought of any more in Germany or any part of occupied Europe, since any attempt at strikes would mean an attempt at revolution, the word strike just has a much stronger connotation in European countries than here. Therefore each time a strike stopped work in any American plant, it was reported with all details and a great number of exaggerations in German newspapers and was interpreted as a revolutionary endeavor on the side of the American worker.
U.S. Treatment of Europe
Possibly the major target of German propaganda at the present time, as far as this country is concerned, deals with the way we treat the Negroes. Whenever any group in any country accuses the Nazis of the cruel, brutal and terroristic way in which they continue their systematic extermination of the Jews in Europe, Hitler's propaganda refers to the Negro's position in the United States, and items like the poll tax, the thousand kinds of social and economic discriminations are mentioned. The recent race riots in Detroit and other towns made the headlines in German papers and were interpreted as a sign of disintegration of democracy.
Japs As Liberators
We are not concerned with the feeling of the Nazis in this respect. However, we are concerned about the goodwill and cooperation of many a native population in the Pacific, in Burma, India, and in the South Sea islands. With the only exception of the Philippines, the natives of these islands and countries have taken sides against us and for the Japanese during the times of Japanese invasions. To them, the Japanese appeared to be the liberators, freeing them from the white man's oppression.
We cannot expect these people ever to cooperate with us or consider us as friends, ever to give us any kind of military assistance which is so vital in the jungles unknown to most Allied soldiers, as long as the example of the Negro's life in the U.S. as a U.S. citizen does not give them any promise for improvement of their conditions after Allied reoccupation.
German and Japanese propaganda are strongest in this respect. The Japanese call this war the war of liberation against the supremacy of the white race. Whether or not, according to Japanese wishes, the supremacy of the white race will be followed by a tyranny of the yellow race is not the point: the fact is that this propaganda has been most effective and contributed largely to the initial successes of the Japanese. The only way to stop this dangerous enemy propaganda is to prove its untruthfulness by a fair and democratic treatment of the minority populations in this country.
There is a lot going on here. First, I want to note that Opa chose this topic fairly soon after hearing a social worker speak about her work with African Americans in the South. He clearly learned (if he didn't already know) about the plight of the African Americans in the United States. It is important to note that as a German, Opa was brand new to the race conversation in the United States. In Germany, there wasn't much conversation because there weren't many people of African descent, and there wasn't a historical luggage cart full of wounds from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Civil War.
I imagine Opa learned about the American Civil War much like we learned about the French Revolution, it was interesting and "over there." In his Quaker youth group, Opa learned about apartheid, Mahatma Ghandi, and other examples of struggles for equality. Now he lived in a nation with an open racial wound.
Opa is called to write about the war, not the race riots or racial discrimination. I was annoyed that he talked about the riots and necessary better treatment of African Americans and other people of color only in the context of the war effort. However, he may have been trying to advocate for equal rights in a way that was amiable to a broader audience.
Either way the whole thing just made me sad. As a nation, we still have so far to go. The Nazis weren't pointing out the mistreatment of African Americans, they were pointing out the instability of the nation. They didn't care about the inequality, they cared that there were protests and disruptions to production. As Opa wrote- the perception for the Nazis was that democracy was inefficient. In the dictatorship, there was no space for rebellion, only obedience. The Nazis flaunted their efficient obedience.
Opa wrote about the news of "the cruel, brutal and terroristic way in which they continue their systematic extermination of the Jews in Europe." This is a reminder to us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust, at least to some extent. Opa knew that the Nazis were both capable and willing to attempt the annihilation of the Jews. I'm not sure anyone believed just how successful they had been. When he typed that sentence, did he think of his Mom and wonder where she was and if she was safe?
I looked up some information on the race riots and found that the war provided an opportunity for the African Americans to participate in the war cause and advocate for their equal treatment at the same time. This, of course, made some white people very upset. In Detroit, when some African Americans were promoted to higher job positions, it was too much for some white people. I read this article from Time Life magazine (I encourage you to read it), and my favorite line is this one:
Seventy years after the Detroit riots, LIFE.com offers a series of photos from a great American city in turmoil — pictures that, whether we want to remember this slice of history or not, remind us that for a significant number of Americans, both then and now, allegiance to race trumps allegiance to country every time.
That line shook me. And how true it is.
So while this article of Opa's rubs me the wrong way, I believe the main reason is because it speaks the truth of where America was then, and is now. Race is still a marker for division rather than a celebration of diversity and nuance in our culture. War is still the dark innovator of all things: new technologies and hope for advances in equality (because we need something from "them"). When the war ends, will the minorities and women then be asked to step down, thank you for your temporary help, we don't need you anymore? (Yes they will.) I suppose an advance even for the wrong reasons can still result in a positive step forward despite ourselves.
But my God, how are we so crass and dumb as a human species?!
At the very least, Opa does point out the hypocrisy of America asking for Pacific Islanders to rally for their cause when they treat minorities in their own country so poorly. Why would the Islanders think they would be treated any differently? Of course there is a deeper scar when dealing with African Americans whose family trees were ripped apart and sold into slavery for generations. But for Japan and Germany, they can use this hypocrisy to their advantage. Japan can promise that they are the liberating power in the face of this powerful nation that mistreats even their own citizens. Germany can say that America doesn't have their act together after all, so the Allied powerhouse is not so strong after all.
This propaganda is especially dangerous, because there is truth in it. Democracy is built on diversity of people, opinion, and religion. If we as Americans decided that a certain people, opinion, or religion should be privileged over another, we lose a stronghold of our democracy. We start to chip away at it so we can be "more efficient." But a more efficient democracy in this vein, is simply a path to dictatorship.