African American Civil Rights Leaders and the East German Dictatorship
In “Convenient Partnerships? African American Civil Rights Leaders and the East German Dictatorship,” Anja Werner discusses another unlikely ideological alliance, this time between Civil Rights and Black Power activists in the US on the one hand and East German political leaders on the other. Since the 1980s, there has been a vivid scholarly interest in the subject of Black Germany and connecting points between Civil Rights activism of African Americans and both West and East Germans. However since the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been renewed interest in African American activists interaction with the communist East German dictatorship. This paper traces W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Angela Davis, and Martin Luther King Jr. during visits in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) mainly between 1959 and 1981. It juxtaposes a close reading of the Black leaders’ motives with the goals and expectations of the East German dictatorship, revealing that both sides used the media attention that their contacts garnered to further their respective agendas. For African Americans—rather than allowing themselves to be used by the communist cause—it meant to draw international attention to the American race problem and thus to pressure the US government during the Cold War. For the East German communists, it was meant to boost their standing in the Western world at a time when the GDR was striving for international recognition beyond the Eastern Bloc. However, while the GDR dictatorship attempted to control African Americans’ perception among the East German population, they ultimately failed on account of the force of the Black freedom fight, revealing deeply rooted underlying racism, and thus, belying the claim that the communist bloc had been more successful in uprooting it.
Keywords: African American activism, Communist dictatorship, Cold War, Black Freedom Struggle, Black Germany