POUGHKEEPSIE - In 2002 Vassar history professor Maria Höhn published the book GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany (UNC Press), exploring the experiences between German women and U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany post-WWII. The book included only one chapter about how black soldiers fit into that unique time and place; little could Höhn have imagined what revealing just that slice of the larger history would bring about, including the new documentary "A Breath of Freedom" which premiered on the Smithsonian Channel on Monday, February 17, at 8:00pm Eastern.
Narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr., and featuring interviews with such prominent black veterans as former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, "A Breath of Freedom" tells the little known story of the unexpected freedom African-American GIs experienced in occupied and Cold War West Germany while racial segregation was still legal and the norm in much of the U.S. Powell was a young Army lieutenant stationed in Germany in 1959, and he later referred to this experience as a "breath of freedom" in his autobiography My American Journey. He remarks in the new documentary how despite the civil rights gains being made in the U.S. at the time, black soldiers "were in many ways better off when we were stationed in Germany."
Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, Charles Evers (older brother of civil rights leader Medgar Evers), former Tuskegee airman Roscoe Brown, and famed jazz vocalist John Hendricks are among the many African-American veterans interviewed in the film. They recount, for example, how it felt to be treated better by Germans than by their own officers and comrades as well as countrymen back home. "They wore the uniform of the victor nation, and because of the U.S. military policy of democratization in Germany, all Nazi racial laws had been repealed," explained Höhn. "Thus, they could eat at any restaurant and shop in any store they chose." Among other subjects in the film, the veterans also discuss their confrontation with Nazi racism in the liberated concentration camps in Germany, and the impact of witnessing how Nazi brutality was visited upon Jews and other minorities.
Höhn explains that when revising her doctoral dissertation for publication (what would become her book GIs and Fräuleins), "I started giving lectures and talks and there would always be African American veterans there who fought in World War II. They heard me talk about the experience of black GIs in the war and occupied Germany and they said, ‘No one ever talks about this in the U.S. We sort of have been written out of the Greatest Generation.’ They were saying, ‘We were there, we helped liberate the country from Nazism, but nobody tells our story,’" she said.
This led to Höhn’s acclaimed follow-up book with co-author Martin Klimke A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (Palgrave, 2010). Combined with the book’s companion website and photo exhibition, this research project earned Höhn and Klimke the 2009 NAACP Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award, becoming the first academic project ever chosen for this honor.
Poughkeepsie residents Joe McPhee (now a world renowned jazz saxophonist) and Walter Patrice (the first African-American from his hometown to be commissioned as an officer) were among several black veterans interviewed for Höhn’s book A Breath of Freedom. Both were also later interviewed for the film that premieres February 17 on the Smithsonian Channel.
"I have always been interested in my scholarship reaching beyond academia," said Höhn. "As historical consultant for the film, I probably most enjoyed thinking through with the director Dag Fryer what the narrative arc for this ‘story’ could be. How could this complicated transnational history be told without footnotes? Does the story end in the 1950s or will it be taken to the 1960s, or even up to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration?"
About the documentary that resulted, "I was impressed that Fryer and his team managed to get Congressman John Lewis to participate, and thrilled that Colin Powell agreed to share his observation on the ‘breath of freedom’," Höhn commented.
She continued, "The production team also found many exciting new African American veteran voices, which confirmed the argument of my research. I also connected them with many of the veterans my Vassar students and I had interviewed for the book A Breath of Freedom. Truth be told, it was most moving for me was to see ‘my vets’ in the film, whether Walter Patrice and Joe McPhee, Leon Bass from Philadelphia, or Milton Johnson from Long Island along with his wife Charlotte. The Johnsons met in Germany and were married in 1947, and they did not always have an easy life in the U.S. as an interracial couple," she said.
"A Breath of Freedom" will also be screened at the United States Military Academy at West Point and at USAREUR (United States Army Europe Headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany) in honor of Black History Month. This fall a German version of the documentary will air on the German and French TV channel ARTE. An invitation-only preview screening will shortly be held at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and plans for a Poughkeepsie screening are being finalized.