It’s been quite a journey since the first hints of a new thought on the Civil Rights Movement came to Vassar Professor of History Maria Höhn. Twelve years ago, she published her book GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany, which included a chapter about the experience of black soldiers in Germany.
“I wasn’t going to pursue that [focus], but I started giving lectures and talks and there would always be African American veterans who fought in World War II. They heard me talk about the experience of black GIs in Germany and they said, ‘No one ever talks about this in the states. 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,’” says Höhn, the Marion Musser Lloyd '32 Chair of History and International Studies.
Fast forward to 2014 and the new documentary, Breath of Freedom, is showing on Smithsonian Channel and there’s a coordinated high school competition surrounding the film’s subject.
Named after Höhn’s book, which she co-wrote with Martin Klimke in 2010, the film details the participation in the Civil Rights struggle by many African American GIs who served in Germany.
The film offers insight into African American enrollment in the U.S. Armed Forces— seen by many as a way to escape poverty only to arrive to the segregated military and menial military jobs African Americans performed during much of WWII. The documentary offers commentary by several of the soldiers who served in Germany both during and after the war.
When U.S. forces finally made it into Germany, and Berlin in particular, the African American soldiers were in for a shock, according to Breath of Freedom. Not only because of the atrocities they witnessed—some liberated Buchenwald concentration camp—but also because of the freedom they experienced.
“They really got across this sense of freedom that African American GIs experienced being out of the Jim Crow South and the non-legal segregation of the North,” Höhn says of the film. “For black GIs, they wore these uniforms as liberators, so they had tremendous power that they didn’t have in their own country.”
Narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr., the film includes interviews with several veterans who served in Germany, including Colin Powell; U.S. Congressman John Lewis; Charles Evers, older brother to Medgar Evers; jazz musician Jon Hendricks; and former Tuskegee airman Roscoe Brown. Each describes experiences like being treated better by German people than by their own countrymen and being able to eat in any restaurant and shop in any store they wished. The veterans also witnessed that brutality could be visited upon non-blacks, too.
“You’ve gotta believe me, I wasn’t ready for that,” says veteran Leon Bass of the experience of visiting a concentration camp. Bass noted it was then he realized that there was suffering outside the African American experience.
Once the veterans returned from their service overseas, many became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and working with leaders such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Many took part in historical events, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” conflict on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
The film does credit to the history revealed in her book, says Höhn, who received the 2009 NAACP Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award, along with Klimke, for the book. For the past three years, Höhn has worked with the German filmmakers who first came to her with the idea of a documentary, then later with the Smithsonian when the organization got on board.
“This project is very close to my heart and I wanted to make sure it was told right,” Höhn says.
—Learn more about the film Breath of Freedom.
—Learn more information about the high school competition based on the film.
—Explore the digital archive that helped create Breath of Freedom.