black history: over 1 million african soldiers fought in wwii, many of them forcibly conscripted & thrown onto the front lines
February 2, 2018
By Lewam Dejen / BlackYouthProject, AFROPUNK contributor
As a Black woman, a diasporic transplant and a student in and of the West, I find myself in a sunken place within traditions of “collective history.” I am nowhere in the stories to which I devoted my everything. Many marginalized people know the struggle of holding tightly onto what decidedly unsees us, just to survive. Excel at English lit—where your unfair skin and wisp-less hair never grace the page. Love film—though most plot devices are unrecognizable, there is blackface all across early Hollywood, and you know that this was never meant for your enjoyment. Keep feasting—pick out the bones, splintering your insides with the ones you could not catch.
History is a treasure of lost stories, and finding them was always deliciously interesting throughout childhood. But this appetite also led me to discover that a certain kind of lost story is what brought me to where I am: stories that have been made lost.
Sprightly American boys sporting thick helmets, fear and love of country; harrowing images of Nazi concentration camps; Hollywood’s finest storming the beaches of Normandy. These are the images many of us ingested and digested in our imaginations of World War II, from Saving Private Ryan to Tora! Tora! Tora!. Though perhaps containing some truth in their own right, their massive dominance in mainstream media rips gaping holes in our collective memory of this historic moment in the service of Western supremacy.
By teaching me to grow up believing World War II was about white valor, these stories leave holes in my own family history. According to them, only colonized soldiers were on the front lines. They died first; they lost limbs and their families weeped; they returned home and experienced psychological fissures; they saw new worlds and brought them home.
In reality, both World Wars disrupted Africa deeply. In the first, women and children served exhaustively as labor forces for German & British soldiers, sometimes to their death. Two million Africans were involved in the war in total, and approximately one million died.
Both of my grandfathers are from the southern Eritrean town of Senafe and, seeking employment for their families’ sake, fought on opposing sides of World War II. My father’s father was an Italian colonial soldier, and mother’s father a British one. At the time, Mussolini segregated Eritrea into the world’s first apartheid system. Eritreans sat in the back of theaters, barred from most establishments, and they were often instructed not to look at an Italian in the eye or walk on the same side of the street. Their stories of fighting amongst their aggressors are only a few of many.
Over one million African soldiers fought in World War II. Many of them were conscripted, often forcibly so, and thrown onto the front lines.
The first published literary text in Tigrinya (Eritrea’s predominant language) devoted itself to warning Eritrean men against fighting in the war for the men who whipped and belittled them. Many Africans returned home to a damaged economy that their small wages earned during the war did little within (if they were even successfully retrieved).
Senegalese-born Ousmane Sembène, who is remembered as the “Father of African Cinema,” recognized this gaping chasm in remembrance and gave it a provocative spin in his movie Camp de Thiaroye. One of the most impressionable themes in Sembène’s film is the parallel he constructs between the French soldiers at Thiaroye, a transit camp holding African soldiers, and Nazi Germany’s perpetrators.
This theme easily extends to parallels between Western colonial powers in Africa and Nazi Germany. Sembène applies several filmic strategies to cement this idea—from Camp Thiaroye’s triggering effect on a former German POW, to low-angle shots of guard towers referencing those of Nazis, and finally explicit remarks made by the film’s protagonist. Sembène thus tears down conventional notions of Allied heroism with a heavy undercurrent that finally meets the surface so that his audience finds the comparison nearly impossible to not entertain, if not advocate for.
However, Sembène (a former colonial soldier himself) moves beyond a binary of good versus evil. There is Raymond, a rather sympathetic white officer, and the corporal, an ill-tempered African soldier. What the film instead focuses on, particularly through cinematographic efforts, are the objectified representations of abuse and racial segregation, perhaps to emphasize the systemic form evil often takes.
With this strategy, Sembène also offers an explanation for how events as sinister as the Holocaust and the colonization of African peoples occurred, and how they are more kindred than we may believe.
Following the Allies’ victory in World War II, Britain stole weaponry and resources from Eritrea before annexing and handing the territory to Ethiopian powers, with no regard for the popular opinion of the Eritrean people. My paternal grandfather lost a leg in battle, a common occurrence for other Eritrean ascari soldiers who were often put on the front lines with outdated guns and defense. You tell me who their enemies were.
My request is not that Hollywood giants produce films from these soldiers’ point of view, as the attempt would likely lack essential nuance. What I am asking is that we acknowledge the depth of historical bleaching that turned and still turns many invisible. I ask that we direct resources toward international filmmakers and those with Global Southern connections to tell their own communities’ stories. We deserve a voice, because history tells us who we are, and because the history-telling of those who have written erasive histories tells us who they are.
“World War in Africa“, CNN
Fighting for Britain, David Killingray
I Didn’t Do It For You, Michela Wrong
Camp de Thiaroye, Ousmane Sembene
This post is in partnership with BlackYouthProject.
Lewam Dejen is an emerging writer and media professional. She focuses on identifying roots beneath, and connections between, politics, culture, and art- particularly as it pertains to Black people. She was raised in the DMV and earned a B.A. in International Relations at Stanford University with a minor in Film & Media Studies. Film is a great love of hers.
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