Gustav Sabac el Cher (1868-1934) was a Black musician in the Prussian army who drew attention wherever he was posted. Although the incorporation of Black men into German military forces had a long history, in the Age of Empire the visibility of men like Sabac el Cher led to racist public attacks in the press and in the Reichstag.
As the newspaper report below explains, Sabac el Cher was the target of one such attack printed in a right-wing newspaper, the Deutsche Zeitung. The offending piece followed an article that railed against an apparent lack of racial pride, the author expressing his outrage at the prospect of white German soldiers receiving orders from Black men. A reader then sent a letter offering Sabac el Cher as a scandalous case study, misrepresenting the place of his birth and his education, associating him with a deplorable Americanism in popular music, and suggesting that the married man was nevertheless consorting with other white German women. Note the response by Sabac el Cher’s commander, who highlights his German birth and education and his utter respectability, which is reflected in this newspaper report’s description of Sabac el Cher’s impressive bearing in court.
Ultimately the court ruled in Sabac el Cher’s favor, but it is worth noting that the ruling was against the untruths sent in by the letter-writer rather than the initial racist screed.
— Berlin. The Black staff oboist Sabac el Cher from the Grenadier-Regiment Grenadier-Regiment Crown Prince (1st E. Prussian) Nr. 1 in Königsberg in Prussia came before the District Court Berlin Mitte as private complainant against the editor of the “Deutsche Zeitung” Erich Peterson. The Black band leader, who came for the trial from Königsberg in full uniform, is a tall, very impressive man who is very popular in Königsberg. He feels himself slandered by a “Letter” that the “D. Ztg.” has published. Under the heading “More Racial Pride” the “D. Ztg.” published (number 245, 18 October 1907) a lead article that addresses the question, whether it is appropriate and necessary that in the German army there are Blacks in positions to give orders. The question was answered with a decided “no.” Following this article there appeared a “Letter,” in which the author expressed full agreement with the points of the lead article and backed up the position against coloured officers in the German army, illustrated through the case of band leader Sabac el Cher. Among other things, it said: it is a scandal how this “nigger” conducts a German band in concert halls and on streets and plazas. The band leader was imported as a boy by a German prince and housed at his expense. The attractive Black man is married, but nevertheless is the target of infatuated beautiful women. In his conducting he cannot escape the distinctively nigger style of dance movement, he defiles German music, etc.
In response to this article, the Colonel and Commander of the Grenadier-Regiment Crown Prince, von Massow, sent a published report (printed in number 47 last year, p. 679, “Miscellaneous”) that decidedly rejected the attacks. It says therein: The staff oboist Sabac el Cher was born in Berlin and was educated from youth in German schools. His mother was a Berliner and only his father came from Lower Egypt. He had enjoyed a theoretical and practical musical education foundation and concluded his studies most successfully at the Royal Academy of Berlin, under the most important teachers and conductors, etc. This report was published, the slandered party however continued the private suit. The accused assured the court that the matter only concerned the facts and that he in no way intended personal slander.
However, the court considered the slander to be formally present and ruled that the accused must pay a 20 Mark fine.
Source: “Allerlei,” Deutsche Militärmusiker-Zeitung 30:11 (13 März 1908), 129. Translated by Jeff Bowersox.
Special thanks to Tobias Fasshauer for finding and generously sharing this source with Black Central Europe.
Gustav Sabac el Cher sues a newspaper for racist slander and wins (1908) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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