Hans Massaquoi is confronted with a ‘people show’ (ca. 1929)

Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi (1926-2013) was born in Hamburg, the son of a white German nurse and a Black Liberian businessman. He grew up in the house of his grandfather, Momoulu Massaquoi who was both the Liberian Consul-General in Hamburg and also an important contact for Black travellers to Germany. He and his mother remained in Germany when political trouble took his father and grandfather back to Liberia, and they had to accustom themselves both to the realities of a working-class lifestyle and to the rise of the Nazis. Massaquoi wanted to fit in with his friends, but soon the realities of life under Hitler made it clear that his skin color would make his life difficult and occasion much soul-searching about his identity. While his life became more dangerous, at the same time, he found it possible to maintain close relationships that protected him through to the end of the war.  After the war, he travelled to the United States, joined the US Army, and later earned a journalism degree. He became an important media figure, rising eventually to become the managing editor of Ebony magazine. His 1999 autobiography, written in English and translated into German and later produced as a two-part tv movie (2006), offered a unique insight into the everyday experiences of growing up black in Weimar and Nazi Germany. 

In this passage, Massaquoi recounts an encounter with a “people show” (Völkerschau) at the Hamburg zoo when he was less than four years old. It is not clear exactly which exhibition Massaquoi is remembering. Hilke Thode-Arora notes that he could be referring to a visit by a troupe of Oromo to the zoo in May 1929 or perhaps a group of Somalis who travelled with Hagenbeck’s circus but never performed in the zoo, or he could refer to a 1931 visit by dark-skinned Pacific islanders. Regardless of the precise encounter, he describes a profoundly upsetting experience for a small boy. Not only did he recognize the fraudulent caricature on display, of Africans who looked nothing like his relatives, but he was himself suddenly drawn into a public spectacle of racial otherness in what had been a familiar space.

Jeff Bowersox


“Culture Show” at Hagenbeck Zoo

One of the most popular attractions for Hamburgers, both young and old, was Hagenbecks Tierpark (animal park), the internationally famous zoo in suburban Stellingen. Named for its innovative founder, Carl Hagenbeck, it reputedly was the world’s first zoo where wild animals could be viewed in spacious outdoor runs patterned after their natural habitats instead of in cramped cages and behind bars. A confirmed Hagenbeck fan, I was in full agreement when Mutti suggested one day that it was time for another visit to the zoo. this time, she had arranged for a fellow nurse’s daughter, Ingeborg, a somewhat brattish but otherwise cute girl my age, to come along.

As soon as we arrived at the zoo after a lengthy streetcar ride, Ingebord demanded to see the Indianer (Native Americans). My mother and I had never heard of people being exhibited at an animal park, but Ingeborg insisted that on her last visit she had seen real live “Indians.” When my mother asked the zoo guide whether there were any Indians to be seen, he told her they were fresh out of Indians but that there was an equally interesting African exhibit, just a few minutes’ walk away. The guide explained that the “primitive people” exhibits were part of Hagenbeck’s famous “Culture Shows.”

Ingeborg and I were disappointed, as we had looked forward to seeing Indians attired in resplendent feather headgear, but we agreed to settle for the African exhibit alhtough none of us had the slightest idea of what to expect. I was totally unprepared for what we found. After walking past spectacular exhibits of monkeys, giraffes, lions, elephants, and other African wildlife, we arrived at the “African Village,” replete with half a dozen or so thatch-roofed clay huts and peopled, we were told, by “authentic Africans.” Like the animal exhibits, the “village” was bordered by a chest-high wooden fence to keep the viewers out and the viewees in. The only thing that distinguished the human exhibit from the animal exhibits was the absence of the deep, water-filled moat that separated men from beasts.

Except for their skin color and hair, the Africans on display looked nothing like my relatives or any of the Africans I had met at my grandfather’s house. All of the villagers were barefoot and dressed in tattered rags. Two women, draped in dingy-looking cloths, were rhythmically pounding a heavy wooden stick into a mortar. A guide explained that they were making corn four in preparation for their dinner. The men were sitting around in small groups, intently watching the spectators while chatting away in an unintelligible language between puffs from short, primitive-looking pipes. It was difficult to say who was more interested in whom, the Africans in the Europeans or the Europeans in the Africans. Each group studied the other across the wooden fence with the same undisguised curiosity.

Suddenly, something happened that I had feared from the moment I caught sight of the exhibit. Despite the fact that I had carefully tried to stay in the background in order to see without being seen, one of the Africans spotted me in the crowd. All at once the entire village took notice of me. The two women stopped pounding and the men stopped puffing. As if they had seen a long-lost relative, they were all pointing and grinning at me.

Desperately, I tried to hide behind one of the spectators, but to no avail. Tipped off by the Africans’ finger-pointing, one of the zoo visitors spun around and, after realizing what the Africans’ excitement was all about, pointed his own stubby index finger at me. “Look!” he altered his female companion. “Here’s one of their kinds.” This set off a chain reaction among the rest of the spectators until everyone, both African and German, was looking at me.

Just when I felt that I would die from embarrassment for having been mistaken for one of “them,” Mutti grabbed me and Ingeborg by the hand, and, over Ingeborg’s protest, quietly led us away.

Later that evening, after we were home alone, my mother told me that I had no reason to feel embarrassed at the zoo. The Africans we saw, she explained, were simple but good people from the hinterland who deserved to be pitied rather than ridiculed. She suspected that they had been tricked by somebody into leaving their homeland and appearing in the exhibit. Mutti made me understand that even if the Africans had not been taken by force to Germany, it was still terribly wrong to display human beings in a zoo behind fences and side by side with animals. “I can’t understand the mentality of people who let something like that happen and who see nothing wrong with it,” she said over and over.

As much as we both liked the zoos, my mother and I vowed that evening never to set foot on Hagenbecks Tierpark again. I kept that vow for about fifteen years until after the war, when, as a young man, I obliged a young lady when she asked me to take her to Hagenbeck. The zoo was still largely the way I remembered it from my childhood, but, not to my surprise, the “African Village” had disappeared.

Source: Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 24-6. ©HarperCollins.

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