During the Second World War the French and later Free French armies relied on soldiers from France’s vast overseas empire. Historian Ruth Ginio estimates that, in addition to the standing army of 50,000 African soldiers, another 100,000 were mobilized as World War II approached and 100,000 more were later mobilized by General De Gaulle’s Free French forces. In total some 15,000 African soldiers were captured and 20,000-25,000 were killed fighting against Nazi Germany. Although these troops served with distinction, they suffered systemic abuse from the Germans, including outright murder when taken prisoner, and they were denied proper recognition for their service after the war.
Black prisoners of war were deployed in German propaganda refuting the Allies’ claim to represent civilization against German barbarity. Using tactics familiar from anti-Semitic and anti-American materials, filmmakers used facial close-ups and depictions of cultural practices (e.g. dances or the butchering of animals) to highlight a presumed distance from European civilization. This reinforced the underlying message, one that still resonated three decades after the start of the First World War, that using colonial soldiers to fight a war in Europe was a cultural offence against the white race.
Newsreels like the one below reflect the tactics used to dehumanize Black prisoners of war for propaganda purposes, but they cannot entirely efface the prisoners’ humanity and resistance. They are ambivalent sources, testifying to African soldiers’ service and their suffering.
Source: Romano Archives, “1940 African POWs of the French Army Filmed by the Nazis,” YouTube.
Prisoners of War (1939-40) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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