Exhibit Review: Thurman on "Black Austria: The Children of African American Occupation Soldiers"

Kira Thurman Discussion

Museum Exhibit Review (July 2016)

SchwarzÖsterreich: Die Kinder afroamerikanischer Besatzungssoldaten. Special Exhibit. Volkskundemuseum (The Austrian Museum for Folk Life and Folk Art), Vienna, Austria (21 April -28 August 2016).

Niko Wahl, Philipp Rohrbach, and Tal Adler, eds. Die Kinder afroamerikanischer Besatzungssoldaten, Exhibition Catalog. Vienna: Löcker, 2016. 240 pp. Illustrations, Bibliography. 29.80 Euros (paper) ISBN 978-3-85409-802-7

Reviewed for H-Black-Europe by Kira Thurman, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor



Black Austria: The Children of African American Occupation Soldiers

Occupation children. Brown babies. Besatzungskinder. Mischlingskinder. In some ways, the history of “occupation babies” or “brown babies” has become a standard and well-integrated part of twentieth-century European history. Born of African American GIs and European women in the post-WWII era, these sons and daughters of American-European fraternization presented new challenges to Europe’s racial and national identities in the aftermath of an era consumed by racism itself (Nazi Europe). Books such as GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany, by Maria Höhn, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, by Mary Louise Roberts, Zwischen Fürsorge und Ausgrenzung: Afrodeutsche 'Besatzungskinder' im Nachkriegs-Deutschland, by Yara-Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria, Race after Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America, by Heide Fehrenbach, and Recasting Race after World War II: Germans and African Americans in American-Occupied Germany, by Timothy Schroer have done much of the investigative work in uncovering the lives, experiences, and encounters of Black American soldiers in Europe and the children born of their relations with European women.

Due to the translation and digitization efforts of organizations such as the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, for example, many of us now teach to our students how the West German state responded to the presence of mixed-race children in the immediate postwar years, how their anxieties about such children led to the creation of transnational adoption programs (thinking that biracial children would be better “among their own kind” back in the United States), to the establishment of social science research projects, and to the foundation of several orphanages in West Germany as well.

We know about these histories in part because the sons and daughters of Black soldiers and European women have made them known. In Germany, Black German writers, thinkers, and activists in the 1980s and 90s used their narratives to begin forming a collective Afro-German identity and establishing the current Afro-German movement. Telling their stories, in other words, became one way to help other Black Germans connect together and create a sense of a shared, collective identity.

Thus, it is quite remarkable that the exhibit SchwarzÖsterreich: Die Kinder afroamerikanischer Besatzungssoldaten is on display at the Volkskundemuseum in Vienna, Austria this summer (April 27 - August 21, 2016). As the first public exhibit in Austria to reflect on the history of Austria’s Black population, it is a milestone for Black people in Austria seeking to have their own identities and experiences acknowledged by the public. [1] Of the 30,000 children born between 1945 and 1955 (when the United States military left Austria), the number of biracial children is unclear. The people involved in the project were able to collect the names and information of about 400 of them. Although small in number, their presences speckled across towns, villages, and communities across Austria – from big cities such as Salzburg and Vienna to small towns in Upper Austria– were highly visible and nearly always controversial. [2]

Created by historians and curators Niko Wahl, Philipp Rohrbach, and Tal Adler, the idea for this exhibit first began in 2008 after an interview with a woman named Trudy Jeremias. Fleeing Vienna in 1938 at age 13, she and her family moved to the United States to escape the Nazis. In the 1950s, she worked as a flight attendant for a Belgian airline in New York City, and because she spoke German, she found herself as the welcome wagon for Austrian children who were arriving in the States to be adopted by American families. Many of them were Black. As Wahl and Rohrbach pieced together her stories, they began to assemble this research project on Black Austrians born in the postwar era.

Even the process of collecting stories from Austrian "occupation children" reveals how different the Austrian case was in comparison to other European countries. Upon learning that the researchers planned to organize this exhibit, many Black Austrians marveled that historians wanted to research them. As one Black Austrian named Freddie put it, “I’d always though that I was the only occupation baby. I would have liked to get to know more. What do they talk about? Are they like me? Did they also have bad experiences?” Like in West Germany and elsewhere, many “occupation children” were the only black girl or boy in their town and were not aware of any others like them. But what is striking about the Austrian case is how little Black Austrians knew about each other in their adult and senior years. Isolation defined their experiences as mixed-race people in Austria.

Located on the top floor of the Volkskundemuseum, the exhibit relies on a conventional narrative to explain the biographies of these Black Austrians. It documents how many Black Austrians' parents met, their subsequent birth and childhood, and then concludes by examining their adult years. Using interviews and historical materials – including the popular US military-issued book, “Austria: A Soldier’s Guide,” and US military documents detailing the lives and relations of African American soldiers – the opening panels establish the myriad experiences of Black soldiers and their Austrian girlfriends or wives in the postwar period. On display, for example, is a marriage petition from a black soldier to the US military on February 28, 1950, denied “on moral grounds.”

Moving through the space, the viewer then learns about the births and early years of Afro-Austrian children and the wildly differing experiences they had. Some children’s parents married and moved to the United States or Canada, others were given up for adoption in Austria and the United States, and others, of course, stayed with their families in Austria. The living conditions varied wildly. One woman named Sonja recalls residing in military barracks with her family and enjoying life on the big American settlement. Another woman named Peggy recalls a horrifying tale: “They told me about [my mother]: She was bad and acting like a prostitute. She did not want us. They found us eating poop out of the toilet. That is all I know. I do not know anything else about her.”

After exploring the early years of Black Austrians’ childhoods, the exhibit then charts the biographies of these “occupation children” who were given up for adoption in the United States or placed in orphanages in Austria. Each child’s experience depended greatly on the care he or she received in the orphanage. Some, such as Peggy, fondly recalled their stay in the children’s home, while others remembered being beaten by nuns over the color of their skin. For those who were adopted by black and white families in the United States, they faced new forms of discrimination. It is a mistake, the exhibit teaches us, to assume that each adopted child immediately settled and adjusted into a loving family in the United States. Even for the children of Black GIs and Austrian women who had married and migrated together as a single family unit to the States (which some would consider the ideal family situation), life in Jim Crow America was shocking and difficult.

One of the most engaging parts of the exhibit was a series of panels documenting Afro-Austrian children’s teenage and adult years. Using oral histories, photographs, magazines, and other materials, the panels dedicated much space to illustrating how they lived their lives as teenagers, how many fell in love, got married, and had children themselves. Graduation photos, wedding albums, 80s hair accessories, soccer team photos, and other materials show them experiencing many joyous milestones of adolescent life. The ordinariness or mundanity of the images themselves make a radical statement about the normality of black lives in white Austrian spaces. Like everyone else in Austria, the images suggest, they wore dirndls, went skiing, partied with friends, and celebrated weddings and baptisms.

The exhibit also highlighted how these children saw themselves in relation to the Black diaspora overall. Some felt keenly a strong Black identity; others did not think of themselves as Black at all. Some only discovered the extent of their blackness when they encountered other Black people in Austria (African Americans or others) or when they experienced racial antagonism and hostility from white Austrians (one Black woman explained tersely that her mother-in-law was a former Nazi who made her feel "welcome" - her quotation marks - in her home). Biracial children in the United States often found that they were too black for some and not black enough for others. Many Black Austrians shared stories about walking down streets in Linz or Vienna and hearing people say, “Look, mother! There is a Black person!” Some women tried to straighten their hair using flat irons in order to blend in better, and many men kept their hair short for the same reason. In their twenties, many Black Austrians in Austria sought to learn about African American history and culture as a form of self-empowerment.

Like in other cases across Western Europe, Black Austrians who did not know one or both of their biological parents often spent their adult years playing detective to find them. One stirring interview clip in the exhibit showed an Austrian man in his 50s or early 60s named Peter whose biological father had tracked Peter down when he was in his 30s. A cousin called him and said that his father was on the phone and wished to speak with him. Peter, recalling the experience, said he was overcome with emotions and asked he if he could have thirty minutes to process the news before he spoke with his father for the first time in his life. His father, it turned out, had been trying to find him for years, and wanted Peter to come to the United States for his sixtieth birthday party so he could finally meet the paternal side of his family.

One of the most compelling aspects to the entire exhibit was its use of contemporary Black Austrians to share the stories of the generation of “Besatzungskinder” in postwar Austria. Young black men and women like Sade, who was born in 1991 in the Waldviertel in Lower Austria, or Mahir, a 30-year-old DJ from Vienna, read out loud the testimony of this older generation of Black Austrians on screen at eighteen different locations in the exhibit, connecting the historical to the contemporary. Their stories, the young men and women on screen implied, are our stories, too.

It is somewhat fitting that one of the most important aspects to the entire exhibit  - the creation of a collective Black Austrian identity – was both present and absent at the Volkskundemuseum. The exhibit ended not by historicizing a moment when Black people in Austria began to come together to speak about their unique experiences as people of African descent and to form a movement similar to the Afro-German movement in West Germany, but rather by showing each individual in their own individual spaces, happily nestled into their own families, jobs, and lives. Unlike in West Germany, where Black people began to collectivize in the 80s and 90s, the museum exhibit implies that no such effort to establish a shared identity appears to have taken place in Austria. Black lives in Austria are still defined by isolation, fragmentation, and individual experience.

But the exhibit nonetheless points to a shared sense of self by using contemporary Black Austrians to express the stories and experiences of older generations. Older black women in the exhibit such as Rosemarie articulate this sense of shared identity, too, when she explains that “young [brown or mixed] people are so nice to me, they smile at me on the tram. They smile at me, and I smile back. I think that there is a connection, because they also see that I’m not white.” The emergence in recent years of social media outlets and magazines such as Fresh, M-Media, and other groups also moves Black Austrians and other racial and ethnic minorities closer to each other as well.

In the city of Vienna, where the museum exhibit is on display, the dominating presence of the Habsburg past has shaped postwar conversations on Austrian identity and who can claim it. For the first time since WWII, a far-right party might win a national election in Austria, and recent incidents of anti-black racism and xenophobia have provoked international outcry. The FPÖ’s strong placement in recent national elections has also tapped into a myth of Austrian whiteness to stoke fears of racial and ethnic Others invading the Alps. But this groundbreaking exhibit and the many generations of Black Austrians involved in it brilliantly illuminates that Black lives have existed throughout Austria’s turbulent twentieth-century history, and will continue to exist in the twenty-first century as well. Until the exhibit closes on August 28, the public has an opportunity to celebrate that.


[1]. The first conference on this topic took place in 2012 at the Diplomatische Akademie Wien.
[2]. For more information on the history of Black people in Austria, see Ingrid Bauer, "'Leiblicher Vater: Amerikaner (Neger)'. Besatzungskinder österreichisch-afroamerikaneischer Herkunft" in Früchte der Zeit: Afrika, Diaspora, Literatur, und Migration (Vienna, 2001); Nancy Nenno, "Here to Stay: Black Austrian Studies" in New Perspectives in Black German Studies, edited by Tiffany Florvil and Vanessa Plumly (New York: Peter Lang, forthcoming); Walter Sauer, Expeditionen ins afrikanische Österreich: Ein Reisekaleidoskop (Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2014); Walter Sauer, ed., Von Soliman bis Omofuma. Geschichte der afrikanischen Diaspora in Österreich 17. bis 20. Jahrhundert (Innsbruck-Wien-Bozen: Studien Verlag, 2007).