We read everywhere that European Third-Worldism in 1968 was pure escapism, a flight from domestic realities, a naïve projection of the idea that the “revolution was elsewhere,” seasoned with an unsavory exoticism. West German Third Worldism is often held up as one such case of bad internationalism–a neurotic, probably sexual cathexis with the icons of Che, Mao and Ho—held in contrast to the supposedly less problematic and even-tempered mobilizations around human rights in later decades. But the Third World was not only present in West Germany’s 1968 in two dimensions—the poster, the press photograph, the grainy footage from the Vietnamese frontlines. The Global South lived, breathed, studied, worked and debated on German campuses, in German factories, in German hospitals and in German streets. Among the most vocal were African students, who helped West Germans become aware of the larger world. They created a collaborative politics that revolved around question that remain relevant today: how to act in solidarity with those suffering at a great distance? Can you be in solidarity with a dead body?
The 1960s witnessed a turn: at the beginning of the decade, African students spoke for themselves, and often articulated their claims in the abstract terms of national selfdetermination, political freedoms and human dignity. By the end of the decade, bludgeoned by the brutalization of the war in Vietnam, white West German radicals had largely taken over the African cause.
They used images of black bodies—suffering, fighting and dead—to stimulate public attention and spark enlightenment and action. While African students appealed to a collective self-understanding as political members of a world community, West German students, in their reliance on imagery of the body, appealed in effect to a biological solidarity, a common status as physical human beings, as the basis for mobilization. These two strategies, of abstract claims to rights and justice on the one hand, and the shocking language of images on the other, always contained the risk of running at crosspurposes. While one campaign was intent on restoring and protecting the dignity of the African, the other sought to expose and even exaggerate the indignity of the present situation as a spur to change.
Crystallizing in the figure of the African body, this tension brings up questions not asked at the time, about how images of the body should be used: Could images of the unjustly murdered African be viably used as a device of shock? Could this visual stimulation lead theoretically to a deeper political understanding or act as an impetus to action? To what extent should the African cause be fought in the language of law and rights and to what extent in the language of brutal imagery?
This text compares the political efforts of African students—primarily in their most visible action in the blocking of the West Berlin screening of the Mondo shockumentary film Africa Addio in 1966—with the solidarity efforts of white West Germans.
Independent Africa made its most visible debut in the West German mainstream and leftwing with the conflict in the Congo at the beginning of the 1960s. The UN intervention, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and the use of white mercenaries by Lumumba’s opponents, including former Nazis, reverberated in the early days of West German New Left.
After his death, Lumumba’s face was featured on the cover of Der Spiegel as well as the widely-read left-wing monthly Konkret. Konkret printed the portrait with one word, Mord, murder. West German and African students carried the cover in protests against the continuing West German support of Lumumba’s chief opponent Moise Tshombe.
Preceding the later trinity of Ho, Mao and Che, Lumumba was the first face from the Third World to act iconically for an emerging student movement, defining itself in part in its solidarity with emancipatory movements in the former colonies. Lumumba was also instrumentalized in the Soviet Bloc, with the renaming of the university in Moscow in the year of his death. With obvious symbolism, in a meeting of the German African Student Union in 1962, the representative of African students from East Germany presented his West German counterpart with an enormous portrait of the former Congolese president. The image of Lumumba had quickly become a marker of moral authority and political rectitude.
The Congo issue also led to the first violent clash with the police in the West German student movement, in 1964 with the protest against Tshombe‘s visit. What Berlin SDS leader Rudi Dutschke called retrospectively “the beginning of our cultural revolution,” the Tshombe protests marked the advent of a period in the student movement in Berlin, in particular, which began to incorporate more frequent acts of a “limited breaking of the rules.”
In Dutschke’s journals, he recalls the key moment in which demonstrators broke through the police line of restraint and into the “no protest zone” around the City Hall in Schöneberg: “Our friends from the Third World jumped immediately into the breach, it was up to the Germans to follow…A black colleague from the Otto Suhr Institut [the political science department at the Free University] wanted to storm into the city hall, I stopped, don’t know exactly why. It couldn’t be counted out that there were armed guards in the hall.”
In Dutschke’s account, African students acted as a physicalized vanguard, a radical, unpredictable contrast and goad to the disciplines of West German student protest. But who were these African students and what were they doing in West Germany? How typical was this physical, even aggressive form of protest for them?
At the end of the 1950s, West Germany had experienced what one sympathetic observer called an “invasion of students from the Afro-Asian countries” being offered stipends and spaces at universities as part of the West German development project and the state attempt to woo non-aligned countries away from the Soviet bloc. The figure of the Afro-Asian student became on object of immediate concern for experts in social science and government. Perhaps the biggest source of anxiety was that students from developing countries would become “Westernized” to use the word they used—oriented toward the values, expectations and attitudes of the industrialized countries.
Summing up the feelings on both sides, a West German student government leader quoted an African professor from Kampala University as having said: “There is nothing more monstrous than a Black European.” For most, the world imaginary and the world’s population of the 1960s had been finally divided after a period of long struggle, from its previous empires into discrete nations. Border crossings were by definition only temporary. One ventured beyond the nation to return to the nation and enrich its development. In practice, however, foreign students expanded this model of the world imaginary through their own political activity. Students from Africa and Asia used the space of West German civil society to bring attention to injustices in their home countries and to practice a critique which was often impossible at home.
Despite the constant threat of deportation, many foreign students put themselves in precarious situations by acting for political causes, primarily in the much less glamorous, less public and perhaps therefore less enduring in the historical memory, form of protest of the early 1960s, circulating leaflets, leading informational teach-ins and writing letters of protest. The primary causes were the infringement on the rights of self-determination by the continuing colonial rule of the Portuguese and the racist administration in South Africa but students from some countries, including Iraq and Iran began to focus on the shortcomings of their own home governments.
The physicality of the Tshombe demonstration in 1964 was the exception rather than the rule. Typical protest took more this form, as a letter, from the African Student Union at the University of Aachen in 1963, protesting the West German support of the fascist Portuguese Salazar regime reading: “we appeal to the conscience of the students and the German population for whom human life means something to protest against the totalitarianism, cynicism and barbarism of Portuguese colonialism and to demand freedom and independence for our brothers in Angola and the other Portuguese colonies of Africa.”
The most prominent public political action by African students came in 1966 with the attempted screening of the film Africa Addio. Also known as Good Bye Africa, Africa Adieu, and in its shortened release for the exploitation market in the United States Africa Blood and Guts, Africa Addio was made by the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. Jacopetti and Prosperi had made a name for themselves in 1962 with the release of the controversial Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World), a documentary montage of eccentric and often brutal human practices from bull fighting to self-flagellation and animal sacrifice. The film, with as some critics have noted, its loose genealogy to Italian neo-realism of the 1950s paired with the sexual and the exotic, launched a sub-genre of Mondo “shockumentary” films that continue to be made to this day.
Africa Addio was Jacopetti and Prosperi’s follow-up for Mondo Cane, for which they had spent three years filming in Africa. The film was banned in England but had received the designation of “being of value” by the West German Film censors according to which it could be screened free of the normal luxury taxes. The film advertisements featured a black woman wrapped in furs but exposing her legs to the viewer. The copy plugged it as “more exciting and interesting than detective and agent films” showing “never before seen images of an unimaginable reality.”
The film itself used the Mondo technique of combining ostensibly bizarre juxtapositions of civilization and primitiveness–British colonials preparing for a fox hunt with all the usual accoutrements, only to reveal that the “fox” is in fact an African running through fields pulling a scented rag; an African politician’s microphone being knocked over by a passing herd of goats; a dignified European church ceremony interspliced with shots of wildly dancing Africans in traditional clothing—with scenes of pure gore—lengthy scenes of animal slaughter and dismemberment and aerial shots of massacred Arabs on the island of Zanzibar. The movie had already caused a furor before its Berlin premiere with accusations in an Italian newspaper that the execution of rebels had been delayed until the cameraman had changed his lenses and found the right light.
Using their own bodies against the undignified portrayal of black bodies, African and West German students forcibly prevented the film from being screened at its Berlin premiere on the Kurfürstendamm on August 2, 1966. Shouting “Remove it!” and “Murderers” throughout, around fifty African and West German students stormed the stage late in the film during the scene of an execution of a Congolese youth.
The dramatic image of an African student, identified in Der Spiegel as Nigerian Adekunle Ajala holding the two sides of the curtain with outstretched arms was reprinted in the Berlin dailies in the following days. While the Tagesspiegel article described him as “attempting to close the curtains” and the demonstrators as both West Germans and Africans the Bild-Zeitung identified the protesters only as Africans and captioned the same photo “An African tears down the curtains.” Clearly for the Bild Zeitung like Rudi Dutschke, the African student was a physical wild card, an impulsive political actor. In a following attempt to screen the film, one thousand students gathered in protest with fortythree being arrested.
Going beyond their physical interventions, the demonstrators sought to have the film removed through legal means. They formed a committee of two West Germans and two Africans, and began a legal action to charge the theater with “libel and an attack on human dignity.” Outside the theatre, African students handed out flyers calling for the “prevention of bloodthirsty frenzy, sadism, barbarity and gassings.” In answering the question of why he was demonstrating, a medical student from Ghana told the newspapers: “I’m fighting against the fact that this film portrays us Africans as we lived a hundred years ago or even earlier.”
In a public discussion with the students a couple months later, an “Africa expert” was quoted in Die Welt as saying : “In order to discount those who saw Jacopetti’s film as fabrication, a racist botch job and colonialist propaganda, I tried myself to recount something of the reality of Africa, which is often much more horrible and merciless as some scenes of the film. I explained to them that in Africa, other laws apply and that it has be by measured by other standards than ours.” The point of the students was exactly to counter the relativism: to insist that the same standards and expectations did apply across cultures, and to defend a basis of dignity and human rights.
The critical response to the film itself was not kind. The Tagesspiegel reviewer asked “who doesn’t remember here the amateur footage of the execution of Jews in Poland and Russia?” saying “it demonstrates an alarming degree of sensual brutalization to make such scenes available to a wide public, for them to bathe visually in blood and disgust – supposedly because of the documentary value, obviously also for the perverse thrill…should such a film be given the designation “of value”?
In defense of its decision, the West German censors appealed to the potentially edifying effect of witnessing scenes of brutality, saying “the viewer receives an insight into the horrible, until now largely un-dealt with chaos on the African continent and is confronted with the entity of the African human in a new, often startling way. The hard shock effect of the film provokes an unaccustomed-to yet perhaps beneficial insight into the reality of the black continent.”
As suspect as this explanation sounds, it was actually the precise reason for the escalating number of images of dead and mutilated Third World bodies in the mid-1960s: as a part of symbolic politics, visual shock was to lead to edification and mobilization. To use a direct comparison, the specific image of an execution in the Congo, which had initiated the rush to the screen and disruption of Africa Addio had been printed in the pages of the left-wing magazine Konkret a year before as a gesture of protest against the actions of European mercenaries in Africa
Much more graphic than the images from the film, the photograph was accompanied by a caption from Bertolt Brecht’s Kanonensong about soldiers overseas from the Three Penny Opera excerpting the line that reads, in translation: “and if it rained and they encountered a race with brown or pale faces…” and ends “..then they would make out of them perhaps their beef tartare.”
The allusion to cannibalism, the relating of the Third World body to food as the sign of their maximum dehumanization, their entire loss of dignity, was not uncommon in the 1960s protest movement, although usually related to the war in Vietnam. The change in discourse around Africa can only be understand within the context of the circulation and multiplication of images from the Vietnam War as it escalated in brutality from 1965 onward.
Some protesters only coped with the enormity of the events through bitter satire. One student magazine published a piece in 1967 on the “smell of the cooked East Asian child”: “My nose distinguishes between free order and terror. When the smell of the baked East Asian child rises, I know that freedom is not far away and: that it must be so….The free democratic order is something so ultimately precious that it can only be bought with our greatest possible sacrifice. Whatever our opponents want to declare…we will only appear as windbags if we are not prepared to cook North American children. We only prove, that freedom is not the highest good for us, not of the utmost worth. The day will come…on which we will run out of East Asian children. Also Soviet children and the children of Africa. And what then?”
In a sort of Modest Proposal plus dependency theory, the author lays out a grisly mathematics, in which the freedom of some relies on the literal cooking of others. The murdered bodies of the children of Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union and Africa are conjured up as the conditions of possibility for the Western “free democratic order.”
In other examples of the increasingly bodily protest in the late 1960s, members of the famous Kommune I were brought to court for a flyer they put out in the wake of a fatal department store fire in Belgium, proposing among other things that the fire had actually been part of a “new and unconventional” American advertising campaign “imparting for the first time in a European metropolis that crackling Vietnam feeling (to be there and to burn along with) that we’ve had to miss in Berlin up till now.” Protest signs showed blow-ups of partially dissolved Vietnamese faces with the black comedic slogan “Napalm – this is how the US saves face in Vietnam.”
A protest in 1969 by a group called Kommune 99 about the war in Biafra appealed to the dead African body again in a way that highlights the tension in rhetoric. In an action they called “Antigone,” West German demonstrators walked down the Kurfürstendamm with coffins, collecting money for the burial of those killed in the Biafran Conflict. Connecting the indifference of the West German population to their addiction to Nigerian oil, the illustration for the action included an image of the African continent turned into a head with blood draining out as oil into the tanks of European motorists.
The transmogrification of the head recalls the cover for the DVD re-issue of Africa Addio, which turned the continent into a human skull, turning the iconic Cuban OSPAAAL image of Lumumba into its fleshless inverse.
The image also recalls a German advertisement from 2006, which turned the eyes of a black man into literal coin-slots for the putatively German donor, his head turned back into a hyperrealistic version of the “Nickneger” charity boxes that once sat in German churches. Though he seems alive, the affixing of coin slots to his face suggests he is only hyperrealistic: a corpse come coinbox. A question floats over all of this black flesh represented, reproduced and brandished by white political actors: can one be in solidarity with a dead body?
In the late 1960s, the West Berlin Biafran Student Union of Nigerian students appealed to the government and the public to speak out against the civil war. Their protest took the form of a letter, without graphic illustrations and without (self)-transmogrifications. Throughout the 1960s, actual Africans were less willing to let images stand in for their own words, to act as icons of generic or even particular suffering. Rather than occupying a symbolic space outside of language—as bodies—they fought for space within the realm of argument and the claims of law.
The corpse image is not just another instrument in the toolbox of public mobilization. From the 1960s up to our present moment, enabled by ever more technological prostheses for vision, multiplication and dissemination, the image of the martyr must not shine so brightly that the living are lost in the glare. The word is not dead yet.
Quinn Slobodian is the author of Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Duke University Press, 2012), and the editor of Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World (Berghahn, forthcoming). He is associate professor of modern European history at Wellesley College where he researches the history of modern Germany in the world with a focus on race, migration, and international political economy. His current book project is a history of the idea of the world economy and the origins of neoliberalism.