W. E. B. Du Bois in Kreuzberg

Willian Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) has a monumental legacy as an African-American philosopher, sociologist, lecturer, journalist, organizer and pioneer of the civil rights movement. Often overlooked in his long and illustrious life are the two years he spent studying in Berlin at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University, today Humboldt University, from 1892-1894, during which he resided in an apartment on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. This was a profoundly formative time for the young Du Bois and had a significant impact on his ideas about race and on his later career as a civil rights activist.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (USA) five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Du Bois received his first bachelor degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He received his second from Harvard University, from where he graduated in 1895 with a PhD, the first Black man to do so. It was at Fisk University where Du Bois’ interest in Germany began. As an undergraduate he studied German language and chose to dedicate his valedictorian speech to Otto von Bismarck, a figure he greatly admired for having “made a nation out of a mass of bickering peoples.”.[1] Though he later distanced himself from this view, for the young Du Bois Bismarck’s success story was evidence of the unifying power of an idea and an example for Black Americans to follow.[2] German doctorate degrees were considered extremely prestigious in Du Bois’ time, and Du Bois set his sights on achieving this “gold standard of academic achievement”.[3] It was not uncommon at the time for American scholars to travel to Europe to study at English, French or the always popular German universities, but seldom was such an opportunity available for Black students.[4] For Du Bois it was made possible by an application for funding to the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen, a foundation dedicated to supporting education for African-Americans in the Southern United States.[5]

With the scholarship secured, Du Bois set sail for Germany in 1892. Before heading to Berlin, he spent the summer of 1892 in Eisenach with a pastor and his family, where he practiced his German and prepared for his studies. In his writings, Du Bois reflects very positively on his initial experiences in Germany, in particular noting his surprise at the lack of racist prejudice in comparison with his experiences in the United States. In his autobiography he remembers, “I spent a happy holiday in a home where university training and German home-making left no room for American color prejudice.”.[6] In the autumn, Du Bois enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University and moved into his lodgings with a German family at 130A Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. Du Bois quickly adopted the habits and dress of his peers, donning the wool suit, silk tie, gloves and cane which belonged to the typical attire of the educated upper classes.[7] Taking a step away from his previous studies in philosophy and history, in Berlin Du Bois almost exclusively enrolled in seminars and lectures with professors of political economy.[8] His most influential teachers were Adolf Wagner, Gustav Schmoller and Heinrich von Trieschke, but he also studied under Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey.[9]

The political economists Wagner, Schmoller and von Treitschke all held highly conservative political views; von Treitschke especially was considered an extreme nationalist and notorious anti-Semite.[10] Von Treitschke’s incendiary lectures were xenophobic, imperialist, critical of democracy, and yet hugely popular. It is surprising that Du Bois appears to have chosen to overlook these misgivings and continued to study with him. Notwithstanding the controversial arguments of his professors, the time spent studying in Berlin had a deep influence on Du Bois’ understanding of race and marked a turning point in his analysis of the African American condition. Du Bois began to turn away from a belief in biologically fixed racial characteristics and towards a sociohistorical definition of race with a more global perspective.[11] He writes, “I began to see the race problem in America, the problem of the peoples of Africa and Asia, and the political development of Europe as one. I began to unite my economics and politics…”.[12] His professors of political economy inspired him to question any assumptions about the economic organization of society and instead recognize it as historically constructed.[13] The rigorous methodology of the social sciences which was being practiced in Germany at the time is clearly evident in his later, and decidedly sociological, studies of African American communities, such as The Philadelphia Negro (1896).[14]

A further significant impact on Du Bois’ learning was the fact that Wagner, Schmoller and von Treitschke were concerned with contemporary social issues and applied their work directly in German society. Each had served in parliament and actively shared their views in public lectures and printed publications.[15] The same trio had created the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Union for Social Politics), a forum where scholars committed to social and economic reform discussed and worked to influence the direction of social policy in Germany.[16] In becoming a member of the Verein, Du Bois joined a socially engaged intellectual circle and so was able to experience the intertwining of scholarship and political action.[17] He would apply this later in life when his career took on a more activist approach.

But perhaps most importantly, Du Bois experienced in Berlin a respite from the relentless racism and prejudice of the American South.[18] In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois notes how his time in Europe was one of the only periods in his life, along with his childhood in Great Barrington, where he did not feel that being Black was a problem.[19] Though Germany was by no means above racist prejudice at the time, Du Bois felt more free in Europe. He noticed that his being Black did not preclude him from participating society as it did in the United States. More than his skin color, he observed that Europeans took notice of his class attributes – as an impeccably dressed, cane-toting gentleman he was treated with respect. In his autobiography he writes, “They [white folk] did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world,”.[20] His contact with white people, which was essentially forbidden in the segregated South, “…made my own ideas waver. The eternal walls between races did not seem so stern and exclusive.”.[21] This was a feeling of liberation which Du Bois would always remember, and it may also explain why Du Bois sung such high praises of Imperialist Germany while showing an apparent lack of sensitivity to the militarism, anti-Semitism, and right-wing populist movements which were on open display in public life at the time.[22] Du Bois admired the military patriotism and, like many of his contemporaries, believed that discrimination against Jewish people would gradually decrease over time.[23] He did not recognize it as the foreboding omen it was.

With the initial two years of study completed, Du Bois hoped to renew his funding for a further year in order to fulfil the necessary number of semesters required to earn a doctorate degree. The Slater Fund refused the request, despite several appeals by Du Bois to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, the chair of the Fund.[24] In 1894 Du Bois reluctantly departed for a deeply racially divided U.S.; two years later, racial segregation would be upheld in the Supreme Court in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, ushering in the Jim Crow era. Back in the U.S., Du Bois received his PhD from Harvard, then took on various teaching positions while writing and publishing extensively, securing success with his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk (1903).[25] Following this, Du Bois embarked on a new phase of his career, focusing his energies on directly on civil rights activism. He co-founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – still highly active and influential today – in 1909. Both organizations were dedicated to opposing racial segregation and fighting for social justice for Black Americans. Du Bois remained the editor of The Crisis, the hugely successful official periodical of the NAACP, until 1934. In this chapter of his life, Du Bois wrote frequently on socialism but maintained the position that American socialism’s greatest challenge was how to move beyond a revolution for the white working class and integrate civil and economic rights for Black Americans.[26] His self-identification as socialist and lifelong interest in socialist politics much exceeded his brief membership in the Socialist Party from 1911-1913.[27]

Beginning in 1919, Du Bois organized a series of Pan-African Congresses to promote decolonization and an end to racial discrimination on the African continent. It was at the fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945 that he met the Kwame Nkrumah, a radical anti-colonialist who led Ghana to independence from colonial rule and later served as the country’s first President. President Nkrumah later invited Du Bois to live out his final days in Ghana. Du Bois accepted in the invitation in 1961, but not before returning to his alma mater, now named Humboldt University, in November 1958 to receive an honorary Doctor of Economics degree.[28] In Accra he was hailed as the father of Pan-Africanism and treated as the President’s guest of honor until his death in 1963 at the age of 95.[29] Du Bois died just one day before hundreds of thousands of Americans marched in Washington, D.C. for African American civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. One year later, the Civil Rights Act was passed by the U.S. government.

Traces of Du Bois’ presence in Berlin’s public space are few. It was only in 2019 that a Berlin memorial plaque was installed at 130A Oranienstraße on the site of Du Bois’ lodgings when he lived in Kreuzberg.[30] The plaque goes a small way towards integrating Du Bois’ legacy into Berlin’s urban landscape and bringing awareness to the transatlantic exchange that took place during his residency in the city. Two lecture series in his honour – the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures and the Distinguished W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures – have been held at the Humboldt University since 1998, yet until now the university had nothing more to show of its connection to Du Bois.[31] But change is underway. Under the initiative of the Department of English and American studies, plans are being drawn up for a memorial to Du Bois in the central university building located on Unter den Linden. It will be the first time Humboldt University honours a person of color (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin 2020). The university is working in partnership with Haitian artist Jean-Ulrick Désert to realize the memorial, which will comment on Du Bois’ time in Berlin as well as his wider legacy.[32] Due to the ongoing pandemic, it is unclear when the memorial will be completed, but the hope is that it will play a part in bringing visibility to the history of Black scholars at the university and in celebrating the connection between Berlin and one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century.

provided by FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum

Flavia Cahn



Oranienstr. 130

Zitieren des Artikels

Flavia Cahn: W. E. B. Du Bois in Kreuzberg. In: Kolonialismus begegnen. Dezentrale Perspektiven auf die Berliner Stadtgeschichte. URL: http://kolonialismus-begegnen.de/geschichten/w-e-b-du-bois-1868-1963/ (16.07.2021).

Literatur & Quellen

[1] Du Bois, W. E. B.: Dusk of Dawn. An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New York: 2007. Oxford University Press. S. 16.

[2] Berman, Russell A.: Du Bois and Wagner: Race, Nation, and Culture between the United States and Germany. The German Quarterly, 70.2. 1997. S. 123-135.

[3] Lewis, David Levering: W. E. B. Du Bois in Germany and Germany in W. E. B. Du Bois. 16th Distinguished W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture. 15. April 2008. S. 2. Online: https://www.angl.hu-berlin.de/department/duboismemorial/ inberlin/1890s/lewis-david-l-dist-du-bois-lecture-2008.pdf (Zugriff: 12.01.2021).

[4] Schafer, Axel R.: W. E. B. Du Bois, German Social Thought, and the Racial Divide in American Progressivism, 1892-1909. The Journal of American History, 88.3. 2001. S. 925-949. Hier: S. 929.

[5] Johnson, Brian: The Role of Higher Education in the Religious Transformation of W. E. B. Du Bois. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 59. 2008. S. 74-79. Hier: S. 79.

[6] Du Bois, W. E. B.: The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois. A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: 1988 (10th Printing). International Publishers. S. 160.

[7] Barkin, Kenneth D.: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Love Affair with Imperial Germany. German Studies Review, 28.2. 2005. S. 285-302. Hier: S. 294.

[8] Barkin, Kenneth D.: “Berlin Days,” 1892-1894: W. E. B. Du Bois and German Political Economy. boundary 2, 27.3. 2000. S. 79-101. Hier: S. 92.

[9] Vgl. Berman 1997: S. 125.

[10] Vgl. Barkin 2000: S. 84.

[11] Lee, Christopher J.: Du Bois in Berlin. Africa is a Country. 12. March 2020. Online: https://africasacountry.com/2020/03/du-bois-in-berlin (Zugriff: 12.01.2021).

[12] Vgl. Du Bois 2007: S. 23-24.

[13] Vgl. Schafer 2001: S. 934.

[14] Vgl. Johnson 2008: S. 79.

[15] Vgl. Barkin 2000: S. 92.

[16] Vgl. Barkin 2000: S. 93.

[17] Vgl. Lee 2020.

[18] Appiah, Kwame Anthony: Lines of Descent. W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity. Cambridge, MA: 2014. Harvard University Press. S. 28.

[19] Vgl. Barkin 2000: S. 83.

[20] Vgl. Du Bois 1988. S. 157.

[21] Vgl. Du Bois 2007. S. 51.

[22] Vgl. Barkin 2005.

[23] Vgl. Barkin 2005.

[24] Vgl. Johnson 2008: S. 79.

[25] Vgl. Berman 1997: S. 126.

[26] Lewis, David Levering: W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919. Biography of a Race. New York: 1993. Henry Holt. S. 688.

[27] Horne, Gerald: W. E. B. Du Bois. A Biography. Santa Barbara: 2010. Greenwood Press.

[28] Vgl. Lewis 2008.

[29] Vgl. Horne 2010: S. 188-9.

[30] Conrad, Andreas: Gedenktafel für den US-Soziologen W. E. B. Du Bois. Der Tagesspiegel. 27. August 2019. Online: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/24944188.html (Zugriff: 12.01.2021).

[31] Zocco, Gianna: A “Modest Monument” Awaiting Completion. Gianna Zocco in conversation with Jean-Ulrick Désert and Dorothea Löbbermann. Blog des Leibniz-Zentrums für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin. 16. July 2020. Online: https://www.zflprojekte.de/zfl-blog/2020/07/16/ (Zugriff: 12.01.2021).

[32] Désert, Jean-Ulrick: W. E. B. Du Bois Humboldt University Berlin. 2019. Online: https://vimeo.com/368316978 (Zugriff 10.01.2021).


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