W. E. B. Du Bois and the German Alltag, 1892-1894.

Author:Barkin, Kenneth

The best source for a study of W. E. B. Du Bois's two years in Germany is Du Bois himself. During his return to the United States from Germany he wrote, "As a student in Germany I built great castles in Spain and lived therein. I dreamed and loved, and wandered and sang. Then after two long years I dropped suddenly into Nigger-hating America." (1) Twenty-three years later in 1917, he pondered whether he should support Germany or the United States in World War I. He wrote, "I was seeing the Germany, which taught me the brotherhood of white and black pitted against America, which for me was the essence of Jim Crow." (2) Du Bois ultimately decided to support the United States, but not enthusiastically. In 1960, sixty-six years after leaving Germany, he explained to William Ingersoll of the Columbia University Oral History Project, who was conducting an interview with Du Bois at age 92 for their archives, "Germany was an extraordinary experience. ... I began to believe white people were human." (3) Du Bois went on to say that he meant only European whites. He changed his mind frequently during his ninety-five years (who wouldn't?). But regarding Imperial Germany there was not a hint of change. In his most famous book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he maintained that white racism was pervasive in his life with the exceptions of his childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and his experiences in Europe. (4) Since the only European nation he lived in for a significant amount of time was Imperial Germany, we have to assume that this was the nation to which he was referring. What strikes me as a historian is not only his praise for Germany but his contempt for the United States during the 1890s.


My intention is not to concentrate on his contact with Berlin professors, or the ideas he absorbed from their lectures and seminars over the three semesters he spent at the Humbolt University of Berlin. He never complained about Gustav Schmoller or Adolf Wagner, his major professors. Indeed, he praised them for accepting him into their over-filled seminars. Both mentors sent quite positive references to the officers of the Slater Fund about extending his stay for a second year, which they did; and for a third year, which was denied. Since Du Bois sought to prolong his stay in Germany, one is led to believe that he was happier in Berlin than he had ever been at Harvard.

For the purposes of this essay, Alltag can be translated as the everyday experiences, the ordinary, or perhaps the routine or normal that binds the individual with others who share a common culture and space. In order to answer my question about the Alltag in Du Bois's experience, one has to deal with two other questions. First, we have to examine his time at Harvard University where he spent four full years immediately preceding his Berlin years. Was he leaving Harvard with affectionate memories or with bitterness? The second question we have to address is: What did Du Bois know of Imperial Germany before he arrived there in the summer of 1892?

There is no question that he found Harvard stiff, even icy cold. Indeed, he never returned to Harvard after his years in Berlin. (5) Only one professor, William James, showed any genuine interest in one of Harvard's first black students. James regularly invited Du Bois for Sunday lunches and even sought to arrange a meeting of Du Bois with his brother, the novelist Henry James. His major professor, Albert Bushnell Hart, Du Bois told Ingersoll, "was very accurate in memory, names, and things, but he was not human. He was methodical. He was as dry as dust." (6) Compared to Fisk where he had spent three happy years and praised many of his teachers, the professors and students at Harvard made Du Bois feel he was an "invisible man."

This was also the case regarding the Harvard students. In his two major autobiographies and the oral history, Du Bois docs not mention the name of any undergraduate or doctoral student with whom he had friendly relations. Bitterness best describes his mood at Harvard. He was turned down for the Harvard Glee Club, although he was convinced that his voice was superior to that of all but a few of the students who were accepted. (7) The clearest indication of Du Bois's disdain was his decision to move to Central Square, a mile away from the campus, so that he would have little contact with either students or faculty. The focus of his last years at Harvard was the African American community of Boston and Cambridge. However, his Harvard professors did come to his aid with references when he applied for a fellowship to study in Germany. (8)

The second question--What did Du Bois know about Germany before crossing the Atlantic?--has a surprising answer. He knew a great deal, and most of it was quite positive. At Fisk University, he studied German for three years and developed a close relationship with the German language professor Henry S. Bennett. He was a frequent visitor at the professor's home and often borrowed books from his private library. In the spring of 1888, at 20 years of age, Du Bois wrote two brief essays that centered on Germany and German immigrants to the United States. "Das Neue Vaterland" (The New Fatherland), written in German, was an appeal to German immigrants who were flooding into the United States in the 1880s. (9) He urged them to reject the racism of white southerners. African Americans, he pointed out, subscribed to the same Protestant religion as Germans from the eastern provinces of Prussia. (10)

Three months later, in June of 1888, Du Bois delivered the valedictory speech at Fisk University. The title of his speech was "Bismarck," and he showed genuine admiration for the achievements of the "Iron Chancellor." Otto von Bismarck had created a powerful nation in the center of Europe that no single nation alone could challenge. In an addendum Du Bois cautioned those who would emulate Bismarck because the political system of the German Empire was so complicated that only Bismarck could manage it. Without him, Du Bois thought the Kaiser's empire might collapse; a very precocious idea for a young black student of twenty who had never been to Europe. He went on to criticize Fredrich Hegel and a second philosopher, most likely Schopenhauer, both of whom had argued that Africans did not experience "emotions." Clearly, Du Bois was not uncritical of all things German, and certainly was not a fan of Hegel. (11)

Du Bois's desire to study in Germany was not unlike that of many contemporary educated Americans who sought an academic career. (12) German scholarship and training was a must for those pursuing a career in philosophy, history, or the social sciences. He applied to the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen. His application for a fellowship was quickly turned down as unqualified. Thus, the fund had never granted a black student a fellowship, although according to its charter, that was the only purpose for its existence. Du Bois wrote a searing reply that implied that no African American could ever rely on any help from a white man. (13) Former U.S. President Rutherford Hayes, president of the Slater Fund, reconsidered his decision and awarded the fellowship for one year, part of which was to be paid back with interest. Du Bois would now get a glimpse of the United States from another continent with a different past.

The question for the historian is: What happened in those two years to compel Du Bois to praise Germany from the time of his return to the United States in 1894 until his interview with Ingersoll at Columbia in 1960? Even Du Bois's second novel, Dark Princess: A Romance, published in 1928, begins with a scene in Berlin in which the main character thinks to himself that, in contrast to the United States, he can go into any restaurant in the city and be served by a waiter. (14) I propose that it was primarily Du Bois's contact with Germans and other Europeans in everyday life, rather than his studies with German professors or his contact with students, that made a lasting impression on him. When Du Bois sought to compare Harvard professors with those in Berlin, he made the point that teaching was of much...

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