Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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