Book Review & Synopsis: A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany

“By honoring the service of African American soldiers and their families, this powerful and comprehensive book successfully shines a spotlight on the historic intersection between the struggle against Nazism and the emergence of the civil rights movement in the United States. Honest and straightforward in describing the circumstances under which these GIs volunteered to serve, Höhn and Klimke meticulously document their sacrifices and contributions at a pivotal time in history. Acknowledging the present day challenges that remain with respect to racial prejudice and discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic, the book is an important reference and required reading for students, scholars, and the many veterans and families who share their personal experiences.”—Rosemarie Peña, President, Black German Heritage and Research Association.


Based on the award-winning international research project and photo exhibition “The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany” (, this poignant and beautifully illustrated book examines the experiences of African American GIs in Germany and the unique insights they provide into the civil rights struggle at home and abroad. Thanks in large part to its military occupation of Germany after World War II, America?s unresolved civil rights agenda was exposed to worldwide scrutiny as never before.

At the same time, the ambitious U.S. efforts to democratize German society after the defeat of Nazism meant that West Germany encountered American ideas of freedom and democracy to a much larger degree than many other countries. As African American GIs became increasingly politicized, they took on a particular significance for the Civil Rights Movement in light of Germany?s central role in the Cold War. While the effects of the Civil Rights Movement reverberated across the globe, Germany represents a special case that illuminates a remarkable period in American and world history.

The book is based on a joint research initiative of the German Historical Institute, Vassar College, and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg, which has been honored by the NAACP in 2009 with the Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award.

MARIA HÖHN teaches German History at Vassar College, USA and is an established scholar of the American military presence in Germany.

MARTIN KLIMKE is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute (GHI), Washington, DC and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) at the University of Heidelberg.

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The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany

The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany

Our research project explores the connection between the U.S. military presence abroad and the advancement of civil rights in the U.S. We investigate the role that African-American GIs played in carrying the civil rights movement to Germany, which was host to the largest contingent of U.S. troops deployed outside the U.S.

Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, some 15-20 million American soldiers, families and civilian employees lived in Germany. Between 2-3 million of those Americans were African American. By giving voice to their experience and to that of the people who interacted with them, we will expand the story of the African-American civil rights movement beyond the boundaries of the U.S.

This digital archive has three main goals: First, it will gather and preserve materials on an important, but little known chapter of American and African-American history as well as transatlantic relations after the Second World War. Second, it will make these materials available world wide and free of charge to scholars and teachers in the humanities. Third, it will foster the growth of a community of scholars, teachers, and students who are engaged in teaching and learning about the African-American civil rights movement and its reverberations outside the U.S.