W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the best known African-American activists of the twentieth century. During his many decades of writing and speaking, he drew attention to the oppression of Blacks in America and the “colored races” of the world. As a crusader for civil rights, he denounced “Jim Crow” laws and other forms of oppression against Blacks. He also criticized some Black American leaders in their reluctance to challenge racism in the United States. Du Bois played a key role in setting up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, encouraging a sense of pride among African Americans, and promoting higher education.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Du Bois also addressed antisemitism in Nazi Germany.1 Beginning in 1933, he wrote in The Crisis: A Record for the Darker Races, the NAACP’s monthly journal, to attack the Nazis for their treatment of German Jews.2 Like other African American commentators, he also noted that it was hypocritical of white Americans to denounce Adolf Hitler while ignoring the ill-treatment of Blacks in America.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Du Bois witnessed the Nazi persecution of the Jews first hand. After receiving a grant from the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, a German-American organization, he traveled to Germany to research industrial education in 1935–1936. During this period, he wrote the featured article, published in a December 1936 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier. It provides both an eyewitness account of German antisemitism in the Nazi era, as well as commentary on the contrasts between racism in the United States and kind of racial prejudice he experienced in Germany as a Black man.
Scholars continue to debate whether Du Bois himself held antisemitic views and whether his sometimes ambivalent attitude towards Germany’s Jews was common in Black American communities at the time. Like most major thinkers, he held complex and sometimes contradictory opinions on various topics. For example, while he criticized German racism, he expressed great appreciation for German culture, including classic works of opera and philosophy.3 Whatever his views, Du Bois continued to write about the Nazi's persecution of the Jews, and the situation in Germany clearly influenced his views on race in America.
Du Bois’ interest in the plight of the Jews in Europe continued well after his visit to Germany in 1936. During World War II, he published several articles that addressed racism and antisemitism. In the years following the war, Du Bois returned to Europe, including a memorable visit to the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.4 Witnessing the ruins of the ghetto, he reflected upon the origins of racism—and tried to make sense of the destruction it had unleashed in Europe and the United States.5