W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the best known Black activists of the 20th century. During his many decades of writing and speaking, he drew attention to the oppression of Black Americans and other people of color throughout the world. As a crusader for civil rights, he denounced so-called “Jim Crow” laws and other forms of racist discrimination and oppression. He also criticized some Black leaders for their reluctance to challenge racism in the United States. Du Bois promoted the benefits of education, encouraged a sense of pride among Black Americans, and played a key role in setting up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Du Bois also addressed antisemitism in Nazi Germany.1 In 1933, he began attacking the Nazi regime for its treatment of Jews in the pages of the NAACP's monthly journal, The Crisis: A Record for the Darker Races.2 Du Bois noted that it was hypocritical of white Americans to denounce the discriminatory policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party while ignoring the oppression of Black people in the United States.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Du Bois witnessed the Nazi persecution of Jews firsthand. After receiving a grant from the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, he traveled to Germany in 1935 in order to research industrial education. During this period, he wrote the featured article, which was published in a December 1936 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier. It gives an eyewitness account of German antisemitism in the Nazi era, and it also provides commentary on the differences between racism in the United States and the kind of racial prejudice he encountered as a Black man in Nazi Germany.
Scholars continue to debate whether Du Bois himself held antisemitic views. There is also disagreement as to whether his sometimes unclear attitude toward German Jews was common in Black communities in the US at the time. Like many public intellectuals, Du Bois held complex and sometimes contradictory opinions on various topics. For example, while he criticized Nazi racism and antisemitism, he expressed great appreciation for German culture, including classic works of opera and philosophy.3 Whatever his personal views might have been, Du Bois continued to write about the Nazi regime's persecution of Jews. The situation in Germany clearly influenced his views on race in America.
Du Bois’ interest in the plight of European Jews continued well after his visit to Germany in the mid-1930s. During World War II, he published several articles that addressed racism and antisemitism. In the years following the war, Du Bois returned to Europe and visited 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