A new two-hour documentary narrated by Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding Jr., and featuring a US congressman and a former US Secretary of State, was based on a collaborated research project by NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of History Martin Klimke. Breath of Freedom, which premiers in the US on Monday, tells the story of the black freedom struggle through the eyes of American soldiers stationed in Germany during World War II.
The collaboration between Klimke and his colleague, Maria Höhn from Vassar College, started in 2008 with a photography exhibition they curated on African American Civil Rights and Germany. Their exhibit, displayed at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, looked at the significance of the US civil rights and black power movement in East and West Germany. As part of the exhibit, the researchers surfaced previously unseen audio-visual material of Martin Luther King's 1964 visit to Cold War Berlin.
The response was so overwhelming that the team launched a digital archive, and eventually published a book, A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany. The book, which examines the intertwinement of the black freedom struggle with Germany from World War I to the mid-1970s, is the inspiration behind the documentary Breath of Freedom. The research project also won the prestigious Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 2009. It was the first time the award was given to academics.
"African Americans were sent to fight against Nazi Germany and for the liberation of Europe without enjoying full democracy and equal rights in their own country," said Klimke. "75 percent of the black soldiers fighting in a segregated US military during World War II came from southern states, where Jim Crow and the lynch mob still ruled. Their experience overseas was life transforming and drove them towards civil rights activism at home."
Klimke said the research yielded many surprises and "it was puzzling how little was actually known about the vital role more than two million African American GIs and their families deployed to Germany since 1945 played in the broader struggle against racism and for civil rights."
He added that it was only in the last 10 to 15 years that historians have started to systematically explore the transnational and global character of many aspects of US history, including the wide-ranging social and cultural repercussions of the US military presence abroad.
Klimke, who served as a historical advisor for Breath of Freedom documentary, is excited to see his fruits of labor come alive on screen. "It was fascinating to be able to work together with the documentary film makers to visualize this important story," he said.
"The film is not only a wonderful introduction as to how the quest for racial justice in the US reverberated across the globe," Klimke said. "It is also a fitting tribute to the many African American veterans who served in Germany, especially those of the World War II generation, whose stories have all too often been ignored or marginalized on both sides of the Atlantic."
Breath of Freedom premieres February 17 on the Smithsonian Channel in the US and is expected to screen in the fall in Germany.
To watch the full movie online, click here.