Navigating Socialist Encounters: Moorings and (Dis)Entanglements between Africa and East Germany during the Cold War

By Immanuel R. Harisch

Eric Burton, Anne Dietrich, Immanuel R. Harisch, and Marcia C. Schenck (eds.), Navigating Socialist Encounters: Moorings and (Dis)Entanglements between Africa and East Germany during the Cold War, Boston, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021.

Only recently, the decades-old debate regarding former Mozambican contract workers in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) experienced new momentum. Characterized by Marcia C. Schenck as “wandering journeymen of the Cold War” (“Wandergesellen des Kalten Krieges”), the trajectories of Mozambican contract workers were crucially shaped by socialist encounters and the close relations between the GDR and Mozambique. For many of these so-called ‘Madjermanes’ – Mozambican returnees from Germany – in present-day Mozambique, public nostalgic remembering of their time spent in the GDR (‘eastalgia’) serves as criticism of the Mozambican government, which not only failed to achieve a transparent process of the repayment of withheld wages and security benefits from the workers’ time in the GDR but also – from the perspective of the workers – failed to provide a stable blue-collar work life and living conditions for what was once intended to be the vanguard workforce of the People’s Republic of Mozambique. 

Relevance of the Volume

Despite such powerful legacies as, for example, the interweaving histories of Mozambican workers and the GDR, the perception of the socialist camp as inward-looking, isolated, and cut off from global trends until the transition to capitalism is still widespread; at the same time, Africa, as a marginalized world region, is similarly not included in prevailing imaginations of transregional connectedness, neither as a motor of change, nor as an active participant. These perceptions are reflected in the scholarly canon of several fields, including global history and German contemporary history, where actors from both the ‘South’ and the ‘East’ remain understudied. Historian Sebastian Pampuch, examining African liberation fighters in East German exile, has even claimed that the “idea of a post-colonial world that breaks with the inequalities of capitalism through socialist modernization is one of these repressed histories.”[1] In Navigating Socialist Encounters, we claim that such histories can also resituate the GDR in a transregional, transcontinental perspective.

The open access volume, Navigating Socialist Encounters, investigates South-East relations through a focus on global socialism and diverse transregional entanglements between different actors from the African continent and the GDR. The volume concentrates predominantly on non-elite figures and the possibilities and constraints of their agency. In this way, the scholars contributing to this collection highlight Africans’ and Eastern Europeans’ visions of African and global futures, which were often shaped by socialism in its numerous imaginations and manifestations.

The book project emerged from the initial plans of one of the editors to compile a volume on Africa-GDR relations with mostly young scholars based both on the African continent and in Europe, thus providing new perspectives and an ‘upgrade’ of the existing historiography. As the project matured, and due to the ideas, networks, and collaborative drive of all four editors, the collection included more experienced researchers as well and focused on new perspectives and innovative source materials. Appearing in de Gruyter’s “Africa in Global History” series, it aims to contribute to global history at large. Our initial plans for a multilingual volume in German, English, and Portuguese had to be dropped. Another goal that did not materialize, despite our international call for papers, was a stronger representation of Africa-based scholars, in particular from Ethiopia, which we hope will be remedied by future publications in the field.

In the final outcome, the volume offers a platform for scholars from three continents (Africa, Europe, and North America) and follows a multidisciplinary approach, from history and German studies to education studies. The contributors employ a range of methodological approaches to the study of South-East relations, including oral history, the consultation of both Eastern European and African archives, and the study of literature and international academic networks. The chapters in the anthology strive to maintain a balance between African and East German actors’ perspectives.

Structure and Chapters

The contributions to this volume show how people and institutions produced new forms of transregional interconnectedness from the early 1950s to the late 1980s (and beyond), as well as how hierarchies and structures limited the possible impact of these encounters. The book opens with a comprehensive introduction that provides an overview of socialist encounters and alternative forms of global interconnectedness within the considered time frame, and integrates the individual chapters within the larger narrative.

The first thematic section, “Shaping Pioneering Institutions”, focuses on the ways in which institutions were set up for and shaped by relations between Africa and the GDR.

In their contribution to this section, Jörg Depta and Anne-Kristin Hartmetz demonstrate how actors from both German states strove for hegemony in German language instruction and culture transmission. The chapter illuminates how the encounters and experiences in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, led to the institutionalization of teaching German as a foreign language as a foreign policy tool of the GDR, before the field was even established in West Germany. A new postcolonial organization is examined in Christian Alvarado’s chapter on the ‘Kenya Students Union’. This union was founded by Kenyan students to navigate the expectations of the Kenyan sending government, the demands of East German authorities, and to help students fulfill their personal career ambitions in the rapidly expanding Kenyan bureaucracy. Eric Angermann’s micro-historical study looks at the attempts of African students in the newly established Institute for Foreign Students at the Fritz Heckert trade union college in Bernau to set up their own Afro-Asian committee to facilitate cultural and political exchange among their co-students. Angermann shows that, because African students managed to cross imperial and linguistic borders, the college and the GDR at large were at times experienced by them as a pan-African rather than ‘Eastern European’ space. Franziska Rantzsch shows in her contribution that the negotiation process between the GDR and Mozambique over contract labor used pre-existing blueprints from prior labor migration schemes to East Germany (such as the labor contracts with Poland and Hungary), initially emphasizing the element of mutual advantage.

The second section, “Navigating the GDR: Moorings and (Dis)Entanglements”, brings together examples of how temporary stays and engagements led to both long-term legacies as well as rapid disentanglements.

Discussing the novel By the Sea by Zanzibar-born writer and recent Nobel laureate in literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah – in which one of the main characters goes to the GDR for training – G. Thomas Burgess shows that sojourners did not only discover the unexpected colonial stereotypes of East German citizens, but also the rich humanist heritage that lay hidden beneath socialist rhetoric. The report of a trade unionist from Ghana, J. A. Osei, who studied at the trade union college in Bernau, which Angermann examines in his chapter, is printed in this volume as a primary source annotated by Immanuel R. Harisch. Osei’s report points to the shared language of global, anti-Western socialism and visions of socialist modernity between Ghana and the GDR. Based on oral history interviews with returned workers, Fernando Machava explores the contracts of labor migration and its legacies from a Mozambican perspective. Considering workers’ reintegration into Maputo’s various suburbs after their mass return in the 1990s, and the impact of the goods the returnees brought home, Machava argues that the workers initially supported themselves and their families, and even assumed the function of role models in their communities.

Rainer Grajek with his students in front of the Centro de Formação dos Instrutores (Training Center for Teachers) in Maputo. Source: Private Archive R.G.

Francisca Raposo in this volume, in a text contextualized by Marcia C. Schenck, takes us back to her own childhood as she reflects on the insecurity, the misinformation, and the weeks and months of waiting to finally leave Mozambique to become a student at the School of Friendship. She discusses imagining her future schooling in East Germany and dreaming of an unknown future paradise, unburdened by reality.

Ibraimo Alberto and his friend Manuel João Diego training (image in the possession of Ibraimo Alberto).

Ibraimo Alberto’s experience, told in a chapter also written by Marcia C. Schenck, is both beautiful and heartbreaking, reassuring and discouraging, as he navigates work and boxing in the two Germanies, and encounters people who loved him and people who hated him because of his skin color. Xenophobia and racism have become became defining features of Ibraimo Alberto’s life, demonstrating that racism was always present and a defining feature in the lives of Africans who came to live across the Eastern Bloc.

The third section, “Sourcing Visions of Solidarity”, discusses sources that give unique insights into the perspectives of a broad range of different actors. These sources open avenues to rethink the characteristics, relevance, and scope of South-East relations in the history of the twentieth century, as well as how Africa and East Germany fit into the transregional, transcontinental, and global perspective.

George Bodie shows how journalist and SED party member Ulrich Makosch depicted Africa as simultaneously close and distant in his writing and documentaries. Relating his wanderings through the bush with the male and female guerilla fighters of FRELIMO, Makosch brought African liberation struggles and testimonies of women’s emancipation home to East German living rooms. Bodie’s chapter challenges the usual assumptions regarding state-led cultures of solidarity in GDR. Paul Spurte argues in his contribution that the diaries of the friendship brigades in Angola, authored collectively during the 1980s, show that young East Germans saw themselves as modernizers for a socialist Angola in the making. In the schematic portrayals in the diaries, Angolans are firmly attributed the role of thankful beneficiaries of this “humanitarian mission of modernization”.[2]

East German women organize a solidarity bazaar with other socialist countries in Maputo. Source: Private Archive K.L.

Katrin Bahr touches upon the fear and insecurity among East German experts in Mozambique during the 1980s. Focusing on private photographs, Bahr shows everyday experiences of the experts and their families abroad, which oscillated between work and the private sphere. In this study, Bahr unmasks European stereotypes about ‘Africa’ and the predominantly white male gaze of the photographers. In the closing chapter of the volume, Alexandra Piepiorka and Eduardo Buanaissa examine a transcontinental Afro-European memory space from the perspective of historical actors. The authors read memory literature to explore how the GDR and Mozambique were remembered by Mozambicans who moored in the GDR and East Germans who went to Mozambique during the 1970s and 1980s, respectively.

As this brief overview makes clear, this edited volume challenges the view of socialism as marked by stagnation, uniformity, immobility, and isolation through investigations of socialism’s diverse visions and practices from a global history perspective. The chapters point out how these processes shaped – and were shaped – by African and European actors in numerous encounters. The research in the volume also sheds light on personal and institutional agency, cultural cross-fertilization, migration, development, and solidarity in everyday interactions. On the one hand, regarding the GDR, the presence of Africans, alongside South Asians and Latin Americans, modernized and globalized East German society. On the other hand, by demonstrating the diversity of Africa’s socialisms and connections to the East on the African continent, this edited volume challenges, and possibly complicates, but ultimately deepens, our understanding of how Africa fit into what was, for a time, a global socialist world. In sum, this volume contributes not only to a more complex understanding of global socialisms as part of transregional moorings and (dis)entanglements, but also reveals a panorama of different pasts, presents, and, perhaps, futures. In this vein, the open access format of this volume contributes to knowledge generated across national boundaries, and we invite further transregional cooperation – particularly from scholars from Africa and from researchers using African sources – in investigating the pasts and legacies of these interconnections.


[1] Sebastian Pampuch, “Afrikanische Freedom Fighter im Exil der DDR: Dekoloniale Wissensbestände einer ‘unerwünschten Geschichte’”, in Wissen in Bewegung: Migration und Globale Verflechtungen in der Zeitgeschichte seit 1945, ed. Stephanie Zloch, Lars Müller, and Simone Lässig (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2018), 325. Translation author’s own.

[2] Paul Spurte, “Diaries of Solidarity in the Global Cold War: The East German Friendship Brigades and their Experience in ‘Modernizing’ Angola”, in Navigating Socialist Encounters: Moorings and (Dis)Entanglements between Africa and East Germany during the Cold War, eds. Eric Burton, Anne Dietrich, Immanuel Harisch, and Marcia Schenck (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2021), 316.

Immanuel R. Harisch is a Doctoral Candidate in History at the research platform “Mobile Cultures and Societies” at the University of Vienna, Austria, and is working on a dissertation titled African Trade Unions and the International Labor Movement during the Cold War. He is currently a managing editor of the open access journal Stichproben – Vienna Journal of African Studies and has published articles on labor and the international trade union movement, East-South relations, socialisms in Africa, and knowledge production at African universities.

Citation: Immanuel R. Harisch, Navigating Socialist Encounters: Moorings and (Dis)Entanglements between Africa and East Germany during the Cold War, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.11.2021,

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Forum Transregionale Studien (25. November 2021). Navigating Socialist Encounters: Moorings and (Dis)Entanglements between Africa and East Germany during the Cold War. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 17. Juli 2024 von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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