The long-feared knock at the door finally came at around 10pm. Outside the Nazi Gestapo, together with a dozen SS soldiers, barked and cheered knowing that they had got their man.
Hilarius “Lari” Gilges was dragged out of his flat in the Altstadt district of Dusseldorf, Germany, and taken to jail where the Nazis tortured and killed him. It was June 1933 and Gilges was just 24 years old.
Little is known about Gilges’s early life. But we do know he was born on 4 March 1909 in Dusseldorf, that his mother was a white textile worker and that his father was black.
Gilges’s experiences as a mixed race person in a society that knew little of black people would doubtless have been both confusing and at times dangerous.
But, though few in number, German-born black people did exist. Some were the result of relationships between white women and men who had travelled to Germany from its few African colonies.
Others were the offspring of black French police who patrolled areas of Germany’s borderlands controlled by France after the First World War. While not the primary targets of German racism, black people were often described as “Rhineland bastards”.
A popular picture postcard from the time mocks them under the slogan, “Brutality, Bestiality, Equality”—a twisted echo of the French slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.
Gilges joined the Young Communist League of Germany as a teenager in 1926. His first arrest came after a fight with the police and a gang of racists, and as a result he served a year in prison. On his release, rather than disappear, he chose to continue his agitation.
In addition to being a labour organiser, Gilges was a tap dancer and actor, helping to found a Communist theatrical group called the Nordwest Ran in 1930.
They sought to take arguments about socialism and revolution around the area using a mobile stage.
Together with comrades, Gilges organised demonstrations against the rising Nazi party. According to his family, the growing threat of the right spurred him on.
During the 1932 elections he travelled through nearly every town and city in the region trying to mobilise workers against the danger of Adolf Hitler.
But when the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Gilges was forced to take his propaganda work underground.
Nazi squads toured the working class areas of Dusseldorf hunting down the Communists who had long had a base there.
Although Gilges could feel their net closing in on him, he refused to go into hiding.
He knew that if he tried to escape, his skin colour would give him away—and that his young family would be targeted.
Gilges’s daughter Franziska recalls the night he was finally captured. “My father was grabbed in front of my eyes,” she said.
“Twelve big SS officers dragged him out of the house. The next time I saw him was here [the river Rhine in Dusseldorf], floating under the bridge.
“He’d been stabbed 37 times and shot through the head.”
The Nazis hoped that by killing him they would strike a blow for their anti-Communist and racial purity plans.
But in the years after the Second World War Gilges was remembered by his city, which named a square after him.
Maria Wacher, who ran the Nordwest Ram with him, remembered him simply, saying, “He was a fighter.”
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