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James M. Fenwick

Book Review

Novel Explores Theme of Negro GIs in Germany

(15 August 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 33, 15 August 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Last of the Conquerors
by William Gardner Smith
Abridged. Signet Books, 25 cents,

In the meeting of U.S. Negro troops and German civilians lies some of the most highly charged literary raw material to come out of the war.

William Gardner Smith, a young man of nineteen when he wrote Last of the Conquerors, has taken this raw material and fashioned a very moving story out of it.

Its emotional intensity derives in great part from the experience of the Negro encountering a non-Jim-Crow world in actuality, with all the ironies and paradoxes which the German milieu affords. The average white reader, as well as many of us in the socialist movement, can read this work for the insights which it gives into the generally unexplored psychology of the Negro.

The book centers around a love affair, fated from the beginning, between Hayes Dawkins, a Negro occupation soldier, and Ilse Mueller, “a blond German girl.” Against this background are cast the Southern cracker officer; the enlisted man who attempts to shoot him and flees to the Russian zone; the captain who is against Jim Crow but is anti-Semitic; the ruin of occupied and partitioned Germany; the dreamlike interludes of beach parties at Wannsee and nights with Ilse; and then the sudden railroading of the trapped and infuriatingly helpless Dawkins out of Germany – and out of paradise.

Part of Trend

How account for the recent series of books, fiction and non-fiction (and, latterly, movies) on the Negro-white theme? Of course, in the case of the novels it is in part a literary trend, with an increment of tabooed sexuality making the stories tantalizing. But how account for the trend itself? Here it is impossible not to see these books as part of the tendency clearly manifested nowadays toward grappling with the Jim Crow problem.

The expressed aims of Operation Dixie, the president’s various committees on Jim Crow, the breaking-up of all-Negro units in the air corps, the projected laws against the poll tax, the attacks on segregated universities, and these novels themselves – all must be seen as part of a process tending toward the weakening of Jim Crow.

Reasons behind the trend are the political necessities of the war with Russia, the industrialization of the South, the trade-union organizing drive currently going on down there, the desire by sections of the capitalist class for an expansion of the consumers’ market.

These are tendencies, of course, but they are powerful ones. The weight of tradition predominates, however, as can be seen from this AP dispatch from Frankfort on June 23, which forms a neat epilogue to Last of the Conquerors. How true to art life is! Even the name of the soldier is similar:

“An American Negro said today he believes Germany offers him a better future than the United States.

“Walter Dawson, 30, of New Orleans, pleaded guilty in an American court, to being in Germany illegally. He said that he remained after his permit expired because he wanted to marry a blond German girl he lived with while in the United States Army and legitimatize their baby.

“The court sentenced him to eight months, with five months suspended, and stipulated that he return to the United States within a day after being released from jail.”

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