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Questioning American Exceptionalism: A Class Discussion on the Nazis’ Propaganda Regarding US-Indian Policy

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On Monday, 17th November, I presented aspects of my work to a class at Arizona State University in Tempe (Phoenix). Professor Donald Fixico kindly invited me to address his course “American Indian History since 1900” (HST 338). I explained how the German image of Indians was shaped by fiction and Wild West shows and how it interrelated with emerging group identities and nationalism in German philosophy and academia. These explorations provided a foundation for discussions of Nazi ideology and corresponding utilization of the “noble savage” image for Nazi propaganda. Nazi representations of Indian imagery portrayed Germans as natural-born warriors who shared many character traits with Native Americans and who experienced a similar history of military and cultural oppression by the “Western” colonial powers.

It was exciting to see the students’ reaction to these political implications of constructed imagery. One student immediately contextualized the presentation with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, although I hadn’t mentioned Anderson in the talk. Another student wondered how German soldiers in World War II experienced Native GIs, nailing a prominent paradoxon I encountered throughout my research: The sources are, at best, anecdotal – I had hoped to do more oral history with German veterans on this topic, but my project came a bit too late for that. In any case, it would have been very hard to locate German veterans who could verify an encounter with Native soldiers (and it would have been a gamble how much their memories of this encounter would have helped my research, for they’d have ample reason not to be too truthful about it).

So, I could only respond by sharing anecdotes from earlier scholarly works on the Native American WWII experience (such as Kenneth Townsend’s, Jere Franco’s, and Al Carroll’s books): a German soldier handing back a medicine pouch to a Native POW because he knew from Karl May that it was dishonorable to take a warrior’s medicine away, or a story about Native members of the 45th Infantry division who helped “pacify” a German POW camp in Italy by exploiting the “brutal savage” image: They walked around the camp, seemingly singling out German prisoners for scalping and torture at the stake, and thus terrifying them into submission.

One question echoed student responses from earlier presentations in San Francisco and Oklahoma: A student said the talk had made her question American exceptionalism more than ever. Again, this harks back to James Loewen’s observation on the rose-colored, overtly patriotic, and US-centric history education in many high-school level history textbooks. It is enlightening to see this transatlantic comparison challenging students to critically engage their own history (and traditions of teaching history).

However, I made a “note to self” for future discussions to point out that this critical engagement should be but an initial step in “doing history”: While it is necessary that students become aware of “the dark sides” of their own national history, learning about these dark sides from Nazi German sources should result in further critical inquiry: Who criticizes American Indian policy and frontier massacres? It’s German newspapers of the Nazi era, directed by Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. What motivates Goebbels to issue such directives? It’s the international outrage over the 9 November 1938 pogroms (which the Nazis euphemistically dubbed “Kristallnacht”) and general treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany – to use one example – and is thus a turning of the table, a pointing-fingers game: “Remember Fate of Indians, Nazis Tell Roosevelt,” as the Chicago Daily Tribune observed on 28 October 1938, even before the pogroms. How do the papers pitch this criticism? In the most accusatory manner, because it was a politically very expedient moment to engage in anti-American rants. The Nazis would revert to reserved, even fact-based reporting on US issues as soon as diplomatic interests required to keep the US from becoming too angry with Germany, as in the months after the outbreak of the war and before Pearl Harbor (Phillip Gassert has identified and analyzed a series of alternating phases of reservation and aggression in Nazi German media coverage of US politics and society).

Apart from rightfully questioning American exceptionalism, the most important conclusions we can draw from an observation of the Nazis’ utilization of German Indianthusiasm for anti-American propaganda is that

  • both empires watched each other’s racial policies very closely,

  • both were ready to blame one another for their treatment of minorities, and

  • both had dirty laundry (in terms of racial politics) they didn’t want to see dragged out in the open.

If, as the saying goes, the value of a society can be gleaned from observations on the treatment of its minorities (ethnic, social, and cultural), then this transatlantic comparison offers us insight into the power politics of empires. The way the Nazis tried to turn US-Indian policy into a political weapon to hurt the US’s international reputation and destabilize American society reveals how minority politics can become tools of propaganda in the wrestling matches among rivaling empires.

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