One of the many exciting results of last year’s research and lecture tour through the Southwest and California was the networking with a host of scholars in history and Native American studies. Many of the discussions and meetings led to further collaboration. Last week’s symposium at the Akademie für Politische Bildung in Tutzing, Bavaria, was one such project. Fellow historian Volker Benkert from Arizona State University invited me to participate in this meeting titled “Freunde, Feinde, Fremde? Deutsche Perspektiven auf die USA seit 1945.”
The APB was founded by the state of Bavaria in 1957 to promote political education and thus strengthen democratic practice in Bavaria. It offers space for academic meetings and public events. It has hosted a number of annual meetings of historians in the German Association for American Studies, so I have been visiting a few times already. Its location directly adjacent to Lake Starnberg (the fifth-largest in Germany) makes it an ideal place to combine work and recreation.
The symposium gathered scholars in history, political sciences, and literature to discuss German-American relations since the end of World War II. Presentations reflected on the ups and downs in the relationship and investigated historical and cultural factors influencing how Germans perceive, and have perceived, America.
In my presentation, I discussed German self-perception via the notions of Indigeneity and nationalism that were major issues for my dissertation. Initially, I had planned to present a broad overview on how German Indianthusiasm shaped German perceptions of the US as a “common enemy” of Germans and Native Americans, but also as a place of yearning, before and after 1945. Yet, looking for more recent examples of how Indian imagery serves to portray the US in German pop culture, I focused on notions of national identity. Nationalism being my chief approach for the dissertation, I found numerous examples of nationalist and völkisch thinking in Indian images even after World War II.
“Völkisch” means notions of peoplehood based on essentialist perceptions of national identity: the idea that character traits and one’s sense of belonging are determined by blood and by the natural environment. Völkisch thought is, thus, a basis for blood-and-soil ideology. If group identity is determined by blood, then it is almost impossible to come to “belong” as an outsider (or as an immigrant, for that matter). Unlike the tradition of American identity that allows for immigrants to become Americans through assimilation/integration, völkisch thought would deny the possibility of someone ‘learning’ to be a German and, being determined by blood, ‘German culture’ is perceived to be inherent in peoplehood, so it cannot be learned or shared with other peoples, either. This notion, of course, breeds xenophobia and racism.
I would argue that part of this philosophy can still be seen in the current term “people with a migration background” (Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund), employed to be more politically correct than “foreigner/alien” (Ausländer)―it nevertheless states that the depicted person, their parent or grandparent generation, was not born a German, and thus the following generations bear the taint of otherness. Traces of it are also still present in the ongoing legislation ruling that, even when born in Germany, you are not automatically a German citizen if born to immigrant parents.
In my work on Indianthusiasm and Nazi ideology, I have discussed how German nationalists and national socialists used these notions to say that Americans have destroyed Native American culture (if it cannot be shared, it can also not adapt, and thus peoplehood must perish if it encounters too much pressure/influence from outside). Note that the argument is about one overall Native―that is, “racial”―culture, which allows for understanding the colonial conflict as a race war between ‘red’ and ‘white.’
Nazis argued that American cultural imperialism threatened German culture during the early 20th century, as well, facilitating an image of Germans and Native Americans as fellow victims of American cultural imperialism. In addition, they compared and likened frontier massacres with the Anglo-American bombing campaign against German cities in WWII as examples of American “roguishness” and “inherent rowdyism.”
Looking for recent examples of such völkisch anti-American argumentation, I encountered debates on immigration in Germany. Conservatives, neo-Nazis, and, most recently, proponents of the anti-Islamic so-called PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) have referred to Native Americans as examples of how Germans, if they didn’t stop immigration, would end up “like the Indians”―living on reservations, being strangers on their own land, and having their culture destroyed by invading waves of strangers―in the völkisch sense, of ‘the other,’ of those who don’t belong because they are alien and cannot become ‘like us.’ Being ‘us,’ after all, cannot be learned in this reading of peoplehood, you have to be born into it.
One example was a tweet from a county representative of the new political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), using this photograph of Sitting Bull to state “The Indians could not stop immigration. Now they live on reservations.” This summer 2014 tweet comments that, if immigration into Germany continues, Germans will end up being strangers in their own country in the same way.
An even worse example is a YouTube clip featuring the leading figure of the Green Party, Claudia Roth, who encounters a (stereotypically clad) Cherokee “exchange student” in Berlin. Offering her German citizenship on the spot (and thus indicating that the Greens will naturalize any foreigner for the sake of multiculturalism), Roth learns that the Cherokee girl intends to go back home. The girl then tells Roth, who inquires about her experience as an ethnic minority, that her people had once lived by themselves and in peace when strangers appeared on their shores. Her leaders (symbolized by Sitting Bull again, curiously) initially invite the strangers in because they like multiculturalism. As the newcomers multiply, the leaders (i.e., Sitting Bull) argue that the newcomers have not yet been integrated into Native culture well, and that Natives should adapt. This is a current argument in German society, with some conservatives and most on the right wing claiming that immigrants should adapt to German Leitkultur (leading, or guiding culture) and claiming that liberals (represented here by Roth) would rather have Germans abandon their Germanness than demand that immigrants assimilate. Leitkultur suggests that Germanness can be learned, after all. The problem with this is that, for most of these arguments, even if the immigrants tried to “learn Germanness” by assimilating, they would still be subject to racism: if you have dark skin, you will be considered a stranger, no matter if your Bavarian dialect is your first language and you can recite the entire first part of Goethe’s Faust from memory.
When the young warriors in the Cherokee girl’s story are finally fed up and take a stand, it is too late and the Natives are massacred and pushed off of their land to Oklahoma. Here we have the motif of standing up to your traitorous leaders to protect your people that is en vogue among many neo-Nazis. Interestingly, the Cherokee girl repeatedly argues that Cherokee want to be “among ourselves” which is why she says “we recently expelled the blacks” (the Cherokee Freedmen) from the tribe. Again, to be “among ourselves” means that “the other” does not belong simply on the grounds of their, quasi species-specific, otherness.
At this point, the Roth character angrily intercepts and accuses the Cherokee girl of racism for expelling blacks. Eventually, Roth summons a ”black bloc” antifascist militant (she actually calls for “Antifa-Schutzstaffel”―a clear reference to the SS and to many conservatives’ claim that antifascists/antiracists are the same as Nazis) and has him beat up the Cherokee girl for being a racist. As the beating goes on, Roth concludes: “We antifascists are the most tolerant people there are, but if someone disagrees with us, the fun is over. You got that, damn Indian rabble?”
In this clip, the Cherokee are portrayed as righteously xenophobic racists who, simply wanting to be “among ourselves,” suffer first from Euro-American immigration/colonization and then from the presence of African Americans. They expel African Americans from the tribe because anybody qualifying as “not us,” as “the other,” should stay out simply because their “otherness” is inherent and irreconcilable, meaning: cultures don’t mix without conflict. The entire story promotes this stance as a defensive, protective measure, apparently proven right by the dreadful history of frontier conflict. The xenophobic rationale for the German context behind it is clear, especially since the clip’s opening soundtrack is Middle-Eastern music and the scene is set on Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s central square, symbolizing Berlin as one of the places with the highest percentage of immigrants in the country. So, both in terms of frontier history and of seeking to keep out the black ‘other,’ the Cherokee girl stands for a conservative and völkisch notion of peoplehood, and Claudia Roth for liberals who seek to destroy German culture and peoplehood through multiculturalism, as signified by a term currently very popular in these völkisch and xenophobic debates: Volksverräter (roughly: a betrayer of one’s own people/nation).