Between 11-13 October, I was invited to a symposium titled “Colonial Conquest in the Nazi East and the American West” at Northern Arizona University’s Martin Springer Institute, Flagstaff. The symposium was part of a larger collaborative effort in comparative genocide studies that I had been introduced to during my lecture tour last fall.
I was invited to present my work on Nazi appropriations of German Indianthusiasm, a great opportunity to promote the recent monograph. Beyond my initial research focus, it was fascinating to touch base again with current work in military history of World War II, social science approaches to mass violence, and Native American studies. As the organizers put it aptly during the introduction to the event – the symposium strove to discuss benefits, concerns, and questions about bringing together vastly different topics and methodological approaches that often seem so self-contained that they might even be considered “disciplinary silos.”
Political considerations, sensibilities, and activist interests are a major concern that academics should take into account when discussing genocide, in this case, comparing the Holocaust and Nazi occupation in Poland and the Soviet Union with the settlement of the North American continent, when comparing the ideologies of Lebensraum im Osten (living space in the East) with Manifest Destiny and the horrendous effects these ideologies and their implementations had on affected peoples. Comparing these historical phenomena entails the danger of establishing “hierarchies of suffering” that would devalue the suffering of some victims of colonialism and mass atrocity, and grossly insult the memory of some survivors and descendants of victims. Being familiar with these activist perspectives both from public discourse and scholarship in postwar/post-reunification Germany, and from my work in Native American studies and my acquaintance with Indigenous political activists, I was excited about the debates. Fortunately, these political concerns caused all participants to approach this bringing together of, not only disciplinary silos but also political powder kegs, with great transdisciplinary and transcultural care and sensitivity,
In disciplinary terms, I was once more amazed how wide the field of Holocaust studies/ history of Nazi Germany and World War Two is―from my own work, I felt well-versed in the field of Nazi media and propaganda, especially regarding Indianthusiasm, and nationalist/völkisch/Nazi ideology. However, it can be daunting to learn about author’s names and case studies in―often only slightly different―fields of interest, all coming with their respective scholarly networks, debates, academic trenches, historiographical infighting, annual meetings, and the like.
What struck me in particular about the meeting was how differently the question of comparing the Nazi East and the American West can be approached, and how these approaches will produce vastly different, often contradictory results and representations of these results. The question of genocide in the Nazi East and the American West is not merely a matter of debating intent and effect. It must consider and distinguish between ideology, public discourse, corresponding formulations of state policy, propaganda (domestic and foreign), and finally, observations on how the policies were implemented on the micro-level: by state agents, i.e., local commanders who must strike a balance between directives and improvisation as required by the moment, and by non-state agents, i.e., settlers and settler militias. These micro-level perspectives often enough requires empirical case studies whose results might contradict any of the above criteria and make comparison and generalizations between the Nazi East and the American West exceedingly difficult.
One prime example might be the oft-cited references Hitler made to the Euro-American conquest of the West when discussing his plans for the Nazi East. We know about these references from documentations of his Table Talks and from his Second Book, but that does not automatically mean that the Nazis used the Frontier as a role model in their planning for the east, that they publicly promoted any such parallels in their propaganda, that they issued corresponding directives, or that local commanders and administrators made (or were made aware of) any such comparisons when implementing these policies on the ground.
I have seen a number of documents in which Nazi-era German cultural anthropologists discussed US-Indian policy, such as the detrimental effects of forced relocation during the Trail of Tears, and argued that future German colonies in Africa should thus avoid massive relocation and cultural imperialism directed at Indigenous peoples, but I cannot speak to whether or not there were actual plans to that effect in Africa. Neither can I speak to the impact such comparisons actually had on the plans for starvation and relocation of Slavic peoples in the Nazi East. I am looking forward to doing more research into German government documents on these issues one day, and am currently not aware of any previous―and detailed―works focusing on American role models for the Nazi East. Without detailed knowledge of such documents, plans, and directives, Hitler’s remarks on using America’s westward expansion as a role model for the Nazi East are of limited value, for the man had a lot to say about everything in his ramblings.
To use a more concrete example of the complexities of comparison from my own work, consider the contradictions between domestic and foreign propaganda: As Kenneth Townsend, Jere Franco and others have pointed out in their works, the Nazis operationalized US groups, such as the German American Bund, to attack the “Indian New Deal” as the Roosevelt Administration’s covert attempt to install Communism in America: the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Act, or Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), ended the policy of allotting tracts of land to individual Native families since the 1887 Dawes Act, reinstating communal ownership of land, and revoking some of the repressive measures against native religions and cultural practices. Communal ownership of land, in the arguments of the Nazi-sponsored German American Bund, symbolized Communist collectives and gulags.
Back in Germany, however, the Nazis hailed the IRA as the Americans’ (belated) acknowledgment of inherent racial idiosyncrasies: since all peoples, according to racial ideology, came with inherent group character traits determined by blood and by their natural environment (hence, blood-and-soil ideology), trying to impose alien culture on a group would inevitably lead to that group’s demise. The Nazis argued at home that Americans had finally stepped away from trying to turn ‘Indians’ (who, supposedly, must roam, hunt, or ranch livestock by virtue of their biological heritage) into yeoman farmers, because this practice of cultural imperialism destroyed their culture and peoplehood. US-Indian policy in this regard was praised as good because it acknowledged racial difference and (seemingly) supported racial segregation, which the Nazis quickly exploited to ‘prove’ their own Nuremberg laws on racial segregation as necessary and ‘natural’ measures (i.e., the exclusion of Jews and other unwanted groups from the ‘community of the people’).
So, the same legal measures of the IRA were denounced as Communist in the US and praised as benevolent, racially sensible protection of peoplehood at home. In many other aspects, the comparison of the Nazi East and the American West raised more questions than it helps answer. Still, the symposium did great work to address the complexities and pitfalls and thus helped to develop more meaningful comparative approaches to genocide.