The Karl-May-Museum in Radebeul has been working on new concepts for its presentation of Indigenous North America in recent years, but also on restoring objects and facilities. Some of the objects have been on display almost continuously since the 1930s.
Among them is museum figurine depicting a Comanche warrior, customized for the Karl-May-Museum by Indianthusiast, Nazi party member, and painter of romantic rural Germany, Native American show artists, as well as heroic German soldiers and Nazi storm troopers Emil “Elk” Eber in 1933. When museum staff removed the figurine’s clothing in the presence of some journalists this winter in order to restore the objects and the figurine, they found a swastika painted in red on one buttock, and a Star of David on the other. It is unclear how these symbols got there, and when they were added to the figurine – were they painted on by Elk Eber and/or museum staff during the Nazi era, by museum staff feeling silly at some point during the Communist era (the museum building was refurbished in 1984/85, the figurines could have been worked on during that time, as well)? That issue will remain a mystrery for the time being.
Needless to say, the story of the “swastika on the Indian’s butt” was a field day for tabloid papers and internet news services (nobody was interested why the Star of David was there, too). I was approached for an interview by “t-online.de” a few days later to discuss German Indianthusiasm in the Nazi era and the appropriation of “Indian imagery” for Nazi propaganda.
Our discussion covered a central point that is a major conundrum regarding the Nazis’ racial ideology – why would the most racist of all white racists take a non-white group as role models? We talked about how warrior ideology was useful for Nazis, discussed general notions of anti-Americanism in Germany, but most of all the self-representation of Nazis: They claimed that National Spocialism was the implementation of Social Darwinism, that is, of “natural laws” into political practice and policies. I pointed my interview partner to an article in the Nazi mouthpiece “Völkischer Beobachter” from 1933, titled “Racial Grooming among Indigenous Peoples” (Rassenpflege bei den Naturvölkern). That article talked about infanticide of disabled and malformed children among Native American and Inuit groups, as well as Inuit elders’ suicides during harsh winters, in order to “protect” the group from “unnecessary” or “overbearing” social responsibilities. The article explains the killing of “useless eaters” as a sensible – because supposedly natural – measure of social control and suggests that, while seeming excessively brutal to a “civilized society” such as 1930s Germany, the Natives’ practices were role models because of their intuitive and “natural” efforts to preserve group strength in the Darwinian struggle for survival.
I pointed out that the Nazis, in this argument, sought to prepare the German populace for the euthanasia programs they would put into practice after 1939. In using stories about Indigenous cultural practices as role models, the Nazis conveniently ignored other stories about selfless mutual aid among Native peoples (such as Native leaders surrendering in order to protect their people from further suffering on the run from the U.S. Army), because such stories of submission as the lesser evil would go against Nazi notions of doomsday heroism to the last man and bullet over scorched earth.
The interview was published at t-online on 13 March.
More posts discussing the Karl May museum will follow (hopefully) soon, with reports on conferences about Karl May, as well as current research on Comanche objects in Saxon museums.