Flagstaff Symposium Tackles Sensitive Issues: Comparing Genocide and Settler Colonialism in the Nazi East and the American West
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 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 here 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, come with inherent group character traits determined by blood and their natural environment (hence, blood-and-soil ideology), trying to impose alien culture on a group will 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.
Refugees and Guns: Catchy Historical Arguments on Emotionally Charged Social Issues in Germany and the US
I have been back in Arizona for more than a week now, to continue research on Native American military traditions and on veterans’ issues, both for the Native and non-Native veteran demographics. It was good to be back in Tucson and spend time at the U of A library, meet old colleagues and friends, and catch up on news. I am currently in Flagstaff for more research and for a conference on comparative genocide studies, which I will discuss in a later post. During conversations both here and in Tucson, it struck me how emotionally charged many of the current political debates in both the US and Germany are, and the role historical arguments play in both.
For Germany, it is the often bizarre comparison to Native American history in debates on immigration and the refugee “crisis” that I have discussed in a number of recent posts. Once again, I am surprised that liberals and Native activists in the US mockingly use xenophobic arguments on immigrants to point out that, after all, American society was built on immigration. Yet, these same arguments serve nationalist and even völkisch/racist standpoints in Germany, allowing German nationalists to portrait themselves as the Indians of the 21st century.
Here in the US, the recent college shootings in Oregon, Arizona, and Texas have flared up debates on gun culture, once again. The shooting at Northern Arizona University occurred the night before I took the shuttle from Tucson to Flagstaff. Walking around NAU campus in the afternoon felt eerie. I could not help wondering if people I watched were particularly friendly in attempt to assert community and belonging after the event, if the two girls I watched laughing so hard over some text message they had received that they were actually rolling on the floor were excessively giddy to take their minds off of the incident, if people wearing sober expressions were still shocked, contemplative or if they worried about the next take-home exam, or, generally, whether I simply interpreted too much into everyday behavior. Colleagues I talked to, both in Tucson and Flagstaff, were concerned about policy changes the recent shootings might bring regarding gun regulations on campuses.
To come back to historical arguments, though, it is scary to see how prominently comparisons to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust figure in the public debate on gun control. This Huffington Post article details some of the flaws in Ben Carson’s recent comments following the shooting in Oregon. In addition to the discussion of German legislation on firearms since the end of World War One described there, including the resulting estimates on how many guns German Jews might have owned in the late 1930s and whether this could have prevented the Holocaust or not, we should also consider that all major German parties had their paramilitary militias before 1933: The Nazis, of course, had the storm troopers and the SS, the Communists had their Alliance of Red Front Fighters (RFB), the Social Democrats, Liberals, and Catholic Center formed the “Black – Red – Gold Banner of the Reich,” the veterans’ organization Stahlhelm formed their own militia, etc. All of these paramilitary and para-state militias were armed, legally or not. They had taken home guns from the war and “squirreled away” guns during the often chaotic events of revolution and civil war 1919-20. There was no shortage of firearms among the German population when Hitler took power. However, these guns did not prevent the Nazis from taking over and, in the isolated events were they were used against the Nazi takeover, such as the infamous “Köpenick Week of Blood” in Berlin in June 1933, they quickly ignited a massive backlash of organized Nazi and police repression.
And yet, here we are, having to discuss gun control in the US by way of distorted comparisons to Nazis and the Holocaust once more. In idealist and utterly rose-colored moments, I like to imagine the social purpose of historians to be that of some sort of “guides of public memory,” of people who can tell society, as it approaches another fork in the road and does not seem to be able to decide which way to go, “let’s not go down this particular direction this time, it didn’t work for us the last time we tried.” This would be a role of historians who can break down the complex contexts of historical events for everybody to understand and to draw conclusions from. Apparently, though, and I hope this does not sound too gloomy, historians often are only left to mumble a resigned “I told you so” and retreat back to their dusty archives, while politicians and ideologues spout catchy and unrelated historical anecdotes that all too often are utterly inapplicable to explain the contemporary moment.
Once I started to do more research into Indian imagery in current nationalist discourse, I stumbled across quite a few examples of the slogan “The Indians could not stop immigration. Now they live on reservations.” It seems that this slogan is not restricted to Germany’s right fringe and racists: It was used in 2008 by a regional party in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the Lega dei Ticinesi…
…where members of the outright neo-fascist and separatist Italian party Lega Nord picked it up for their own anti-immigrant election platform:
…The youth organization of Austrian right-wing populist party FPÖ uses it on bumper stickers and posters…
…as well as the Swiss populist SVP in their nativist campaign for the 2014 referendum on immigration:
In Germany, the neo-Nazi party NPD employed the slogan in their program for the state elections of Saxony some 10 years ago. Then prime minister of Hesse, Roland Koch, triggered a public outcry in 2006 by stating that nothing remained of the ancient Native American cultures thanks to the American settlement but that we Germans are “more than the Indians,” thus co-victimizing with and denigrating Native Americans at the same time. Koch is a member of the CDU (Merkel’s party); its Hessian branch has a reputation for its conservatism, and many German newspapers pointed out the obvious similarities between Koch’s and the neo-Nazis’ arguments (most of the previous examples are discussed in this German-language article of the Swiss Tagesanzeiger).
In Leipzig, the local branch of PEGIDA, LEGIDA (= “Leipzig Against the Islamization of the West”) has used similar notions. We don’t know for sure if the person depicted here follows the Indians-couldn’t-stop-immigration argument, but his attire and his banner suggest such a conclusion. He seems to make a point wearing the same T-Shirt depicting Sitting Bull at the rally each Monday. Now that the days have grown colder, he wears it over his sweater, making an explicit statement. The banner he is holding in the picture addresses a number of typical, and typically contradictory, issues (unfortunately, I couldn’t find an image that shows both the T-Shirt and the banner):
source: Alexander Böhm, Leipziger Internet-Zeitung
1) The banner voices opposition “against US imperialism.” Of course, this has been a popular trope in German cultural pessimism since the late 1800s, especially where co-victimization with Native Americans is concerned. These German texts have argued “first, Americans destroyed Indian cultures, and now they are trying to do the same thing to us.” You could find this argument among Indianthusiasts around 1900 as much as among proponents of völkisch ideology who provided the breeding ground for the Nazis. Of course, the argument also worked both in communist East Germany and among the West German radical left.
2) It decries “EU Fascism”―apparently, it is currently very popular to call your opposition “fascists.” People who use the term usually don’t really understand the ideological background and philosophy of the corporatist state of Benito Mussolini’s movement. It was called “fascism” after the fasces, the Roman lictors‘ sign of office (equivalent to police forces). The fasces are a bundle, comprised of sticks/arrows and an axe, that symbolized police authority and the power of the state. Many people today understand ‘fascists’ as ‘those who publicly (and often violently) contradict my worldview,’ or, more generally and simply, as “assholes.” This protester here seems to understand the umbrella organization of the EU as “fascist” because it appropriates rights that previously belonged to individual sovereign countries. This crude ideology is reinforced in the banner’s reference to Richard-Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi who was a proponent of the pan-European movement in the 1920s, a movement that the Nazis prohibited because of its internationalism and liberalism. We can only assume that this person here believes the EU to be fascist because it has authority over German affairs…
3) The banner also decries “rainbow racism” (Regenbogen-Rassismus) This brings us back to the notion of Germans and Indians as fellow victims. It adds that “rainbow racism” means “genocide,” most likely against white people or Germans. Thus, it seems to allude to the notion of ‘Volkstod‘, the demise of German peoplehood through multiculturalism that is currently a buzzword among neo-Nazis and that I discussed in an earlier post. Although this protester does not explicitly use the slogan “Indians couldn’t stop immigration,” the combination of Sitting Bull T-shirt and “rainbow racism” represents this argument clearly enough. Obviously, this ignores any historical precedence of the degree of inclusiveness within North American tribal societies; they had to be inclusive and adopt members of other tribes and other races into their communities if they wanted to survive in a harsh environment, threatened both by invaders’ military forces and their diseases. They simply could not afford to be xenophobic racists.
The “Indians couldn’t stop immigration” argument pictures the history of Westward expansion on the North American continent as a gigantic racial conflict, or even race war, of whites against Native Americans which the latter, in this reading, had to lose because the tribes didn’t unite as a race, because they were not race-conscious enough. The Nazis stressed this over and over as a cautionary tale: Nazi-Germany had a chance to survive, they argued, because it had overcome the internal strife of the Weimar years by uniting under Hitler. In countless speeches and novels promoted by the Nazis, then, Hitler was compared to both Arminius, the Cherusci leader who united the Germanic tribes and destroyed three Roman legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) which ended Roman intrusion. Both were compared to Tecumseh, whose pan-Indian movement united previously quarreling tribes in the early 1800s: the German novels of the 1930s portrayed Tecumseh as a ruthless dictator who sought to lead the (mindless) Indian masses toward redemption, only to be cast down by betrayal at the hands of the devious English.
In both the Arminius, Tecumseh, and Hitler arguments, the threat to peoplehood is exactly what this protester’s banner proclaims: “genocide”, that is, “Volkstod” through alien intrusion and the infusion of alien culture, technology, and ideas. For racists and völkisch nationalists, culture is an inherent part of peoplehood and it does not mix with outsiders. Thus, immigration, miscegenation, and cohabitation among cultures, in their understanding, will always lead to conflict and, eventually to the demise of peoplehood.
So, without using the actual slogan about Indians and immigration, this protester promotes a tradition of nationalism and racism in German Indianthusiasm that helped the Nazis rein in a very popular movement for their propaganda efforts. It is a revelation to see that the same argument is obviously still very powerful to promote nationalist and racist ideology in the twenty-first century.
Since my first post on this topic in May, I have done a bit of research on Indian imagery in racist arguments regarding the current debate on immigration and the refugee crisis. I knew that neo-Nazis followed in the tradition of their grandfathers to co-victimize with Native Americans by placing the near-extermination of the buffalo and the massacres against Native Americans on the same level as the American bombing campaigns against German cities during World War II. I was not aware, though, that the old nationalist/Nazi notion of German Indigeneity was alive and well, too, that both conservatives and neo-Nazis use it for nationalist and racist statements, and that these statements are so widespread.
There are quite a few video clips with a message similar to the one on the Cherokee girl and the Green party leader Claudia Roth I described in Part I. I do not know who is behind the Cherokee/Roth video, nor their party affiliations, but the gist of the video matches many statements from the neo-Nazi party NPD (“National Democrats”). The Saxon NPD used a version of the slogan “The Indians couldn’t stop immigration, and now they live on reservations” on their program for the Saxon state elections some ten years ago.
Also, a Saxon historian in the NPD argued that “The ideologies of multiculturalism promote by all available means a massive land grab by people who are alien to our culture and race, which will turn us Germans into the Indians of the twenty-first century.” This notion reinforces the paranoid concept of Volkstod, the demise of peoplehood, which is supposedly brought on by miscegenation and the mixing of cultures. As discussed in Part I, in a völkisch reading, cultures are supposedly inherent elements of group identity determined by both blood ties and by the natural environment, and can thus neither be shared or learned, and don’t mix without conflict. So, the massive influx of immigrants, in this perspective, destroys German culture and, eventually, the German people.
At this point, I can’t help it, I must bring in one of my “favorite” Hitler quotes to exemplify this paranoia about the incompatibility of cultures. In his second book (only published as an annotated edition by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in the 1960s), he stated:
“One cannot convey culture, which is a general expression of a particular people’s life, to any other people with completely different mental predispositions. This would, at best, be possible in a so-called international civilization, which, however, relates to culture like jazz music to a Beethoven symphony” (Hitlers Zweites Buch 166).
In this reading, then, jazz, as a representative of American (international) and, thus, alien civilization, threatened the integrity of German culture and German peoplehood already in the 1920s. Back to Indians and neo-Nazis, though.
In 2011, the Bremen chapter of the NPD published a short campaign ad for the parliament of the Bremen city state, the Bürgerschaft. In this, as in our Cherokee/Roth example, an animated film explains the history of American settlement, starting with the landing of the Mayflower. The video should convey its meaning to you even if you don’t speak German; the text lines are scarce and the images speak mostly for themselves.
It is the same story of naive Indians who help the first hungry and huddled immigrants but are pushed aside eventually because the numbers of aliens become overwhelming and because the immigrants turn out to be rowdyish invaders. In the end, the Indians are crammed onto some small patches of land, i.e., the reservations, that have “do not feed” signs posted at their borders. Now that it is too late, the Indians in this clip conclude: “We should have founded a national Indian party” (Wir hätten eine nationale Indianerpartei gründen sollen).
The scene now shifts to Africa and Asia, from where literal waves (better: blobs) of immigrants move to Germany: old German men in their lederhosen and bowler hats are pushed aside. At this point, the scared remaining Germans have a vision: an Indian family magically appears next to a NPD campaign poster on an advertising pillar reading “End this multicultural madness, Bremen stays in German hands!” (Multikulti-Wahn beenden, Bremen bleibt in deutschen Händen) The Indians say “yes, so you don’t end up like we did.” (Ja, damit es euch nicht so wie uns geht)
The clip is significant not only because of the hilarious notion of the NPD as the “National Indian Party” that caused great joy among liberals, but also it once more openly promotes racism and xenophobia as the only measure to protect both German culture and peoplehood.
In looking at these arguments, I wonder about the similarity of images and the absolute conflict of meanings if we compare them with immigration debates in the US. Consider this cartoon contextualizing Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Mexicans:
Found at: Memories of the People
I had heard similar jokes and seen similar posters and cartoons (“Who’s the illegal immigrant here, Pilgrim?!”) from American liberals and Native American activists who use them against American anti-immigrant conservatives. I always marvel at how easily reference to Native Americans can be used for both sides of the argument if you only change the setting and once you take into account the German tradition of imagining themselves as the Indians of Europe and, therefore, as soul mates of Native Americans.
A few weeks ago, my dissertation was published as a monograph. It is titled Fellow Tribesmen and was produced with Berghahn Books in New York in collaboration with the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. The defense in 2010 was a major stepping stone, but this moment really feels like completion. I have developed first ideas for the project during my abroad year at the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona in 2000, so these past fifteen years from inception to finished product felt like seeing a child grow up, cradle it, guide it, loose sleep over it. The analogy fails once I say ‘now that it has come of age I’ll let it go,’ but still, it has been my baby for quite a while.
I don’t even think I’ll completely let it go. Many other PhDs I discussed dissertations with grew tired of their project, and told me they could not stand talking or thinking about it any more once they had defended. However, the German perception of Native Americans, with all its fascinating aspects of Native visitors to Europe, transatlantic comparisons in imagery, identity formation, and stereotyping, as well as implications for German/American cultural history, media history, and the history of ideas will probably recur throughout my academic life and I cannot imagine becoming tired of discussing these issues.
Although, as a German researcher in American Studies, you’re supposed to put the dissertation project aside eventually and create a very broad portfolio rather than becoming a topical specialist, there are a few more aspects to the project that I’d like to investigate some time: More research should be done in German government documents regarding Native Americans. Back in the process of outlining the project, I believed I would write about German soldier’s encounters with Native American GIs. This proved to be a needle in the haystack. Then I became interested in the Nazis’ plans for occupying America, and how German Indianthusiasm would influence Nazi military planning. This proved to be way too big to pursue on top of the investigation of the range of published print sources, both journalistic, popular culture, and academic, that this project was already engaged with. “Keep it for the book,” some older colleagues said. Well, when I prepared the manuscript for publication, I was already mired in this new major project on milblogs, which left no time for extensive additional archival research for the first monograph. I hope that, some day, I can go after sources on German spies, colonial planners regarding German perceptions of Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Now, though, I’m happy. I’ve learned a lot about editing and publishing, often became frustrated about specific aspects of the process, or felt that, instead of engaging with a lengthy editing process, I needed all my time for the new project. Colleagues and friends have frequently heard about this. These days, though, I celebrate.
Photo: Michael Pugliese from Censored News
A friend just stumbled over this article and forwarded it to me. The event actually happened two years ago already, but I think it is timeless (and priceless). The article discusses the small town of Leith, North Dakota, which has made international news in recent years because of a group of right-wing extremists and outright neo-Nazis who campaigned among like-minded people to move in and take over the town. This particular piece discusses antifascist and Native American activists from the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation converging in Leith for a rally during which a group of Native women elders captured a Nazi flag.
Although the events in Leith are specific manifestations of American racism and the conflicts it creates among American communities, they tie in nicely with my work on Nazi perceptions of Native Americans, back in the early twentieth century and now. Propaganda campaigns by Goebbels’ ministry to stop Natives from supporting the US in World War II failed, the German American Bund’s mole campaigns intent on inciting pan-tribal organizations such as the American Indian Federation (AIF) in order to destabilize US society failed as well (see Kenneth Townsend‘s and Jere Franco‘s books regarding these events). In 1939 and ’40, Native American tribes in the Southwest publicly abandoned their use of the swastika symbol in their arts and crafts because the Nazis had soiled its symbolic power. German newspapers did not report on that particular reaction. They, as well as today’s German neo-Nazis, preferred to compare atrocities committed against Native people during the “Indian Wars” with the near-extermination of the buffalo and the Anglo-American bombing campaigns against German cities in World War II.
So, although the neo-Nazis in Leith did not proselytize among Native people as their German role models did in the 1930s, these Native protesters’ reactions are part of a long tradition of refuting Nazi advances and of standing up to everything the Nazis stand for.
The 62nd annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies convened in Bonn from 28-31 May. The conference topic “Knowledge Landscapes North America” gave me the opportunity to look at my milblog and PTSD research interest from a historiographical perspective. Working with sources on the history of PTSD to support my take on milblogs as ceremonial war narrations that conduct both cultural work and have a therapeutic effect, I became more and more interested in scholarly debates on PTSD and its constructedness in recent years.
My Tübingen colleague Axel Jansen and I organized the Workshop “Contested Science” to discuss how biology and biomedicine became the most visible sciences in public discourse after World War II. The contributions focused on very unique case studies but communicated well with each other, highlighting similar arguments, discourse patterns, and problems. Michael Hochgeschwender (LMU Munich) provided an intriguing theological background for Catholic Roman Church standpoints on issues such as abortion, Stephen Mawdsley (Cambridge) presented his research on the US youth campaign for the polio vaccine in the 1950s and 60s, and Axel Jansen discussed different approaches to and regulations on stem cell research in the US, the UK, and Germany.
After my presentation at the American Indian Workshop in March had scrutinized the clinical aspects and mental health care policies for Native American veterans, last week’s talk looked into activist PTSD scholarship during Vietnam. I have searched for social-support approaches to PTSD to compare with Native American traditions since the inception of this project, and I have been fascinated by how diverse research and therapeutic approaches have been since Vietnam. This presentation was thus a great opportunity to contextualize social-support approaches with a political interest to critically discuss the relationship between civil society and the military among both segments of the public and some researchers.
Some therapies and research schools neglect social issues and, instead, focus entirely on neurobiology or stress levels in their research and therapy. It seems as if they are not even aware of alternative methods (or that they discard them as irrelevant). In some therapy scenarios, there seems to be a mix-and-match situation: clients are sent to one therapy after another until something finally works, and this might be biomedicine now, hypnosis next, and alternative therapies like outdoors, guide dogs, or narrative/creative therapy after that.
Some scholar-therapists (e.g., Jonathan Shay, Ed Tick), regardless if they refer to anti-war activist scholars of the 1970s, argue that social support is necessary for successful veteran reintegration and that the social contract between civil society and its soldiers requires civilians to acknowledge and assume social responsibilities after the soldiers’ return. It is intriguing to see how many protagonists of this approach refer to Native American traditions of communalism and ceremonialism in this regard, a reference that initially piqued my interest in reading milblogs as forms of ceremonial storytelling in which civilians and soldiers discuss war experience and thus, construct meaning in a mutual negotiation of the social contract.
“Indians Couldn’t Stop Immigration” (Part I): Indian Imagery as a Role Model for German Nationalism, Then and Now
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).
36th American Indian Workshop in Frankfurt, and a Presentation on Mental Healthcare for Native Veterans
Preparing this post I realize two things – first, I have been behind in writing and need to catch up because more items and events are down the road. Second, it seems not so long ago that, this venue of a research blog being all new to me, I reported from the 2014 AIW in Leiden, Netherlands. So, a year has passed surprisingly fast.
The AIW is the annual meeting of an interdisciplinary network of scholars in American Indian Studies in Europe. This year’s convention, held 24-27 March 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany, was titled “Knowledge and Self-Representation.” I was excited to hear a number of presentations on Indigenous knowledge and applications thereof, in disciplines such as philosophy, literature, political science, and anthropology. I particularly enjoyed Rainer Hatoum’s presentation on his work with Franz Boas’s shorthand notes, especially since I missed his lecture on that topic during an exhibition and lecture series in Dresden in 2013. John Gilkeson and Suzanne Berthier-Foglar offered intriguing overviews on how scholarship in Native American history and the Southwest, respectively, has developed and how Native voices and perspectives have gained more ground and influence during the recent decades.
Birgit Hans’s presentation on reservation day schools in North Dakota during the Reservation Era struck a chord with me. She discussed the amount of data that teachers and school supervisors had to collect about their’ students’ families. I found this especially significant because a colleague of mine is currently busy with a major research project on how Americans developed a sense of information as “data” during the nineteenth century, and how the systematic collection, storage and analysis of information affected US culture. The idea that day school teachers recorded the number of windows and chairs in their students’ families’ houses, the number of bales of hay the men made per year, whether or not the women attended sewing circles, whether families approached schools to obtain medicine, and other seemingly unrelated information collected here, in order to devise a key to tell school boards and BIA authorities whether these Native families were “progressive” or not, struck me as very odd. This was especially so since Birgit Hans worked out convincingly how inconsistent these teacher-statisticians were with their numbers and the conclusions drawn from them. In many cases, they simply seem to have gone through the motion of counting, because even the higher-ups did not seem to have known what to do with all the data, and simply wanted to have it for the sake of having it. This opens up quite a few parallels to today’s governments’ culture of collecting data about the citizenry.
This year’s focus on knowledge at the AIW was an opportunity for me to extend my own research in the milblog project from investigating how military psychology and US mainstream representations of war trauma and PTSD refer to Native American warrior and veteran traditions. I have become interested in how mental healthcare services for Native American veterans have evolved since Vietnam, and in how far they reflect the interest in traditional and alternative approaches and in storytelling for healing apparent in mainstream discussions of trauma in the last few decades.
I was intrigued by the number of (medical) studies focusing on mental healthcare services related to the 1999 report of the US Surgeon General on mental health and its 2001 supplement on the role of “Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” in mental healthcare, how many studies stated the need and made suggestions to improve care for Native veterans. Yet it is sad to see that, in the fifteen years since, so many difficulties remain, if only to improve the collaboration of mental healthcare providers, such as VA and IHS. In addition, my presentation discussed successful projects, such as the VA’s institution of Tribal Veteran Representatives, which was instigated in the early 2000s, to provide better access to and engender trust in the VA’s services among Native veterans in rural areas.
With a perspective of my overall project on cultural transfer and veteran and trauma issues, I was inspired to see how the VA and the Indian Health Service gradually became aware of and began to integrate traditional healing methods regarding war trauma, and how they tried to integrate such services in their practice for Native veterans. A number of comments to my presentation pointed me to specific projects in which these traditional methods, such as sweat lodge ceremonies, are offered by the VA. It will be interesting to compare these projects to approaches that try to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the practice of mental healthcare for non-Native veterans, such as the work of John P. Wilson (see his essay in chapter four of Raymond Monsour Scurfield and Katherine Teresa Platoni’s collection Healing War Trauma), or Ed Tick’s Soldier’s Heart. In addition, I recently became aware of the website veteranceremonies.org, in which Native Studies scholar Lawrence Gross proposes that Native Americans should actively help non-Natives develop their own rituals for reintegrating returning soldiers into civil society by discussing ceremonial storytelling, community activism, and Native approaches to humor. I add this here because next year’s AIW in Odense, Denmark, will focus on humor. I hope that, apart from presentations on Native comedy and stand-up, there will be discussions and presentations on the role of humor in healing, as well.
Over the course of this year, quite a few mid- and long-term projects I have been involved with will be completed. The first of these is titled “Poetics of Politics.” It started as a conference our research initiative organized at Leipzig University in June 2013 (The conference website holds video clips of most of the presentations). In the meantime, our conference participants and a few additional contributors have further developed their ideas on the interrelation between a presumed recent ‘political turn’ in literature and a ‘poetic turn’ in politics. The resulting essay collection will be published at Heidelberg’s University Press “Winter Verlag” in late April.
For more information (including a table of contents), check out our research initiative’s book page, or Winter’s website, or the book blurb at Amazon.de. More events soon: a few conferences and some time in May, eventually, the monograph Fellow Tribesmen hot off the printing press!
UPDATE May 2015: The collection Poetics of Politics has been published in late April. We are glad that this project emerged out of a very successful symposium and that the subsequent book took less than two years to compile and edit. We will be proud to have the book on the table during the upcoming annual meeting of the German Association of American Studies in Bonn.