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Our museum joined the discussion around the US presidential election, especially the violence in Washington on 6 January 2021, in a “rapid response” statement. The text was posted on our museum group’s blog. Below is the English translation:
News about the Capitol riots in Washington DC went viral around the globe. Among videos and images of thousands of Trump followers, conspiracy disciples, right-wing militias and Alt-Right activists, large numbers of people in flamboyant costumes dominated the media, most of all Jake Angeli, a.k.a. the “Q-Shaman,” armed with a horned fur headdress, US flag tied to a spear, and large tattoos on his naked torso. The world-wide media response quickly read him as a symbol for the diversity and contradictions among Trump’s followers – for many he represents a hodge-podge of Vanity Fair self-promoter, hypermasculine macho, and a crude motley of cultural and historical references.
Some observers read Angeli’s performance as political cosplay, intended to generate clicks to give the political message more visibility. It is unclear whether Angeli sought to further amplify his message through the metaphor of his bullhorn / megaphone (interestingly, cultural analyses of the role of social media compare blogs to bullhorns*). Other media outlets wondered if the costume was supposed to represent a Viking or an “Indian,” whether the costume elements were ethnohistorically correct, and in how far Angeli committed cultural appropriation in wearing the costume. He himself tends to refer to elements of Native American mythology and cultural practice – to the American bison (who could run you over and trample you to death if you step in its path), and to the coyote, whom Native cultures revere as clever.
In this interpretation, the pick-and-choose of cultural references becomes obvious: Indeed, some Native Plains cultures used bison horns on war bonnets up to the 20th century to acknowledge the deeds and spiritual powers of particularly accomplished warriors. Coyote the trickster plays an important role as a cultural (anti)hero in many tribal creation stories, as well as modern literature, causing mischief and throwing the world out of balance with wanton cunning and laziness.
However, more important than the question of cultural appropriation as such is how these references to Native peoples serve to spread political ideology. White Americans dressed as “Indians” are hardly a new phenomenon in political/cultural history – the colonists who stormed ships and dumped tea into Boston harbor in 1773 to protest British commerce regulations wore “Indian” garb. US cultural memory of the War of Independence fondly recalls that the rebel militias, without a chance against British regulars in pitched battles, learned to use the terrain and to “fight like Indians” in order to defeat the British. Yet, positive references to Native Americans among conservatives and the extreme right-wing are part of a trend that spread from Europe in more recent years.
The reference to Native Americans and illegal immigration is actually a traditional argument among Indigenous and liberal activists in the US to attack xenophobia: “Who is the illegal immigrant here, pilgrim?!” In Europe, especially in Germany, the notion of well-meaning “Indians” overrun by mobs of greedy foreigners has fueled anti-American argumentation since the late 19th century. It climaxed during National Socialism when the Nazis declared that, after the “Indians,” Germans were now the newest victims of American hypocrisy and brutality. Whenever US media protested against the Nazi persecution of Jews, Goebbels’ Propaganda machine retorted with references to “the fate of the Indian.” In 1941, the monthly magazine Koralle exemplified this notion by stating defiantly: “America, Keep Your own House in Order!” During the 19th century, German nationalism had developed a bizarre mélange of ideas about warriorhood and indigeneity that rolled Native Americans, ancient Germanic tribes, and Nordic Vikings into one. Some people claimed Germans and Indians were soulmates, if not blood relatives with a shared primeval proto-Aryan ancestor.
Similar notions and skewed historical comparison abound among the extreme German right today. Massacres against Native villages on the frontier and the near total extinction of the bison are likened to the Allied bombing campaign against German cities during the war. In the last c. 15 years, reference to North American colonial history serves to address a presumed overwhelming of “indigenous” Germans by immigrants (Überfremdung): The slogan “Indians couldn’t stop immigration, and now they live on reservations” appears in right-wing and conservative election campaigns, on Internet memes, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. Like “Indians,” Germans supposedly are on the verge of becoming a minority in their own country. The idea is not restricted to Germany, however – you’ll find the slogan and images in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and in debates on Brexit in the UK.
It seems that the extreme right uses the argument of Indians v. Immigrants strategically. The Norwegian assassin Breivik states in his manifesto (2011) that one cannot drag undecided people off the fence and make them commit to the nationalist cause by idolizing Hitler. Hitler, he says, is ‘burnt’ because his notion of supremacy based on race is no longer acceptable for most people. Instead, nationalists should take on a victim’s perspective and identify with resistance movements of minorities, i.e., they should refer to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse as role models, rather than Hitler.
In this light, it is not surprising that some US gun-rights activists have begun to portray themselves as victims of oppressive gun legislation and claim that “Indians” lost their fight because they had no guns. The El Paso shooter commented in his manifesto (2019) that “Indians” couldn’t stop immigration and, therefore, Americans today had to learn from their plight and use violence against immigrants and refugees on the Mexican border (apparently, he wasn’t aware of the historical irony). So, Angeli’s bizarre attire continues a trend that has a longer tradition among nationalist groups but has taken hold in the US only recently. Despite all the ludicrous elements in his and others’ performances, then, this development is a sign of the increasing internationalization of right-wing extremism. It is a practice with a long history in Germany. The images of the storm on the Capitol are unsettling not least because the violence depicted there is also part of everyday life in contemporary Germany.
In the context of my new job, I got involved in an international research project titled “Curating (Post)Socialist Environments” about museum work and (art) history in Eastern Europe, and how people in Eastern European countries built, organized, created, refined – i.e., curated – exhibitions but also urban landscapes and private homes.
The project gave me an opportunity to delve into the history of the Leipzig museum during the GDR, especially the museum’s relationship with diverse regional clubs of Indian hobbyists. I spent a few weeks at the museum library and archives to study old yearbooks, visitor’s books, documents, and exhibition scripts. In addition, I did a survey of references to Native Americans in East German TV shows from news to kids’ shows to ethnographic documentaries at Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German TV and Radio Archive) and looked at reports and documents on cultural and education policy at the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive).
All this generated more than enough material for several articles, and there are still documents to be perused. I finished the manuscript for an article that will be part of the research group’s forthcoming anthology titled Curating (Post)Socialist Environments (release in April 2021).
Last week, I attended the conference “Museums in the GDR” in Rostock, organized by the Richard-Schöne-Gesellschaft für Museumsgeschichte and the “Kunsthalle Rostock.” The conference also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Kunsthalle in Rostock, one of the very few museums constructed in East Germany 1949-90.
The conference addresses “questions regarding the organizational, political, and aesthetic development of museums in the GDR, provide answers, and debate[d] blank spaces in previous research.”
“[The meeting] looks into personal, cultural, and intellectual continuities of (East) German museum policy since the Kaiser era to identify unique developments in GDR museum culture, and to discuss international relations, not only with the Eastern Bloc but also the competition with West Germany.” (from the conference press release)
My own contribution introduced some Indian hobby clubs, pointing to Indianthusiast continuities since the 19th century. I emphasized that the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde and local hobby clubs built their relationship for mutual benefit: On the one hand, hobbyists approached the museum to gain reliable resources about Native Americans. They learned about exhibition concepts and practices, and sometimes could use the museum as a platform to present their own activities and skills to the public.
On the other hand, the museum fulfilled its mandate to serve as a link between the state’s ideological directives on education and culture, scholarship, and the populace. Supporting the hobbyists’ amateur ethnography was a welcome opportunity for the museum to implement the state’s doctrine of popular education (especially the so-called “Bitterfelder Weg”) and to gain further insight into the museum’s own collection from the hobbyists’ growing practical experience with reconstructing material culture.
By employing the term “experimental ethnography,” I argue that both the hobbyists (who had to justify their work with state officials to obtain permits for club activities) and the museum (which was supposed to support youth culture and non-professional interests) portrayed their mutual activities as serious work. Framing their activities as amateur research and exhibitions with a political motivation (anti-imperialist solidarity) apparently could demonstrate to the state that hobbyism went beyond mere horseplay, that hobbyists were not ‘just playing Indian.’
In May 2015, I attended a conference on the history of German perceptions of the US since 1945 in Tutzing. My presentation explored how nationalist and racist tropes of the Nazi era utilized Native American imagery and historical comparison, and how these arguments were adapted among neo-Nazis and right-wing populists in Germany to stoke nativist sentiment during the current refugee crisis. In the following months, I developed a series of blog posts on this issue:
Earlier this month, my colleague Volker Benkert published the German-language conference collection, titled Feinde, Freunde, Fremde?…. My contribution further develops ideas laid out in these early blog posts. Other contributions cover transatlantic comparative analyses of genocide, German-American cultural transfer, perspectives on the US in East and West Germany during the Cold War, and German-American relations until today.
Initially, I had intended the series on Indian imagery in German nativism and immigration on this blog to be a minor spin-off following my dissertation research. Recent events, such as the growing influx of refugees since 2014, the rise of nationalist, nativist, and racist political organizations, and their increasing visibility in public discourse, however, merit more deeper explorations of the issue. It seems that protagonists in these public debates not only recycle Indian imagery and argumentation from the Nazi era, but that growing exchange and interrelation among similar political currents across Europe also shares and disseminates related imagery, such as references to Native Americans and Indigeneity.
In the wake of the refugee crisis since 2014, populism, nationalism, and right-wing extremism have surged in Germany. Protagonists within this discourse frequently invoke Native American imagery for their nativist and xenophobic arguments. I have discussed aspects of their ideas and claims in earlier posts and linked them to the nationalist and Nazi ideologies of the early twentieth century:
The latest example of cross-cultural references to Indigenous peoples in German nationalism came up when I read about a ruling at the Federal Administrative Court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht). The issue concerned one of the so-called Reichsbürger (Reich Citizen) groups, a movement that does not acknowledge the Federal Republic of Germany as legitimate, arguing that the German Reich, as far as international law is concerned, never ceased to exist. They refuse to pay taxes and fines and have been known to physically attack representatives of the state, such as police, court officers, and civil servants. See this informative article in The Guardian for more details on the Reichsbürger, especially on incidents involving guns and violence in 2016.
This week, the FAC in Leipzig issued a statement that it did not acknowledge the legitimacy of a particular Reichsbürger group. The problem is that German courts had a thumb rule of never engaging in any dispute with Reichsbürger over their interpretation of the law, never accepting their phony documents, nor addressing them with their self-proclaimed titles. The FAC, apparently, had addressed one such group by their own title which they then had interpreted as the court’s acknowledgment of their legitimacy as an independent state. In a public statement yesterday, the court made clear that their address, in fact, did not acknowledge the group’s legitimacy (see this article in German in Legal Tribune Online for more).
Where is the connection to Native Americans in all this? The Reichsbürger group had proclaimed itself as the “indigene Volk Germaniten” (the Indigenous people of the Germanites), calling their state “Germanitien” (something like “Germanitia” in German). The court had apparently addressed them as “the Indigenous people of the Germanites” in their correspondence.
I have found one of their documents online, an “accreditation certificate” for a member of the diplomatic corps of “Germanitia” in which they describe their group as a “free church,” a “human rights organization,” but also as the representatives of the “constitutive Indigenous people of the Germanites” who claim the right to constitute a sovereign “interim” state independent from the laws of what they see as the illegitimate state of the Federal Republic of Germany.
I could not yet verify if this particular group, or others within this movement of conspiracy theorists, are particularly invested in ideas of German Indianthusiasm or if they make direct historical comparison to Native Americans, but I find it remarkable that their argumentation follows the old nationalist idea of Germans as an Indigenous people. Their bizarre notions of international law employ both blood-and-soil ideology, as well as a vague notion of modern Indigenous sovereignty/human rights claims.
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.
“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).
A few days ago on 3rd December, I have held my last lecture on this trip. While the earlier lectures discussed my work on German perceptions of Native American cultures and promoted the forthcoming book, this talk presented some of my current work on deployed soldiers’ milblogs. This guest lecture was hosted by University of Nebraska, Omaha’s English Department and the Office of Military and Veteran services.
I met Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier, who invited me to Omaha, during his Fulbright year at American Studies Leipzig in 2007. Since then, we have kept in close contact and frequently worked together. Omaha is very dear to me, for the friends and colleagues I know here but also because this is where I held my first lecture when my dissertation project took shape in 2007.
Last week’s lecture provided an overview of the interdisciplinary methodology of the project and contextualized Native American military traditions before launching into a close reading of an American soldier’s milblog from Afghanistan. I pointed out different elements of ceremonial storytelling in the interaction between deployed soldiers and civilian audience. Some of these textual elements led back to the presentation on “tribute and memorial posts” I held at the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles. Similar to my reflections on the longue dureé in Indianthusiasm for teaching due to the lectures on Nazis and the GDR that I held over the course of only one weekend in Oklahoma in late October, this lecture helped me approach the topic of death and mourning in milblogs from different angles, discuss it with a diverse audience, and thus extend the scope of my work from the ASA presentation in early November. This widened perspective will help me tackle another chapter of the blog project in the coming year.
Apart from the academic values gained from this final lecture, it was fascinating to observe the environment in which the event took place. The lecture was held at UNO’s Community Engagement Center, a brand-new building dedicated to community outreach. The audience was thus both “gown” and “town,” comprised of students of both English and Native studies courses, veterans, and members of the Omaha community. As my colleagues told me, UNO was recently rated the best four-year college in veteran services by the Military Times. It was thus particularly interesting to observe and discuss veterans’ affairs at this institution. This also brought back discussions and observations from last year’s conferences at UC Santa Barbara and Copenhagen where many discussions and presentations centered around the question of college veteran services, student veterans, and the role of the humanities in veteran reintegration.
Similar questions recurred during the last few days when I met with colleagues and representatives of veteran groups, such as The Mission Continues. The Mission Continues has recently become one of the best-known veteran support groups. They focus on community service and volunteerism as its founders have realized that many veterans are eager to continue serving and that volunteerism, i.e., helping others, helps veterans to help themselves in their efforts to reintegrate into civil society. I became interested in groups like TMC when looking at the warrior philosophy of Native American military traditions and their strong focus on ceremonialism, community relationships, and mutual aid. Native studies scholars argue that “warriorhood” is anchored in perpetual community relationships, while “soldiering” in the ‘Western’ sense is more perceived as playing a social role. The community engagement of The Mission Continues reminds me of relationships in changing tasks (from fighting to, say, charity or care-giving) known from native warrior philosophy.
Since both Native scholars and military psychologists have argued that ceremonialism and community relationships might support the reintegration of non-Native veterans and could play a role in working through their traumatic experiences, I have begun looking beyond milblogs to find other non-Native efforts to implement community and ceremony in my research during this year. The Mission Continues is a very good example for such efforts. Getting together with TMC representatives as well as social sciences scholars from Washington University and Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area helped me explore these veteran groups’ efforts. Their information and advise provided valuable social science perspectives for my project. I will continue to look into this and similar projects, although they are not deployed soldiers’ narratives, to look for ceremonialism and community interaction as ingredients for reintegration.