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Issues in the German History of Psychiatry

I have been invited to the 6th Central German Conference on the History of Medicine and Science at the College of Medicine at Martin Luther University Halle/Wittenberg this week. The conference featured a number of presentations on the history of Halle’s university and affiliated research institutions, and several on the history of psychiatry in (central) Germany.

My talk presented a brief overview on my current research project, particularly the social-activist stance in public discourse on war experience, veterans’ issues, and PTSD in US civil society. Writing this, I realize how much the project has expanded in recent years: Initially, I described it as an analysis of milblogs, read through the lens of Indigenous warrior traditions. Today, with the book manuscript almost completed, I find that milblogs comprise only one among many source types informing the project, and that its discussion covers research interests and methodology from literary and cultural studies, (new) media studies, anthropology, cultural and medical history, and psychology.

In Halle, I focused on notions of social therapy and cultural transfer in public discourse about PTSD and military psychology since Vietnam. In particular, I addressed how the frequent reference to Native American traditions among civic activists helped promote social therapy, alternative medicine, and the notion of ritual as a therapeutic tool in US psychology, psychiatry, and social work on veterans’ issues.

What I found fascinating about the conference was the opportunity to compare and contextualize: Many presentations also touched upon the role of social issues in German psychiatric history, notably the competition between biological and social approaches after 1945. Apparently, social perspectives in psychiatry coming from the US and the UK (e.g. discussing the origin of psychoses) heavily influenced public and academic debates in post-war West Germany. Eventually, these social perspectives helped pass legislation that made victims of Nazi persecution eligible for financial compensation – dominant biological explanations (e.g. the assumption that genetic predispositions were the sole root of psychoses) had prevented such compensation for years after the war.

It was striking to compare the interweaving of psychological/psychiatric research, public debates, and contemporary social problems in post-war Germany with the public debates on war-related psychological injuries and civil-military relationships in the US, and once more realize the transatlantic dimension of such public debates. I hope that I can present further thoughts and evolving ideas in more posts during the coming weeks to accompany the completion of my manuscript.

German Media Perspectives on the Dakota Access Pipeline Conflict

I’ve followed news about the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project since early summer this year. Apart from social media, my major source of information was Indian Country Today. In these months, I’ve wondered about the increasing complaints among activists and independent media that most media remained silent on the issue. While major media outlets in the US recently seem to have taken note (often in a detour via celebrities who became engaged), I believe the project and the protests against it have been well-publicized in Germany, in the context of the usual news cycle on foreign affairs and US news beyond the election.

It would be too bold to state that German media were ahead of their US counterparts in covering the protests, but there has been a regular influx of information in both print and TV news since last summer. This radio feature was one among many who covered the election in lengthy overland trips, but it also discusses protests against DAPL among Iowa farmers and at Standing Rock, detailing conflicts over private farmland. It portrays current issues in US society but does not stop with the celebrity factor of Trump. The two major public TV stations, ARD and ZDF, have covered the protests repeatedly since September, and have recently given them prominent position in their prime-time evening news shows (see here for a report on the Corps of Engineers’ decision of 3 Dec). Major German newspapers, such as Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, have become involved as well. This is especially noteworthy because Süddeutsche took up the published list of banks financing the project, along with recent activist efforts to target these banks through divestment campaigns, and has begun to ask questions about DAPL investments by Bavaria’s Bayern LB.

While the degree of coverage does not seem out of the ordinary from a German news perspective, it certainly seems as if German news media are more interested in the issue than US media have been until recently. Part of this interest might have a historical context. News out of the US are not only big news because German media cover the US as a world power; there has been a tradition of reporting on social and political struggles in the US that is part of the love-hate relationship and the mix of fascination and contempt that has determined German perspectives of the US throughout history. News out of Indian country have been part of that mix since the late 19th century.

Newspapers in communist East Germany covered the Red Power movement and AIM during the 1970s, gleefully giving the US a black eye over imperialism and colonialism. To get a glimpse how prominently Indigenous issues were placed to highlight social and racial injustice in the US, see this list of articles published in the leading party mouthpiece, Neues Deutschland on the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. It is no surprise that newspapers in this socialist tradition still are intent on reporting on social conflicts in the US today, including the DAPL protests. Similarly, a few articles can be found in German-speaking left-wing online forums, revealing interconnections of issues and networks of social activism in a globalizing world.

Farther back in history, the Nazis had their own reasons to discuss race relations in the US, as I have described in my academic work and in earlier posts. Talking about race riots, miscegenation laws, mismanagement and poverty on Indian reservations, and about repressive and paternalistic US-Indian policy helped the Nazis turn the table and point an accusing finger at the US when the Roosevelt administration and US media criticized Nazi Germany for its persecution of minorities. As the Chicago Tribune titled in October 1938 (a few weeks before the infamous “Kristallnacht” pogroms): “Remember Fate of Indians, Nazis tell Roosevelt.”

In 1890 already, Rocky Bear, a Lakota performer with Buffalo Bill’s show, gave a speech at the Munich Anthropological Society, led by Prof. Johannes Ranke. His protestations against US-Indian policy were received with great interest and sympathy by his audience and the press covering the event (see Ames, Eric. “Seeing the Imaginary. On the Popular Reception of Wild West Shows in Germany, 1885-1910.” In I Like America 223-24).

Given the history of how US society and its social, political, and racial conflicts have been perceived and interpreted in the German public, it is no surprise that the DAPL protests are met with keen interest in Germany. They are not only an expression of people’s awareness of global problems (such as climate change, environmental issues, and energy development), but also embedded in a tradition of reveling in another country’s problems (presumably to be able to forget about one’s own for a while).

Milblogs and Autobiographical War Narratives

A few days ago, I attended this year’s meeting of historians in the GAAS in Tutzing at Lake Starnberg, southwest of Munich. The meeting’s central theme was “Auto/Biographies in American History,” which gave me an opportunity to look at milblogs from a perspective of autobiographical writing.

I had worked through a number of books on Anglo Saxon war diaries and memoirs early last year, among them Samuel Hynes’s The Soldier’s Tale. I enjoyed the way Hynes discusses various war narratives’ medium and genre specifics; he develops a fascinating overview of how personal war narratives interrelate with other genres, such as historiography, travel writing, and autobiography. His observations on commonalities and differences between these text types and personal war narratives make Hynes’s work fruitful material for teaching: It explicitly invites students to engage in source criticism, e.g., by addressing that, while both travel writing and war narratives have a ‘touristic’ perspective in that they discuss foreign and exotic places and peoples, war narratives depict the radical cognitive gap between civilian and war experience, focusing on the battlefield as an “anti-landscape,” and, thus, revealing that war “is not a place we could travel to” (7-8).

However, Hynes’s approach seems too narrow to do justice to the various forms of personal war narratives. He argues that war narratives “are by their nature retrospective. To perceive the changes that war has made in a man requires the passage of time and the establishment of distance from the remembered self” (4). In this and similar statements, Hynes favors the memoir over the diary or the letter as a source on personal war experience, positing that a soldier-author does not have time to reflect on war experience during the war itself and, more importantly, that it needs a post-war self to bring memories in order and create a coherent narrative of one’s war.

I’ve found this emphasis on an author’s temporal distance to the actual experience of war to be problematic and used my presentation at Tutzing to discuss how milblogs, especially their technological specifics and the corresponding cultural practices of public discourse between bloggers and audience, invite and nurture dialog among soldiers and civilians and, thus, facilitate reflection on the impact of war on the self even during deployment. According to Hynes, war narratives―being a form of conversion literature―have autobiographic elements but, unlike autobiographies, they do not depict “continuous lives” and focus on war as an interruption. Veteran (memoir) authors look back on their old war selves as strangers: “For everyone except career soldiers, military service is a kind of exile from one’s own real life, a dislocation of the familiar that the mind preserves as life in another world” (7-8). However, it is worthwhile to study texts focusing on this interruption as they reveal that, indeed, reflection takes place in the war zone and that these texts convey fruitful information for historians, and literary and cultural studies scholars, as well as psychologists.

A researcher’s focus on milblogs written during deployment can help explore the causes and effects of the “dislocation of the familiar” as they happen, and it illustrates the soldiers’ and civilians’ discourse on these extreme circumstances while the soldier is still embroiled in the war. As historical sources, memoirs are limited because, although their authors had time to reflect on their old war selves, they might depict selective or distorted memories, and will probably have been influenced by collective memory, i.e., by the public, interpretation of that war shaped by media and the arts. While milbloggers may not have had much time to sort out and come to terms with their experience yet, their interaction with their audience provides a public forum for reflection; this exchange, in addition to depicting personal experience, illustrates how collective memory of that event is being constructed.

Public exchange on personal war experience has also begun to play a larger role in psychology in recent years. The growing focus on narrative in psychology, especially on a narrator’s interaction with a supportive and responsive audience, reveals that reflection and meaning-making may take place through narrating experience and bearing witness. Recent psychological works on war stress and PTSD suggest that research emphasis on personal war narratives may even help integrate the frequently opposed branches of cognitive/neuro-psychology and experimental social psychology. Milblogs and other social media demonstrate the role of reflection and meaning-making through social support, because they facilitate exchange between deployed soldiers and civil society.

In addition, working with methods and concepts from popular culture studies, e.g., fandom studies, allows us to see milblogs as a joint effort between soldier-authors and a (mostly) civilian audience to make meaning of war experience and negotiate one’s place in US society, that is, to constitute community in an effort to create a joint narrative (for a detailed discussion, see my article “Keep that Fan Mail Coming”). Reflections on individual as well as collective impacts of war are part and parcel of the exchanges in milblogs. As such, these public debates and the social support for soldiers through interactive communication are not a new phenomenon. While Web 2.0 provides the technology to engage in such exchanges on a global scale and in almost synchronous communication (minimal time delay between narrative and response), such public debates were already observed during the US Civil War, when soldiers’ letters were widely distributed among home communities and frequently republished by local newspapers.


Refugees and Guns: Catchy Historical Arguments on Emotionally Charged Social Issues in Germany and the US

heprodimagesfotos812120090419blutmai_01_jpg_3664053Riots during  “Bloody Mayday,” Berlin, 1929

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.

Book in Hand

UsbeckFellowA 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.

How Living in a Bubble Affects Students’ Perceptions of Native Americans

On 20 November, I was invited to present in an Indigenous Human Rights course for first year students in Applied Indigenous and Ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. The students’ response to my discussion of Native American imagery in Germany, as well as the Nazis’ utilization of these images for ideology-driven propaganda, helped me further to put some of my experiences on this lecture and research tour into perspective. In a sense, this posts continues some ideas from the previous one on American Exceptionalism.

Some students wondered in how far German hobbyists were aware that their activities, their expressions of affinity for Native cultures, actually helped perpetuate stereotypes. I must say I was surprised about the question because my presentation had emphasized the complexity of German perceptions of Native America, rather than simply proclaiming that Germans did not tell the ‘true story’ of Native American cultures. My work is less concerned with whether or not representation is stereotypical but how images are used for identity formation and “othering.” Yet, the many lectures in diverse settings (conferences, classrooms, general public) on this tour, as well as my observations during the ASA convention in early November, gave me better insight into the – often very different – perspectives of Native, Euro-American, and European students on Native America.

This point was brought home during a hike in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. talking about working conditions and classroom experience, two colleagues from the Applied Indigenous studies program pointed out to me  that many non-Native students grow up in social “bubbles” – their social environment as well as their school education shield them from the often brutal social realities many Native students face, both in urban and reservation settings. They rarely meet Native children or see their living conditions, and history and social studies education tends to avoid addressing the “dark” side of American history and race relations so they tend noit to learn about these issues in school.

While it is true that there are Native professors and famous writers and artists, many Native children still grow up in poverty, experience alcohol and drug abuse in their communities, are asked by their non-Native fellow students whether they grew up in a tipi once they enter the university, or have to explain why so many Native people do not feel ‘honored’ by the Washington Redskins.

Non-Native American students do not learn much about the Native perspective on frontier history before college and, if they don’t grow up near a reservation, it is unlikely that they are confronted with social realities and hardships of contemporary Native America. College instructors (and Native students) thus often have to explain the basics and deconstruct stereotypes that have prevailed in American perceptions of Native America for centuries.

Conversations like these helped me get a better perspective on the issue: I have known about these stereotypes since childhood, have seen them deconstructed since I went to school in Germany, and have studied their effects in college. Yet, as a German observer of (Native) American culture, I am still an outsider looking in: I sometimes experience these stereotypes in my German classrooms and my research, but I don’t have to fight a constant uphill battle confronting them on my way to school or in my neighborhood. I don’t face discrimination on the job market, nor am I getting racially profiled by law enforcement because of them.

In addition, as a European scholar, I know about these problems because I am interested in studying them and because European traditions in high school and college education tend to discuss these problematic social and ethnic issues of American culture and society. Many American students, however, grow up in these comfortable and protected bubbles (mostly by no fault of their own) that rarely force them to confront social problems and critically analyze the complex social realities of their own country. And here, we are back to James Loewen’s critical assessment of Social Studies and American history courses at high school level. Not only does the overt patriotism in many textbooks paint American history as a rose-colored (better: red, white, and blue) sequence of success stories, it seems that the era of political correctness contributed to the situation by avoiding problematic issues altogether (such as massacres in the 19th century, or ongoing poverty on the reservations today), focusing instead on positively portrayed examples of racial harmony.

To give you one example: An editor for my book project Fellow Tribesmen asked me to contextualize my reference to J.F. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in my manuscript more detail. I wondered if this wasn’t a waste of ink, since we could assume that the Last of the Mohicans was common knowledge? My editor replied that these novels are no longer taught in many schools because of their stereotypical depiction of Native people. I’m still perplexed about this decision – for once, these novels comprise classic American literature that set the stage for an entire, genuinely American genre. Why not teach them and put them in perspective? To keep talking about race relations, wouldn’t this be a perfect opportunity to teach the role and effect of stereotyping and othering, even at high school level? Wouldn’t it be great to show how Euro-Americans learned to differentiate Native peoples into ‘noble’ and ‘brutal savages’ in the early 19th century, and how these depictions led to notions of Manifest Destiny? Couldn’t these examples serve as springboards to discuss othering and cultural stereotypes in contemporary American society, and wouldn’t they help explain current social problems?

I have often wondered about angry outbursts from Native colleagues and students regarding this situation, or about surprised student’s reactions that many Europeans know about frontier history, Indian removal policy, assimilation pressure, and cultural appropriation, that many Europeans root for the ‘Indians,’ instead for the cowboys, in Western movies. Given the perpetuating realities of these separate bubbles of poverty, social struggle, and ignorance, I have developed a better understanding in the last few weeks why many Native students and faculty appear so frustrated with the situation and why they perceive it as a never-ending, exhausting uphill battle. This is a major realization I take home from this trip.

Questioning American Exceptionalism: A Class Discussion on the Nazis’ Propaganda Regarding US-Indian Policy

On Monday, 17th November, I presented aspects of my work to a class at Arizona State University in Tempe (Phoenix). Professor Donald Fixico kindly invited me to address his course “American Indian History since 1900” (HST 338). I explained how the German image of Indians was shaped by fiction and Wild West shows and how it interrelated with emerging group identities and nationalism in German philosophy and academia. These explorations provided a foundation for discussions of Nazi ideology and corresponding utilization of the “noble savage” image for Nazi propaganda. Nazi representations of Indian imagery portrayed Germans as natural-born warriors who shared many character traits with Native Americans and who experienced a similar history of military and cultural oppression by the “Western” colonial powers.

It was exciting to see the students’ reaction to these political implications of constructed imagery. One student immediately contextualized the presentation with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, although I hadn’t mentioned Anderson in the talk. Another student wondered how German soldiers in World War II experienced Native GIs, nailing a prominent paradoxon I encountered throughout my research: The sources are, at best, anecdotal – I had hoped to do more oral history with German veterans on this topic, but my project came a bit too late for that. In any case, it would have been very hard to locate German veterans who could verify an encounter with Native soldiers (and it would have been a gamble how much their memories of this encounter would have helped my research, for they’d have ample reason not to be too truthful about it).

So, I could only respond by sharing anecdotes from earlier scholarly works on the Native American WWII experience (such as Kenneth Townsend’s, Jere Franco’s, and Al Carroll’s books): a German soldier handing back a medicine pouch to a Native POW because he knew from Karl May that it was dishonorable to take a warrior’s medicine away, or a story about Native members of the 45th Infantry division who helped “pacify” a German POW camp in Italy by exploiting the “brutal savage” image: They walked around the camp, seemingly singling out German prisoners for scalping and torture at the stake, and thus terrifying them into submission.

One question echoed student responses from earlier presentations in San Francisco and Oklahoma: A student said the talk had made her question American exceptionalism more than ever. Again, this harks back to James Loewen’s observation on the rose-colored, overtly patriotic, and US-centric history education in many high-school level history textbooks. It is enlightening to see this transatlantic comparison challenging students to critically engage their own history (and traditions of teaching history).

However, I made a “note to self” for future discussions to point out that this critical engagement should be but an initial step in “doing history”: While it is necessary that students become aware of “the dark sides” of their own national history, learning about these dark sides from Nazi German sources should result in further critical inquiry: Who criticizes American Indian policy and frontier massacres? It’s German newspapers of the Nazi era, directed by Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. What motivates Goebbels to issue such directives? It’s the international outrage over the 9 November 1938 pogroms (which the Nazis euphemistically dubbed “Kristallnacht”) and general treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany – to use one example – and is thus a turning of the table, a pointing-fingers game: “Remember Fate of Indians, Nazis Tell Roosevelt,” as the Chicago Daily Tribune observed on 28 October 1938, even before the pogroms. How do the papers pitch this criticism? In the most accusatory manner, because it was a politically very expedient moment to engage in anti-American rants. The Nazis would revert to reserved, even fact-based reporting on US issues as soon as diplomatic interests required to keep the US from becoming too angry with Germany, as in the months after the outbreak of the war and before Pearl Harbor (Phillip Gassert has identified and analyzed a series of alternating phases of reservation and aggression in Nazi German media coverage of US politics and society).

Apart from rightfully questioning American exceptionalism, the most important conclusions we can draw from an observation of the Nazis’ utilization of German Indianthusiasm for anti-American propaganda is that

  • both empires watched each other’s racial policies very closely,

  • both were ready to blame one another for their treatment of minorities, and

  • both had dirty laundry (in terms of racial politics) they didn’t want to see dragged out in the open.

If, as the saying goes, the value of a society can be gleaned from observations on the treatment of its minorities (ethnic, social, and cultural), then this transatlantic comparison offers us insight into the power politics of empires. The way the Nazis tried to turn US-Indian policy into a political weapon to hurt the US’s international reputation and destabilize American society reveals how minority politics can become tools of propaganda in the wrestling matches among rivaling empires.