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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.

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“Defending the Homeland”: Lecture on Nazi Representations of Native Americans for First-Year Students at San Francisco State University

On 12 November, I was invited to hold a guest lecture in a 150 course on American Indian History in the United States at the American Indian Studies program at SFSU. Dr. Robert K. Collins asked me to share my research on Indian imagery in German nationalist thinking and Nazi ideology with his students. The class was about sixty students strong, with another sixty enrolled online. It was a welcome opportunity to present my work in a teaching environment – most of the classes on Native history I have taught did not cover my dissertation topic, and most of my earlier presentations on the dissertation research were given to an audience of scholars or advanced and graduate students.

I explained the elements of Indian imagery in Germany: the trope of the noble savage (e.g., attributing character traits to self and other, understanding Native peoples as “children of nature” as well as natural-born warriors), and the corresponding notions of a German-Native fellowship that was constructed via a triangular reference between modern Germans, contemporary Native Americans, and ancient Germanic tribes. This entailed a discussion of the recurring fellow tribesmen and common enemy motifs feeding these references. The latter part of the talk explored how the Nazis exploited this traditional perception of Germans and Native Americans as “soul mates” for anti-American propaganda.

The most common reaction from American audiences to my presentations on this topic is utter bewilderment over the bizarre claims with which Germans constructed their alleged fellowship with Native Americans. What struck me as especially exciting during this discussion at SFSU, however, was the way the students applied the lecture’s case examples for comparative applications of “doing history,” as James Loewen calls it in his works on teaching historiography.

Some wondered if, since Germans developed such constructions of fellowship with Native Americans, other Europeans came up with similar constructions? This question immediately touches upon the debate in how far German Indianthusiasm is unique in Europe, as Germans liked to believe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Christian Feest, for instance, says it isn’t unique at all. In his “Germany’s Indians in a European Perspective,” he argues that Germans have this prominent position because observers of European perceptions of Native peoples keep coming back to Karl May and other German sources, while French, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Italian sources and perceptions are right there in the open, they simply are being ignored too often (he also argues that German is a very prominent European language and Germans ranked among the largest immigrant groups, all of which would give them prominence in the perception of relations with North America).

Another student asked whether there was a difference in cultural appropriation and representation between German and American Wild West shows – a great observation of comparative thinking in historical research that might lead to interesting research questions and class discussions about different cultural contexts, perceptions, audience expectations, and cultural practices.

This presentation for an audience of beginning students of (Native) American history thus invited more thorough deliberations on ways and means of teaching, on how to guide students towards applying historical data for follow-up questions,  to help them develop research interests, and on critical contextualization. It will be exciting to compare this class discussion with future presentations’ Q/A sessions on this trip and beyond, both among first-year students, graduates, and the general public, and to implement questions deriving from these sessions for future course designs.

Promotion for my Book on Indian Imagery in Nazi Ideology Begins

Berghahn Books has recently begun its promotion for my forthcoming monograph Fellow Tribesmen which analyzes how the German enthusiasm  for Native Americans interrelated with German national identity formation throughout the 19th century and, eventually, was appropriated for Nazi propaganda. The book will be out in July 2015.

I’ll post updates on the production and advertizing process as they come in.

 

EAAS Biennial Conference on “America: Justice, Conflict, War” at The Hague

Between 3 and 6 April 2014, the European Association for American Studies held its biennial conference at The Hague. I was surprised to see so many conferences on war in so many different disciplines over the last few years. This cannot simply be related to this year’s Great War anniversary, but is probably also because the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have either officially ended or “Western” engagement draws to a close. In addition, the outbreaks of these wars are more than ten years in the past now which has given scholars a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.

I went to The Hague because I co-chaired a workshop on “War Narratives and Web 2.0: Justification, Storytelling and Public Discourse” with my Danish colleague Morten Braender. We developed this workshop out of observations that, in recent years, a number of European scholars have reflected on the steep rise of war narratives in the new media from various methodological angles. We brought these different approaches into dialog and opened the topic to scrutiny for a variety of disciplines relevant for American studies within both the humanities and the social sciences. Our presenters’ academic backgrounds illustrated these different angles: Johanna Roering’s work centers on media research, Morten Brænder is a political scientist, Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg teaches comparative literature, and my own work uses historical, anthropological, and cultural studies approaches. These presentations supplement were mutually supportive in addressing the common theme of public discourse by deployed soldiers in online media.

The point of departure for Johanna Roering’s presentation was the shared experience of researchers within this field that studying web 2.0 technology is studying a moving object, and that scholarly conclusions about, say, early blogs from 2003 are likely to be outdated already because of the fast pace of changing information technology and corresponding cultural practices. By drawing on Henry Jenkins’s concept of ‘converging cultures,’ she demonstrated, however, that the challenges of studying the how the representation of a single person’s identity is articulated in different media (from blogs to tweets to YouTube vlogs) can be turned into an analytical advantage. Roering also explained the technological specifics and media-related aspects of a military blog, which constituted a common ground for all participants and thus further contextualized the field of research for the following presentations.

Morten Brænder’s talk centered on how blogs can be used in the social sciences as a source to explore different justificatory practices. He employed the concept of “sacrificial ideology” (Hubert and Mauss (1929); Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1979) and distinguished between the sacrifice’s ‘explicit function’ (the justification itself), and its ‘implicit function’ (to show that something is perceived as worth dying for). He argued that the explicit function of sacrifice can only be maintained as long as its implicit function is not articulated. Drawing on this conceptual framework, Braender compared how two bloggers from the same American unit in Iraq perceived the deaths of three of their colleagues in an incident on 8 February 2008 and thus, how milbloggers discuss and and make meaning of death.

Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg’s presentation also emphasized the importance of justifying military action in blogs. His approach addressed that any justificatory practice articulates a particular view on justice, a view that does not cover what justice is in a genuine ethical perspective. Hence, Zangenberg illustrated in his reading of a blog featured in the New York Times how the blogger justified the war in Iraq but, at the same time, ignored the question of the civilian costs of the war by unequivocally focusing on the higher purpose of fighting terrorism.

My own contribution explored the cultural work and the therapeutic potential of milblogs by comparing them to Native American ceremonial narrative practices of re-integrating war veterans into their communities. Many Native vets employ their war experience in their continuing reciprocal relationship with their communities. Similarly, the interaction between bloggers and their audience negotiates the social contract between soldiers and civil society and thus facilitates an interpretation of war experience as an asset for the community.

The discussion following the presentations addressed Army censorship of online communication, identity construction in online narratives, reliability and source value in regard to the authors’ narratives and audience responses, blank spots and (mis-)representation in online communication, as well as notions of ritual and symbolism in online narratives.

The conference organizers announced that they requested short reports from all workshops and will publish them on the conference website – if you are interested in the many other presentations on such topics as war and food, women at war, human rights, international law, representations of trauma etc., please check back visit either http://www.eaas2014.org or http://www.eaas.eu/conferences. I am curious about information from all the panels I missed myself.