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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.

“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.