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Flagstaff Symposium Tackles Sensitive Issues: Comparing Genocide and Settler Colonialism in the Nazi East and the American West

12108902_10153564751690090_1908064672859639790_n Between 11-13 October, I was invited to a symposium titled “Colonial Conquest in the Nazi East and the American West” at Northern Arizona University’s Martin Springer Institute, Flagstaff. The symposium was part of a larger collaborative effort in comparative genocide studies that I had been introduced to during my lecture tour last fall.

I was invited to present my work on Nazi appropriations of German Indianthusiasm, a great opportunity to promote the recent monograph. Beyond my initial research focus, it was fascinating to touch base again with current work in military history of World War II, social science approaches to mass violence, and Native American studies. As the organizers put it aptly during the introduction to the event – the symposium strove to discuss benefits, concerns, and questions about bringing together vastly different topics and methodological approaches that often seem so self-contained that they might even be considered “disciplinary silos.”

Political considerations, sensibilities, and activist interests are a major concern that academics should take into account when discussing genocide, in this case, comparing the Holocaust and Nazi occupation in Poland and the Soviet Union with the settlement of the North American continent, when comparing the ideologies of Lebensraum im Osten (living space in the East) with Manifest Destiny and the horrendous effects these ideologies and their implementations had on affected peoples. Comparing these historical phenomena entails the danger of establishing “hierarchies of suffering” that would devalue the suffering of some victims of colonialism and mass atrocity, and grossly insult the memory of some survivors and descendants of victims. Being familiar with these activist perspectives both from public discourse and scholarship in postwar/post-reunification Germany, and from my work in Native American studies and my acquaintance with Indigenous political activists, I was excited about the debates. Fortunately, these political concerns caused all participants to approach this bringing together of, not only disciplinary silos but also political powder kegs, with great transdisciplinary and transcultural care and sensitivity,

In disciplinary terms, I was once more amazed how wide the field of Holocaust studies/ history of Nazi Germany and World War Two isfrom my own work, I felt well-versed in the field of Nazi media and propaganda, especially regarding Indianthusiasm, and nationalist/völkisch/Nazi ideology. However, it can be daunting to learn about author’s names and case studies inoften only slightly different―fields of interest, all coming with their respective scholarly networks, debates, academic trenches, historiographical infighting, annual meetings, and the like.

What struck me in particular about the meeting was how differently the question of comparing the Nazi East and the American West can be approached, and how these approaches will produce vastly different, often contradictory results and representations of these results. The question of genocide in the Nazi East and the American West is not merely a matter of debating intent and effect. It must consider and distinguish between ideology, public discourse, corresponding formulations of state policy, propaganda (domestic and foreign), and finally, observations on how the policies were implemented on the micro-level: by state agents, i.e., local commanders who must strike a balance between directives and improvisation as required by the moment, and by non-state agents, i.e., settlers and settler militias. These micro-level perspectives often enough requires empirical case studies whose results might contradict any of the above criteria and make comparison and generalizations between the Nazi East and the American West exceedingly difficult.

One prime example might be the oft-cited references Hitler made to the Euro-American conquest of the West when discussing his plans for the Nazi East. We know about these references from documentations of his Table Talks and from his Second Book, but that does not automatically mean that the Nazis used the frontier as a role model in their planning for the east, that they publicly promoted any such parallels in their propaganda, that they issued corresponding directives, or that local commanders and administrators made (or were made aware of) any such comparisons when implementing these policies on the ground.

I have seen a number of documents in which cultural anthropologists discussed US-Indian policy, such as the detrimental effects of forced relocation during the Trail of Tears, and argued that future German colonies in Africa should thus avoid massive relocation and cultural imperialism directed at Indigenous peoples, but I cannot speak to whether or not there were actual plans to that effect in Africa. Neither can I speak to the impact such comparisons actually had on the plans for starvation and relocation of Slavic peoples in the Nazi East. I am looking forward to doing more research into German government documents on these issues one day, and am currently not aware of any previousand detailedworks focusing on American role models for the Nazi East. Without detailed knowledge of such documents, plans, and directives, Hitler’s remarks on using America’s westward expansion as a role model for the Nazi East are of limited value, for the man had a lot to say about everything in his ramblings.

To use a more concrete example of the complexities of comparison from my own work, consider the contradictions between domestic and foreign propaganda: As Kenneth Townsend, Jere Franco and others have pointed out in their works, the Nazis operationalized US groups, such as the German American Bund, to attack the “Indian New Deal” as the Roosevelt Administration’s covert attempt to install Communism in America: the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Act, or Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), ended the policy of allotting tracts of land to individual Native families since the 1887 Dawes Act, reinstating communal ownership of land, and revoking some of the repressive measures against native religions and cultural practices. Communal ownership of land here symbolized Communist collectives and gulags.

Back in Germany, however, the Nazis hailed the IRA as the Americans’ (belated) acknowledgment of inherent racial idiosyncrasies: since all peoples, according to racial ideology, come with inherent group character traits determined by blood and their natural environment (hence, blood-and-soil ideology), trying to impose alien culture on a group will lead to that group’s demise. The Nazis argued at home that Americans had finally stepped away from trying to turn ‘Indians’ (who, supposedly, must roam, hunt, or ranch livestock by virtue of their biological heritage) into yeoman farmers, because this practice of cultural imperialism destroyed their culture and peoplehood. US-Indian policy in this regard was praised as good because it acknowledged racial difference and (seemingly) supported racial segregation, which the Nazis quickly exploited to ‘prove’ their own Nuremberg laws on racial segregation as necessary and ‘natural’ measures (i.e., the exclusion of Jews and other unwanted groups from the ‘community of the people’).

So, the same legal measures of the IRA were denounced as Communist in the US and praised as benevolent, racially sensible protection of peoplehood at home. In many other aspects, the comparison of the Nazi East and the American West raised more questions than it helps answer. Still, the symposium did great work to address the complexities and pitfalls and thus helped to develop more meaningful comparative approaches to genocide.

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.