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Flagstaff Symposium Tackles Sensitive Issues: Comparing Genocide and Settler Colonialism in the Nazi East and the American West
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 is―from 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 in―often 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 previous―and detailed―works 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.
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.
“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.
This is the first post in a series (hopefully) about my current research and lecture tour through California and the American West and Southwest. The main occasion to spend time in the US was the 2014 American Studies Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles, which I will cover in the next post. This tour will serve to promote my forthcoming book on the representation of Native American imagery in Nazi ideology and propaganda, and to do research on current projects.
I started this trip at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where I met colleagues in Native studies as well as American and German studies. At OU, I gave two lectures. The first was held at the English Department on 31 October and was titled “Fellow Tribesmen. Perceptions of Indigeneity in German Nationalism and Nazi Ideology.” It emphasized the role of Indianthusiasm in German intellectual history and emerging nationalism. The colleagues in the audience were particularly interested in comparing the perception and representation of Jews and Native Americans in German nationalism and Nazi ideology. I also had the opportunity to engage in discussions about Thomas Mann’s gloomy 1918 perspective of World War I as an onslaught of imperialist international civilization against German culture, and his eventual break with nationalism during the ascent of the Nazi movement. These debates brought home once more the binary oppositions of (German) culture versus (Western/international) civilization of which German nationalists were so fond and which lent themselves to a German nationalist understanding as the “soul mates” of Native Americans.
In the second presentation, “Brothers in the Struggle against Imperialism,” I focused on Indianthusiasm during the GDR. The talk was held on 3 November and organized by the German Department and the College of International Studies and served as part of OU’s special series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I drew from Glenn Penny’s recent book Kindred by Choice to discuss the roles of Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and the GDR state film company DEFA’s series of “Indianerfilme” (sometimes called “Eastern Westerns” or even “Osterns”) in presenting contemporary Native American cultures and their struggle for sovereignty in relation to East German Indian hobbyism.
Giving these two presentations quasi back-to-back, the longue durée of Indianthusiasm emphasized by Penny became very prominent. Especially so since major ideas, such as anti-Americanism, the German inferiority complex, or the longing for communality among modern Germans, were present in both talks and discussions but individually highlighted the respective Nazi and Communist perspectives, arguments, and examples. This turned out to be a very interesting comparative experiment that should prove fruitful for teaching German perspectives of (Native) America in the future.
I recently returned from the American Indian Workshop, the annual meeting of scholars in Native American studies in Europe, bringing together scholars from literary and cultural studies, cultural anthropology, and history. This year’s meeting, the 35th, was held in Leiden, the Netherlands on 21-25 May. Only belatedly (embarrassing for a historian) I connected the dots when a university dignitary said during the opening “Welcome to Leiden, where it all began”: the Pilgrims spent a few years in exile in Leiden before making their trip on the Mayflower and eventually establishing Plymouth colony (apparently because they felt that their children were becoming “too Dutch”). The local museum dedicated to the Pilgrims was closed both times I went to see it – maybe I should have memorized the opening hours the first time I stood at closed doors. More lucky colleagues told me a lot about the small but very intriguing collection of furniture, clothing, and books.
After a conference at Plimoth Plantation in 2011, I have now visited several places “where it all began”; and I might also add the Canary island of La Gomera, where Columbus’s ships took water before making the long haul across the Atlantic. There is even a well in the island’s capital San Sebastian de la Gomera proclaiming that “this water baptized America.“
Back to Leiden and the AIW (I might come back to discuss my impressions of the old town in a later post) – I was curious about a new feature on the conference program. The organizers had set up a poster session in which MA-level students, but also a Dutch company and, if I’m not mistaken, NGOs presented their work. This piqued my interest because, as of now, I had heard about and seen poster sessions only in the natural sciences and social sciences, but not in the humanities. In the conferences I co-organized, we discussed the format as a way to accommodate an extraordinary number of presentation proposals but eventually decided against it. We were concerned that, particularly in literary and cultural studies, it would be impossible to express complex ideas with eye-catching visuals and that, eventually, posters would become what the German language calls a “Bleiwüste” (text-heavy; literally, a “desert of hot type”).
The posters I saw at the AIW, however, were nothing of the sort. Many presenters neatly structured their posters into research questions, short notes on methodology, data collection, and conclusions. Some included photographs from field work or from their cooperation with local Native American scholars and communities.
Most important for the presenters was that, although you do not have a lot of space to formulate your argument in complex language, you had about two and a half hours time to get in contact with your audience and discuss your work in depth. A traditional conference presentation is 15-25 minutes long and you will have only about 10-15 minutes for Q/A which does not allow for in-depth discussion. Here, you could take the time to challenge, ask, or comment, in a one-on-one discussion
without having to fear that going deep at this point will dominate the floor and discourage other comments. I enjoyed this format very much and had the impression that the presenters were glad about the opportunity for such detailed feedback. It might also have helped that the session room also hosted the birthday cake – keynote speaker Henrietta Mann turned 80 that day and was presented with a song by all participants (sung in their respective languages), and with this wonderful Dutch cake. This is how I like academia: merrily munching and chatting away!