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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.

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.

New Year Special: Fun Facts on Hitler

I have meant to write this post for a long time. Christmas holidays this year seemed like a good opportunity. The post, though, doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, or New Year’s. It actually doesn’t even provide a list of fun facts on Hitler. However, Hitler is the lead for the following deliberations. And his name still makes for catchy titles. As German journalists say, children, animals, sex, and Hitler will always sell. You only need to check out title pages of magazines such as Der Spiegel or Stern. (I guess it is not much different in US journalism). If you found this post because of Hitler’s name in the title, my plan worked. Welcome. Besides, it means that colleagues who suggested I change the title of my forthcoming book from Fellow Tribesmen to Chief Hitler or Hitler’s Indians had a point. However, I am still convinced the book’s title is good as it is since it is by no means about Hitler’s perception of Native Americans alone. Nor is this post.

This entry is about an article in the Washington Post, published on 27 November 1940. Titled “Wer niemals narrisch war (He who has never been silly)” [this was before the era of gender neutral terms], it is part of the popular syndicated series On the Record by Dorothy Thompson. Thompson was one of the leading female journalists in the United States during the early 20th century and had spent several years in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s. She was also the first foreign journalist to be kicked out of Germany for criticizing the Nazis. The article discusses Hitler’s alleged attempt to outlaw the public use of Saxonian dialect because, apparently, “it made the German people seem ridiculous.” I say alleged because I never had the chance to follow-up Thompson’s claim and check my facts on this. So, I don’t know whether Hitler really tried to outlaw Saxonian dialect or whether he even suggested it. I don’t recall coming across discussions of Saxonian dialect while researching collections of Hitler’s speeches for my dissertation. And here, my post’s title finally falters, because we don’t know if, while funny, this is really a “fact” about Hitler. Bear with me, though.

I found this article while researching American newspapers for discussions of German Indianthusiasm during the Nazi era in 2007. I used the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers which holds a number of American daily newspapers, digitized and available for full-text search, from their first issues. This means you can conduct a full text research of New York Times issues from the 1860s. I still marvel about the simplicity of this research instrument: I only had to type in the search terms “Indian” and “Nazi,” specify my period of interest (1925-1945) and came up with the most remarkable articles. I had to refine my search because there were so many articles about Gandhi, and about Indianapolis, that were not pertinent for my research (I forgot how the city was related to Nazis, but it came up quite often).

Still, ProQuest led me to a number of gems. Particularly because the article’s titles would never suggest anything pertinent to Indians and Nazis, such as Thompson’s. Full text search functions made it possible. I cannot help but wonder what other gems I would have found if German newspapers had been digitized and available for full-text search, as well. Instead, I had to rely on the Internationale Bibliographie der deutschen Zeitschriftenliteratur, called Dietrich after the publishers, and on the indexing criteria of their editors. They indexed 90,000 articles from 5000 periodicals including daily newspapers, academic journals, weekly magazines, and single issue magazines (on topics such as hunting, medicine, and gardening) in 1940. For my research, I located some 1200 articles via Dietrich, but I also found a number of great sources by browsing in magazines, newspapers, and articles, leading me to wonder about Dietrich’s selection criteria.

Back to Thompson and Saxonian dialect, though. Thompson speaks of “Saxonian,” other sources of “Saxon,” I’ll stick to her version for now. First, Thompson explains to her American audience the significance of Saxony and the Saxonians’ dialect in German culture: “The Saxonians are not, by nature, soldiers and administrators but sober folks whose lives are industrial and commercial.” I like to tell my American friends that the difference between Saxonians and Prussians in history was that Saxonians invested their money in building marvelous palaces and filling them with marvelous things, while the Prussians invested theirs in armies to plunder Saxonian (and other) palaces. This is a bit harsh and overgeneralizing but that seems to be the gist of Saxonian history.

I once saw a satirical sketch on TV in which a Saxonian is invited by the Federal Government during the 1990s to come to Berlin and tell the leaders what Saxonians, their recently re-acquired constituents, are about. This Saxonian character rattles off a long list of wars in which Saxonians weren’t too lucky with their alliances: “To our friends, we are trouble. In the Seven Years War (1756-63), we sided with Austria and Russia against Prussia, and we lost. In 1806, we believed Prussia was great so we sided with them against Napoleon, and we lost. So, we thought Napoleon was a great guy, and went to Russia with him in 1812, and we lost. We even lost a major battle in our city of Leipzig in 1813 (against Prussia, Austria, and Russia). In 1866, we went with Austria against Prussia again, and lost the Battle of Königgrätz. As for 1914-1918, the end of that story is well-known. In 1939-1945, we went with the Nazis, and lost as well. So we thought, ‘the Communists have won the war, we should go with them.’ Today, Communism has become extinct and we’ve lost again. And now,” the Saxonian told the German chancellor, “we’re with you guys.” And that’s when they angrily chased him out of Berlin. So, given our historical ill luck in soldiering and making alliances, it is no wonder that Thompson says “Saxonians, it is clear, are not a breed of heroes, but, alas, of babbits.”

Thompson adds that there is a “tolerant myth in Germany that the Saxonians are stupid.” It is surprising to hear that this was an issue in the 1930s already, for it certainly is true today. Ever since the Fall of the Wall, if you want to make fun of East Germans, and if you want to portray East Germans as stupid, babbity, and backward, you imitate Saxonian dialect (to the detriment of Thuringians and North East German coast dwellers, who are thus conveniently lumped together with us). I once explained this cultural malpractice of portraying East Germans as stupid Saxonians to fellow graduate students in Tucson. One of my friends put her arms around her lover and said: “Oh, he knows what you’re talking about, he’s from West Virginia.” Over and over again, newspapers and TV stations publish surveys stating that Saxonian is the least popular dialect in German. You get the picture. However, Thompson adds in her description that Saxonians, albeit being perceived as stupid, shrewdly put this reputation to their advantage by “presenting themselves as innocent idiots.”

Thompson’s examples of the hilarity of Saxonian dialect, and her depictions and explanations for an American audience are awesome, especially for a Saxonian who knows the dialect and has been the butt of jokes about it. It’s a shame that you have to read this, rather than have somebody perform the pronunciations for you. Thompson uses her examples to mark Saxonian dialect as “full of ‘bulls,’” as “skeptical,” and as “the idiom of debunking” that is “a caricature of all that is sophisticated and highfalutin.” So true. The high German term “Die Blüte der Kultur,” which she translates as “the flowering of culture” (I’d say something like heyday or prime of culture) would be pronounced by a Saxonian as “Die bleete de kerltur,” Says Thompson. She adds: “immediately culture bleats rather than blooms.”

I find this a perfect observation and example, both of the pronunciation and what it does to the conveyed meaning of what is said. I should add, though, that Thompson missed some of the signature elements of Saxonian pronunciation: We round our consonant’s edges: t, k, and p will mostly be pronounced as d, g, and b. Our vowels are usually diphthongs: o is mostly ou, e pronounced more often as ey, and so forth. Check this wikipedia entry for more technical information on the dialect. A British plumber I once met at a bar in Leipzig told me it was especially these diphthongs that revealed to him how close relatives Saxonian and Anglo-Saxon are. I don’t know if a linguist would agree, but my friend’s reasoning sounded convincing.

Regardless of the fine points of Saxonian pronunciation, Thompson is right on the money saying “[t]he reason that Saxonian has become the stage language of broad comedy lies precisely in its capacity to pull down to earth everything that is romantic, overblown, boastful, heroic.” A Saxonian lover, “apostrophizing his adored,” she says, “will begin by likening her to a gazelle and end by rapturously calling her his little iltis. It is a sweet-sounding word, but an iltis is a polecat.” I can confirm that I have never called a woman an iltis, so this may have been a term specific to the era – I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if my grandfather said things like that; he had some very funny-sounding nicknames for my grandma.

In any case, Thompson’s gist should become clear, especially when she goes on to relate anecdotes about Friedrich August III, the last Saxon king who, as popular lore has it, told revolutionaries in 1918 when they demanded his abdication, “Nu, macht doch Euern Dreck aleene!” (Thomson translates this as “Okay! Do the dirty work by yourselves.”). Refusing to go into exile and living out the rest of his days as a citizen in Saxony, he is said to have reprimanded a crowd cheering him in the 1920s: “And a fine set of Republicans you are! Ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The wiki entry on him linked above provides slightly different translations than Thompson’s.

None of these quotes can be verified by historical sources, but the fact that Saxonians are still proud of these stories today proves Thompson’s point:“It is very hard to pin anything on a Saxonian because he is so ‘dumb.’ It’s never clear whether he really means his irony. His ‘dumbness’ is his excuse. His sabotage of the great abstractions is expressed in mere inflection – or a contempt of vowels.” This was true for Thompson’s observation in the 1930s, and it still works today. Comedians such as Uwe Steimle and Olaf Schubert have brought the unreliable dumbness of the Saxonian to perfection, both in their attire, their facial expressions, their topics, and the way they wear their dialect and its accompanying cultural reputation on their sleeves.

Thompson is very clever in using the Saxonians’ reputation against the Nazis, invoking some of Hitler’s idols: Wagner, Nietzsche, and Karl May, all of whom were Saxonians. She remarks on Wagner’s and Nietzsche’s “revolting from the ‘common people,’ the Babitty atmosphere that surrounded them” and that had an impact on Europe but apparently not on Saxony because “at home, in their slippers, Wagner and Nietzsche both spoke dialect. When the two now-acknowledged harbingers of the Third Reich fell out with each other in a quarrel that shook the world of international culture, they probably fell out in Saxonian.” I am very grateful to Thompson for putting the image of Nietzsche and Wagner having an argument in Saxonian in my head. Although, to be fair, it should be said that, today, Nietzsche is not so much considered as a harbinger of the Third Reich anymore among historians. One of the reasons Nietzsche and Wagner fell out with each other is that Nietzsche couldn’t stand Wagner’s anti-Semitism.

Thompson muses that Saxony produced all three geniuses, who imagined popular dream worlds, but that it probably could only be Saxony to “furnish a comfortable world in which genius could compose, flagellate and dream.”

This leads her to her attack on Hitler: “I have a hunch that Hitler’s rage against Saxonian is really a rage against the Common Man, whose unheroic desire for a small comfortable life – flowers in the window, a secure job, home and family, a canary, a daughter who plays the piano, and a lot of food – is so stubborn and so very un-Nazi. ” In this description of the Saxonian as the “Common Man”, she basically matches most of the traits Americans at the time might have agreed upon as an American ideal: to live a simple, good life far away from any government activity. She portrays Saxonians as actually closer to American ideals than to those of the Nazis.

In Thompson’s perspective, “it isn’t that the Saxonian spirit is rebellious. It is just infuriatingly unmartial and skeptical.” Because they are so “infuriatingly unmartial,” Saxonians singing the Horst Wessel Lied or “’Today we own Germany, tomorrow the whole world’ … would frighten no one.” I do not agree with her jape that Saxonians could not produce really good Nazis. Saxonians did their share to make these twelve years as miserable to the whole world as they were. This example illustrates how the attribution of group character traits most likely produces overgeneralizations that can, and will – back then as much as today – be used for either aggrandizement or defamation of these groups, be it notions of the babbity of the Saxonians, of the backstabbing deviousness of the Jews, the diligence and perfectionism of the Germans, or of the inherent zealous warmongering of the Muslims. However, to go back to Thompson’s notion of Saxonians and Nazis, the public reputation of Saxonians and their dialect does, indeed, not seem to be reconcilable with the heroism, militancy, and bombast of Nazi propaganda.

Comparing the features of Saxonian dialect with “the Bostonian ‘a,’ the Middle Western ‘r,’ the Southern vowels,” Thompson launches into a linguistic history of the English language. She details the various languages English borrowed from, and lists a number of very diverse writers who published in English, claiming that all these incorporations, borrowings, and simplifications have made English the “only world language since Latin. This way, not Hitler’s, is imperial, in the transcendental sense of the word.”

The article’s grand finale returns to Hitler’s claim that Saxonian dialect endangers the Germans’s reputation throughout the world: “Hitler argues that the German language, if it cannot be pure, must never be ridiculous. But the cramped effort of man never to be ridiculous can only end in the most gargantuan and ridiculous caricature of man ever drawn. ‘Wer niemals narrisch war, er ist der grösste Narr’ (He who has never been silly is the silliest of all).” Thompson’s final sentences suggest that the suppression of Saxonian dialect, if the rationale behind it was to be taken serious and the ideas would be followed through, would suppress all other dialects and public expressions until only one man, Hitler, is left speaking: “Perhaps all the rest can sing – in one of those gigantic Wagnerian choruses. Or perhaps the rest is silence.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Thompson’s notion on the political power and the double meaning of silliness in this wonderful example. As a historical document, her article brilliantly deconstructs how silly the Nazis’ arguments on culture actually were, especially in their attempts to be anything but silly. This article is also, in a way, timeless, and not simply because Saxonian dialect is still considered silly and its speakers as stupid. Especially in the realm of politics, a bit of silliness is often the best way to bear the rhetoric, logical, and polemic garbage that political leaders (and those who professionally report on our leaders’ activities) dish out every day,  be it in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Daily Show and Colbert Report are more popular sources of information than some of the news shows they mock. I’m glad to live in a society where one can call on the silliness of leaders, without having to fear the reprisals the Nazis held in stock for anybody deemed disloyal. Still, leaders’ silliness as an affliction is not restricted to the most oppressive regimes. We face it every day.

So, thanks for tuning in, I’ll go watch a few silly YouTube clips now, or maybe read a few politicians’ speeches. In Saxonian.

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.

German Nationalists, Communists, and Indian Hobbyists Discussed at the University of Oklahoma

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.

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.