An accomplished and well-published scholar of German military history, Edward Westermann broadens his range in his new study, which compares the Nazi Lebensraum project and the Indian wars in the United States. The comparison arises from the recent scholarly recognition of Hitler’s ambition to outdo the American conquest of the West. In Hitler’s Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars, Westermann responds to current debates on the meaning of genocide and to Carroll Kakel’s theoretically informed synthesis (The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective, 2011), which, despite qualifications, suggests links between the two territorial expansions. Westermann mines extensive empirical evidence derived from original sources, beginning with an array of archives in Germany and the United States, to accentuate the differences between the expansions. His chapters offer side-by-side comparisons that discuss visions of conquest; national policies of race and space; military strategies and warfare; massacres and atrocities; and, finally, guerrilla and partisan conflicts. The result is a compelling analysis that recognizes both cases as ambitious and destructive colonial projects while highlighting the distinctiveness of each. Westermann’s analysis of American and German policies of conquest and exploitation yields the following arguments. First, American expansionism was primarily “messianic,” not “apocalyptic” (52). “Manifest destiny” embodied the “divinely ordained” entitlement of white Americans to settle the continent and remove American Indians who impeded their progress. Although clearly racist, the movement westward in the United States put a premium on economic exploitation of new territories, especially after 1850 and later the Civil War, while for National Socialism, economic exploitation depended upon the cold-blooded, total extermination of the Jews, as well as the physical annihilation of millions of Slavs. From the commanding heights of the Third Reich to its agents in the field, the existential survival of Germany in a global struggle for hegemony depended on the total elimination of racial “enemies.” Second, while repeated conflicts with American Indians prompted settlers, local newspapers, and popular literature to demand their destruction, the federal government, the military, missionaries, and other private actors preferred to assimilate and Christianize Native Americans by confining them to reservations where they would become farmers. To be sure, argues Westermann, the Nazi regime planned reservations and built ghettos for the confinement of Jews, but neither at the “center” nor the “periphery” did Nazi political leaders, the military, the SS mobile strike forces (Einsatzgruppen), or the civil administration in the field envision either ghettos or reservations as permanent solutions. The scale of violence unleashed by millions of Germans who participated in the Third Reich’s war for Lebensraum was in a class by itself. In contrast, the American military used force to ensure Native Americans’ compliance with federal policy, deploying much smaller units to do so. Third, Westermann acknowledges that although atrocities were common in both the American West and the Nazi East, Nazi atrocities expressed the apocalyptic struggle for existence that lay at the core of the Nazi Weltanschauung. In the United States, violence mainly advanced the goals of expansion through settlement and the consolidation of a continental capitalist economy. Certainly the fear, anger, and frustration associated with guerrilla warfare in the United States and partisan warfare in the German East magnified the potential for mass killing. Yet in the American West the impulses toward violence were mixed. The cold-blooded mass murder of the Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 resulted from the withdrawal of federal authority and the consignment of disciplining Indians to local vigilantes itching to exterminate them (165–168). On the other hand, the regular army’s massacre of the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890 arose from command incompetence rather than cold-blooded intent (179–185). Furthermore, negotiation periodically diffused potential conflicts, a far cry from the situation in the German East, where the clear, brutal intent to destroy partisans and exterminate Jews held sway. Although Westermann emphasizes the singularity of the Nazi genocide, he hardly disputes the violence, brutality, and subjugation that accompanied the murder and displacement of Native Americans. Yet in his view, it is crucial to question recent attempts to establish links between the American and the Nazi German colonial imaginations. Although Hitler indeed believed that Lebensraum in the East would rival the colonization of the West, the scale of the Nazi slaughter spoke less of that and more of his limited understanding of the American past, and of the context of Nazi ambitions, the German defeat in World War I, Germany’s perceived victimization by “enemies” that suppressed it, especially the “Jew,” and the desperate compulsion to assure the survival of the “German” Volk. Moreover, Westermann is concerned that the debate on genocide and its meaning has focused too much on theory at the expense of detailed empirical comparisons of historical events that sustain or undermine claims about the similarities between two national expansions. Although recognizing that Americans radically changed the lives and cultures of Native Americans, Westermann argues that terms such as “settler colonialism,” “colonial genocide,” or “cultural genocide” are too broad to be useful, and lose track of the crucial issue of intent, which is central to the UN General Assembly Resolution 260 on genocide (6–8). One might argue that Westermann’s evidence affirms the relevance of “cultural genocide” to the experience of American Indians, inasmuch as Raphael Lemkin himself, who coined the term genocide and whom Westermann cites, described genocide as the “destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group” and “the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor” (7). Although Native Americans were not physically annihilated en masse as Jews were, the intent to “civilize” them by radically transforming native cultures and confining the natives was clear. Nevertheless, this sensitive and incisive book—the depth of its research and the range of topics, which allows for an equally wide range of comparisons—has set a high standard for future work on mass violence and genocide. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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