The following piece was originally posted in November 2020 to explain how American prejudices and historical ignorance has led to extermination campaigns of Native peoples, how American racist policies directly inspired Nazi practices, and how those ideas continue to influence American society and threaten minority groups. As we roll into Election Day next week, consider sharing this piece to start conversations and educate people on the topic. The following has been lightly edited from the original.
November is Native American Heritage Month, and Thanksgiving is just one week away. While Thanksgiving is a holiday fraught with a problematic history, it is also ostensibly a day to thank Native American contributions to the history of the United States. But of course, many of us are canceling Thanksgiving plans this year to keep our families safe as the covid-19 pandemic surges across the country. And with President Trump still refusing to concede the election and instead continuing to promote baseless conspiracy theories, some might think that it is a mistake to focus so much attention on the social representation of a small minority population at such a crucial time. A lack of accurate, positive representation leads to a reliance on easily manipulable and usually negative stereotypes, which in turn leads to the systematic dehumanization of the minority group. Combined with other societal narratives of “natural” entitlement and being threatened on all sides, this deadly mix has historically led to genocides. Indeed, both the means and the reasons used by the Nazis to perpetrate ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe were inspired by the American conquest, cleansing, and forced resettlement of the American Indians of the Western United States.
During the “Indian Wars” between 1846 and 1890, the U.S. massacred countless Native peoples and forced the rest onto “reservations” of unwanted tracts of land in order to open up desirable land for settlers. One way or another, Native peoples were expected by white Americans to be “eliminated” or else to “disappear” on their own. Not too long ago, these atrocities were celebrated as advancements in human progress, not just in the United States, but in Nazi Germany. According to Carroll P. Kakel, III, Hitler conceived of the German war in Eastern Europe as a colonizing war of ethnic cleansing to remove Slavic and Jewish peoples to make way for lebensraum, “living space” for Germans. Hitler himself encouraged his close associates to “look upon the natives [of Eastern Europe] as ‘Redskins’” of the American West. If the endgoal of both colonial wars was the removal of the Other to make space for white or German settlers, then the concentration camps of the Holocaust can be seen as an upgraded, more efficient Native reservation.
Of course, the entire process of conquering and destroying Native peoples in the American West was just a small part of the massive racist project in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. James Q. Whitman has pointed out that Nazi Germany repeatedly found inspiration in restrictive American racial laws, not only with respect to Black Americans, but with all other non-“nordic” peoples. In fact, in the early 20th century, the United States led the world in racist law -- at least in the eyes of the Germans, Brazilians, Australians, and South Africans who implemented infamously racial codes in their own countries modeled after the American ones. As Whitman points out, Nazis themselves had a difficult time finding other models for racist codes like anti-miscegenation laws, except in the case of the “classic model” of the United States, where there was a robust tradition of forced segregation, restrictive racial immigration quotas, and second-class citizenship.
Perhaps it is shocking to learn that the Nazis themselves were inspired by the American treatment of Indigenous, Black, and other non-white peoples. Most Americans do not associate the United States with fascism or Nazism -- we fought them, after all, didn’t we? Some have heard that prominent American figures like Henry Ford and Walt Disney were Nazi sympathizers before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but generally consider such information as curious details of eccentric tycoons during “a different time” in history. Some have even heard of the American Nazi rally in 1939 that attracted more than 20,000 people to Madison Square Garden. But most Americans would likely deny that any genocides have ever occurred in the United States -- not out of denialism, but out of historical misunderstanding and confusion about what genocides actually are.
But then there are also those who believe in the “white genocide” myth, or the “Great Replacement” variation. The conspiracy theory is shockingly popular in some form or another among white conservatives and reveals the anxieties over ethnic diversity and the atrocities committed upon People of Color. Those who believe the “white genocide” myth fear that, given the chance, African-Americans would start a race war to exterminate white people out of revenge for slavery, disenfranchisement, terror, and more. The “Great Replacement” idea is more subtle, stating that unending waves of immigration into Western countries like the United States will lead to the rapid growth and spread of non-white people, ultimately ending in the “replacement” and erasure of whiteness and Western culture. Both of these variations often point to some shadowy group directing these massive demographic shifts specifically to exterminate white people. Strangely, these imaginary “globalist” or “New World Order” groups are usually composed of Jewish people.
The United Nations defines “genocide” as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Since there is no secret group imposing such policies on “white people” generally, and Black Americans time and again have faced violence with resolute nonviolent action. Those conspiracy theories are pure fantasy, but even entertaining them can be dangerous. If the precieved threat is as existential as death, replacement, and erasure, then the logic of those fantasies must always end with a kind of preemptive genocide or other atrocity to “protect” the “white race.” This is exactly the logic that led many ordinary Germans to look away from the worst atrocities their government committed upon Jewish, Slavic, and other peoples. It’s the logic that excuses separating children from their parents and locking them in cages today. It’s the logic that makes a threat out of any Black man, and what lets their murderers escape justice time and again.
The online series The Man in the High Castle, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, takes place in an alternate 1960s in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. At one point in the series, a white asylum seeker studies with a Hitler Youth to become a naturalized citizen of The Greater Reich, which spans most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. As they study, the Hitler Youth brings up a question “about American exterminations before the Reich.” The asylum seeker asks with confusion, “exterminations?” to which the Hitler Youth replies almost with amusement: “Didn’t they ever teach you about the Indians?”
Let’s just make sure we get the story straight.
Sources and Further Reading:
Cochran, David Carroll. “How Hitler found his blueprint for a German empire by looking to the American West.” Waging Nonviolence, 7 October 2020. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2020/10/hitler-found-blueprint-german-empire-in-the-american-west/
“Genocide.” United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml
Kakel, Carroll P. The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Schwartzburg, Rosa. “No, There Isn’t a White Genocide.” Jacobin, 4 September 2019. https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/white-genocide-great-replacement-theory
Whitman, James Q. Hitler's American Model: the United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2018.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.