Thursday, February 03, 2005

"Dare to Compare": the Nazi Holocaust and the American Genocide

No two atrocities are exactly alike. For instance, the Nazi reign of terror that murdered the mentally disabled, Communists, Jews, homosexuals, and other "undesirables" escalated faster and lasted shorter than centuries of massacres and oppressions committed against American Indians since 1492. This major difference is rooted in the fact that the genocide of American Indians began long before the full-blown industrial revolution -- which rendered not just mass production but also mass murder industrial and efficient -- started.

Does it mean, however, that it is wrong to compare these two atrocities or that there is nothing to be learned from comparison between them?

Not necessarily. When we compare the consequences of National Socialism in Germany and settler colonialism in the New World, we aren't asserting their identity, just as we aren't saying that the Vietnam and Iraq Wars are exactly the same in every respect when we compare them.

What, then, does it mean to compare two atrocities? What is at stake in the act of comparing them as well as that of refusing to do so?

On this subject of the significance of comparison in general and that of the Nazi Holocaust and the American genocide in particular, Lilian Friedberg, a "German-Jewish-Native-American-(Anishinabe)" scholar, wrote an excellent article: "Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust" (American Indian Quarterly 24.3, Summer 2000).

Many Jewish writers have often compared Jews to American Indians, before and after the Holocaust.
In German-speaking literary circles, the examples of Else Lasker-Schüler, who stylized herself as an American Indian, and Franz Kafka’swish to be a “Red Indian” are well known. George Tabori’s 1990 stage production of the Jewish Western Weisman und Rotgesicht wittily pitted [Jewish] white man against [partly Jewish] red man in a verbal duel in which the protagonists exchange a hilarious blow-for-blow account of injuries and insults suffered by the victim-ized populations they represent. But the phenomenon of conflating Jewish and “Indian” identity is not unique to foreign-language publications. As Seth Wolitz points out, in his discussion of Weisman und Rotgesicht, this “tradition of spoofing Jewish-Indian interrelations . . . reaches back to a Yiddish playlet, Tsvishn Indianer.” 2 This 1895 play, “Among the Indians, or The Country Peddler,” as its translator states, “is not an anomaly, but rather a pathbreaker in a well-defined line of Jewish-American entertainment that leads to the films of Mel Brooks and others.” 3 The American leg of this lineage includes Eddie Cantor’s redface minstrelsy in Whoopie! (1930) and Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983). Fanny Brice sang herself to stardom with “I’m an Indian,” and Bernard Malamud’s The People provides a classic example of the phenomenon.

Most recently perhaps, Raphael Seligmann has gone on record stating that the Jews are “the Indians of Germany.” 4 (endnotes omitted, Friedberg, pp.353-354)
However, the reverse has not been deemed acceptable, particularly since the birth of what Norman G. Finkelstein calls the Holocaust Industry in the Six Day War:
Lucy Dawidowicz charges those who would dare to compare [the American genocide of Indians and the Nazi Holocaust of Jews] with “a vicious anti-Americanism.”5 Rabbi Irving Greenberg, founder of the Holocaust Resource Center and first director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission, has described the comparison of the Nazi Holocaust with other acts of genocide as “blasphemous.”6 In The Holocaust in American Life, Jewish historian Peter Novik describes the way in which any attempt to compare is dismissed as a “felonious assault” on truth and memory.7 (endnotes omitted, Friedberg, p. 354)
Friedberg asks us to think about why Jews as well as others have often found emotional resonance in comparing themselves to American Indians while comparing the American genocide of Indians to the Nazi Holocaust of Jews is often condemned in the strongest terms, as "blasphemous," "felonious," "anti-American" attacks on truth and memory.

Why the predominance of one-way comparison? Friedberg suggests that it is in part the result of unequal power between Jews and Indians: Jews, a far more privileged group here and elsewhere than Indians, can freely appropriate the American Indian identity and iconography and engage in redface minstrelsy politically and artistically, but not vice versa. It is not, at bottom, a matter of racial hierarchy of Jews over Indians, though. Many Jews accept and even themselves employ comparisons of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews and the American genocide of Indians, and many who condemn such comparisons are not at all Jewish. A more important factor is the strength of American exceptionalism: not only It Can't Happen Here, but It Couldn't Have Happened Here. American exceptionalism is accompanied by another exceptionalism at work in the United States because of its utility to US foreign policy: Zionism. For Israel to justify its existence as the Jewish state, the Holocaust of Jews must be a unique event, separable from Nazi massacres of other groups and incomparable to any other atrocity in history -- so it alone demands the establishment of an ethnically exclusive state for its victims to compensate for it. "The rate of attrition of Jewish populations in Europe is commonly calculated at between 60 and 65 percent. Put in terms of survival rates, this means that two-thirds of the global Jewish population and about one third of the European Jewish population survived the Nazi Holocaust, whereas a mere remnant population of 1 to 2 percent survived the American Holocaust," Friedberg reminds us (p. 358), but both American and Zionist exceptionalisms tell us that what happened to American Indians wasn't, and wasn't even really like, the Holocaust and that, while the Holocaust justifies the founding of Israel and continuing US economic, military, and diplomatic support for it, American Indians are barely entitled to what's left of their impoverished reservations.

The denial of the American Holocaust in the past goes hand in hand with indifference to the oppression and marginalization of American Indians in the present, who, unlike American Jews, are among the poorest in the United States:
Native Americans, by contrast, have long been subject to the most extreme poverty of any sector in the present North American population, and still have the highest rate of suicide of any other ethnic group on the continent.50 High school dropout rates are as high as 70 percent in some communities. As Anishinabeg activist and Harvard-educated scholar Winona LaDuke notes with regard to the Lakota population in South Dakota: “Alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, accidental death and homicide rates are still well above the national average.”51 Alcoholism, intergenerational posttraumatic stress, and a spate of social and economic ills continue to plague these communities in the aftermath of the American Holocaust. (endnotes omitted, Friedberg, pp. 365-366)
Then, there is a question of the ideology of "progress." Today, the catastrophic magnitude of what happened to Indians through the conquest of the Americas is widely admitted and even regretted, but it is still common to represent it as "a justifiable sacrifice made in the name of 'progress'" (Friedberg, p. 363) or "a sad, but both inevitable and 'unintended consequence' of human migration and progress" in the words of David E. Stannard (qtd. in Friedberg, p.359), and, tellingly, such whitewashing elicits no "moral outrage in the scholarly community and in public consciousness" (p. 363) comparable to unanimous condemnation of denials of the Nazi Holocaust. Friedberg, like Stannard, thinks that is evidence of the continuing power of "what Alexander Saxton recently has described as the 'soft-side of anti-Indian racism' that emerged in America in the nineteenth century and that incorporated 'expressions of regret over the fate of Indians into narratives that traced the inevitability of their extinction. Ideologically,' Saxton adds, 'the effect was to exonerate individuals, parties, nations, of any moral blame for what history had decreed'" (Stannard, qtd. in Friedberg, p.359).

Moreover, to regard -- consciously or unconsciously -- the genocide of American Indians as inevitable is to think of the rise and development of capitalism as inevitable. The rise and development of capitalism, however, was not predetermined -- it was, rather, a contingent outcome of class struggles as well as other social struggles. From the point of view that sees history as contingent rather than teleological, the common representation of the genocide of American Indians as a matter of "a sad, but both inevitable and 'unintended consequence' of human migration and progress" (Stannard, qtd. in Friedberg, p.359) is a serious intellectual error as well as a grave moral crime.

Those who question the virtue of comparison between the Nazi Holocaust of Jews and the American genocide of Indians make much of the question of intention and planning on the part of perpetrators. What are we to think of that?

Firstly, the work of Stannard and other scholars has already made clear that the genocide of American Indians was more intended and planned than had been commonly thought and that, while the American genocide was not as efficient as the Nazi Holocaust, cumulative effects of plans and intentions on small scales played a larger role in nearly exterminating American Indians than many Americans would admit.

Secondly, the Nazi Holocaust of Jews took place in a more cumulative fashion than popular conceptions of it as well as "intentionalist" historians' arguments suggest. Alex Callinicos summarizes recent research in his essay "Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust" (Yale Journal of Criticism 14.2, 2001):
The development of research into the Holocaust over the past few years has, in my view, definitively settled the long-running debate among historians of the Third Reich between "functionalists" and "intentionalists." 67 The extermination of the Jews, rather than emerging fully formed from Hitler's long-term plans, was a piecemeal process driven to a large extent, "from below," by initiatives from rival power-centres within the highly fragmented Nazi bureaucracy. To say this is not to absolve Hitler of responsibility for the Holocaust. His notorious "prophecy" to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939 -- "if international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" -- was frequently cited by both Hitler and his subordinates as they sought to fulfil his prediction. 68 But recognition of Hitler's role is not inconsistent with an analysis that highlights the complexity of the process that led to Auschwitz. To that extent, the portrayal of the Holocaust by Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen as the outcome of what the latter famously called a "cumulative spiral of radicalization" is correct. 69

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

67. See, for an overview of this debate, see T.W. Mason, "Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism," in id., Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class.

68. Kershaw, Hitler, II. 153. See ibid., II. 520-23, on Hitler's awareness of (but refusal explicitly to acknowledge) the
extermination of the Jews.

69. H. Mommsen, From Weimar to Auschwitz (Cambridge: Polity, 1991), 175; see esp. id., "The Realization of the Unthinkable," in ibid., and M. Broszat, "Hitler and the Genesis of the 'Final Solution,'" in H. Koch, ed., Aspects of the Third Reich (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1985) (Callinicos, p. 399)
If the Holocaust, too, was a "cumulative spiral of radicalization" (Mommsen, qtd. in Callinicos, p. 399), a "piecemeal process driven to a large extent, 'from below,' by initiatives from rival power-centres within the highly fragmented Nazi bureaucracy" (Callinicos, p. 399) especially in the context created by "the invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941" (Callinicos, p. 400), perhaps it's time to revise the commonsense, i.e. "intentionalist," understanding of the term genocide.

Thirdly, we need to rethink the prevailing moral standard, which tends to emphasize individual guilt and innocence rather than structural problems and solutions. To elevate the moral gravity of intended and planned massacres above equally murderous but unintended and unplanned consequences of actions of myriad human beings is accepted practice in criminal justice. Both a pedestrian killed by a negligent drunk driver and a gay man murdered by a homophobe in a premeditated fashion are equally dead, but criminal justice would give a heavier sentence to the homophobic murderer than the negligent drunk driver. Focus on the intention and planning on the part of the responsible party is to a certain extent necessary in criminal justice, but, even here, problems arise. It is the same reasoning that leads criminal justice to send more and more poor individuals to prison while allowing corporations to literally get away with most murders they commit. Corporations intend to make profits, rather than kill workers, consumers, and residents exposed to pollution. Yes, lives and deaths of human beings are cooly weighed on the scales of cost-benefit calculations by managers, accountants, actuaries, and bureaucrats, but where is malice, an aggravating factor? Or so the thinking goes. In an even bigger picture, the normal workings of global capitalism create poverty and inequality on massive scales, consigning countless people to premature deaths due to lack of access to food, clean water, medicine, education, and so on -- the number of such preventable deaths is larger than the number of deaths caused by murderous individuals, greedy corporations, and tyrannical governments combined. And yet, the latter arouses anger, while the former escapes attention. We will never be able to drive home the fact that capitalism as a mode of production, which has no plan and no intention, is genocidal as long as we think of only what is consciously planned and intended as genocide.

Even if we acknowledge the insidiousness of the American Holocaust denial and recognize the intellectual validity of comparison between the Nazi and American Holocausts, however, we may still wonder what purpose the comparison serves. Friedberg makes an intriguing suggestion. What if we learn to avoid sad competition for the top rank in the hierarchy of sufferings and foster, instead, "a 'solidarity of memory' that might fundamentally challenge" (Friedberg, p. 369) the dominant culture, a "solidarity of memory" of displacement and dispossession that can unite, rather than divide, Jews and Palestinians as well as Jews and American Indians? Yes, each tale of displacement and dispossession is particular, and yet expropriation of land and expulsion of those who worked and yet did not possess their lands as private owners -- the displaced and dispossessed becoming proletarians -- has become a process that encompasses the entire planet since the beginning of capitalism. Experience of exile, far from an exception, is now the past, present, or future of all peoples except the rich few -- the potential emotional foundation of a solidarity of memory that recognizes struggles in the past as concerns of the present and grasps the constellations that our own era has formed with definite earlier ones (Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," 1940).

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