- The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective by Carroll P. Kakel III
Carroll Kakel’s monograph compares patterns of imperialism, colonialism, and genocide in Nazi Germany (1933–1945) and early America (1783–1890). This is a courageous undertaking, especially given the heated debates about the value of comparative analysis in genocide and Holocaust studies, as well as about the destruction of Native American life in the context of American history. Kakel proposes a “new ‘optics’” (7) that links the disparate histories of America’s westward expansion (“Manifest Destiny”) and Nazi Germany’s eastward expansion in search of Lebensraum. He argues that the study of comparative genocide and transnational colonialism helps us better grasp the “patterns, logics, and pathologies” (3) of national projects that combined territorial expansion with racial thinking, resulting in violent practices of exclusion, elimination, and forced assimilation. A comparison of expansionist ideologies of empire and settler colonialism, spatial conquest and racial cleansing, as well as frontier mentalities and genocidal practices align the histories of Early America and Nazi Germany in ways, Kakel contends, that suggest disquieting analogies.
The book’s tripartite structure (“Continental Imperialism,” “Settler Colonialism,” “Frontier Genocide”) organizes the comparison along a continuum that begins with the formation of expansionist ideology and ends with practices of eliminationist violence. Nazi leaders regarded the East as Lebensraum to be conquered, settled, and colonized. For example, Karl Haushofer, a geopolitical theorist, influenced Adolf Hitler’s thinking in this regard, and Hitler’s self-description of as a Raumpolitiker (rather than as a Grenzpolitiker) echoes imperial ideologies that Kakel also sees at work in the more “aggressive” (30) Jacksonian version of America’s westward expansion. In fact, Nazi planners of Lebensraum policies referred to the “Wild East” as the America of the “Germanic peoples” (45). Intriguingly, Kakel pulls together a number of quotes by Nazi leaders in which they directly refer to America’s expansion to justify their own thirst for territory. But whether such occasional referencing constituted an “obsession for Hitler” (3), as Kakel claims, is not really backed up by empirical proof (e.g., a statistical analysis). Nazi ideology was certainly obsessed with the “Jewish question,” but was it really obsessed with the American West? Though the book does not provide a satisfying answer, a comparative analysis does reveal that planners of colonial practices looked at and learned from historical antecedents—including the treatment of indigenous populations considered expendable. Notions of space and race thus “became interlocking imperatives” (45).
Each of the six chapters briefly introduces what is conceptually at stake (e.g., racial “othering,” colonization, genocide), presents historical antecedents of both early [End Page 228] American and German histories, and then discusses more specific developments. The two national histories are rigidly separated (first early America, then Nazi Germany) throughout the monograph; they are only brought together when briefly discussing similarities and differences at the conclusion of each chapter. This methodical approach not only makes for monotonous reading, but also results in unnecessary repetitions: specific information is reiterated (at times verbatim) and the main thesis repackaged in numerous variations. The book, which grew out of a doctoral thesis, would have greatly benefited from further shortening.
Kakel’s thesis works best when investigating comparative patterns with regard to imperial notions of territorial conquest and settler colonialism, but is less persuasive with respect to genocide. When comparing the Nazi genocide of the Jews with the American destruction of its indigenous population, his language obscures rather than clarifies. At stake is the question of how systematic, intentional, and deliberate the early American campaign to dispossess and then eliminate Native Americans had been. On the one hand, Kakel claims intentionality; on the other hand, he is aware that genocidal practices in the American West differed considerably from the mass killings by the Nazis in the East. He calls what happened in America “government-sponsored genocidal wars of conquest,” which involved “deliberate genocidal intent to annihilate Indian[s]”—but then refers to the...