- Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest by Edward B. Westermann
In Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest Edward Westermann examines these "two national projects" undertaken by the United States and the Third Reich, questioning whether the American conquest of the West in the name of Manifest Destiny might be usefully considered a "historical precursor" to the German conquest of the East for the sake of Lebensraum, not least because Hitler and other Nazi leaders believed US policies toward Native Americans set an example for their own plans for the displacement and extermination of Jews and Slavs (3, 14).
Westermann establishes the framework of the book by evaluating both operations so as to uncover similarities and discrepancies, thereby achieving "insight into the use or misuse of power" (16). Of particular importance for Westermann's argument is his insistence on the differing goals behind each government's actions. Whereas the United States aimed to assimilate Native Americans into civilization and "bring Christianity to the tribes," the Third Reich intended the physical annihilation of Jews and Slavs in Eastern Europe (11). These differences are further attributed to the diverging "primary justifications" for each campaign (54). For Hitler, the primary justification was racial superiority, while for the United States the chief consideration was "space and economic exploitation" (54), even if race did help to define American self-understanding. This distinction is the fulcrum of Westermann's work, on which his comparative analysis effectively turns.
Each of the five chapters examines the American West and the German East through a different thematic lens, separately at first, before a concluding comparison of the two territories. There are chapters devoted to the ideologies underpinning the respective "visions of conquest," the policies of "race and space," military strategy, [End Page 648] massacres and atrocities, and guerilla resistance to the invasions. Because each chapter follows the same basic pattern, Westermann's assessment of the evidence is commendably systematic, effective, and persuasive.
While the national goals pursued in the American West and German East were fundamentally different, according to Westermann, the implementation of American assimilation policy did incur violence. Indians who resisted assimilation or resettlement—by leaving their reservations or attacking colonists—were systematically punished, meaning the federal government sought "military force … to enforce specific behaviors or to control [their] actions" (156). Westermann further explains that US commanders enjoyed latitude when it came to the application of punishment, which included the killing of Indian leaders, warriors, women, and children, as well as the destruction of crops and encampments. Such retaliatory actions, driven by rage and revenge, represent exceptions and (by serving as an example to other tribes) an indirect means of accomplishing the official policy of assimilation. These massacres were conceived and carried out at the local level—unlike Nazi Germany, the US did not pursue a military campaign focused on "intentional genocide"—and the death toll resulting from them was relatively small in scale (251, 245). In this, and in other respects, Westermann convincingly argues that the American West did not set a precedent for the German East.
An intriguing aspect that deserves greater scrutiny is Hitler's own view of what transpired in the American West. Addressing the question of how the Führer's (erroneous) understanding of the subjugation of Native Americans might have informed his genocidal plans for Eastern Europe, reminding us of the importance of historical memory in shaping human actions and policy, even if that memory and perception are incorrect, would yield yet another context to add to Westermann's already superb discussion of both campaigns. Westermann even hints that, from a certain point of view, his book's argument might be irrelevant, precisely because Hitler believed the American West was an example to follow.
Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars offers a thought-provoking and clear-minded account of these two national projects of conquest, a particular strength of which is its attention to the gaps between...