- Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest by Edward B. Westermann
According to conventional wisdom, a generalist is one who eventually knows everything in the world about nothing at all. To that, Edward Westermann observes that one who engages in comparative history does twice the work for half the credit. In this book, however, Westermann does twice the work but deserves full credit for venturing into the minefield: the comparative study of genocides, with no case as explosive as how to interpret American treatment of the Indians. In a very balanced assessment, he focuses on the appropriateness of the comparison between the Nazi genocide in Eastern Europe during World War II and the actions of American settlers, the U.S. Army, and the federal government, in the conquest of the American West. To accomplish this, he considers four specific categories of analysis: philosophies of subjugation (Lebensraum vs. Manifest Destiny); government policy (race vs. space); military strategies of conquest; and the function of massacre and atrocity. Additionally, he moves beyond the theoretical constructs that so often cloud issues to discuss specific historical events, situating them in their historical context. Although Hitler certainly believed that the American example provided a historical precedent for his own murderous plans, Westermann—as suggested in the subtitle—demonstrates convincingly (while not minimizing the violence directed against the Indians) that fundamental differences distinguished the two undertakings.
In discussing the visions of conquest, Westermann concedes that parallels existed: both involved national projects of conquest that suggested notions of divine mission or historical providence, which in turn justified subjugation of presumed "lesser" peoples. To him, though, the differences outweigh the similarities, none more than the ultimate purpose of expansion. Hitler's goal ultimately was not merely the settlement of the Germanic peoples in the East, but a "racial restructuring" that involved large-scale physical extermination of entire ethnic groups. In this goal, economic considerations remained subordinate to racial. By contrast, American expansionism was largely driven by gaining control of land and resources, with no explicit governmental policy of extermination. Moreover, the dynamic of American expansion expressed local initiatives more than government policy, while German conquest resulted from initiatives at the highest level. Finally, the Nazis depicted their actions in apocalyptic terms, with the peoples of the East an existential threat to the Nation, while American proponents of expansion generally stressed a "civilizing" mission that envisioned the Indians' loss of their culture and identity, even their land, but not necessarily their lives.
This, then, leads to the second locus of investigation, notions of "race and space." Westermann continues the theme of a "civilizing" mission by stressing that U.S. government policy, despite occasional exterminatory rhetoric, aimed at transforming and assimilating the Indians. The [End Page 125] reservation was seen by reformers as a way to "de-tribalize" the native peoples, a place where they could be isolated from traditional ways of life, with schools transforming them into Americans. In essence, as Westermann implies, this was a goal not dissimilar from that for the various immigrant groups streaming into the country, for whom education was to serve a key transformational role. Nazi "reservations" and ghettos, by contrast, aimed not at pursuing assimilation, but to facilitate annihilation. President Ulysses S. Grant's "Peace Policy," which explicitly rejected physical extermination, would have seemed odd to Hitler, who time and again demanded the physical destruction of the inhabitants of areas he proposed to conquer: to him, only territory could be "Germanized," not people. Slavs left to work for German masters were to be given only a narrowly circumscribed education. The contrast in visions, for Westermann, could not be clearer: American policy, often driven by well-intentioned humanitarians, aimed at acculturation; the Nazi goal was annihilation.
This basic dichotomy informs the final chapters. While plenty of exterminatory exhortations can be found among American settlers and some politicians, U.S. federal policy, with its aim of civilization, ultimately moderated actions on the ground. Indeed, the U.S. Army...