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Fellow Tribesmen: German “Indianthusiasm,” Nationalism, and Nazi Ideology

Dissertation by
Frank Usbeck
 

This (completed) project analyzes the role of Germans' fascination with Native Americans for the construction of national identity in the 19th century and, eventually, for Nazi ideology and propaganda. It scrutinizes the interrelation of typical manifestations of “Indian” imagery, such as the noble savage or the vanishing race, with ideas, cultural practices, and images in German culture since c. 1800. This interrelation promoted an essentialist construction of German group identity as well as the notion of German exceptionalism. Comparing the colonial conquest of the Americas with the resistance of ancient Germanic tribes against the encroaching Roman empire, nationalists portrayed Germans as the “Indians” of Europe. The Nazis' eventual perception and representation of Native Americans in Nazi-controlled media built on these traditions of German “Indianthusiasm,” interweaving Romantic notions, cultural despair, conservative nationalism, and racial ideology.

Based on comprehensive research in German periodicals (newspapers, academic journals, and magazines) as well as academic monographs and political treatises published 1925-45, the project identifies two major motifs through which these Native American references served nationalists and Nazis to postulate German Indigeneity: The “Fellow Tribesmen” motif argued that Germans had retained elements of tribal culture from their ancestors and shared inheritable character traits with Native Americans, suggesting cultural and mental ties between both groups. This argument was interlaced with a dose of antimodernism and antiliberalism in German nationalist thinking. The “Common Enemy” motif deepened this sense of alienation from the 'West' by constructing German-'Indian' parallels, referring to the experience of resistance against foreign invasion and cultural imperialism, invoking ancient Rome, the French “arch enemy,” and British and US imperialism and threats to German (and Native American) culture. The Nazis, thus, utilized a mixture of primitivism, exoticism and racial thought to harness German “Indianthusiasm” for propaganda against the Western Allies.

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