Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest

Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars: Comparing Genocide and Conquest

by Edward B. Westermann


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As he prepared to wage his war of annihilation on the Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler repeatedly drew parallels between the Nazi quest for Lebensraum, or living space, in Eastern Europe and the United States’s westward expansion under the banner of Manifest Destiny. The peoples of Eastern Europe were, he said, his “redskins,” and for his colonial fantasy of a “German East” he claimed a historical precedent in the United States’s displacement and killing of the native population. Edward B. Westermann examines the validity, and value, of this claim in Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars.

The book takes an empirical approach that highlights areas of similarity and continuity, but also explores key distinctions and differences between these two national projects. The westward march of American empire and the Nazi conquest of the East offer clear parallels, not least that both cases fused a sense of national purpose with racial stereotypes that aided in the exclusion, expropriation, and killing of peoples. Westermann evaluates the philosophies of Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum that justified both conquests, the national and administrative policies that framed Nazi and U.S. governmental involvement in these efforts, the military strategies that supported each nation’s political goals, and the role of massacre and atrocity in both processes. Important differences emerge: a goal of annihilation versus one of assimilation and acculturation; a planned military campaign versus a confused strategy of pacification and punishment; large-scale atrocity as routine versus massacre as exception.

Comparative history at its best, Westermann’s assessment of these two national projects provides crucial insights into not only their rhetoric and pronouncements but also the application of policy and ideology “on the ground.” His sophisticated and nuanced revelations of the similarities and dissimilarities between these two cases will inform further study of genocide, as well as our understanding of the Nazi conquest of the East and the American conquest of the West.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806164670
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #56
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Edward B. Westermann is Professor of History at Texas A&M University–San Antonio. He is the author of Hitler’s Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East.

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Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars

Comparing Genocide and Conquest

By Edward B. Westermann


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5712-2




Manifest destiny and lebensraum have emerged as the historical catchphrases designed to encapsulate a perceived zeitgeist, or "spirit of the time." Both philosophies encompassed the concepts of conquest and expansion and began as conceptual expressions and imaginings of a particular place and time in history. The historian Elliot West described the American view of westward expansion in the context of "overarching stories" that depict the relationship of people to their environment and "become guides and encouragements for living out a newly dreamed existence." For the conquerors, such visions justify possession and serve as evidence that "they have been summoned by fate or history or God in their rightful homes." In the case of Nazi Germany, Hitler authored, if not adopted, his own sense of divine mission in lebensraum from the discourse and ideas of right-wing and conservative groups developed at the turn of the nineteenth century. He embraced the imperialistic ambitions inherent in this concept, which became "the sine qua non of German foreign policy" under the Third Reich. The führer preached a gospel of "national salvation" that depended on "the 'removal' of the Jews and the acquisition of 'living space' in the east." In fact, this idea of a racialized living space to the east became one of the fundamental pillars of Hitler's worldview and an essential planning factor in his war against Poland in 1939 and the subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The American West and the Nazi East were also "contested spaces." In the case of the former, intertribal warfare both predated and accompanied the efforts of American westward expansion. For example, the Comanches did not earn the title of "Lords of the Southern Plains" merely for their prowess on horseback but, more importantly, as a result of their political and military organization, which enabled them to create an "empire" on the southern plains, to dominate other tribes, and to oppose effectively white settlement on their lands until the 1870s. Likewise, the Apaches and other tribes of the Desert Southwest successfully contested control over this region from the period of Spanish colonial rule to well after its cession to the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Finally, the Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes exerted political and military power throughout the northern plains that forced the abandonment of the forts along the Bozeman Trail and limited federal authority over the area until the Great Sioux War of 1876–77.

In the minds of Nazi bureaucrats, eastern Europe also represented a contested space. The self-proclaimed ideologue of the Nazi Party, Alfred Rosenberg, a "Baltic German," constructed a worldview that glorified a "drive to the east" (Drang nach Osten) anchored in the historical legacy of the economic expansion of German influence by the Hanseatic League in the Baltics and the military conquests of the Order of the Teutonic Knights. Similarly, Reich Leader of the SS Heinrich Himmler saw the East in terms of an ancient German birthright epitomized by the Teutonic Knights and their campaign into Poland and eastern Europe in the fourteenth century. Referencing the knights, Himmler declared, "It is my firm intention to appropriate from it all that was good about this order: bravery, extraordinary loyalty to a revered idea, sound organization, riding out into far countries, riding out into the east." If a group of medieval knights excited the minds of National Socialists for an eastern empire, the experience of the German occupation of the region during World War I provided a more recent claim and a powerful influence. During occupation duty, millions of German soldiers experienced a "fundamental transformation[,] with far-reaching cultural and political consequences." According to one historian, these men experienced a "sweeping antipathy" that combined "ambitions for colonization" and a determination to "overcome the Unkultur [lack of culture] of the conquered lands and peoples." For these men and their Nazi epigones, especially Hitler, the East was less a contested space than an entitlement for the expansion of German Kultur in the form of the sword and the plowshare.

In both the Nazi East and the American West, the process for control of the land and its resources involved a struggle between those seeking to supplant existing groups or societies and those currently occupying these lands. In the case of the East, this process involved a plan of military conquest and an army of party and SS bureaucrats with visions of establishing a Nazi agrarian colony, with the indigenous peoples either reduced to the status of slaves or eliminated. In the case of the American West, frontiersmen, fortune hunters, and white settlers represented the vanguard of occupation. But this "Drang nach Westen" (push to the west) and the efforts aimed at constructing transcontinental railroads and telegraph networks led to a vast expansion of federal authority into these areas, introducing the government and specifically the U.S. Army as major actors in the struggle for control over these spaces. It was this national power that most threatened the Indian tribes' control over the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest in the decades after 1850. Both the Nazi vision of the East and the American popular image of the West may have been illusions, but the battle for control of these regions was a very real process. Similarly, it was less important that the ideas, concepts, and images were flawed and imperfect than that they created a perception that provided the fundamental rationale for conquest.

Imagining the "American" West

The term "manifest destiny" was coined by John O'Sullivan in 1845 and referred in part to two intertwined Jacksonian ideals: the concept of American exceptionalism and the necessity for territorial expansion. By the 1840s, these two notions coalesced in the policies of two generations of American political leaders who, in the words of one historian, "had by then developed an exceptionalist imperial ideology to justify the nation's territorial and commercial aggrandizement." Already in 1811, John Quincy Adams, while serving as an envoy in Russia, sent a letter to his father that outlined an imperial and messianic vision for future U.S. expansion: "The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles." The future president's sentiments would find renewed expression more than three decades later in the rhetoric that preceded the war with Mexico. In an anti-Mexican polemic in support of the annexation of Texas and the independence of California in 1845, O'Sullivan accused foreign powers of "thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." O'Sullivan thus coined a phrase that became a symbol and justification of American expansion over the course of the next five decades, a phrase that in many respects expressed the concept of nineteenth-century progressivism and came to embody a messianic sense of "Mission" to advance "the enduring values of American civilization."

Ironically, it was a British observer and not an American historian who most clearly explicated the essential elements of westward expansion. Francis Joseph Grund argued: "It appears then that the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them, and which by continually agitating all classes of society is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the State, in order to gain space for its development. Hardly is a new State or Territory formed before the same principle manifests itself again and gives rise to a further emigration; and so is it destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress."

From the perspective of the 1840s, the expansion of a domestic American empire had become a "two-front war" for the Indian tribes as white settlers pushed westward across the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and inland from the Pacific coast. During this process, emerging technology in the form of railroads and the telegraph would serve as sinews, pathways, and neural nets binding these two fronts and leading to an inexorable increase in pressure during the coming decades. In this period it was not the miniscule U.S. Army and its far-flung systems of forts that provided the impetus for expansion, but rather it was the "pioneers, not statesmen or soldiers, [who] conquered land for the United States; technological innovation, not force, would bind the expansive empire into a cohesive whole." In fact, the U.S. Army often came into greater conflict with frontiersmen than with Indian tribes during the first half of the nineteenth century, confrontations in many cases precipitated by the actions of white civilians against the Indians. In 1853 then–Brevet Captain Ulysses S. Grant shared the following sentiment with his wife: "It is really my opinion that the whole race [Native Americans] would be harmless and peaceable if they were not put upon by the whites."

Grant's observation points to an important aspect of white-and-Indian relations, especially by the late 1850s. The passage of a quarter million white settlers across the Overland Trail en route to the Pacific coast combined with the fur trade between the two groups had "increasingly entangled" the narratives of both cultures in a reciprocal, if unequal, relationship. Elliot West has argued that, despite the illusions held by specific settlers, by 1857 "no clean frontier existed between ways of life" of the two cultures. During this period, there were in fact vast areas of contested space in the West and the Southwest, especially given the small size of the frontier army and the inability of the federal government to exercise authority in areas controlled by the various Indian tribes or groups of white settlers. At this time the Comanches, with some 20,000 members and 4,000 warriors, represented a powerful force on the southern plains, one capable of more than matching the small army units spread throughout the region. Despite the absence of capability, the vision of American expansion and the rhetoric of growth was not found wanting.

William Gilpin, propagandist, politician, ardent advocate of western expansion, and the first governor of Colorado Territory, embodied the standard of American manifest destiny in the antebellum period. He prophesied, "The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent ... to cause a stagnant people to be reborn — to perfect science — to emblazon history with the conquest of peace ... and to shed blessings around the world!" Gilpin's words provided a messianic framework to the process of expansion and explicitly sanctified "the conquest of peace" in the mission to reshape the West and its inhabitants into a nineteenth-century equivalent of a "New World Order." For him and other prophets of westward expansion, Native Americans were objects to be reshaped and remolded into the image of an existing social order. This process admitted of three possible outcomes for the tribes: (1) the abandonment of Native customs and practices and the embrace of Christian civilization; (2) removal and isolation to areas reserved for the tribes; or (3) subjugation and extermination should the first two outcomes prove unrealizable. To be sure, all three initiatives found expression in government policy over the course of the century.

Politicians responded to the rising tide of public opinion favoring U.S. expansionism, and while President James K. Polk emerged as the primary instigator of war with Mexico and the "agent of Manifest Destiny," other leaders joined the chorus. From the floor of the Congress in 1845, Illinois Republican John Wentworth described a continental vision of a U.S. empire stretching from Nova Scotia to Cuba, Mexico, and even to Patagonia. Stephen Douglas echoed this sentiment in his promise to "blot out the lines on the map which now marked our national boundaries on this continent, and make the area of liberty as broad as the continent itself." Some five decades later, in the shadow of war with Spain, President William McKinley argued: "We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny."

In the period between the annexation of Texas and the War of 1898, the concept of manifest destiny found multiple incarnations. In the cases of the Republic of Texas and Oregon Territory, the term became focused primarily on realist political arguments for territorial expansion and the growth of U.S. political power. In the case of the former, President Polk exclaimed, "a glance at the map was enough to convince one that sooner or later the United States must extend to the Rio Grande." In fact, manifest destiny formed a key pillar for validating wars against Mexico in 1846 and Spain in 1898, both conflicts aimed at the defeat of foreign powers and the acquisition of territory. Racial thinking also was implicit in the concept and its multifarious expressions in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The historian Julius Pratt highlighted the dual nature of manifest destiny in the 1840s, with its "expression of a half blind faith in the superior virility of the American race and the superior beneficence of American political institutions." Furthermore, he traced the influence of Charles Darwin's theories in the latter half of the century that led propagandists to utilize the lexicon of natural selection and survival of the fittest as justification for Anglo-Saxon superiority and global dominance. Often, racialized thinking combined economic justification as in the war with Mexico, in which Mexican territory would "pass from its currently shiftless residents to hard working white people better able to husband their resources." Yet the conquest of the American West between 1850 and 1890 ultimately centered on the issue of economics, not race, and the expansion of U.S. power across the continent occurred as a result of a combination of the sword, the plow, and the rail. In the case of the last, General William T. Sherman, upon his retirement from the army in 1883, reflected, "the four great transcontinental railways, which have in my judgment done more for the subjugation and civilization of the Indians than all other causes combined, and have made possible the utilization of the vast area of pasture lands and mineral regions which before were almost inaccessible, for my agency in which I feel as much pride as for my share in any of the battles in which I took part."

The railroad acted as both a metaphor and an agent of American conquest in the West. In the former role, gleaming coal-fired locomotives, or "steel horses," represented one of the singular accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution and symbolized the march of progress and modernity in American popular imagination. In the latter role, the conquest of the West and the consolidation of American empire depended on the completion of these transportation lines, which would link the producers of agricultural and mineral resources to national and international markets. The enormous capital investment required for railroad development led to the demand for federal subsidies and the involvement of the government in the expansion of the rail networks in the 1860s. This inevitably resulted in the extension and exercise of federal power in the West, authority that found its expression in the use of army engineers in the laying of these lines and the employment of army units to protect their construction. By 1880, the railroads emerged not only as engines for economic growth but also as instruments for consolidating physical control of the West. In his annual report to the secretary of war, General Philip Sheridan observed, "Amongst our strongest allies in the march of civilization upon the frontier, are the various railway companies who are now constructing their new lines with great rapidity."


Excerpted from Hitler's Ostkrieg and the Indian Wars by Edward B. Westermann. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Visions of Conquest: Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum,
2. National Policies of Race and Space,
3. Strategy and Warfare,
4. Massacre and Atrocity,
5. War in the Shadows: Guerrilla Warfare in the West and the East,

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