Hitler on the Mississippi Banks

Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

Poster depicting the Nazi campaign against "degenerate music." Wikimedia Commons.

From time to time, someone will ask why I write so much about racism. The underlying charge is that a writer should cease to follow his curiosities. I might well retort that Paul Krugman should stop writing about the economy, or Jeff Goldberg should stop writing about the Middle East. The difference is that the world which racism made is seen as a niche issue, with no real import. "Gender" and "women's issues" are often regarded in the same way.

Many of the vexing moral issues of our time--inequality, schooling, the drug war, mass incarceration--simply can't be discussed without discussing racism. People sometimes try to do so (especially in the vein of inequality.) Their analysis is the poorer for it. It's tempting to suggest that this idea of racism as a "niche issue" is a result of the way in which black history is taught and the rise of black studies. Except that regarding black people and the issues that injure them as "niche" did not begin in 1968.

It is my guiding thesis that people who claim a serious interest in America but consider racism to be a niche topic are divided against themselves. You can't understand American politics, without understanding the Civil War. You can't understand the suburbs, without understanding redlining. You can't understand the constitution, without understanding slavery. In effect if you are an American who avoids understanding the force of racism, you are avoiding an understanding of yourself and your country.

Perhaps you are even avoiding something more.

The Nazi plan for Eastern Europe was called Generalplan Ost. It called for the conquest of Eastern and Central Europe, the reduction of its "non-German" peoples, the seizure of their land, and the enslavement of all who remained. The details are slightly different, but in its outlines, offered here in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, we should see something haunting and familiar:

The general design was consistent throughout: Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations, and bring order and prosperity to a humbled frontier. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear. In one redaction, eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs were to be eliminated.

After the corrupt Soviet cities were razed, German farmers would establish, in Himmler’s words, “pearls of settlement,” utopian farming communities that would produce a bounty of food for Europe. German settlements of fifteen to twenty thousand people each would be surrounded by German villages within a radius of ten kilometers. The German settlers would defend Europe itself at the Ural Mountains, against the Asiatic barbarism that would be forced back to the east. Strife at civilization’s edge would test the manhood of coming generations of German settlers. Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor.

The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.

It's easy to consider the reduction of this hemisphere's aboriginal people, the seizure of their land, their enslavement, the importation of African labor, the creation of a "black race," the profitable murder of black families, the perpetual warring against black people, the subsequent campaigns of terrorism which followed, as without analogue or global import. As though the land simply appeared beneath our feet, and by God's decree, delivered onto us its wealth. As though our state was not founded in plunder of land, labor and lives.

Hitler knew better. From Ira Katznelson's piercing history, Fear Itself:

Hitler denigrated blacks, admired American racism, and regretted the South’s defeat in 1865, especially how “the beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by the war.”* He complained when the French stationed African troops in the Rhineland, warned about racial mixing, and denounced “negrified music.” His main direct sources of information about the South were a series of odd and skewed reports that were provided by a German resident of Florida who wrote about putative Jewish plans to mobilize American blacks to destroy the white race.

Like other Nazi leaders, Hitler was fascinated in 1937 by Vom Winde verweht, the German edition of Gone with the Wind. This melodramatic epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction was a best-seller. The film, not surprisingly, proved a big hit. Nervous as he awaited the dawn invasion of the USSR, a move that would start Operation Barbarossa, Joseph Goebbels spent the hours after midnight on June 22, 1941, watching a prerelease German version with a group of invited friends, perhaps not aware that one of the film’s stars, Leslie Howard, was a British Jew.

When Americans complained about Nazi anti-Semitism, party officials rejoined by citing southern racial practices, claiming a kinship. The Völkischer Beobachter, the oldest Nazi Party newspaper, routinely disparaged Africans and African-Americans. Like much of the German press, it frequently printed antiblack cartoons, reminded its readers that southern public accommodations were segregated, and delighted in reporting how blacks, like German Jews, could not sleep in Pullman cars and could not exercise the right to vote. Lynching was a favorite subject. Neues Volk celebrated southern lynching for protecting white women from unrestrained black desire.

The Völkischer Beobachter published many graphic stories that were intended to support lynching as a tool to shield white sexual purity. “The SS journal Schwarze Korps exclaimed that if lynching occurred in Germany as it did in the American South, the whole world would complain loudly.” 

The desire to put a history of American racism, which is to say a portion of America's roots, in a corner is a kind of wish-fulfillment. It would be so much easier if "black studies" really were niche, if it really weren't that important, if racism really was a minor thread in the history of the West. We should be so lucky--except we shouldn't.  No state ever is and we are not an exception to humanity.

*It was pointed out to me that the first quote was pulled by Katznelson from a source which should be viewed skeptically. I would not have included that quote had I known this. I'm striking it to show that, but leaving it up so as not to erase the mistake. That is the only quote relying on that source.