Who's the Barbarian Here? Or: Exceptionalism in German and American Group Identity around 1900
While analyzing the German interest in Native American topics, I came to understand the interrelation of German nationalism and identity formation with this interest for Indians. Following this thread, I became very interested in ways how German nationalists claimed German uniqueness by way of alluding to the primitive, and the same time I discovered numerous parallels in American nationalism and in the myth of the frontier. I want to share and discuss these parallels in this blog and possibly use them as premises to our presentations and discussions in November. I'd be interested in how far similar parallels and claims to exceptionalism using the same trope existed among other groups.
Reaching back to the first phase of European expansion, the German infatuation with Native American topics has become a phenomenon of popular mass culture during the 19th century and has, in varying adaptive expressions, prevailed until now. Termed German "Indianthusiasm" by American Studies scholar Hartmut Lutz, this phenomenon has been found to be more revealing about German perceptions of self and the American other than about (Native) America itself. The depiction of contemporary Native Americans helped German nationalists of the 19th century to relate Germans to their Germanic ancestors, and thus ascribe to both Germans and Native Americans positive "national/racial" character traits which enhanced a notion of German-Indian sameness. In my dissertation project, I described two major tropes of Indianthusiasm which helped build a sense of German exceptionalism by way of Indian imagery and allusions to primitivism/barbarianism, the German Sonderweg.
In the Fellow Peoples motif, many nationalists assigned positive character traits to Germans. In the sense of Anderson's concept of imagined community, these character traits served as group markers believed to be ancient and inherent, and thus declared the German people per se to be honest, brave, loyal, untiring, and hospitable. While these traits were mentioned in early Roman texts about Germanic peoples (i.e. Tacitus' Germania), they also fit the description of the proverbial noble savage. Because it was claimed (and believed) that Germans had preserved their character traits, customs, and social structure, and thus their peoplehood, since the days of ancient Rome, and since 19th-century descriptions of Native Americans mirrored the character traits Germans had assigned to themselves, the similarity and familiarity seemed obvious. This similarity, on the other hand, invited the notion of exceptionalism because it set the Germans as a people apart from other Europeans who where excluded from these inherent group markers.
In the Common Enemy motif, long-standing rivals and perceived threats to the German self were identified as alien and anti-German, massive changes in the socio-political structure due to industrialization and secularization caused people to blame basic principles of the Enlightenment. Germans, believing to be indigenous people and thus soul-mates with Native Americans, perceived the introduction of modernity as the intrusion of alien concepts (such as liberalism), as well as the economic and military threat of invasion by expansive outsiders. In this sense, Germans often saw parallels with Native Americans as the victims of French, British, and American trickery, greed, and cultural pressure.
In order to preserve Germanness, then, politicians, philosophers, writers, and academics time and again invoked virtues and character traits such as honesty, bravery, fierceness, loyalty, or hospitality, all traits that were said to be inherent and inheritable national/racial character traits. Ominously, all these traits were present and valued in Indian imagery as well.
One of the most puzzling and fascinating insights of my study was the perception of uniqueness among many German nationalists who did not seem to realize that the positive relation to a people perceived as original and thus the identification with what was seen as primitive was by no means a unique treat of identity formation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Academic literature both in Germany and the Americas at the time could have shown that these character traits did not describe a unique group but were items in what a colleague described as the "barbarian catalog." Following a suggestion after a conference presentation, I researched discourses on Americanness at the same time and stumbled over statements by Theodore Roosevelt which were very similar to many German ideas about the positive role of barbarian virtues in the formation of national identity:
"Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail " (Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues 3).
Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis of the Frontier as the main tool of American identity formation dwells on the recurrence of "primitive" stages of development, on the fact that immigrant pioneers are turned into Americans by having to start from scratch and having to rely solely on the resources the American continent provided. Roosevelt's quote emphasizes the same idea - the notion that American greatness grew out of originality and simplicity, and that the spoils of modernity have weakened the essence of the people by distracting them with material wealth.
Both German Indianthusiasm and American nationalism's concept of barbarian virtues interpreted aspects of what they saw as "primitive" and "barbaric" as sources of strength and believed their own groups were unique in being strong by way of the barbarian catalog. At the same time, both Americans and Germans also developed national(ist) narratives in which the primitive was portrayed as a contemptible or even dangerous other.
Frank Usbeck, Universitat Leipzig.