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Late last century, I spent a few years teaching what is quaintly called ‘Social Studies’ at a small private high school in Southern California. High school subject matter is ordained by the State and is organized by grade: thus tenth grade is World History and eleventh is American History. Being of a progressive frame of mind and teaching at a nominally progressive school, I chose as my principal texts Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World, 1991, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, Revised Edition, 1995, for the successive classes; these texts, at the time, represented an almost unprecedented dose of radicalism for the young minds under my charge.
While Ponting’s volume, now revised as A New Green History of the World, 2007, remains an invaluable primer on the impact of Homo sapiens on planet Earth beginning some 100,000 years ago and of truly modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, beginning 30,000 years ago, and is, I believe, a foundational document for anyone wishing to acquire a ‘green’ consciousness, Zinn’s book has worn less well. Were I to teach high school history again (heaven forbid), I would choose a replacement for his volume.
We cannot, I think, begin to approach the history of the United States without thoroughly ingesting, at the molecular level, the impact of European settler colonialism over the last half millennium. Thus it is that the comparatively new volume, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’, The Indigenous People’s History of The United States, 2015, seems to be an essential antidote to the rote mythologies of this country (essentially regurgitated by Zinn with a populist twist) and which, at the high school level, might be effective (perhaps in conjunction with an introduction to ‘green’ consciousness) in developing a generation that begins to understand this land’s History Degree Zero (to paraphrase Barthes’ term). In other words, a history that does not accept as natural, the imposition by means of genocide, of European values on a continent peopled by highly varied groups who nevertheless shared an ethos that almost always ran counter to the materialistic, hierarchical, monotheistic characteristics of Western civilization, (just as Barthes refused to accept the French literary canon, infused, as he correctly saw it, with the values of ‘a triumphant middle class’).
The capture of the Republican Party by the extreme right and the installation of a racist demagogue in the White House have inevitably raised the specter of Germany in the 1930’s. Timothy Snyder has made explicit connections between the founding of the Third Reich and the rise of Trump (On Tyranny, 2017). Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ to rid the world of Jews in a messianic holocaust dominates any consideration of the German leader. His morbidly twisted mind personified both capitalism and communism within the Jewish people. The fabrication of Judeobolshevism was aggregated with a more traditional anti-Semitism into a bizarre pseudo-scientific theory of race whereby the Aryan people must exterminate the weaker Jew in order to ensure their survival and ultimate global supremacy. Hitler was a uniquely malignant leader. Yet he remains a shadowy presence behind more recent, far right-wing, fascist politicians, and once again our genocide radar is alerted.
Trump, for his part, has serially vilified the Mexican people and Moslems for transparent political gain (it’s the base, stupid) but he possesses none of the insanely racist ideological rigor that saw Hitler reify the ideas expressed in Mein Kampf, 1925 and 1926, in the trenches and gas chambers of Eastern Europe. Trump’s struggle, we now know, was in avoiding S.T.D’s in his youthful sexual escapades. His The Art of the Deal, co-authored with Tony Schwarz, 1987, is a paean to conniving capitalism and his dubious financial dealings – the suspicion that he is now using his office to further enrich himself and his family is a straight forward expression of his base financial motivations. Reassuringly, he is a very American politician, squarely in that tradition of graft, dark money, oligarchic tendencies and licentious sexual appetites which the voting public seems to expect and even appreciate in its male law makers and presidents.
But Snyder has cursed us (those, at least, who read him) with a renewed fascination with what he calls the killing fields of Eastern Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s. Prior to his revisionist histories (Bloodlands, 2010 and Black Earth, 2015), the Holocaust, in the popular imagination, remained a singular event that concerned the killing of six million Jews and others deemed to be sub-human, sanctioned by the German government just before and during the Second World War, and was often conflated with the gas chambers of Auschwitz – that emblematic infrastructure, the death factory where mechanized, industrial scale killing was perfected.
The Soviets liberated Auschwitz, but the reaction of the G.I.’s who stumbled across other camps is telling. One invoked the image, “bodies stacked like cordwood”: another was struck by the hundreds of survivors – “the skinniest people you saw in your life. Huge, huge eyes – and there was not a sound out of them. You never saw people like this before” (Michael Hirsch, The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust, 2010). The death camps, starvation diets for the barely living, endemic disease and the threadbare striped rags in which they were clothed were all entirely alien concepts to the squeaky clean, eighteen, nineteen or twenty year-old G.I.’s. Blame their educations: conditions created by Andrew Jackson’s ‘Final Solution’ for America’s indigenous people east of the Mississippi, were substantially similar. The young soldiers were unknowing heirs to the tradition of American Genocide.
Less than a decade after the liberation of the Nazi camps and the atomic firestorms of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, almost three million Asians lay dead in Korea, at least half of whom were civilians; further south and west and a few years on, another 3.1 million Asians died during the Vietnam War (by Vietnam’s own estimate in 1995 and confirmed in 2008 by the British Medical Journal). These were deaths suffered in the pursuit of ideological goals – because one side of each country’s civil war putatively threatened the primacy of capitalism. For those keeping count, that’s almost exactly the total of Jews, Gypsies and the disabled killed under the German Reich.
The killing goes on: in Iraq since the turn of this century, more than half a million men, women and children have died for their (or their parent’s) temerity in supporting a regime that declared its independence in the disposition of its own oil reserves. ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ was the reaffirmation of an imperial ideology based on the primacy of free market capitalism in all human and state-to-state transactions and of the American dollar as its reserve currency – all cloaked in the all-purpose euphemism of ‘Freedom’, promiscuously applied both at home and abroad.
In each of this Country’s imperial wars, beginning with the Mexican-American war of 1846 – 1848, U.S. troops used techniques, specific language related to operations, equipment and codes that were developed in the extermination of this country’s indigenous peoples. Now military equipment rings with the names of Indian tribes, weaponry and band leaders (Apache, Tomahawk and Black Hawk). Enemy territory is still known in the military as Indian country and its heritage of genocidal actions have been reincarnated in the modern era across the globe – in Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia and beyond. The American Holocaust remains a living tradition.
The planned elimination of Jews and the subjugation of Slavs and North Africans (doubly damned by their Moslem faith), had an economic purpose – to create Lebensraum, or living room for German (or Italian) agriculture on colonized lands conveniently denuded of non-Aryan mouths to feed, as well as a crackpot, supremacist ideological rationale. Hitler, a reader of ‘Westerns’ written by the German writer Karl May, in addition to possessing a more than cursory knowledge of world history, was much taken by the American racial genocide of indigenous peoples and took it as validation of his agronomic model. Under those waving fields of grain beneath a prairie sky are interred, as Dunbar-Ortiz notes, “the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of American Indians”. For Hitler in the 1930’s, the bread basket of the Ukraine beckoned, if once its Jews and Slavs were interred beneath its black earth.
It is now Capitalism (just gathering steam as an ideology at the moment of the ‘discovery’ of the New World), that is reasonably considered to be the proximate cause of what may prove to be the ultimate holocaust – the ecocide of the planet, the destruction of the systems that support human life on Earth. It is in this Holocaust in which Trump, like the vast majority of the world’s leaders, is complicit: try teaching that at high school. Perhaps in twelfth-grade Economics?