A little matter of genocide: A new look at American history

by Rob Hunter

Was the killing and displacement of Native Americans by Europeans an act of genocide, and if so, is it meaningful or appropriate to compare it to other genocides in history, such as that perpetrated by the Nazis? 

These were among the questions Lilian Friedberg dared to ask during her Nov. 6 talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison titled “Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust.

Friedberg is a scholar, writer, and musician whose experiences and travels in the United States, Europe, and Africa, added to her Native American and German Jewish heritage, give her a unique perspective on what she termed “comparative genocide studies.” She delivered her talk as part of a series of events at the university commemorating Native American Heritage Month (November).

Friedberg delivered a gripping talk about the place of the genocide of Native Americans in American history. She argued that the killing and dislocation of Native Americans by European Americans constituted a genocide of moral weight similar to any other attempt in history to wipe out an entire people, and that “daring to compare” and recognizing the genocide of Native Americans is a necessary step in healing the painful divisions that separate Native Americans from the rest of American society.

Friedberg began by asserting that the treatment of Native Americans during the colonial and expansion periods in U.S. history constituted a genocide not simply in a moral sense, but in a legal one as well. Because Native Americans were at various times killed outright, forcibly removed from their homelands, made to endure appalling conditions on reservations, or subjected to cruel treatments, such as forced sterilization or having their children removed to foster homes, their treatment at the hands of Euro Americans is a genocide according to the definitions outlined in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a document not ratified by the United States until late in the last century.

Friedberg said that the genocide was a deliberate part of U.S. policy, citing the writings and orders of American presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom either broke treaty agreements with Native tribes or publicly expressed their desire to “exterminate … the Indians” in favor of what Roosevelt called the “mighty civilized races” of America. Friedberg presented evidence suggesting that over the course of U.S. history, perhaps over 10 million Native Americans were killed, uprooted, or forced to endure cruel treatment in this way.

According to Friedberg, the concept of genocide — the destruction of an entire racial, ethnic, or religious group — first entered the American consciousness with the awareness of the Nazi genocide of European Jews, Roma, and other peoples during World War II. Other than Germany itself, few other countries have grappled with the problem of the holocaust in their literature, cinema, and popular culture to the extent that the United States has. Friedberg objects to using the term “holocaust” to describe that event or others like it, such as Russia’s Stalin-era pogroms or the genocide of many Cambodian ethnic groups under the Khmer Rouge, because of its religious meaning as “punishment from or sacrifice to God.” She argued that it would be better to regard genocide as an international crime, saying, “genocide is not a domestic affair … and … [t]he terms of international law are complex enough without the introduction of God.”

Friedberg objected to the use of the term “‘capital-H’ holocaust,” arguing that it trivializes the moral significance of other acts of genocide, just as lightly using the term “holocaust” trivializes the deaths and suffering of concentration-camp victims under the Nazis.

For Friedberg, “comparing [different acts of genocide is] so daring” because the field of genocide studies is too often “the battle of the most murdered minority.” She pointed out that there are many American thinkers who “seek to privilege … the moral capital” of the holocaust and “insist on the singularity of the Nazi holocaust … anyone who dares to compare is [accused of] drawing immoral equivalencies or … [of engaging in] the most vile sort of anti-Semitism.” Friedberg rejected this approach, saying it amounted to asking, “‘Is our blood better than their blood?’”

Friedberg identified three approaches in looking at genocide: revisionism, exclusionism, and comparativism. Unlike revisionists, like holocaust deniers, or exclusivists, who believe, for instance, that the Nazi holocaust was a morally unique event unlike any other, comparativists like Friedberg believe it is possible and fruitful to study different acts of genocide in relation to one another. In this way, she said, it becomes possible to better learn the roots of hatred and how and why communities perpetrate the crime of genocide.

Because of America’s intense awareness of the holocaust, Friedberg argued, Americans are in fact more conscious of and more willing to discuss a non-American genocide than they are to approach what happened within U.S. borders: namely, the genocide of Native Americans.

This is observable in the deplorable socioeconomic status of most Native Americans in the United States today. Friedberg said it is also evident in the media: While anti-Semitic stereotypes or figures would be unthinkable in contemporary American television, movies, or literature, anti-Native American sentiments and prejudices abound.

Additionally, Friedberg argued, while it is considered acceptable to discuss Germany’s responsibility for the Nazi holocaust, to suggest that the United States was responsible for genocide in its treatment of Native Americans is “charged with anti-Americanism” in what she described as a “seditious reversal of identity politics.” Whereas holocaust denial is considered “an affront to Jews,” discussing Native Americans as victims is seen as “assaulting American ideals.”

Nevertheless, Friedberg said, it will be necessary for Americans to change their understanding of their history and to acknowledge the crimes against Native Americans. She closed by stating that by daring to compare, humanity will eventually be able to see all “genocide as collective suicide,” a threat to “the entire human family.” She announced her hope that her work would help Americans to “recognize the essential humanity of all human beings.”

Friedberg will earn a Ph.D. for her work from the University of Illinois-Chicago this spring.