What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Categorising the Americans

I've given you Kurt G. Sell's views on American food and women, but what of the population as a whole? The well-travelled journalist acknowledges many differences between Americans from different areas and states, despite the homogenising effects of chain-stores and migrating army communities:

It is very difficult to start a conversation with people from the eastern states. Even when they discover that someone is from the same town, they maintain their reserve and keep the conversation to strictly impersonal topics such as the weather or baseball. Drivers whose cars have New York license plates will stare straight past each other, even when they meet on a country road thousands of miles from New York. In the same situation, drivers from the small but hugely self-confident state of Indiana, always willing to sing their home's praises, will throw their arms around each other. If an Illinois traveller on a bus sees a car from Illinois drive past, he will practically fall out of the bus with excitement and holler loudly, "Helloooo Illinois". Fall into conversation with a Midwesterner and he'll tell you outright where he's from, what his job is, what he has planned for the moment and so on, because he believes he owes you this information out of politeness. People from the southern states even go a step further by adding a philosophical undertone to their explanations, professing, without being asked, their views on religion, women, Negroes, on "sin" in general, and on a hearty bout of drinking. (pp.30-1)
,,Es ist sehr schwer, mit Leuten aus den Oststaaten in ein Gespräch zu kommen. Selbst wenn sie erfahren, daß man aus derselben Stadt kommt, so bleiben sie reserviert und unterhalten sich allenfalls über streng unpersönliche Dinge wie Wetter oder Baseball. Autofahrer, deren Wagen eine New Zork Lizenz hat, sehen glatt aneinander vorbei, auch wenn sie sich irgendwo, tausend Meilen von New Zork entfernt, auf der Landstraße treffen. Autofahrer aus dem kleinen, aber ungeheuer selbstbewußten und stets die Reklametrommel der Heimat schlagenden Staat Indiana fallen sich aus gleichen Anlaß um den Hals. Wenn ein Reisender aus Illinois im Bus einen Wagen aus Illinois vorbeifahren sieht, so fällt er vor Begeisterung fast aus dem Bus und juhuut ganz laut: ,,Helloooo Illinois". Unterhält man sich mit einem Mittelwestler, so erzählt er Ihnen ohne Umschweife, woher er kommt, welchen Beruf er hat, was er augenblicklich vorhabe usw., weil er glaubt, er sei deise Auskünfte schuldig. Leute aus den Südstaaten gehen noch einen Schritt weiter: Sie bringen philosophierenden Unterton in ihre Ausführungen und bekennen unaufgefordert, was sie über Religion, Frauen, Neger, über ,,Sünde" im allgemeinen und über eine ausgiebige Zecherei denken."

Can you imagine this guy "youhooing" from a bus?

He also gives a brief history of immigration to North America, to explain the lack of upper-class and other social phenomena. I'm going to attempt to give an even briefer version in my own words, without necessarily agreeing or dismissing any of the content of it. Analysing the accuracy of Sell's views would take a lifetime that I can't spare.

Two groups arrived in the 17th century: rich sons of English aristocrats seeking their fortune by setting up plantations, and the "real emigrants", the pilgrims of the Mayflower, who were fleeing the horror of religious persecution in England. Have you spotted the source of all evil yet? You will.

The native population refused to work for the English plantation owners, leading to the establishment of "white slavery" in America, "following the famous English model" of punishing contracts and a scrip system for the workers but a life of luxury for the owners. Once the horror stories had reached home and white labour became hard to find, black slaves were imported from Africa via the West Indies:
"Black ivory" was the name for the cargo which the cultured Englishmen had brought to them in the most terrible conditions in the holds of ships. [...] Runaway slaves were pursued with bloodhounds, and when the North finally attempted to introduce more humane conditions in 1861, it was the cause of (or at least the excuse for) a civil war which lasted until 1865 and ended with the defeat of the English South.
The plantation owners had to set their slaves free but the Negroes, who had been somebody's property for generations, were at a loss in this new situation in which nobody advised or supported them, and so began the sad and also dangerous chapter of the USA's Negro problem. (p.14)

,, ,,Schwarzes Elfenbein hieß diese Fracht, die die englischen Kulturträger in den Laderäumen der Schiffe unter den furchtbarsten Verhältnissen heranschaffen ließen. [...] Flüchtige Sklaven wurden mit Bluthunden gehetzt, und als der Norden endlich 1861 etwas menschlichere Zustände einführen wollte, da kam es darüber (wenigstens was das der äußere Anlaß) zum Bürgerkrieg, der bis 1865 dauerte und mit der Niederlage des englischen Südens endete. Die Pflanzer mußten ihre Sklaven freigeben, aber die Neger, die Generationen hindurch Leibeigene gewesen waren, wußten mit dieser neuen Lage, in der sie niemand beriet oder unterstützte, nichts anzufangen, und so begann das traurige, ja gefährliche Kapitel der Negerproblems in den USA."

As if to balance out the empathy shown at the beginning of that extract, here's how the book describes the distribution of later immigrants:

The flow of new blood always came from the east - in other words, from Europe - and the pressure of the continually-gathering masses on the East Coast caused the country's borders to be pushed further and further west until they reached the Pacific Ocean. The incapable and the scum stayed in the great cities of the East, particularly in New York; the others, especially the Germans and Scandinavians, pushed on into the Midwest and North-West and built there new homes for themselves. (pp.17-8)
"Der Zustrom neuen Bluts kam immer vom Osten ß das heißt von Europa - und durch den Druck der Massen, die sich an der Ostküste immer wieder ansammelten, wurden die Landesgrenzen immer weiter nach Westen vorgeschoben, bis man endlich am Stillen Oyean angekommen war. Die Unfähigen und der Abschaum blieben in der großen Städten des Ostens, besonders in New Zork; die anderen, insbesondere die Deutschen und die Skandinavier, drangen vor zum Mittelwesten, zum Nordwesten und schufen sich dort einen neuen Hausstand."

It's impossible to say whether this is Sell's own opinion or something added at someone else's insistence. I was certainly surprised to read the word Abschaum (which I've translated as 'scum'), which I feel doesn't really fit with the tone of most of his writing here.

One reason I find books like this fascinating is because they can reveal such strange combinations of opinions which simply don't square with the simplified categories we try to put squash historical ideas and personalities into. Nazi Germany clearly wasn't a three-way battle between "real" Nazis, brave anti-fascists and an apathetic mainstream, in common with all societies, there were endless constellations of opinions on thousands of different issues. You had people like Sell here, who could empathise with the plight of black slaves, but still believe in a hierarchy of races (much more dealing with this theme will follow soon), just as you have people in modern Britain who are against racism but don't mind if items important to members of other cultures are banned. How will they be classified when kids are learning about "Computer Age England", or whatever the course will be called?

So, would I describe Sell as a "Nazi" writer? To borrow a term from science blogging, I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that.

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