America, America, God shed His grace on thee! Most Americans embrace the notion that they live in a nation that has a special covenant with God. We are the chosen nation: the greatest economy, the most powerful military, and, most important, the greatest force of good in the world. In Der Mythos Amerika, Manfred Henningsen, long-time observer of America and a professor at the University of Hawaii, looks at the historical roots of American exceptionalism and at the same time examines the uncomfortable truths about the source of American power. For the history of America has been written in blood, and the twin original sins of genocide and slavery have never been fully processed in the collective consciousness of the nation.
Henningsen starts off with a premise that will ring familiar to any observer of the American political scene:
Nach einer mehr als zweihundertjährigen Geschichte versichern amerikanische Politiker noch immer, dass sie in der besten aller historischen Gesellschaften leben. Die formelhaften Superlative des Selbstlobs werden mit der gleichen Begeisterung von den republikanischen und demokratischen Kandidaten geäußert."
(After more than two hundred years of history American politicians reassure us still to this day that we live in the best of all historical societies. The routine superlatives of self-congratulation are used with the same enthusiasm by both Republican and Democratic candidates.)
But the Myth of America is a grand illusion that persists even after national calamities such as the Vietnam War the social strife of the 1960s. This persistence, Henningsen asserts, is based on an inability to confront the historical truth. Henningsen uses the Freudian term Verdrängung ("psychological repression:) throughout the book to describe the phenomenon. This collective Verdrängung can only be overcome through insight:
Der Abschied vom Mythos muss mit der Einsicht beginnen, dass er es legitimierte, Millionen von Indianern und Afrikanern nicht als gleichwertige Menschen zu behandeln.
(Overcoming the myth must start with the understanding that it has legitimized the treatment of Indians and Africans as inferior peoples.)
The central chapters of the book look at the histories of, and the historical research into, the genocide and expulsion of the Native American tribal people and the slavery of Africans on American soil. With respect to the expulsion of Indians from their land, Hennigsen notes correctly that this grand historical injustice barely registers in our historical consciousness:
Nicht einmal das Phänomen der Landnahme, das für annähernd dreihundert Jahre die nordamerikanische Geschichte bestimmt hat, wird im Sinne einer territorialen Enteignung diskutiert, da die Indianer ja keine europäischen Eigentumsvorstellungen hatten und deshalb selbstverständlich nicht enteignet werden konnten.
(Not even the phenomenon of settlement, which was a determining feature of North American history for nearly 300 years, is discussed in the sense of land appropriation. For the Indians did not have the European concept of private property and therefore strictly speaking their land could not be appropriated.)
Henningsen's chapters on slavery are particularly useful since he provides a critical survey on the histories of slavery written from the early 20th century up to Orlando Patteson's Slavery and Social Death (1985). Henningsen writes about how after the "abolition" of slavery a system of apartheid based on terror (lynchings) persisted through most of the 20th century.
In the most controversial chapter, Der ausgebliebene Genozid (The Genocide That Didn't Happen) Henningsen compares the fate of blacks in America to that of Jews in Germany. Blacks, he writes, were far worse off than German Jews before 1933:
Das Leben der Schwarzen in Amerika, vor allem im Süden der Apartheid, war jedoch grausamer in seiner Ausweglosigkeit, als es je für deutsche Juden im 19. und im 20. Jahrhundert vor 1933 gewesen ist.
(The life of blacks in America, especially in the apartheid South, was however far more terrible in terms of utter hopelessness than it ever was for German Jews in the 19th century and up to 1933.)
Yet Henningsen doesn't have a convincing answer for why American blacks did not suffer the same fate of total annihilation as the Jews. Also unconvincing is his explanation as to why a progressive labor movement never took hold in the US. Henningsen blames this on pervasive racism, but in fact the unionization drives of the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s (largely ignored by Henningsen).
Another weakness of Der Mythos Amerika is that, while Henningsen provides a sweeping perspective on 300 years of American history, he ends up with a detailed look at current day politics in Washington DC and the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. For Henningsen, the historic victory of Obama represents a Zäsur - a break from the past.
Die amerikanische Republik ist dabei, sich zu regenerieren. ... Das ungewöhnlich Neue am Obama-Phänomen ist, dass sich in einer Zeit, in der das Land in zwei Kriege verwickelt ist und eine unglaubliche Herausforderung des Finanz- und Wirtschaftsystems bewältigen muss, eine Mehrheit der amerikanischen Wähler entschieden hat, das Grundproblem der amerikanischen Politik, Gesellschaft und Geschichte, nämlich das Rassenproblem, politisch zu überwinden.
(The American republic is in the process of regenerating itself. What is extraordinary about the Obama phenomenon is that, in a time when the country is tied up in two wars and has to overcome a tremendous challenge to its economic and financial system, a majority of the American voters decided to overcome the basic problem of American politics, society and history - namely, the race problem. )
Henningsen must have finished Der Mythos Amerika in the euphoric aftermath of the 2008 election. Today we know from the backlash against the election - as evidenced by the rise of the Taa Party and right-wing extremism - that the race problem is far from "overcome".
Recently, the New York Times published a comprehensive piece on how the Texas Board of Education was rewriting the grade school textbooks to teach children about how America is a Christian nation, blessed with a special relationship with God. And so the Myth of America will live on.
Update: Read my interview with Manfred Henningsen.