February 04, 2013

Are Southern death camps plausible?

I wrote about Harry Turtledove's SF series in which the South won the Civil War in Indians in Turtledove's Timeline-191. Now I've reached the end of the series.

In the last few books, the US/Confederate history closely parallels our actual history with Germany. The USA defeats the CSA in the "Great War" and imposes harsh conditions. The Depression ensues a decade later. Seething with resentment, the South rises under Jake Featherston, a Hitler-like Army sergeant. It launches a war against the USA while sending its Negroes to Auschwitz-like death camps.

It's far-fetched that this timeline would parallel our timeline so closely. Especially some 80 years after the divergence began--when you'd expect things to diverge more, not less.

But I didn't find the details--the demagogic leader and the death camps--far-fetched. I believe something like this could've happened in reality if we hadn't been vigilant.

War of words

A couple of Facebook friends disagreed with my assessment, leading to a debate. It began with this tweet of mine:

Reading Turtledove's "Southern Victory" series. The South wins the Civil War and eventually consigns blacks to death camps. Plausible?No. He's trying too hard to replicate Nazism and WW2.Did you actually read it through to the final book? I thought you didn't like the series that much.

I agree that the Nazi parallels are a little heavy-handed, but we're talking about two things. 1) The literary merits of the Nazi parallelism, and 2) the real-world possibility of the South's emulating the Nazi example. I'd say the second point is all too plausible.Turtledove was an Ottoman historian. He does about as well as I'd do writing Ottoman history. For starters, political parties were banned by the CSA constitution. There were never any free elections. It was always an elite oligarchy, closer to a military/plantation owner dictatorship.Well, I don't remember the first few books in this very long series. Turtledove could've changed the CSA constitution somewhere along the line in his alternate history.

If the South was an an elite oligarchy, I'd say that would make the death-camp scenario more likely, not less. I still haven't heard anything that makes the scenario implausible.Why would a South that, as outlined in the novels, was completely and utterly dependent on black labor start killing off that supply? Even the Nazis put groups other than Jews in work camps (where they were often worked to death). I don't see anything in Southern history that would indicate a predilection to anything like the Holocaust. A victorious CSA would almost certainly be a brutal, repressive dictatorship (and in many ways, it was from the end of Reconstruction until the 1960's) but there's a huge difference between that and a full-on genocidal massacre.Because cheap labor is readily available from the CSA's Mexican states? Because the USA and CSA developed automated farming machinery faster in this timeline? (Tanks in the Great War--i.e., World War I--being an example of the accelerated technology.)

I haven't been paying enough attention to say the books treated the labor issue well, but they definitely did address it. Turtledove didn't just ignore the issue.

Featherston's role is key

And the genocidal massacre happened because a Hitler-like demagogue made it happen. Not because it's a natural outgrowth of the South's racist history.

So you're saying a Hitler-like demagogue couldn't make Southerners turn against blacks because, what, Southerners are more decent and rational than the Germans under Hitler were? Sorry, I'm not buying that the Germans were uniquely "bad" and the same thing couldn't happen here.I just don't see any historical evidence to support the notion. For example, there were PLENTY of slave revolts, often very bloody. No one suggested exterminating all slaves or shipping them back to Africa. Germany had a LONG history of bloody anti-Semitism. Jews had been massacred for centuries in Europe and the Near East (by the Crusaders) for centuries. The Holocaust didn't just appear out of thin air, with no history behind it. The South would be highly highly dependent on slaves, especially in a scenario where they are desperately trying to industrialize in order to maintain the war effort. There's no plausible reason for a culture that lacked the traditional German deference to authority to suddenly decide to go along with eliminating their labor base, Mexican conscripts or no Mexican conscripts.In the books, the CSA ended slavery sometime after the Civil War. By the 1940s, the system was an apartheid-like version of Jim Crow repression, but not slavery.

The South had a long history of brutal repression and bloody slave revolts. True, these things didn't go back to the Middle Ages, but they did go back a couple of centuries. I think that's long enough to embed a genocidal mania in the South's culture.

Besides, Euro-Americans had a history of demonizing brown-skinned people (Indians) as pagans and devil-worshippers going back to 1492. That's the same idea as the German demonization of Jews or the English demonization of the Irish. So there's no great difference between the two European-based cultures.

"No one suggested exterminating all slaves or shipping them back to Africa." Yes, because they were productive "property" at the time. And because a monstrous demagogue like Hitler or Jake Featherston hadn't come along. But once Hitler gave us a historical template, the idea became conceivable everywhere.

The South didn't have the "traditional German deference to authority"? But Al characterized the Southern culture as "an elite oligarchy, closer to a military/plantation owner dictatorship." That sounds like exactly the kind of culture that would defer to a small ruling class and finally to a single demagogue.

The Trail of Tears started in the American South. The genocidal actions continued in the American West. If these subcultures didn't have a traditional deference to authority, then this deference wasn't necessary to trigger a racial purge. In short, it happened here once so it could happen here again.

Hitler got the Holocaust idea from past genocides, including that of the American Indian. The Southerners in Turtledove's books would've had these examples to inspire them. Heck, some of them undoubtedly participated in the near-extermination of Indians. So putting blacks in rez-like concentration camps doesn't seem far-fetched to me at all.

Genocide there but not here?

So you are arguing that Germany had unique traits that made genocide possible there but not here? Even though we committed similar acts of genocide that gave Hitler his inspiration for the Holocaust? Sorry, I'm still not buying it.

Did Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda happen to have the same mix of cultural traits as Nazi Germany? Something the American South lacked even though it launched the Trail of Tears? That seems implausible if not impossible. So again, no sale.No, Germany wasn't unique clearly, but there were cultural conditions that contributed to it. To pretend otherwise is to ignore history. The Trail of Tears was ethnic cleaning, not extermination. Hitler did not, in fact, get the idea for the Holocaust from Native American history; he got the idea for treating Eastern Europe (driving people off their land).

Also, in the books the South ends slavery after another war with the US in 1881. And it's done in a very unsatisfying magic wand kind of way, mostly off camera.
Hitler referred to America and its Indians in Mein Kampf. At least one historian quoted him writing, "Neither Spain nor Britain should be models of the German expansion, but the Nordics of North America, who had ruthlessly pushed aside an inferior race to win for themselves soil and territory for the future." Stannard offers this quote:Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination--by starvation and uneven combat--of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.

--P. 202, Adolph Hitler by John Toland
I'm not sure how much of an inspiration the American model was, but it was more than zero, since Hitler was aware of it and wrote about it.

So the South had enough of a genocidal culture to send Indians marching off through the snow to their probable deaths? But not to send them to concentration camps where only the guards knew what was really happening? The difference seems minor and inconsequential to me.

As you know, Americans attacked and killed Indians many times. It was a fundamental part of their worldview to eliminate the brown-skinned menace one way or another. It didn't require any deference to authority; Americans from all walks of life shared this goal.

Sending blacks to concentration camps similar to reservations is consistent with that. And again, only the South's leaders knew for sure what was happening. Which is consistent with the German model. The books do not require a genocidal rage on the part of every Southerner to work. They require only the Nazi-like command structure that Jake Featherston provided.

Besides, this is speculative fiction, so the case doesn't have to be airtight to be plausible. I think it's close enough to airtight that it hasn't bothered me. If we can give Star Trek and Doctor Who a pass, we can give this a pass too.


Like many critics, I've compared the American Holocaust to the Nazi Holocaust many times. I've also said this genocidal urge is still present in the American mindset. Invading Muslim countries, killing foreigners with drones, ignoring hunger and disease around the world, letting minorities suffer and die without government assistance, hoarding guns to protect us from "them"...all part of the same impulse.

Heck, we sent Japanese Americans to concentration camps in the same time frame as Featherston's purge. It's absolutely part of our DNA to "reduce the population," as Featherston put it, of troublesome minorities. All it would take is a Hitler-style demagogue to convert Bosque Redondo, Manzanar, or Guantanamo Bay into another Auschwitz.

P.S. I don't think I read the book in which the South ended slavery. I'm not claiming the whole series is 100% plausible, since I haven't read every book. But I am claiming the Nazi-style ending is plausible--plausible enough to enjoy the ride.

For more on alternate histories, see Saving Columbus in Infinity Ring and The Pirate Prince Carlomagno.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that the South was already reaching several of the (pardon the pun) marks of the Weimar Republic during the war: Their currency was devalued to the point of being subject to funny-money jokes a century later, and, like the Nazis, they were doing anything to protect their "way of life", even if that meant sacrificing education and modern technology (in this case, automation) to do so.