The Holocaust Historiography Project


A Failed Look at Europe’s Impact on America’s Native Peoples

  • American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, by David E. Stannard. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Hardcover. 358 pages. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. $26. ISBN 0 19 507581 1.

Reviewed by Theodore J. O’Keefe

Most Americans today would, after a little reflection, admit that the white man’s discovery and conquest of the Americas were a disaster for the red man; doubtless those Americans who have lapsed from or opted out of traditional Christianity would view it as an unmitigated catastrophe for the Indians.

Many shameful deeds have been done to the Indians, and the eclipse of the indigenous cultures of the New World, from the 16th century to the present, has never lost its tragic penumbra for Americans of European origin. The eradication of the traditional Indian way of life, from the overthrow of Indian empires to the uprooting of tribes, has resulted in wounds to the white as well as to the Indian soul.

Of the demise of the impressive civilizations of Mexico and Peru at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors, no less pro-Western a writer than Oswald Spengler writes:

… this is the one example of a Culture ended by violent death. It was not starved, suppressed, thwarted, but murdered in the full glory of its unfolding, destroyed like a sunflower whose head is struck off by one passing. (The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, Trans. by C. Atkinson, New York: Knopf, 1986, p. 43)

Francis Parker Yockey, echoing his mentor, writes in his magnum opus:

The two grand empires of Mexico and Peru, with social forms, economico-political organization, transportation, communication, city life, all developed to the utmost limits for this particular [cultural] soul, made the invading Spaniards seem like mere naive barbarians. (Imperium, Noontide, 1969, p. 8.)

No “multiculturalist” could make a more poignant statement of the glories of the Incas or Aztecs. Not just a chauvinist of Western civilization, however, is entitled to wonder how equivalent they were to the European culture of the day, and to question whether using the attainments and comportment of Cortez’s and Pizarro’s Spaniards supplies any better measuring stick than that of the British and French troops who sacked and burned the Summer Palace of the Manchu emperors outside Peking in 1859.

For all the pathos that inheres in the outcome of the clash between divergent world-views and unequal technologies, however, we are forced to ask ourselves how different things could have been, given the questing, thrusting dynamic of Western civilization and the mortal isolation of the pre-Columbian “Americas.” And, acknowledging the prior sufficiency unto themselves of the Indian cultures as well as their unique contributions to the European invaders, is it any service to the American Indians, living and dead, to sentimentalize and distort their past by deforming our own judgment?

Broadside Against Christendom

American Holocaust, by David Stannard, attempts to perform just such a service to America’s original inhabitants. The book was published in 1992, the author informs us, “to coincide with the Columbian Quincentennial — the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide that nearly expunged the Western Hemisphere of its people.” (p. 247) While those words and the book’s main title pretty much express the drift of American Holocaust, Stannard’s purpose is rather more grandiose: to launch a mighty broadside against Christendom, the word white, Western, Christian culture used for itself at the time of Christopher Columbus’s discovery.

To call American Holocaust a polemic rather than a sound historical study would be to understate seriously Stannard’s animus against Christianity and the West, and his treacly view of Indian life and culture. The book’s three main parts, “Before Columbus,” “Pestilence and Genocide,” and “Sex, Race, and Holy War,” are towering in their ambition, but so skewed is their author’s vision that they end up so grossly misshapen as to be useless as either propaganda or history.

Before the advent of Columbus, Stannard’s Indians, as presented in the first section, lived an Edenic existence, from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego. On Indian cultural achievement, the author wants it both ways: where they are civilized, he has them by far the superiors of the Spanish conquistadors; where they are simple hunters and gatherers, they have chosen an ideal life, in perfect harmony with the abundance of nature.

While this reviewer is not competent to judge the literature on pre-Columbian population, it is evident that Stannard leans strongly toward those researchers who see even the highest currently accepted estimates of the number of pre-Columbian Indians as too low. (p. 268) Of the hypothetical 100-million-plus Indians of 1492 and their descendants, the author represents, again following the most extravagant estimates, that “… population loss among native societies routinely reached and exceeded 95 percent …” (p. 268)

Pestilence Equals Genocide

How does the author account for this gigantic “population loss"? Essentially, in two ways, although, in one of the staggering weaknesses of American Holocaust, Stannard is constantly conflating them into one: “Pestilence and Genocide.” While, as his section title indicates, Stannard is well aware of the annihilating effects of the diseases, such as smallpox, introduced (almost always unintentionally, as he concedes) by the Europeans, he constantly relapses into terminology that describes Indian victims of epidemics as “killed” (p. 85), “exterminated” (pp. 86, 107), subjected to “wholesale slaughter” (p. 87), “carnage” (p. 95) or “liquidation” (p. 121). For Stannard, pestilence is genocide.

And if it weren’t, Stannard has adduced for evidence of genocide a series of white murders, massacres, and wars of what he calls — relying on this or that isolated (and usually misleading) quotation from men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — extermination. Naturally, he omits any but the sparsest mention of Indian atrocities; more important, he fails to show anything approaching a deliberate state policy, anywhere in the Americas, of exterminating the Indians, with the arguable exception of a handful of tribes, over half a millennium of mostly hostile confrontation of quite different races and cultures. It’s as if he claimed that the US government was trying to exterminate the Vietnamese on the evidence of the My Lai massacre — and in fact he comes close to that further along in his text by deceitfully equating the Vietcong with the “people of Vietnam,” in his exegesis of a single quotation from General William Westmoreland in which the US commander likened the Communist guerrillas to termites. (p. 252)

Why did the white man carry out this (imaginary) genocide? Stannard gets at the answer to this question by borrowing another question from black novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which a 19th-century Southern black man is moved by the latest evidence of white murderousness to ask, “What are these people?” “What were those people,” echoes Stannard, “whose minds and souls so avidly fueled genocides against Muslims, Africans, Indians, Jews, Gypsies, and other religious, racial, and ethnic groups?”

Why, Christians, of course! And how better to sound that answer than to pluck the strings of that laureate liar, the fork-tongued Elie Wiesel, whose double-whopper about Jews and Germans in World War II-- `All the killers were Christian” --Stannard qualifies as “no better place to begin” his bilious section on “Sex, Race, and Holy War.”

Then follows an embarrassing (for the reputation of historian Stannard) survey of the development of the mind and soul of Christian Europe. The author has already introduced his readers to a 16th-century Europe sunk in squalor, disease, ignorance, and intolerance (p. 58). Now he attempts to show us why, by conjuring up a Christendom that never existed, governed entirely by wild-eyed, self-mortifying monkish ascetics who, when they aren’t off in the wilderness flailing themselves for their impurities of body and soul, are wildly exhorting the laity to Christianize or extirpate the infidel and heathen “other,” which Stannard argues to be a projection of the subconscious lusts of the benighted, sex-starved ancestors of modern whites.

Historical Travesty

Like a late-night Japanese television chef flourishing his Ginsu knives, Stannard brandishes a glittering array of current historiographical modes, then proceeds to slice, dice, chop, and deconstruct the evidence to support his crack-brained notions of a thousand years of European culture. Those of his readers who have never heard of Geoffrey Chaucer or the Benedictine Order or the Italian Renaissance may well buy his notion that the entire life and direction of the West was ruled by hair-shirted Torquemadas (not that he makes any effort at empathy even with his caricatures); those who have will likely sneer at American Holocaust.

Yet it is from the historical travesty of medieval and early modern Christendom he presents in “Sex, Race and Holy War” that Stannard derives the basic European impetus for his so-called genocide. From the anthropological fancies of such classical writers as Pliny and from imaginative medieval travel reports the author finds, following other modern historians, that the Europeans had distilled an archetypal “wild man,” who, according to Stannard, was the perfect meeting of the Christians' projected self-hatred and the American aborigines. His argument here is helped, at least for the ignorant and unwary, by his failure to mention any of the numerous Christian efforts on behalf of Indian welfare, with the sole important exception of Bishop Bartolom_ de Las Casas' leyenda negra ("black legend"), which he mines extensively for its atrocity reports.

While Stannard, in accord with the prevailing fashion, vaunts the comparative perspective (he’s hot to raise the American Indian “Holocaust” to the same mythic stature as the Jewish one), his lucubrations (at second-hand) over Columbus’s millenarian Libro de la prof_cias ("Book of Prophecies") and other writings might have borne some fruit, however shriveled. But he’s evidently never thought to compare the fate of aborigines elsewhere and at other times to that of the American Indians at the hands of their conquerors: the peoples of Siberia, the Ainu of Japan, relict tribes of India, and so forth. No, he’s too busy indicting Christendom for the Crusades, Spain for its eviction of the noble Moors and the poor Jews (not to mention the rich ones), and Anglo-Saxon and Iberian alike for his factitious Amerindian genocide.

Genocide Or … ?

Indeed, given that there are tens, more likely hundreds, of millions of North, South, and Central Americans who are recognizably Indian, what can Stannard mean by “genocide"?

This we find out on the very last pages of his “Epilogue,” where the author informs us that what he’s really been meaning all along is the deprivation of “continued cultural integrity” and the right “to exist as autonomous peoples.” And while the loss of those two desiderata can be wrenching, even terrible (as it often was for the Celtic and Germanic tribes of old Europe at the hands of Roman legionaries and Christian missionaries), it is not the same thing as the physical annihilation of a people (genocide). (This review is not the place to evaluate the usefulness of that neologism, which according to the definitions of its inventor, Raphael Lemkin, should include everything from complicity in the extinction of the Manx language to the submergence of the nascent Burgundian nation in medieval France and Germany to the dying off of the last Shaker. The definitive study of Lemkinism is James J. Martin’s The Man Who Invented Genocide, published by and available from the IHR.)

Stannard, who by the word “sex” in his “Sex, Race and Holy War” means to say that the Europeans killed off the Indian women and children, not that they slept with and begot them, isn’t having any of the “comparative perspective” hinted at above. Alternately sympathetic with the Jews and envious of their hypertrophied hoax, he'd rather pad the statistics of dead-and-gone “pure” Indians than take solace from the heartening (and perhaps, for European diehards, even threatening) resurgence of Indian numbers and consciousness across the Americas.

In the end, Professor Stannard, who once wrote an excellent debunking of “psychohistory” (Shrinking History, Oxford, 1980), has become his own “wild man,” fleeing rational historical inquiry and discourse to follow the ignis fatuus of “genocide” into the fever swamps of “Holocaust studies.” Since Stannard has dared to give conditional endorsement to the recognition by Arno Mayer, a Holocaust believer (but dissident), that more Jews died at Auschwitz from natural causes than from purposeful killing (p. 254), he risks an untimely end to his scholarly career, for, as Revisionist researchers could tell him, the rotting stumps and phosphorescent toadstools of the Exterminationist quagmire are infested by as nasty a species of swamp adders and alligators as populate any of the groves of academe. Few proud red men, and even fewer proud whites, will mourn the demise of American studies a la Stannard.

From The Journal of Historical Review, May/June 1993 (Vol. 13, No. 3), page 43.