Of spirits and avatars

Both shared annotations are to a greater or lesser extent concerned with the essence of being American. In the present one, a chapter from Amerikas Schicksalsstunde, Ross toils to explain the American character, while in the latter, a chapter from Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’ (American race American space), his sights are set on a future American race shaped by the country’s environment.

The conceptual vagueness of Ross’s writings is nowhere more obvious than in his notion of an Indian spirit, or a spirit of the steppe, as a shaping force of America’s population. A phenomenon that is supposed to emanate from the country’s territory, the term misleadingly suggests that Native Americans—“Menschen der Weite” Ross calls them—only lived nomadic lives on the Great Plains. The Plains, however, only and effectively became a “Weite” when its hunters-gatherers were transformed into nomads by a 16th-century European import: the horse. Their quick adoption of horse-riding led Ross nevertheless to suggest they had an innate capability, ‘proof’ of a spirit of the steppe before the arrival of Europeans.

Apart from the supernatural twaddle about the effects of “atmosphere, air currents, and electric tensions”, there is more Ross failed to account for. For instance, how pioneers and later immigrants—farmers, not nomads—could have absorbed the spirit of indigenous populations whose members and culture they and their posterity largely dislodged or annihilated. Ross also suggested that this spirit was released by these settlers’ clear-cutting the forests and breaking up the soil; but that begs the question of how a spirit of the steppe got there in the first place. And while one would assume, furthermore, that the waves of turn-of-the-20th-century immigrants had no opportunity to be exposed to it, as they were mostly employed in America’s urban, industrial and commercial centers, Ross generously asserts that this spirit even affects those living in metropolitan skyscrapers. Finally, as Ross actually admits himself, the Plains, unsuitable for agriculture, were initially skipped for settlement. It was in the late 19th century, with an increased demand and no other land to cultivate, and only after cattle ranchers had exhausted and left the territory, that this region was settled thanks to sturdier technology. Nevertheless, it was apparently hard to escape this nomadic spirit. Even after Native Americans, and their horses, disappeared from the Plains, it persisted, pace Ross, in the widespread use of its new avatars, automobiles and mobile homes... 

Between the referenced chapters in Amerikas Schicksalsstunde and Die ‘Westliche Hemisphäre’, written seven years apart, the emphasis shifted. In the former the spirit of the steppe was introduced to ‘explain’ the essentially American trait of boundlessness, mobility, and its liberation from the narrow worldview of the (European) Puritans. Here, Ross used the word character, simply because he couldn’t rely on the term race: earlier in this book he had identified only one truly American race, African Americans’ brown race (which he would subsequently callously dismiss)1. In the latter book, however, race had become a matter of America’s geography, with no demonstrable spiritual component. This may be related to Ross’s perception of a shift in the party line, as elsewhere he mentioned that a greater significance is now being attached to Raum, i.e. the effects of the environment, whereas before Rasse was considered predominant.2 Hence, the ‘postponement’ of the American race: not only is there no American race yet, but when it will emerge it will have been shaped into a unified whole by America’s geography. And, in a surprising twist, this will function in its turn as an Einschmelzungsfaktor.3 Despite all Ross’s debunking of the term, there will be a melting pot after all.

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. Die Ahnengeister des amerikanischen Bodens. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 277-280.

Topic: Race
Case: American journeys


1 Ross. 1942 [1935]: chapters 25 and 60, respectively. See Library.

2 “Das Raumproblem werde nun heute von der Partei ganz anders angesehen als anfangs, wo man gemeint hätte, Rasse sei alles, Einfluß der Umgebung sei nichts.” Sächsisches Staatsarchiv-Staatsarchiv Leipzig. Bestand 21083 F.A. Brockhaus. Leipzig, Nr 790. Brockhaus minutes. Colin Ross und Frau in Leipzig (vom 1.-4.10.42). 2.10.[19]42; 2.

3 Ross. 1942 [1935]; 42.

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