Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Key Concepts in Nazi Antisemitism: 2. Biological Racism

Author: Jonathan Harrison
George L. Mosse noted famously that Nazism was a scavenger ideology. This was especially true in its conceptions of nation and race. The Nazis borrowed a "Volkish" ideology that had been evolving since the work of Fichte a century previously (pioneered in his Reden an die deutsche Nation of 1807-1808), and synthesised it with eugenics and Aryanism. Contrary to Goldhagen, therefore, Nazi ideology was not uniquely German in most of its elements: it took lessons from the French (Gobineau), British (Galton), Americans (the first compulsory sterilizations, which Hitler deliberately copied) and, ironically, from Jews (Lombroso, the Italian theorist of innate criminality, was an assimilated Jew).

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In industrial societies, racism is a crucial instrument of power because it separates status from class. It is counter-revolutionary because a person's social status and identity is not totally determined by their exploited class position but can instead be elevated by membership of the privileged racial group. Race thus provides a 'vertical integration of social honour', in which a proletarian has access to social honour that, in a pure class system, would be reserved for an aristocrat or bourgeois. The Nazis perfected this instrument by highlighting the myth of the Volksgemeinschaft, an ideal community in which no Aryan was exploited, alienated or excluded. A German was no longer defined merely as an academic, a pen-pusher, a petit-bourgeois or a labourer.

This contributed towards the Holocaust specifically in the sense that it was especially crucial in the recruitment of volunteers for SS duty in anti-Jewish actions. An SS officer who killed Jews was, in his self-image, simply preserving the Volksgemeinschaft. In this respect, contrary to the Browning-Goldhagen debate, there was no such thing as an 'Ordinary German' in the Order Police and Einsatzgruppen, as those men had been taught to see themselves as privileged, not ordinary, and this privilege exempted them from the moral norms associated with mass murder.

However, the key question raised by this blog is the degree to which the depiction of Jews in Nazi antisemitism was a product of these Volkish and racist influences.

My first answer to this question is that racism and antisemitism have often evolved in largely separate domains, and could not therefore be combined without creating contradictions that Nazism could not resolve. The clearest explanation of this separation was provided by Oliver C. Cox in his classic study, Caste, Class and Race. Writing in 1948 in an American context, Cox (p.90) put forward this schema:
The dominant group is intolerant of those whom it can define as anti-social, whilst it holds racial prejudice against those whom it can define as subsocial…Persecution and capitalist exploitation are the respective behaviour aspects of these two social attitudes...[The] dominant group or ruling class does not like the Jew at all, but it likes the Negro in his place. To put it in still another way, the condition of its liking the Jew is that he cease being a Jew and voluntarily become like the generality of society, while its condition of liking the Negro is that he cease trying to become like the generality of society and remain contentedly a Negro
The Nazis therefore created a logical problem when they adopted a racial hierarchy, because the historical status of Jews was meant to be, not underneath society (subsocial) but as a hostile alien outside it (anti-social). The status of 'subsocial' required a myth that the victim group was stupid, lazy and submissive, and reflected the fact that the mythical status was designed to reinforce and justify slavery. Its victim group was the colonial subject, usually defined by skin colour. Jews, by contrast, were subjected to a baggage of myths that portrayed them as conspiratorial, wealth-hoarding, controlling, secretive and demonic. Jews were thus, in most racial systems, more of an 'outcaste' group (Orlando Patterson, 1982: 50) than a racial one, and the Nazis had to over-ride this contradiction in order to treat Jews as a race.

Paradoxically, therefore, I conclude that Nazi racial antisemitism relied extensively on 'extra-racist' elements. It had to scavenge outside the normal terrain of racist discourse in order to generate a new racial category in which only Jews could fit. An example of this scavenging is presented in the next blog in this series.

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