Race and Racism: Europe
Race and Racism: Europe
Of the ideas that have appeared in Europe over the centuries, race remains one of the most politically charged and difficult to define. Almost all scholars agree that race is a social construction, signifying no actual or important human difference. Yet, no one would argue that racism, or the process of viewing human groups as defined by inherited differences and acting in such as way as to reinforce and discriminate on the basis of these differences, is a quite tangible phenomenon. To best understand how the imagined and the real—the idea and the practice—come together, a historical view of the concept of race is instructive. The story of race and racism in Europe is at one time a study of the very origins of the idea itself and an example of the need to understand the application of racism in different contexts and across different time periods. Part of racism's malleability is rooted in the fact that race and racism have always emerged tethered to other important concepts—such as nation, class, and gender—that tended to reflect local tensions and prejudices. Yet, race, wherever it emerged, added biological weight to other forms of identity. Race was permanent, indelible, and inheritable. Race told of one's past, present, and future.
Linguists argue that the word race entered Europe in the twelfth century through the Arabic term for head or chief, râs. By the sixteenth century, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English each had a similar sounding locution that connoted some kind of difference within species or breeds. Even though the arrival of the term seemed to coincide with European contact with wider areas of the world, recent scholarship has tended to dismiss the idea that the contact between Europeans and others prior to the 1400s produced any semblance of a racial concept. Instead, race is seen as emerging alongside the idea of the nation as a way of establishing cultural and social boundaries and political authority in medieval Europe. Ironically, racial thought appeared in Europe not when difference was so visible but rather when it disappeared.
This disappearance occurred most clearly in medieval Spain with the mass conversion of Jews (and others) into Spanish Christian society. Beginning in the 1300s, this conversion was the by-product of a burgeoning national consolidation of political authority in the Iberian Peninsula. The creation of a centralized bureaucracy, the sense of a cohesive territory that had been "reconquered" from eighth-century Arab invaders, and the attempt to forge religious and cultural homogeneity signaled Spain's arrival as one of the first nation-states. Yet, the conversion of religious minorities to Catholicism placed increasing pressure on Spanish society to assimilate these "new" populations—the largest group, the Jewish conversos, alone surpassed 500,000 people—who were now free of legal proscriptions against "upward mobility." Converts had access to land and business ownership, to the university, and even employment within the powerful church—avenues that had long been closed to Jews. Attempts to regain some control over this group led to the passage of the blood-purity statutes (estatutos de limpieza de sangre ), which barred those of "impure" blood from service in the church, from employment in public office, and from military service, especially in Spain's new colonies. The statutes presumed that converts were imbued with an inherent, immutable mark that rendered them all equally and unalterably different; conversion changed nothing.
Also, as legal statutes, the blood-purity conventions affected all of Spanish society. Thus, "old" Christians and converts alike were required to prove their lineage. Whether this system functioned as efficiently or monolithically as the statutes required has been a matter of continuing debate. But many scholars believe that the recourse of the Spanish state and church to blood was not merely a metaphor but reflected a new belief in intrinsic aspects of identity. Thus, the blood-purity laws have come to symbolize Europe's first foray into racial thinking. Yet, what scholars term "modern racism" depended on a number of other historical developments.
Making Race and Racism Modern
The Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, and the development of the modern nation-state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all played important roles in the unfolding of race and racism in Europe. The Enlightenment of the 1700s marked an intellectual shift defined primarily by an enthusiasm for organizing and understanding the world through secular reason. This shift coincided with a geopolitical expansion that made Europeans far more cognizant of human differences throughout the world. The Enlightenment impulse drove Europeans to categorize the diversity of life on Earth, especially in the arrangement of human difference. The first to use the term race to connote categories of people was François Bernier in 1684. For Bernier, race was entirely a physical distinction: people who looked different were clearly members of different races.
Others took up racial studies in an attempt to identify the exact number of races in the world. The most definitive efforts of the era were Carolus Linnaeus's 1735 four-part division of humanity ("White European, Red American, Dark Asiatic and Black Negro") and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's 1776 division into five races ("Caucasians [a term he introduced], Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays"). Others countered that there were some thirty to eighty races. How thinkers distinguished between races mattered less than what united each of their approaches. Each definition used physical features as the primary measure of human difference. This physical basis relied on a hierarchical notion of proper development that was rooted in the Enlightenment's exaltation of the classical world as the epitome of beauty and ideal physical form. Thus, the statuary of ancient Greece and Rome was seen to depict the apex of humanity. The result was that the "milky whiteness of marble and the facial features of the Apollos and Venuses" created a standard against which most other people would be measured, and found deficient (Fredrickson, p. 59).
These early formulators of the concept of race did not actively ascribe the other important trope of racism—the correlation of talent, success, and value—to these physical differences. The qualitative differences between races arose when enlightened theorists sought to explain the source of human differences and the varieties of societies that Europeans were encountering. Most Enlightenment thinkers saw distinct races developing over time as a result of environmental influences, such as climate and soil, which ultimately determined the nature and success of different races.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, was one of the first, in his Spirit of the Laws (1748), to present human history as composed of stages, introducing the idea that races of people had developed their own legal and political systems rooted in their climate and their temperament, or, as he called them, their race. Politics and race ran together; different races created the political systems only they were capable of creating. Other thinkers, like Immanuel Kant in his On the Different Races of Man (1775), aligned peoples' characters with their physical appearance. Now, behavior and appearance ran together; one could assess peoples' potential solely by looking at them. For the most part, however, Kant, like others at this time, used the term race loosely, without any real concern for scientific precision or exactness. Such systems provided a vocabulary for distinguishing between people based on (supposedly) natural differences that determined people's abilities and justified differing applications of rights and liberties. Yet, the rise of natural sciences and the modern nation-state gave racism its modern, more violent and dangerous character.
The French Revolution and the Nation
The ultimate lightning rod for racial hierarchies and the divining of relative worth came after 1789 and the rise of modern nationalism in Europe. After the French Revolution, many European countries became nations, defined particularly by the fact that citizenship would now be based on birth, residency within national territory, and allegiance to law or a constitution. Nationalism, in a sense, was a great equalizer, placing all those living within the national territory on an equal footing as Englishman, Frenchman, Spaniard, Italian, German, Pole, Dane, and so on. Social and economic class, it was believed, would not matter; all citizens would be equal, based on their rights as human beings. Yet, defining inclusion in the nation was also invariably a process of exclusion. Nationalists of the 1800s, even deliberately nonracist ones like Johann Gottfried von Herder, worked very hard to define not only who belonged but, by default, who did not. Behaviors, attitude, language, dress, and appearance all played roles in assessing who was of the nation and who was not. This kind of cultural nationalism, and the rise of Romanticism that sought to explore the passionate, irrational side of humanity—not just the rational side that the Enlightenment promoted—worked together to fashion the ethnic nation. A state defined by ethnicity saw itself as a spiritual entity, with citizenship tied to a soul that one was born with and to an uncontrollable, indelible personal drive to act, think, and feel in a particular way. Even more important, this belonging was natural, transmitted down through the ages, so that one was connected inimitably to one's forebears. In the mid-to late nineteenth century, the Rechtstaat (state defined by rights) transformed into the Volkstaat, more an imagined ethnic community than an actual historical or territorial entity.
One of the first and most important thinkers of the nineteenth century to elaborate this view of society was Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, who began publishing his L'essai sur l'inegalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of the human races) in 1853. Gobineau's history presented human development for the first time as a contest of races. His book was heavily researched in an attempt to draw together the most upto-date scholarship of the new realms of science, especially German archaeology and philology and French anthropology. He concluded that contemporary nations were the patrimony of a racial past defined by the conquest of weaker races by stronger ones. He posited three great races, the white, the black, and the yellow, that engaged in constant battle. For Gobineau, the victor and true driving force of human history was the white, or European, race. Yet, this victory came always at a price. Lesser races never disappeared. Instead, they mixed into the conquering races, leaving a weaker whole. The mixture, in fact, elevated lower races, in which he included the yellow and the black and their lingering influence among European peasantry and urban working classes, while the white race was degraded.
Gobineau's racial vision also demonstrates how dependent racial thought was on historical context. Gobineau saw racial strength in social stability, the absence of class and political conflict that dominated his era, and especially in his own national context of France. Not surprisingly, therefore, the racial future that Gobineau foresaw was quite bleak. The history of human existence was a story of racial decay: even the Aryan, the most dominant among Europe's white races, lost something by intermixing with the rest. Later European thinkers would brighten Gobineau's pessimistic vision for human history. Further intellectual and scientific development, including the rise of Darwinism, positivist science, and more extreme nationalist movements, would give rise to a more optimistic belief that this degeneration could be reversed.
The rise of Social Darwinism and European imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided the impetus for more proactive racial thought. Although Darwin's theory of evolution did not offer a racial understanding of human development, some of his interpreters immediately began explaining aspects of Gobineau's view of human history as a conflict between the races, with Darwin's notion of conflict as the undercurrent of species survival. These interpretations fueled the Social Darwinism that underscored social thought in late-nineteenth-century Europe. These thinkers explained not only differences in national strength but also the differing levels of social, economic, and political success among individuals within those nations. New positivist sciences, such as physical anthropology, psychology, and ethnology, which relied on measurement and testing rather than speculation, all injected into the idea of race a sense of heredity and transcendence. Racial sciences now supposed a biological link across generations that subsumed other forms of national identity into a physical standard that others could never adopt. Head shapes, cranial capacity, and indices of different measurements all emerged as the telltale stigmata of racial identity. This explosion of measurements allowed scientists to perceive what they thought was an expanding number of races within Europe.
Georges Vacher de Lapouge, in his study of European skulls in 1888, saw three European races and ordered their quality and value: European Man, Alpine Man, and Homo Contractus. He argued that none of these races directly correlated with a specific nation, but his descriptions of their behaviors and religious ideas were clearly meant to correspond to Germany, Southern Europe, and the population of European Jews. The naturalized German citizen Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote in 1899 that the German race struggled to maintain its purity because of the Darwinian form of natural selection that caused Germans to feel a revulsion toward intermixing with lesser races. Overall, this putative science of race uncoupled nationalism from its liberal roots, implying that those who lived within a national community did not necessarily belong. One could act, speak, or feel German or French but never be German or French.
In a sense, the expansion of parliamentary democracies, the emancipation of minority groups like Jews, and continued social unrest in Europe all helped bring politics and race together in the form of political parties and movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These movements made race—and combating an internal enemy—a matter of public concern and state intervention. Edouard Drumont, much like Gobineau before him, saw his France as decadent because of the intermixture of external groups and the absorption of internal threats, like French Jews, through emancipation. The Dreyfus affair in France summarized this newly minted racial notion of national identity. Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army and a Jew, was convicted of treason in 1894. That Dreyfus ultimately was acquitted in 1906 did not satisfy his opponents in France who had decided that, because he was Jewish, the fact of his French nationality did not matter. As Maurice Barrès wrote during the affair, he knew Dreyfus was "capable of treason … [simply] by knowing his race" (Mosse, p. 109–110).
The racist movements and political leagues that sprouted after the Dreyfus affair took hold throughout Europe. In Austria, Georg Ritter von Schönerer saw the Slavic races from the south and east as the greatest threat to recreating not merely a great Austrian nation but a greater ethnic German Empire. Wilhelm Marr, who coined the term "anti-Semitism," wrote in 1879 that the greatest threats to the newly unified German state were the corrupt natures of internal elements, like the Jews, or intermixing with neighboring "races" such as the eastern Slavs. He, like others, ominously warned of a final racial conflict that would decide the fate of nations. Different interpretations of Darwinism, or even the denial of Darwinian evolution, did not necessarily leave nations free of racial thought. Environmental, or neo-Lamarckian (after French naturalist Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lamarck) forms of racism saw race as slightly more mutable: race was not always a matter of visible differences, but of behaviors, practices, and ideas that were acquired in one lifetime and then passed on.
In newly unified Italy, northern Italians in Lombardy saw the threat of southern peoples, the Sicilians or Neapolitans, as racially enervating. They were thought to be different because of their hot-blooded, less rational characters—elements believed to emanate from their hotter climate and their proximity to Africa. Similar ideas existed in Spain toward those from the south, in particular Andalusia. In northern Spain, notions of racial purity became important adjuncts of the Basque nationalist movement that sprang up in the late nineteenth century. The presence of foreign guest workers, or maketos, from other parts of Spain, was perceived as a threat to Basque purity. Sabino Arana, an early founder of Basque nationalism, proposed miscegenation laws in 1901 to prohibit the marriage of Basques to Spaniards.
The rise of European imperialism further coarsened racial thought. Contact with and subjugation of different peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific seemed to verify both the Enlightenment notion of human development as taking place in stages, and the Social Darwinist view that national success was predicated on conflict and conquest. This inequality of development came to justify any mistreatment of non-European peoples, especially in the "scramble" for Africa that placed almost the entire continent under European dominion by 1900.
Imperialism helped solidify a view of the world as a hierarchy of races with Europeans at the zenith and all others arrayed below. One ugly symbol of this worldview was the "human zoo" that appeared throughout fin de siècle Europe in international fairs and other public spectacles. This kind of menagerie, replete with dioramic portrayals of humans living in their "typical" habitat, produced wide-eyed amazement among Europeans of the late nineteenth century and established racial hierarchy not just as an elite, scientific view of history but also as a popular one. By the 1880s and 1890s, race existed as a concrete idea recognizable to any European. Race became an essential element of national strength—and required defense and protection.
The practical application of these racial ideas followed in the early twentieth century. The racial hierarchies so easily defended in imperialist language were also easily applied to European populations as well: if Europeans so easily conquered others, what made a European so dominant? How does society perpetuate this strength? What might threaten it? The eugenic policies developed in part by Francis Galton beginning in 1883 that defended sterilization, imprisonment, and marriage proscriptions, for example, relied on a basic biologistic assumption that the social or national body could be weakened by the presence of debilitating agents. The "virus" in the eugenic model was certain kinds of people, and here race theories developed alongside other notions of difference, like class and gender, to locate the nation's racial enemies. "Degenerative" forces like the poor, alcoholics, criminals, the handicapped, and prostitutes all were viewed as suffering from an internal weakness bred through the generations from a racial atavism. Research over the last few decades has demonstrated that eugenic policies took many forms in early-twentieth-century Europe, from the pro-natalist policies of France that encouraged population growth to the sterilization policies of Germany to the marriage restrictions and immigration quotas of England. Driving all of these policies was the same basic view: in the struggle for survival, the state had to engage in proactive social "medicine" to destroy or minimize "atavistic" or degenerative agents.
The Nazis, the Holocaust, and Others
Read in this context, the Nazis' efforts to persecute and then to exterminate European Jewry and other supposedly threatening populations did not represent a radical departure from the ideas and practices that had long been evident in European history. What made the Nazis unique was the barbaric scale and geographical reach of their policies. Perhaps Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann said it best when they argued that the Nazis' uniqueness rested in their desire to create a racial state in which all facets of state policy, and the organization of society, were enacted with the promotion of racial purity in mind.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 codified German citizenship as the product of German blood, as defined by German anthropologists, biologists, and doctors. They also outlawed sexual intercourse between "pure" Germans and German Jews, and the employment of women under forty-five by Jews. In the Nazi mind and model, as in the eugenic one, procreation was the locus of racial protection. These laws affected German and foreigner alike. In fact, the list of racial threats expanded with the German Third Reich: Pole, Czech, and Slav all became racial threats as Germany entered Poland, Bohemia, southeastern Europe, and Russia. Suspect populations also lived among people who otherwise saw themselves as German. Political deviants, in particular, were seen as threats to the race and many ultimately followed paths to the concentration camp and gas chamber along with the Nazis' Jewish victims. Socialists, communists, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses all came to represent biological threats to the pure Aryan, and their removal from society was justified along racial lines.
Yet, perhaps most importantly, the Nazis proved that race and racism were not merely products of the irrational, intemperate mind, but also dependent on a mind-set defined by respect for law and a rigidly organized view of the world. The horror of the Nazi regime arises from the fact that while the goals of German racial policies led to the Final Solution—extermination and mechanized killing in the death camps—their policies continued to be expressed in the seemingly rational language of problem-solving. In his essay "Deutschland und die Deutschen," the German writer Thomas Mann described the Nazi mind-set as "highly technological Romanticism," which encapsulates a sense of racial thought throughout Europe, a product of both passionate hatred and cold bureaucracy. Racism, in this reading, was the product of some of Europe's greatest triumphs—the Enlightenment and the reverence for science and reason—and its darkest moments—the thirst for conquest, subjugation, and murder.
This view has allowed scholars to explore racial thought in areas where it was not previously believed to have existed. Some examples include the forced migration of populations in the Soviet Union, motivated by ethnic or racial concerns, and previously viewed as anathema to socialist policy. Spanish and Italian fascists have attracted attention for supposedly eugenic practices to weed out political opponents defined not just by intellectual differences, but by a genetic predisposition to certain political attitudes. The general reliance on biological metaphors in twentieth-century Europe has also widened the scope of racial studies, placing it within a larger nexus of social categories that include class and gender. For example, the focus on women's bodies as the template for racial production has expanded scholarly notions of what makes official policies racist. In an area not normally associated with racial thought, the Spanish Fascist policy of the forced adoption of children born to the wives of political opponents during the Spanish Civil War shared the same impetus as eugenic policies elsewhere and prove that race and racism were attractive ideas in a number of times and places.
Race and Racism Today
Since World War II, debates about race in Europe have remained rooted in the same tensions that drove European racism of the past. The incorporation of foreign-born immigrants emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the economic expansion that followed World War II and the decolonization of former European imperial holdings. Attacks on immigrant workers in most European countries have proved that the old conflict between liberal notions of the nation as one of rights of all citizens and ethnic notions of the nation as a community of similar-looking, similar-acting, and similar-sounding people still exists.
Yet, racism in Europe today also reflects some of the same tensions that define it elsewhere. Racism festers when the economic future is cloudy or desperate, when more people seem to be vying for fewer social services, and when the state seems to struggle to meet its obligations. In fact, the harshest attacks against immigrants have taken place where social protections and guarantees are strongest. Race riots in Brixton and Nottinghill Gate in England in the 1970s and 1980s, or the attacks on Turkish workers in Rostock, Germany, in the 1990s and, most recently, on West African immigrants in El Ejido, Spain, all indicate that racism relies on a sense of threatened stability. Immigrant peoples are perceived as drains on the system; those who "don't belong" are more than an economic threat and are seen as enemies who weaken national strength from the inside. Hence, fights over cultural assimilation in France involving the wearing of headscarves in secular French public schools and the granting of citizenship to multigenerational families of Turkish guest workers in Germany maintain the racial component of the "outsider" as inherently different and dangerous. Yet, the real cause of concern is no longer the notion of physical differences signifying biological weakness in the national stock; the racial conflict remains a struggle over national identity and the basic definition of citizenship. In the words of Enoch Powell, a conservative member of Parliament in England who became infamous for racist diatribes against foreign guest workers in England in the 1960s and 1970s, "Racism is the basis of nationality."
In many ways, the particular historical experience of racial thought, especially as embodied in the Holocaust, has given an added weight and sense of foreboding to events that unfold today in Europe. Incidences of anti-Semitism and the rise of ultranationalist political parties that base national membership on an ethnic sense of nationalism, like Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front Party in France, Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, or the Northern League of Italy, all have energized much public concern and debate. Yet, the most important lesson of European history is that race and racism are rooted in that continent's best traditions such as the Enlightenment, science, and social welfare, and its application in the most murderous and barbaric of ways both inside and outside the European continent.
See also Anti-Semitism ; Discrimination ; Enlightenment ; Human Rights: Overview ; Other, The, European Views of ; Race and Racism: Asia ; Race and Racism: Overview .
The opening stanza of Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" (1899)
Take up the White Man's burden
Send for the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered fold and wild
Your new-caught, sullen peoples
Half-devil and half-child
encapsulates the idea of proper inheritance and European supremacy over other races that drove the racist imagination of the late nineteenth century.
Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso, 1991.
Bernasconi, Robert, and Tommy L. Lott, eds. The Idea of Race. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.
Burleigh, Michael, and Wolfgang Wippermann. The Racial State: Germany, 1933–1945. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Chamberlain, Houston Stewart. Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Fertig, 1968.
Count, Earl W., ed. This Is Race: An Anthology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man. New York: Shuman, 1950.
Dikötter, Frank. "Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics." American Historical Review 103, no. 2 (April 1998): 467–478.
Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Gobineau, Arthur. The Inequality of Human Races. New York: Fertig, 1999.
Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996.
Mosse, George. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. New York: Fertig, 1985.
Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
——. The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1982.
Weitz, Eric D. "Racial Politics Without the Concept of Race: Reevaluating Soviet Ethnic and National Purges." Slavic Review 61, no. 1 (spring 2002): 1–29.
Yerushalmi, Yosef. Assimilation and Racial Anti-Semitism: The Iberian and the German Models. New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1982. Lecture no. 26.
"Race and Racism: Europe." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/race-and-racism-europe
"Race and Racism: Europe." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/race-and-racism-europe
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.