Racial Theories

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated



Racial theories are attempts at defining social collectivities (classes, political groups, nations, conglomerates of nations) by linking them, through hereditary principles, to their origins. Even if these hereditary principles may be interpreted in "spiritual" terms, the concept of race does imply at least an implicit reference to biological notions. From biologism racial theories borrow their essentialist overtones, although some of them may stress the importance of environmental factors in the genesis and evolution of races. Because they do not necessarily impose hierarchies on these biologically defined collectivities, racial theories are not by definition racist. Conversely, many forms of racism are based on racial stereotypes rather than on racial theories. Finally, the use of the word race is not an indispensable condition for racial theories. All the elements implied in the definition above can also be present alternatively in concepts such as folk (Volk), ethnicity, or even culture.


In their modern form, racial theories originate in the nineteenth century, as the result of a conflation of the positivist urge to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the study of humankind, and the Romantic urge to stress the differences between (groups of) peoples against the universalistic claims of Enlightenment. As such, racial theories offered a modern legitimization to mostly premodern forms of inequality and difference. Particularly the newly created science of physical anthropology provided the criteria and the tools "objectively" to subdivide humans into biological groups (cephalic indexes, skin pigmentation, and eye colors). More often than not, these physical measurements turned out to confirm preexisting linguistic, religious, or cultural differences. Nonetheless, by the last decades of the nineteenth century, nearly all human, behavioral, and biomedical sciences adopted race as a primary explanatory concept.

If a "scientific" approach to the concept of race was first of all used to legitimize social differences (Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau; 1816–1882) or differences between political tendencies (Augustin Thierry; 1795–1856), after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) it was predominantly used to define entire nations and to harden the boundaries between them. From that same period onward, linguistic, cultural, and/or religious markers of "European" identity became racialized, which also made older stereotypes of "non-European" peoples into scientific "facts." The racialization of the primarily linguistic concept of the Aryans (those peoples speaking Indo-European languages and who were now deemed to descend from some Caucasian people) was crucial to the rise of modern, biological anti-Semitism. In the description of the colonized peoples, too, inherently universalistic discourses of the European civilizing mission gave way to racial categorizations.

Next to a tool for the demarcation of nations, race also became one for their homogenization. The idea that each nation had to rest on a racial core automatically entailed the idea that this core had to remain strong and pure and therefore had to be defended against "degeneration." An important line of thought within the late-nineteenth-century science of eugenics stressed that the mixing of races was at least one of the causes of degeneration and therefore had to be prevented.


By the first decades of the twentieth century, race as a scientific concept seemed to be at its retreat. One-time defenders of the concept now came to the conclusion that the search for biological origins was more complex than expected and did very little to explain social or political differences. Rather than to the total demise of the concept, however, this evolution contributed to its transformation into a cultural or even metaphysical category—as in the case of Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927)—and to a greater allowance for environmental determinants. Even those who explicitly rejected the concept of race—such as the American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), the British biologist Julian Huxley (1887–1975), or the German Catholic eugenicist Hermann Muckermann (1877–1962)—could not free themselves from its essentialist substrate. If the concept of race within western European academic circles was no longer generally accepted as a primary key to the understanding of humankind, the idea that nations or ethnic groups rested at least partly on a biological substratum remained widely accepted within scientific and intellectual discourses. The late-nineteenth-century subdivision of the European population into three subspecies of the Caucasian race (Nordic or Teutonic, Celtic-Alpine, and Mediterranean—with the Dinaric race most often considered to be a variant of the last) remained a part of the European self-understanding until well into the twentieth century. Within every nation, specific variations on this general theme existed, whereas in some of them, alternative racial theories were elaborated—for instance in the "non-Aryan" countries Hungary and Finland, where racial affinities with either the Turks or the Mongols were construed. Ethnic categories continued to play an important part in sciences such as "national psychology," folklore studies, art history, and literary history.

Only in countries where the autonomous evolution of science was impeded by authoritarian and nationalistic state policies, the concept of race was reinstalled as a key-concept in the human sciences. More overtly than nineteenth-century racial science, the official racial ideologies of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes were aimed at legitimizing national unity and superiority. In Nazi Germany, Hans Günther's Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (1922; Ethnology of the German people) provided the basic text underpinning the thesis that the Germans represented the purest breed of the superior Nordic race. An even more striking example of the political malleability of racial science is offered by Fascist Italy. If racial theories had played a marginal role in that country during the 1920s, the national-socialist idea of Nordic superiority was adopted after 1933, until Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) switched, in 1939, to the theory that the Italians predominantly belonged to the Mediterranean stock. The alliance with Nazi Germany compelled him, however, to return to a spiritual "Nordicism," whose main theorist was Julius Evola (1898–1974).


In spite of their scientific claims, racial theories during the twentieth century served nearly inevitably as legitimizations of political causes. Most of all, they underpinned the general idea that the boundaries of the state had to coincide with those of an ethnically defined nation. This premise had important consequences both on international European politics and on the internal politics of many European states.

At the level of international politics, racial theories strengthened the claims for a geopolitical reorganization of Europe on an ethnic basis, as a necessary antidote against the Great Power imperialism that had led to the First World War. The principle of national autodetermination, which lay at the basis of the Paris Peace Treaties (1919–1920) implied that ethnolinguistic criteria were recurred to in order to redraw the map of Europe. This same concept—with an often implicit racial foundation—could however also be used as a justification for irredentist claims endangering the tenuous equilibrium of those same Paris Treaties. Although many of these irredentist claims remained primarily founded on historical and linguistic claims, they were now strengthened and, to some degree, altered by racial theories. The reference to biological origins and "ethnographic" affinities made it possible to stretch a nation's ambitions to territories to which it did not have clear linguistic or historical connections. This was, for example, the case with the Greater Serb imperialism (whose ethnic legitimization was provided first and foremost by the geographer Jovan Cvijic), as well as with the claims Bulgarian nationalists laid on Macedonia (whereas the Greek claims on that same territory were based on religious and historical arguments). The best illustration of this evolution is, however, provided by the history of German annexationist ideas. Nineteenth-century pan-Germanism had primarily been a Romantic movement aspiring to close political ties between linguistically kindred nations. After the First World War, on the contrary, a large-scale scientific quest was being set up in Germany to legitimize a revision of the Treaty of Versailles by laying bare archaeological, toponymical, prehistorical, ethnological, and anthropological evidence of the Germanic elements across the boundaries of Germany. From the late 1920s this evolved into a very broad project of Ostforschung and Westforschung, studying the "ethnic history" of large parts of eastern and western Europe. Although this was certainly not the explicit intention of all scientists involved, these projects evidently helped to legitimize Nazi annexationism during the Second World War.

At the level of internal politics, the urge to create ethnically homogeneous nation-states could result in very different measures. The role of racial theories in the elaboration of stringent nationality and immigration laws was certainly important, though rarely explicit. The eugenic measures that were taken in many northern European countries (inspired by similar measures taken in the United States) from the late 1920s onward were not necessarily inspired by racial ideas. In the Swedish case, though, racial motives did play a role (it was because the so-called Tattare were allegedly a degenerate race of Swedish-Gypsy miscegenates that they were subjected to eugenic measures). It was, however, in Germany above all that eugenics was considered, already since the Weimar years, from the viewpoint of "racial hygiene." The Nuremberg Law of September 1935, prohibiting the intermarriage between Aryans and Jews, was but one part of a much broader program of purification of the nation that also entailed the compulsory sterilization (1933) and medical killing of all those that were deemed to be unfit for the German race. The collaboration of the medical professions to this program was overwhelming.

As such, eugenics policies could turn into a defense of ethnic cleansing, although this word is generally used to refer to the systematic removal of an entire people—and of all its traces—from a concrete territory. That this could be considered, in the wake of the Paris Treaties, as a nearly legitimate procedure of nation-building, was again due to the racial and essentialist logic behind it, even if it was most often legitimized by linguistic or historical arguments. In a racialist scheme, the assimilation of minority groups appears as an impossibility. Not surprisingly, it was the Swiss anthropologist Georges Montandon (1879–1944) who, in 1915, proposed massive resettlements of populations as the solution to the "nationality problem." Montandon would later become one of the driving forces behind the anti-Semite politics of the Vichy regime.

The same racial logic stands necessarily behind genocide, the ultimate form—and often the logical outcome—of ethnic cleansing. Thus, the mass murder of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 found its ultimate rationale in the racially based pan-Turanic myth of the latter, just as the judeocide of the Second World War can only be explained by the Nazis' dream of an Aryanized Europe.

In the war policy of the German National Socialists, the consequences of racial thought both on international and on internal politics were carried to their extremes. Nazi imperialism cannot be fully explained with reference to irredentist motives or to Machiavellian great power politics but was the logical outcome of National Socialism's racist and social Darwinist premises and its intent to restructure the map of Europe along ethnic lines. The occupation policies that were followed in the conquered territories highly differed according to the racial qualities that were attributed to their populations (colonization and enslavement of the Slavonic, military occupation of Romanized Celtic, direct Nazification of Germanic territories), whereas the whole of Europe had to be systematically freed from all non-Aryan elements (Jews and Gypsies), and the racial qualities of the Germanic peoples themselves had to be enhanced through active eugenics and population politics. The internal differences that existed between different Nazi-ideologues concerning the question of race seemed to alter little to the broad consensus on this simple scheme.


The war effort of the Allies was only marginally motivated by antiracist concerns, and in the post-war trials a clear difference was made between the scientists directly involved in genocide and those racial theorists who had provided its scientific backgrounds. Most of the latter continued their professional careers in postwar Germany but diverted their focus from the study of races to either that of cultures (in the human sciences) or that of human genetics and population policies (in the biomedical sciences). After the discovery of the death camps, indeed, the previously existing critiques of the concept of race were bolstered, causing the concept to lose its credibility in the European scientific discourse. Nonetheless, the essentialist notions implied in the concept of race seem to have been largely transmitted to more "idealist" notions of culture and ethnicity. These gained a central position in the cultural relativism defended by anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), but also in the interpretative framework of postwar prehistorians, archaeologists, and ethnologists.

That the logic of racial thinking did not immediately disappear after the end of the war became clear from the fact that during the 1940s ethnic cleansing remained a respectable way of dealing with political problems, both in central Europe and in the Soviet Union. The beginning of the Cold War, however, would highly diminish the need for national self-assertion and therefore also the political functionality of racial theories. Not surprisingly, the end of the Cold War witnessed a return of racial theories both at the scientific and the political level. Western Europe, with its relatively stable nation-states and its highly regulated class-relations, seems to be reticent to lift the taboo on explicit racial theories, as can be concluded from the hostile reception of American research on the relationship between race, intelligence, and behavior (most notably Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, 1994). Nonetheless, the more restrictive immigration politics in most Western European countries during the 1990s have been accompanied by growing research into the relationship between ethnicity and unaccepted behavior. In the Balkans, the resurgence of ethnic nationalism entailed a resurfacing of older ethno-psychological theories such as those by Jovan Cvijic and Dinko Tomasic explaining the differences between the Yugoslav peoples as differences between Dinaric "highlanders" and non-Dinaric "low-landers." Even if these differences are explained in geographical and historical rather than in biological terms (whereas for the demarcation between the Greeks and the Albanians cephalic indexes are being recurred to), in their essentialism they owe much to the history of racial thought.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Eugenics; Fascism; Nazism.


Beyen, Marnix, and Geert Vanpaemel, eds. Rasechte wetenschap?: Het rasbegrip tussen wetenschap en politiek vóór de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Leuven, Belgium, 1998.

Bošković, Aleksandar. "Distinguishing "Self" and "Other": Anthropology and National Identity in Former Yugoslavia." Anthropology Today 21, no. 2 (April 2005): 8–13.

Broberg, Gunnar, and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds. Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Politics in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. East Lansing, Mich., 1996. 2nd ed., 2005.

Carmichael, Cathie. Ethnic Cleansing in the Balkans: Nationalism and the Destruction of Tradition. London and New York, 2002.

Colander, David, Robert E. Prasch, and Falguni A. Sheth, eds. Race, Liberalism, and Economics. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2004.

Eickhoff, Martijn, Barbara Henkes, and Frank van Vree, eds. Volkseigen: Ras, cultuur, en wetenschap in Nederland, 1900–1950. Zutphen, Netherlands, 2000.

Ernst, Waltraud, and Bernard Harris, eds. Race, Science, and Medicine, 1700–1960. London and New York, 1999.

Gillette, Aaron. Racial Theories in Fascist Italy. London, 2002.

Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore, Md., and London, 1996.

Kohn, Marek. The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science. London, 1995.

Malik, Kenan. The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society. London, 1996.

Mosse, George. Towards the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. London, 1978.

Naimark, Norman M. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2001.

Stone, Dan. "Race in British Eugenics." European History Quarterly 31 (2001): 397–425.

Turda, Marius. "Fantasies of Degeneration: Some Remarks on Racial Antisemitism in Interwar Rumania." [email protected]: Europäische Revue, 2003. Available at http://www.iwm.at.

——. The Idea of National Superiority in Central Europe, 1880–1918. Lewiston, N.Y, 2005.

——. "Small States, Big Ambitions: Debating Nation and Irredentism in the Balkans, 1890–1920." In Statehood before and beyond Ethnicity, edited by Linas Eriksonas and Leos Müller, 275–301. New York, 2006.

Weindling, Paul. Health, Race, and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Marnix Beyen