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Racism is an ideology that holds the human species is composed of discrete subpopulations or "races" whose distinctive traits are attributable to common ancestry, and that so-called races are characterized by different and unequal physical and mental endowments; racism can also refer to related exclusionary and discriminatory practices, and their effects. While the term racism dates to the anti-Nazi struggles of the 1930s, racist ideology and practice emerged earlier in the context of European colonialism and slavery. While race may appear to be an undeniable characteristic of individual persons, scholars have demonstrated that racial categories themselves are cultural products rather than accurate reflections of biology. Racism finds multiple expressions, from individual talk and thought to political mobilization to government intervention. Because it views biology and culture as inextricably linked, racist ideology invokes an idealized nation and makes appeals to the state. Finally, as a theory of history, a prescription for relations between races, and an agenda for the future, racism as ideology and practice must be understood in the context of political and economic competition. The history of racism in Europe since 1914 clearly demonstrates that: (1) racial classification is a contested and variable process, (2) racist thought and action takes many forms, (3) racism and nationalism are closely linked and that the most forceful racist movements rely on state power, and (4) racism is a means and byproduct of domination and conflict.


Race was a term used quite loosely in the early twentieth century. The term could refer to the major divisions (black, brown, red, yellow, white) of the species identified by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in the late eighteenth century, to regional subpopulations, or even to nationalities, linguistic families, coreligionists, or economic classes. Various physical features and even psychological dispositions, assumed to be ancient and unchanging, were identified as racial traits. While some maintained that pure races still existed, most scholars described contemporary populations as composed of a mixture of racial elements. Europeans, for example, were commonly said to represent a mixture of long-headed, fair-haired Nordics; round-headed Alpines; and long-headed, brunette Mediterraneans.

Racist hierarchies generally accompanied racial classification. In an age in which Europeans dominated the globe, science promised to reveal the laws of nature, and political and economic might were viewed as evidence of evolutionary fitness, the physical and mental superiority of whites over nonwhites, and of rich over poor, was widely accepted as indisputable fact. While there was broad agreement that culture and heredity were linked, opinion differed as to the nature of the connection. Those who saw environment shaping human potential argued that education could exercise a beneficial effect on the less fortunate. For those who maintained that biology was destiny, the intrinsic superiority of whites justified colonialism and the appropriation by force of others' labor, resources, and territories. The constraints imposed by nature meant that nonwhites should not experience the same opportunities for education and self-governance enjoyed by whites. Advocates of Nordic supremacy likewise attributed the noblest elements of European civilization to ancient warriors and claimed special privileges for their descendants. A similar line of argument held that within European society workers and minorities were destined to serve the upper classes, who ruled by virtue of superior blood.

This line of reasoning found scientific expression in the eugenics movement. The goal of eugenics, a term coined by Francis Galton in 1883, was the improvement of the human species through selective breeding. Galton claimed that mental ability was a fixed, measurable entity, and that heredity shaped behavior in a simple and direct fashion. The key to improving the English population therefore lay in promoting beneficial traits by encouraging childbirth among the more able and in suppressing deleterious traits by preventing childbirth among the less able. According to Galton, Christian charity and government assistance for the poor, handicapped, and mentally ill were misguided because they stifled the competition that defined evolutionary success.

Eugenics quickly gained institutional recognition and, in the United States and Germany especially, political support. The rediscovery in 1900 of Gregor Mendel's research on genetics appeared to validate Galton's claims, as did August Weismann's theory of an immutable "germ plasm" of hereditary material. The first International Eugenics Conference was held in 1912, and for the next thirty years eugenicists figured prominently in genetic research and intelligence testing, and they proposed social engineering schemes, including sterilization of the "unfit." While eugenicists ranged across the political spectrum, they believed the scientific management of human populations would result in progress. For its advocates, eugenics offered a hard but scientific perspective into intense competition among countries and the social turmoil associated with industrialism and urbanization. European eugenicists took white superiority for granted, but their focus lay in improving national stock. The English were especially concerned with correcting the perceived defects of the working class. Prominent German scientists sought to identify and promote "superior" traits through the practice of "racial hygiene," the German variant of eugenics established by Alfred Ploetz in the early twentieth century.


The Weimar years (1918–1933) were characterized by social turmoil, political violence, and economic depression. Vocal anti-Semites blamed the German defeat in World War I on Jews, and there were calls for a renewed German nation under the firm command of a strong leader. Scientists increasingly sought biological causes for social phenomenon. Publications sang the praises of ancient Nordics and their German descendants. The nationalist publisher J. F. Lehmann brought out a series of very popular books promoting racial theories of history. Hans Gunther's Racial Studies of the German People (1923) claimed mixing was bad and that the Nordic race was pure and superior to others. Human Heredity and Racial Hygiene (1923), written by leading scientists Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, argued for the creation of an improved German nation through selective breeding. Advocates of racial hygiene, drawing inspiration from the political success of eugenicists in the United States, proposed limiting childbirth among the "unfit."

Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, promised to restore German honor through racial purification. For Hitler, race explained the past, established a plan of action for the present, and promised a glorious destiny. According to Hitler, Aryans, as brave warriors and creators of true culture, were superior to other races. While he had read the works of Gunther, Fischer, and others, Hitler eschewed their scientific terminology in favor of talk of "blood." He argued that Aryan blood had been polluted by intermarriage with inferiors; only with racial purification could Aryans attain their true destiny. As evil incarnate, Jews schemed to destroy Aryans through intermarriage, communism, and finance capitalism. The role of the state, declared Hitler, was to secure Aryan supremacy by purging the German nation of its bad blood and by destroying enemies, especially the implacable Jews, within Germany and beyond its borders.

With the seizure of military and political power in 1933, the Nazis commanded the resources and prestige of the scientific and medical establishment. Vocal anti-Semites and advocates of Nordic supremacy received promotions, while those who doubted the superiority or the existence of the Aryan race or who saw Jews as merely different were forced out or compelled to adopt Nazi policy. Anthropologists, geneticists, psychiatrists, and physicians celebrated Nordic superiority, dismissed non-Aryan colleagues, established guidelines for the evaluation of "worthy" and "less valuable" races, trained SS doctors, participated in genetic courts, issued certificates of racial status, aided forced sterilization programs, lent racial expertise to resettlement plans for the occupied east, and helped to plan and execute mass murder. Represented as rigorously scientific, the Nazi racial project was in fact characterized by flawed assumptions, suspect methods, flimsy evidence, and political expediency.

In their radical effort to reshape society in accordance with racist theory, the Nazis sought to take control of sexuality, reproduction, and life itself. The Germanic or Aryan elements of the population were identified and promoted through loans and other subsidies for young couples, honors for mothers of many children, certificates to marry, and other measures. Abortion, homosexuality, and sexual relations or marriage with a Jew were defined as race treason. At school and in ubiquitous youth organizations, children and young adults learned that the ideal man was vigorous and pitiless, the ideal woman a faithful wife and fecund mother. The elite SS prided itself on extensive background checks guaranteeing racial purity, and observed elaborate rituals for marriage and childbirth.

The Nazis immediately set out to purge what they regarded as impurities within the German population. The biracial children of African French occupation troops and German mothers, much maligned as "Rhineland bastards," were tracked down and sterilized. Institutionalized mentally ill and handicapped persons were subjected to forced sterilization and harsh conditions. From 1933 to 1939 another three hundred thousand men and women were forcibly sterilized on the grounds that they carried "hereditary diseases" such as "feeblemindedness," schizophrenia, blindness, physical deformities, and alcoholism. The Nazis also imprisoned, terrorized, and sometimes sterilized those they denigrated as "asocial." This vaguely defined category included women who changed partners regularly, vagrants, criminals, communists, unionists, prostitutes, and anyone who failed to demonstrate adherence to Nazi ideology. "Gypsies" (Sinti and Roma) were hounded into special camps and kept under observation. Jews, identified as the racial enemy of the German people, were subjected to systematic discrimination and dispossession. Laws in 1933 and 1935 barred Jews (and their spouses) from government jobs, professions, and other occupations; restricted their access to education; forbade marriage and sexual relations with non-Jews; and reduced Jews to second-class citizens. Increasing violence and discrimination, especially after 1938, stripped Jews of their possessions and compelled many to emigrate.

With the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazi racist project became increasingly brutal and systematic. Mobile death squads of the SS rampaged, murdering communists, intellectuals, political opponents, and whole Jewish communities. Nazi scientists sorted the conquered by racial type. Children judged to have Aryan blood were taken from their families and shipped to special SS residential centers within Germany. Slavs were forced to work in Poland, and millions were sent to Germany as slave labor. Within months 1.5 million Jews from Germany, Poland, and Austria were herded into ghettos in occupied Poland. Under cover of war, the Nazis also began a "euthanasia" program known as T4, killing some seventy thousand terminally ill and "incurably feebleminded" individuals from 1940 until the program was terminated the following year amid popular protest. Following the advancing army into the Soviet Union in 1941, SS units again murdered political opponents and Jews; within the first six months of the campaign the SS alone had slaughtered some seven hundred thousand. For Hitler, control of the Soviet Union would secure the space and resources required for lasting Aryan supremacy. As racial inferiors, Slavic peoples would serve the master race; as race enemies, Jews would be forced out or eliminated. In 1942 the Nazis began to implement the Final Solution, drawing on the personnel responsible for and techniques from the T4 program. Jews from the occupied areas were transported to five massive death camps, where they were murdered in gas chambers or worked to death along side "Gypsies," Soviet prisoners of war, and "asocials." The death toll from the death and work camps was without precedent, and included 5 million to 6 million Jews, half of the 5.5 million Soviet prisoners of war, and most of the Sinti and Roma populations.


The virulent racism of the 1920s and 1930s did not go unchallenged. In a series of books published in the early 1930s the British biologist Lancelot Hogben criticized the class bias and simplistic biological determinism of eugenics. His studies demonstrated the complexity of heredity, the reciprocal effect of environment and genes, and the complexity of behaviors such as intelligence. At the same time many anthropologists in Britain and the United States were abandoning the construction of racial typologies based on the measurements of the head and other body parts; developing the methods of ethnography, or long-term residential research, they instead accounted for cultural diversity in terms of social and environmental factors.

But it was the Nazi eugenic project and the specter of a bellicose Germany that galvanized the antiracist critique. In Britain, Julian Huxley and Alfred Haddon's We Europeans (1935) exposed the fallacy of pure races, pointed out the arbitrary divisions of racial classifications, dismissed the idea of a Jewish race as a conflation of religion and biology, and rebutted the claims of Nordic or Aryan supremacy. In the United States, Franz Boas, a German-born Jew and leading figure in anthropology, organized students and colleagues in the battle against racism. In The Mind of Primitive Man (1911; expanded and updated in 1938), he showed how supposedly stable features such as head form changed, called for the analytic distinction between race, culture, and language, and argued for the primacy of environment in the development of behavior and mental capacities. He delighted in describing the long history of migration and intermingling of populations within Europe, and stressed the creativity born of such heterogeneity. The Nazis ordered his book burned.

Racism lost scientific and political legitimacy with the revelation of Nazi atrocities. In the postwar period, European governments espoused egalitarian principles and eventually criminalized anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and other forms of racism. Ashley Montagu, a former student of Boas and also an immigrant to the United States, assembled an international cast of scientists and in 1950 and 1952 oversaw the composition of statements on race by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). According to these statements, while humanity may be classified into major groups, no pure races exist nor have they ever existed; populations constantly change because of migration and the mechanisms of genetic transmission; race mixing presents no biological danger, and there are no proven differences in intelligence between races; because heredity has no necessary connection to language, geographical area, or nationality, it is incorrect and misleading to describe such populations as races.

Drawing on the "new synthesis" of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection pioneered by biologists before the war, C. Loring Brace, Frank Livingstone, and others joined Montagu's attack on the race concept in the 1950s and 1960s. They argued that racial typologies poorly describe human diversity because classification hinges on one or a few traits and because traits such as skin color or blood types do not come in neat packages corresponding to traditional racial categories but are instead distributed along a cline or continuum. Rather than merely grouping populations on the basis of a few traits, students of human biology and natural history now sought to understand how and why genetic frequencies changed within and across populations. After initial resistance, most physical anthropologists turned away from the study of race and embraced population genetics. Social scientists also engaged in the postwar reevaluation of race. Studies traced the career of the race concept in the context of colonialism, slavery, and anti-Semitism, and demonstrated the presence and effects of racism in popular culture and institutions.


If racism in Europe was directed primarily at Jews, Slavs, and minority populations before and during World War II, immigrants became the principal targets later. The postwar rebuilding effort and subsequent economic boom required massive inputs of labor, and governments and business interests across Western Europe sought additional workers in (former) colonial possessions and the Mediterranean basin. While most governments imposed restrictions after 1973, the foreign-born population has continued to rise because of family unification, asylum seekers, unauthorized entry, and the transformation of former countries of emigration such as Italy, Spain, and Greece into immigrant destinations. Amid great diversity in legal status, occupational profile, and ethnic origins, many immigrants confront substandard, often segregated housing, limited opportunities for advancement, and negative stereotypes. Children of African and Asian ancestry in particular experience the legacy of old racial hierarchies in subtle and overt forms; they worry that their skin color disqualifies them from full participation in European society even as they struggle to articulate their experience in a political context in which racism does not officially exist.

Anti-immigrant political mobilization and violence have gathered momentum since the 1980s. Because espousing openly racist ideology in a public forum is considered immoral if not illegal in most European countries, anti-immigrant political entrepreneurs denounce racism, distance themselves from neo-Nazis and other violent extremists, and avoid the language of race. Instead, they claim that foreigners constitute an economic burden, provoke social discord, and threaten national culture with their non-European customs; uncaring elites more interested in money than their own citizens have, they say, betrayed national culture. While the first examples of this attack on immigrants appeared in Britain in debates that led to restrictions on Commonwealth immigration, the most able and influential anti-immigrant politician has been Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen describes immigrants as the ruin of France and has been repeatedly convicted of inciting racial hatred for his characterization of the Holocaust as a "detail" of World War II. He long served in the European Parliament and has garnered significant electoral support in his perennial bids for the French presidency. His Front National has served as a model for later populist-nationalist parties across the European Union. This ideology may be regarded as a new form of racism in that culture has replaced former racial terms. Like traditional racism, this view represents social groupings as unchanging entities, places peoples implicitly or explicitly in a hierarchy, condones and encourages popular expressions of intolerance, and calls for exclusionary policy. Such ideologies commonly gloss over class and other divisions to portray the nation simplistically as the enduring, homogeneous legacy of a people.

Several strands of racism and antiracism were evident in Europe in the final years of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. Under the euphemism "ethnic cleansing," Serbian forces committed mass murder and systematic rape against other nationalities in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. To the west, neo-Nazis continued to assault Jews, Roma, and people of non-European ancestry. Populist-nationalist parties enjoyed success at the polls in virtually every Western European state, and terrorist attacks by Muslim fundamentalists heightened anxiety about the integration of the Continent's large and growing Muslim population. At the same time immigrants and their descendants continued to contribute to a vibrant multicultural Europe, while scholars and organizations investigated racism in everyday culture, public discourse, and institutions, and the European Union and its member states monitored racism and upheld antidiscrimination laws.

See alsoEthnic Cleansing; Eugenics; Holocaust; Immigration and Internal Migration; Minority Rights; Nazism; Riots in France.


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Jeffrey E. Cole

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