Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Psychoanalysis

views updated


The word race is derived from the Italian razza (fifteenth century, "sort or species"); the concept of racism arose from the nineteenth-century development of anthropology and the life sciences, notably genetics. A naturalist, zoologizing scientific tendency led to the classification and hierarchical arrangement of human groups according to their specific history and their morphological, cultural, or psychological characteristics, which were deemed to be hereditary. Against this backdrop, an ideological application of the term race came to justify discrimination, segregation, exploitation, expulsions, and ultimately the twentieth century's industrialization of mass murder and extermination camps.

Pierre-André Taguieff (1998) has pointed out that "protoracist" social phenomena grounded in xenophobia and ethnocentrism antedated the coining of the word racism. He adduces three instances of such protoracism:

  1. The myth of "pure blood," in fourteenth-to-seventeenth-century Spain and Portugal, which underlay the statutes of 1449 (estatutos de limpieza de sangre ) barring all honors, privileges, public positions, or employment to converted "new Christians" and their descendants; such Moors or Jews (in practice, mainly Jews) were decreed to be "unclean," smirched (maculados ), and carriers of foul infections.
  2. The colonial slave system and the exploitation of "colored peoples"black and Indianin the West Indies and the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which nourished fears of contamination associated with the color of the "skin" and "blood."
  3. The French aristocratic doctrine of an antagonism between "two races": nobles with "clear and pure" blood and "commoners" whose blood was "vile and abject."

The "purity of the blood" and its corollary, the shame associated with contamination, which was feared to bring about a transmissible degradation or degeneration, gave rise to a phobia of interbreeding, of any mixing of races or misalliance with respect to line-age. The groundwork of racism was thus laid before any of the modern taxonomies of race appeared.

The distinction between humans and "subhumans" gives rise to feelings of fear, hatred, and rejection, to fantasies of dangerousness and absolute possession projected onto the "uncanny" stranger. The ideology of race purification is founded on such feelings. The associations of the defense mechanisms involved (purifying, purging, purifying, cleaning, disinfecting, and so on) reflect an underlying fantasy of absolute autonomy that embodies violent ideas and hostility toward structures of kinship.

The ideology of racism had its master thinkers. In France, Arthur de Gobineau, in The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55), distinguished three main races: the black, the yellow, and the white. He extolled "race consciousness" and, thanks to Richard Wagner among others, found a growing audience in Germany. Georges Vacher de Lapouge's L'Aryen, son rôle social (The Aryan and his role in society; 1889-90) subdivided the white race into the superior "dolichocephalic" Aryans and the inferior "brachycephalic" variety, which included Jews. Spurred on by the Dreyfus Case, Édouard Drumont, in his La France juive (Jewish France; 1886), held the Jews to account for the "devastating calamities" of socialism, internationalism, and nihilism. Richard Wagner's son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) was to bring grist to the mill of the Nazis, further exacerbated the rift between Germans and Jews by taxing the latter with the notorious blood libel: die Blutschande, literally "blood shame"a charge ideally designed to project onto the Jews a perverse fantasy of transgression of the prohibition against incest. And in 1895 Alfred Ploëtz brought in the expression "racial hygiene," echoed later in the German Rassenhygien. So many words bear witness to the eugenic obsession that underpins all xenophobic and racist thinking.

Anti-Semitism itself is a word that was coined in Germany by Wilhelm Marr, founder of the Antisemitic League, in a pamphlet on "the victory of Judaism over Germanism" (1879).

The bloody tradition of anti-Jewish sentiment comes all the way from the ancient world down to what Roberto Finzi (1997/1998) has called the "tragic epilogue of the Shoah." (Shoah is Hebrew for "catastrophe," and denotes the Nazi genocide of the Jews; the term genocide was for its part introduced by Raphaël Lemkin in 1944 in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. )

On the ever-fecund dunghill of anti-Jewish stereotypes bequeathed by the collective imaginings of medieval Christianity, which deemed "the Jew" a "deicide" and a perfidious contemner of the word of Christ the Savior, the Jews of Central Europe were subjected to senseless demonization and accused of the "ritual murder" of children during Passover. Forced to live in restricted areas under discriminatory laws, they were the frequent victims of boycotts and pogroms (a Russian word meaning destruction)explosive and bloody outbursts reflecting the envious and fearful animosity that they aroused. The culture of antisemitism, whose denunciations of the supposed "Jewish race" sometimes had a left-wing tinge to them (as witness, in France, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, and Alphonse Toussenelwho inspired Drumontor, in Germany, Werner Sombart), was buttressed by an "economic" dimension which threw suspicion on the Jews as putative promoters and developers of the capitalist system. This calumny reached its acme in 1920 with the legend of a worldwide Jewish-Masonic conspiracy founded on the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1894-1905), forged by the Czar's secret police.

National Socialism carried anti-Semitism to its apotheosis. As dictator of the Third Reich, Hitler reintroduced the medieval ghetto and, taking his cue from the massacre of the Armenians in 1915, planned the genocide of the Jews (the idea was broached by him as early as 1925, in Mein Kampf ), to whom he later added Gypsies and homosexuals. Germany, for Hitler, had to become judenfrei ("Jew-free") and judenrein ("cleansed of Jews"). This will to genocide was enshrined as a doctrine of state in the Nuremberg laws (1935), later imitated in Italy (1938) and in Vichy France's Jewish statutes of 1940-41. After World War II, new legal concepts became indispensable in order to conduct the Nuremberg Trials (1945-46), among them "crimes against humanity," "crimes against peace," and "war crimes."

Racism and genocide cannot help but oblige us to consider the epistemological underpinnings of an obsession with eugenics: genesis, gene, generation, genealogy, genus engendering eugenics, genocide.

From the Freudian perspective, the differences between human beings, between the sexes, and between generations, lying as they do at the heart of the hominizing process, lie in the development and sublimation of murderous, parricidal, and incestuous wishes, and hence too the structuring recognition of heredity, otherness and civilization.

Beginning in 1912, with Totem and Taboo and his formulation of the myth of the murder of the primal father, as well as with the watershed or pivotal work that underlay "On Narcissism" (1914c), Freud broadened his thinking from the field of the individual to that of humanity in a collective sense. He was especially interested, against the background of World War I, in the narcissistic stakes in play for the libido and for power in mass-psychological phenomena, as he was, too, in the relationship to death. These concerns were evident in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b), Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]). Meanwhile, he pursued his reflections on the function of the individual psyche, and almost simultaneously, he produced works raising questions about the enigma of the "Uncanny" (1919h) and about the repetition compulsion and the death instinct (Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920g]). The attention Freud paid to the "uncanny" stranger who is at the same time "secretly familiar," and who may in fact be understood as an "internal enemy," was in fact the core of his thinking about racism and anti-Semitism.

In Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38]), Freud stressed the part played by the Oedipus complex in Judaism, "a religion of the father," as in Christianity, "a religion of the son" (p. 88). He brought up the issue of circumcision, suggested that the claim of the Jews to be the chosen people was a cause of jealousy, and evoked the "narcissism of minor differences," which, by exaggerating the sense of belonging, constituted an obstacle to the effective sublimation of the instincts, to the formalizing role of the superego, to the greater sense of sanctity vouchsafed by monotheism and ethics.

Rudolph Loewenstein dedicated his Christians and Jews: A Psychoanalytical Study (1952) to Christians who sacrificed themselves for persecuted Jews. In his view Judeophobia was a form of demonophobia, and as such an incurable "hereditary psychosis" that had existed since antiquity. The "Nazi religion," which preached the supremacy of the Aryan race, exalting earth and blood, the primacy of force over right, and the revolt of the instincts against the universal value of the superego, was certainly anti-Jew, but it was also anti-Christian.

According to Imre Hermann (1945), anti-Semitism is a collective sickness that is endemic as well as epidemic in nature. In Hermann's theory of attachment, the "clinging instinct," coupled with the instinct for knowledge, was the foundation of the mother/infant dual unity. Basing himself on the "clinging instinct/dermic system" combination, which he saw as the beginning of social contact, he saw the unconscious roots of the Nazi thesis that equated non-Aryans, and especially Jews, to vermin, germs or vampires in a specific kind of cathexis of the "skin" of the social body. The pleasure obtained by masses of people clinging in regressive fashion to a gigantic nourishing mother would account, in Imre's view, for the fascination with a leader who promised the "miraculous" destruction of the people that invented monotheism.

Drawing on his biopsychic and prenatal theory of narcissism, Bela Grunberger (1997) has described specifically Christian anti-Semitism as a grandiose narcissistic aspiration to purity, as the rejection of an anality unintegrated into the self and its projection onto Judaism, which, being an authentic moral system underpinned by the oedipal paternal principle, has done away with the narcissistic maternal principle.

"Desolation," a major concept in Hannah Arendt's reflection on the origins of totalitarianism, may be said to correspond, on the level of political philosophy, to what Freud, in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d) and The Future of an Illusion (1927c), and other psychoanalysts after him, referred to as "Hilflosigheit, " meaning a state of helplessness (that of the human infant). The view that heredity informs totalitarian racism in general and the genocide of the Jews in particular implies a systematic attack on the links of kinship and marriage and tends towards the structural actualization of what Pierre Legendre (1989) has called a "slaughter-house theory of heritage."

The psychoanalytical reflections of Janine Altounian and Hélène Piralian on the Armenian "catastrophe" or those of Jacques Ascher on the "extermination of extermination" likewise testify to the gravity of the injuries sustained. The genocide carried out by the Nazis was the outcome of a "culture of extermination" (Gillibert and Wilgowicz). This pure culture of the death instinct, characterized by collective phenomena of adherence to a leader who has replaced the ideal ego, is constitutive of what Wilgowicz has described as a "historic mass vampirism" founded on infanticide and matricide/parenticide and on a disavowal of both birth and death, which destroys the narcissistic bases of identity in the survivors. As of 2005, three generations after the Shoah, the repercussions were still being felt.

Jacques Ascher and Perel Wilgowicz

See also: Austria; Chertok, Léon; Christians and Jews: A Psychoanalytical Study ; Fanon, Frantz; France; Germany; Hermann, Imre; Judaism and psychoanalysis; Langer, Marie Glass Hauser de; Moses and Monotheism ; Narcissism of minor differences; Politics and psychoanalysis.


Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Finzi, Roberto. (1998). Anti-semitism (Maud Jackson, Trans.). New York: Interlink. (Original work published 1997)

Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

. (1919h). The "uncanny." SE, 17: 217-256.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1939a [1934-38]). Moses and monotheism. SE, 23: 1-137.

Gillibert, Jean, and Wilgowicz, Perel (Eds.). (1993). L'Ange exterminateur (Proceedings of the Colloque de Cerisy). Brussels:Éditions Universitaires de Bruxelles.

Grunberger, Bela, and Desuant, Pierre. (1997). Narcissisme, christianisme, antisémitisme. Paris: Actes Sud.

Hermann, Imre. (1945). Az Antiscemizsmus. Budapest: Bibliotheca.

Legendre, Pierre. (1989). Le Crime du caporal Lortie, traité sur le père. Paris: Fayard.

Loewenstein, Rudolph M. (1952). Christians and Jews: A psychoanalytical study. New York: International Universities Press.

Taguieff, Pierre-André. (1998). La couleur et le sang. Paris: Mille et Une Nuits.