Commentary Magazine


Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, by George L. Mosse

From Gobineau to Hitler

Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism.
by George L. Mosse.
Howard Fertig. 277 pp. $17.50.

With this, his latest book, George L. Mosse claims once again his place in modern historiography as the foremost explicator and demythologizer of ideas which have inflamed and energized men’s minds and worked irreversible evil in human history. In The Crisis of German Ideology (1964), Mosse examined the intellectual origins of National Socialist Germany, concentrating on the strains of thought which composed Volkism, that unique German blend of romanticism, mysticism, and rabid nationalism on which Nazism fed and thrived. In The Nationalization of the Masses (1975), Mosse explored the transformations of religious myths and symbols into the cultic rites of modern mass movements, analyzing how these rites effectively mobilized people into the service and the worship of nationalism.

In his new book, Toward the Final Solution, Mosse continues to pursue the themes that have preoccupied him in the past: the role of ideas, myths, and symbols in shaping a secular national ethos; the determinative interplay of culture and politics; the presence and durability of the irrational in political life; and finally, the accommodations which political institutions have provided for embodying those savage and irrational ideologies in public policy. As in his previous books, Germany is at the center of his canvas, but his range extends over all of Europe.

European racism, Mosse holds, originated in 18th-century intellectual currents and culminated in World War II in the Nazi “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” This is not to say that Mosse slights those racist ideas whose chief burden has been skin color, but for the purposes of this book he does choose to bypass earlier manifestations of racial thinking which were launched on the Iberian peninsula, arguing that these did not constitute a viable precedent for strictly European racism. On this point, a contrasting view, undertaken from the perspective of racism in America, may be found in Ronald Sanders’s Lost Tribes and Promised Lands (which I reviewed in COMMENTARY, August 1978).

The main 18th-century sources of racial thinking identified by Mosse are, on the one hand, the new science of the Enlightenment, which spread among the educated elite, and, on the other hand, the revival of pietism and evangelism among the masses. The scientific foundation for ideas about race was established, according to Mosse, by the confluence of two disparate enthusiasms of the Enlightenment. One was the development of techniques of inquiry and of empirical criteria for establishing the validity and objectivity of scientific findings. The other derived from the Enlightenment’s passion for ancient Greece and for aesthetic ideals acquired from classical art, in particular Greek sculpture. Height, fairness, symmetry were the standards by which one measured the outward man, and came to be regarded also as indicators of inner character.

By the end of the 18th century, science and aesthetics had combined to produce “scientific” efforts to divine temperament, character, and even level of culture by reading skulls (phrenology) and by studying the composition of facial features (physiognomy). Soon the size and shape of the nose, the height of the forehead, and the so-called “facial angle” supplemented the factors of height, skin pigmentation, and complexion in the rudimentary racial studies of proto-anthropologists. And it was not long before the scientific study of differences among the races began to shift focus and began to make distinctions not only in terms of external physical characteristics but also with regard to supposed mental endowments and moral qualities.

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Meanwhile, the currents of modernity released by the Enlightenment and the French revolution were producing a counterreaction among all classes and societies of Western and Central Europe. The moorings of the familiar were being swept away by modernity, and to shore up their emotional defenses, people turned to new forms of old faiths—evangelism and pietism. These movements of religious revival stressed the needs of the “inner man” and responded, as Mosse puts it, to “a longing for coherence, for community, and for an ideal in the face of a changing world.” In the disunited German lands which had endured French domination, the religious emotions cultivated by pietism were directed toward the idea of a spiritualized national fatherland to which man’s “racial soul” responded. Even the philosophers contributed to the concept of soul as the inner, ineffable essence bespeaking the external measurable frame. Hegel held the soul to be a natural entity in the physical world, expressing itself and acting through the body, and the key element distinguishing one race from another.

Early in the 19th century, the scientific search for racial origins turned to the subject of language—and this, just at the time when nationalist feeling was rising throughout Europe. A nation’s consciousness, it came to be held, was compounded of a sense of shared community, history, and language, whose origins were buried in the womb of time. Thus it was that the pursuit of linguistic origins happened to coalesce with the emergence of nationalism, and the result was one of the minor melancholy ironies of history, with the philologists making a lasting contribution not just to cultural history but to racism in its ugliest and most irrational incarnation.

Hypotheses abounded at the time that the basic root of all Western languages was Sanskrit, which had been imported into Europe by the migration of “Aryans,” that is, people who spoke a prototype of one or more Indo-European languages or who belonged to an ancestral ethnic group which had spoken such a language. In the prevailing romantic cult glorifying India and the Near East, which had by then superseded the Enlightenment cult of classicism, people of presumed Aryan ancestry came to be regarded as nobler than those of other—most particularly, Semitic—origins. By the mid-19th century, French and German scholars (by our standards today we might call them pseudo-scholars) were emphasizing not just differences among peoples and races, but the superiority of some races over others. And language had become a criterion for establishing such distinctions. Mosse cites a work, published in 1816, which claimed that the presumed inability of Jews to speak proper German proved not only their alienness but their inferiority as well. The scientific study of race was being displaced by the bigotry of racism.

Racism emerged as a full-fledged philosophic system with the work of Arthur de Gobineau, a French writer and sometime diplomat. His Essay on the Inequality of Human Races—not an essay at all, but a four-volume work—first published in Paris in 1853-55, was to establish him as the father of racist ideology. This work, which found a greater reception in Germany than in his native country, eventually became the sacred text of racists, transmitted from generation to generation and disseminated throughout the subculture of German anti-Semitism until it penetrated the mind of Adolf Hitler.

Gobineau believed that race was the key to the rise and fall of civilizations. The white race, the “Aryans,” embodied the superior qualities which the black and yellow races lacked. Yet even superior societies perished when they degenerated, and such degeneration, Gobineau asserted, came about through the fusion of races. With this grotesque notion, he set racism on the course toward the Final Solution, for the logical consequence of Gobineau’s views on racial degeneration was a belief in the need to destroy the deadly carriers of racial inferiority. Gobineau himself was, to be sure, no anti-Semite; but all his life he held that “Teutonic blood” and “Germanic vitality” constituted the noblest elements of the “Aryans.” And the “Aryans” interpreted his sacred text as authority for the destruction of the Jewish people.

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With his analysis of Gobineau and Gobineau’s immediate disciples, Mosse concludes the first part of his book. In his exposition of the etiology of racism and its dynamic, if aberrant, progression, Mosse has produced a strikingly original work whose conceptual brilliance and analytic keenness will surely make it the indispensable work on European racism. The rest of the book is less innovative, if only because in it Mosse retraces much of the same ground he covered in The Crisis of German Ideology.

Apart from a chapter on racism and the eugenics movement which developed in England under the influence of Darwinian ideas, and an extended discussion of racist ideas in France, Mosse concentrates here on the penetration of racist ideas into Germany and Austria, particularly among those already infected with older and more traditional forms of anti-Semitism. He discusses anti-Semitic thinkers and writers like Julius Langbehn, Paul de La-garde, Richard Wagner, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain; mystics and crackpots like Guido von List and Lanz von Liebenfels; and a variety of ideologues and politicians from Adolf Stoecker, the Berlin pastor who first introduced the issue of anti-Semitism in an election campaign, down to Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna during Hitler’s down-and-out days there, and Adolph Schönerer, leader of the pan-Germans in Austria, from all of whom Hitler absorbed his ideas and political lessons.

The last part of Mosse’s book, “The Execution”—least satisfactory because most perfunctory—carries the history of racist ideas from World War I to World War II. One chapter deals somewhat skimpily with racism in countries as diverse as Spain (without Jews) and Poland (with 3.3 million Jews), while his penultimate chapter treats the consummation of racist ideology—the murder of six million European Jews.

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Racism, Mosse concludes, was a “scavenger ideology,” which appropriated for its own ends the middle-class virtues of the age (cleanliness, honesty, moral earnestness, hard work), claiming them as the inherent endowments of a superior race. Racists supposed that their conclusions were derived from the objective findings of science, yet their ideas—from Gobineau to Hitler—were scavenged not from the expanding body of scientific knowledge but from the scrap heap of discarded hypotheses, time-worn superstitions, and irrational fanaticism. Mosse’s book has the great merit of taking these pseudo-ideas seriously, not because they have any intrinsic worth (they do not) but because for generations they succeeded in capturing men’s minds and insinuating their influence into political institutions, even governments.

Racism and its concomitant, anti-Semitism, flourished, and continue to flourish, not for reasons of compelling persuasiveness or moral authority, but because they have satisfied irrational, even pathological, fears and anxieties in individuals and entire peoples and nations. This, indeed, may explain why few historians have been attracted to the study of such ideas—a circumstance which only increases our indebtedness to Mosse for his signal contribution to our historical understanding.

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