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Racism and Nazi Racial Ideology

Although racism is said to spring from a belief that there are distinct human races with distinctive characteristics which determine the moral and other qualities of their individual members, the belief has no scientific basis. In fact racism is rarely the product of any kind of purely cognitive process. People who propound racist beliefs are almost always motivated by emotional or psychological factors or by a supervening interest, and will therefore persist in such beliefs even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The so-called “reasons” proffered for racist attitudes towards entire ethnic or national groups are necessarily no more than rationalisations.


Although racial theories of human behaviour have long been shown to lack any scientific foundation, nineteenth-century racist thinkers, such as Houston Chamberlain, exerted a significant influence on many in Adolf Hitler’s generation. Racism, including racial antisemitism (prejudice against or hatred of Jews based on false biological theories), was an integral part of German National Socialism (Nazism). According to Nazi theories of race, Germans and other northern Europeans were "Aryans" — a superior race. All other nationalities were deemed inferior races, and were ranked hierarchically according to how similar they were deemed to be to “Aryans”. Jews were seen as the diametric opposites, and therefore the deadly enemies of Aryans. The Nazis perceived all of human history as the history of a biologically determined struggle among people of different races. The Nazis postulated that political movements such as Marxism, Communism and Democracy were anti-nationalist and reflected a dangerous, racially based Jewish “spirit” which had to be eradicated.


When the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933, they sought to give effect to their racial theories in several ways, including the proclamation in 1935 of the infamous Nuremberg Laws. That same year, the Nazis began the “Lebensborn” (Lifespring) program aimed at breeding "Aryan" children via extramarital relations of persons classified as "racially pure and healthy" based on Nazi racial hygiene and health ideology. Lebensborn encouraged anonymous births by unmarried women, and mediated adoption of these children by likewise "racially pure and healthy" parents.


During World War II, Nazi physicians conducted bogus medical experiments seeking to identify physical evidence of “Aryan” superiority and “non-Aryan” inferiority. Despite killing countless non-Jews in the course of these experiments, the Nazis could not find any evidence for their theories of racially-determined differences between human beings in their intellectual, moral and other qualities.


Nazi racists viewed the mentally ill and physically handicapped as blemishes upon the genetic landscape of the so-called master race, and believed that if the handicapped were permitted to reproduce, they would constitute a biological danger to the purity of the “Aryan” race. Consequently, in late 1939 the Nazis began experimenting with poison gas for the purpose of mass murder. After careful planning and gathering of data, German physicians began secret ‘mercy killings’ — euphemistically known as the ‘Euthanasia Program’ — of handicapped individuals. Many thousands of patients who were mentally ill or had physical disabilities were murdered in six gassing centres in Austria and Germany. In August 1941, following public protest, the ‘Euthanasia Program’ ceased. The killing continued in the Nazi occupied territories and in concentration camps and the knowledge and methods gleaned from this program were instrumental in implementing the ‘Final Solution’ — the mass murder of Jews – as the killing techniques on personnel were used.


During World War II, the Nazi leadership also instigated a policy of ‘racial purification’ (the more contemporary expression is ‘ethnic cleansing’) within the occupied eastern territories of Poland and the Soviet Union. This policy entailed physically transferring ‘non-Aryan’ peoples from their lands, or murdering them, and repopulating the lands with ‘Aryans’. Nazi racial ideology was thus used to rationalise the displacement of entire communities from their homes and murder on an unprecedented scale.

Recommended Reading

Aly, G. et al (1999) Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Burleigh, M. and Wippermann, W. (1991) The Racial State: Germany 1933-45. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ehrenreich, Eric. (2007) The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Fredrickson, G. M. (2002). Racism: A Short History. New Jersey: Princetown University Press.
Gellately, R and Stoltzfus, N (2001), Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press
Kleg, M. (1993). Hate, Prejudice & Racism. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Mosse, G. (1985). Towards the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Poliakov, Leon. (1996). Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books.