Subhumanism is not a single coherent philosophy which we can attribute to one thinker or set of thinkers. It’s less like a wave than a massive, unseen current – think of the Gulf Stream – that powers a wide array of different, seemingly unrelated weather events. We call the specific worldviews that resulted from suhumanism in the past century the “modern ideologies of evil,” and will dedicate the next few columns to exploring their human cost.
This week, we’ll begin a look at racism and nationalism. In one sense, these two forms of collectivism are as old as humankind; empathy is a challenge for each of us, and it is natural for us spontaneously to experience fellow-feeling more intensely and automatically toward those who are closely related to us. Insofar as racial and ethnic groups can be experienced as a vast, extended family, outsiders are easy to exclude from the circle of empathy. There are American Indian tribes that refer to their members as “humans,” using other epithets for non-members; Greeks scorned “barbarians” as much for their odd appearance as their uncouth-sounding speech and alien customs. We could multiply such examples of human fallenness by looking at every continent and century.
Of course, modern biology shows us that by any definition, human beings are a single species, with roughly comparable qualities and a fixed, common nature. Just a few, insignificant chromosomes separate black from white from brown, and every human being who walks the earth is descended from common parents, as the Book of Genesis tells us. This truth, which the Christian Church asserted dogmatically in the wake of Europe’s discovery of America, was widely disseminated and authoritatively taught for hundreds of years from pulpits and university rostrums alike. It was vindicated by the fact that non-Europeans from “primitive” lands proved quite capable of learning European languages and absorbing its highest culture – as Europeans could learn from the ancient civilizations of India and China.
So we have every right to be puzzled, at least at first, by the fact that this common knowledge of human equality was actually almost lost in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries in the most educated countries on earth, and was replaced in the minds of millions by a much more primitive, atavistic denial of the humanity of the Other. The most extreme and appalling instance of neo-tribalism – one that is so widely known that it hardly requires elaboration here – took place in Nazi Germany, where political ideologues invented a new, brutal religion to serve the invented god of race. But modern, “scientific” racist theory did not begin in Germany, but in England. Nor were its proponents content with asserting a hierarchy of the races. Science since Descartes had been redefined as a practical venture, aimed at increasing human mastery over nature. So any racial science worthy of the name must have a pragmatic action agenda – and modern racism did, in the form of eugenics. As one of us has already written, right here at Aleteia:
"By the 1920s, with the support of Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood and funding from health crank and cereal magnate Harvey Kellogg, more than a dozen U.S. states had enacted laws requiring the sterilization of “idiots” and “imbeciles,” which in practice meant that American citizens were castrated for flunking an I.Q. test. With the Nazi takeover in Germany, the most literate country in human history was reconstituted along the lines of an elaborately fabricated, murderous “science of race.” With very few exceptions, as John Cornwell’s grim study, Hitler’s Scientists, documents, the scientific establishment fell in line with the new political creed. Nazi authorities pointed to American laws as models for their own, even more aggressive racial regime a full decade before the Final Solution was even decided upon. While the defeat of the Nazi regime, largely at the hands of another equally evil (but differently organized) collectivist regime helped to expose and discredit scientific racism, eugenic ideas persisted in America for decades, and the last compulsory sterilization law was not repealed in Virginia until 1974."
Why was a false and arbitrary scientific theory able to survive and spread for decades? How did “civilized” nations justify liquidating not only conquered foreigners, but their own citizens based on hazy, poorly defined and empirically falsifiable claims of fundamental racial differences between groups as closely related (for instance) as Slavs and Germans? How could Nazis march into Polish cities full of baroque architecture, with medieval universities that had housed such Poles as Copernicus, and convince themselves that they were subjugating “primitive subhumans”? As Timothy Snyder documents in Bloodlands, the Nazi plan for expansion to the Urals envisioned, in the course of its “Generalplan Ost,” the direct killing or forced starvation of tens of millions of Slavs, and the forced expulsion of even more millions to uncertain fates beyond the Urals. Jews, while the first and most helpless of Nazi victims, were far from the only racial groups they targeted in their quest for a vast, continental empire.
How could millions of people who had been educated on texts of Kant’s and Schiller’s adopt the bizarre, self-cancelling Nazi theory that Jews were at once biologically driven to tear down “Aryan” cultures – and yet that they were at the same time culpably evil for doing so? Or that Jews could be blamed both for finance capitalism and international communism? The political brilliance of the Nazis belies any attempt to dismiss them as stupid or foolish. It took political philosopher Peter Viereck some 600 pages in his masterwork, Metapolitics, to explore the deep, branching roots of Nazi ideology in misguided romanticism and perverted science. And his reflections do not even attempt to explain the popularity of eugenics outside of Germany.
The mystery of the rise of eugenic racism, which historians and moralists have pondered at length and which may never be finally answered this side of the grave, was offered its best provisional answer by a thinker whom we’ll consider later in greater depth – the social philosopher and economist, Wilhelm Röpke. A brilliant analyst of technical economics trained in the Austrian School by his mentor Ludwig von Mises, Röpke exceeded his colleagues of that school in his depth of social analysis and understanding of history. The first professor fired by the Nazis for his ideas, then driven into Turkish and later Swiss exile, Röpke had battled the upsurge of racist and ultranationalist rhetoric since the Nazis’ early days, using his small professor’s salary to write, print, and personally distribute anti-Nazi pamphlets as early as 1928. On Röpke’s account, which he offers in depth in The Social Crisis of Our Time, all of Europe had been rendered vulnerable to radical ideologies by the rapid and unsettling social changes imposed by rapidly growing industry and constantly developing technology. Men whose families might have worked in the same trade for centuries, in the same historic village with the same churches where their ancestors had been baptized, married, and buried, were suddenly uprooted by complex economic forces – and driven by falling prices of crops and rising industrial wages to move to vast, anonymous cities. There they were starkly cut off from the networks of connection that had linked them to their neighbors in patterns of solidarity and cooperation, and helped resolve their conflicts peaceably. As the schools they attended were secularized, their links with the faiths of their fathers were slowly eroded, and they were soon reduced to solitary individuals facing the consequences of choices made by wealthy investors or faraway consumers. Unable to control their economic or even geographic destinies, such men looked for new ways to find friends and allies, new sources of identity and new ways to advance or defend their interests. Cut off from their ancestral villages, extended families, churches and other social networks, these “proletarianized” workers had only two lively choices: the rapidly growing web of socialist labor unions, clubs, and political parties—or their more militaristic competitors, the radical nationalists. Put simply, men were offered the choice of forging a new sense of self and belonging—they could affiliate according to class, or according to race. To put a face on the forces that held them back and frustrated them, they could designate as enemies their landlords and employers—or else the menacing foreigners in neighboring countries and untrustworthy “aliens” who lived in their midst. The particular evil genius of National Socialism, as Röpke noted, was that it combined the most potent negative elements of both movements, in the figure of the grasping, alien, capitalistic Jew—who secretly, they asserted, worked to bring about a Red dictatorship. (This case was easier to make because of the early prominence of Jews in many Communist movements and regimes—from which they were typically purged, as happened in Stalin’s Terror, and again in postwar Poland and Hungary.)
But we cannot blame Adolf Hitler for the vast majority of the race-based slaughters the past century had to witness. R.J. Rummel, the great statistician of “democide,” documents in Death By Government some 133.1 million intentional or culpable killings of civilians by governments in the twentieth century, of which the Nazis were responsible for a staggering 20.9 million in just 12 years in power. Not all of these killings were driven by ethnic hatred, of course. It is probably impossible to sort out how many of the 61.9 million killed in the Soviet Union were singled out for extermination because they belonged to ethnic groups considered “suspect” by Stalin. (As Timothy Snyder shows in Bloodlands, the Soviet regime was engaged in the murderous mass removal of ethnic groups such as Poles and Ukrainians a full decade before the Nazi regime opened its first concentration camp.) But mass murders where ethnic differences were decisive included the Japanese butchery of some 5.9 million Chinese, the Turkish killing of almost 1.9 million Armenians, and Pakistan’s murder of 1.5 million residents of what is now Bangladesh during that country’s war of independence. Lesser but still appalling totals were racked up in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and the bloodthirsty, three-way war among Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians during the 1990s, which featured the revival of an age-old tactic of racial revenge that also marked the Soviet conquest of Nazi Germany: organized rape.
If we look back at previous centuries, at the butcheries committed by the Mongols and the Muslim conquerors of India, amid countless other less documented ethnic cleansings, we might begin to see the explosion of racist violence in the twentieth century less as a hideous innovation than as the resurgence of a profoundly human temptation, which can only be kept at bay through the difficult, conscious cultivation of a sense of common humanity – a fact which while clearly true is easy to wish away in the pressure of competition for rights and resources. It may be that what is unusual, even artificial, is not tribalism but its opposite: universalism, cosmopolitanism, the acceptance of a common humanity uniting Hottentots and Norsemen, Celts and Hmong, Pygmies and Inuits, and the fact of their moral equality. The effort of empathy is a costly one, and the task of reviving and reasserting the universal rights of man is one that falls anew to each generation in turn. It is made no easier, and indeed may become impossible, if the leading sectors of society in the most powerful nations on earth are morally crippled by a subhumanist view of man, which undermines any argument for self-sacrifice and dissolves transcendent moral norms in the acid of relativism.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).