Race. In America, it means black and white. I have spent the last few weeks arguing that race in America is a construct. We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of us who are not recent immigrants from elsewhere and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.
Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”
This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:
In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.
If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.
Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.
German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.
Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.
The term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. They were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.
Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.
It started with Max Muller, a German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race.
As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others. The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.
The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.
Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies, or a modernistic atheist who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, or some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.
And the Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.