Racial Ideology: From Nazi Germany to Minneapolis

New York City’s lockdown with its empty streets, closed businesses, and home-bound people was interrupted last week by sweeping protests triggered by the killing of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The justified outrage united the otherwise self-absorbed New Yorkers against the ugly face of racism. Jewish men and women —recognizably wearing yarmulkes and tzniut dresses— as well as people of all backgrounds, joined the protest because after World War II, we cried “Never Again,” when Hitler executed —literally— his “Final Solution” of a Jewish minority that was not part of the “master race.” When racism keeps showing its ugly face today in XXI century America, it is our duty as Jews to deconstruct, defame, decry, and delegitimize racism committed by individuals or institutions so the promise of “Never Again,” is not only an empty phrase, but a call for action.

Racism has a historical construct that can be better analyzed by looking into the racist authoritarianism of Nazi Germany. Understanding its inner workings and educating individuals about the damage created by Hitler’s racist ideology on European Jewry and other minorities will help us prevent and protest such despicable actions as the killing of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis. At the core of Nazism lies Hitler’s racial ideology as formulated in Mein Kampf which like many of Hitler’s ideas is not original but borrowed from Social Darwinism, a late nineteenth century belief in the superiority of certain races whose physical characteristics shaped their intelligence, inner and outer strength, creativity, military power and so on. In this theory, all groups, races, or peoples carry within them traits that are passed from one generation to the next. No individual could overcome the qualities of race. When Charles Darwin produced The Origin of the Species and his theory of the “survival of the fittest,” he granted racist empires the tool of oppression, imperialism, and colonization with the Nazis using it for genocide of the “inferior races.”

The Nazis adopted Darwin’s evolutionary theory and interpreted it as the need for the Aryan race to reproduce and multiply for their survival; its accumulation of land (Libenraum-living space) to support and feed that expanding population; and its vigilance in maintaining the purity of its gene pool to preserve the unique racial characteristics with which nature had equipped it for success in the struggle to survive. Besides Darwin, Madison Grant, an American racist and anti-semite, also influenced Hitler’s eugenics beliefs. Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race (1916) inspired Hitler’s ideology and subsequent policies against Jews and other races. Together with Social Darwinism, Grant’s eugenics revealed the type of racism prevalent in America and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For Grant, the caucasian race sat atop the hierarchical pyramid of races, while the “negroids, mongoloids, and mediterraneans” [sic] were at the bottom. By including Jews within the Mediterranean races, Grant automatically labeled the Jews a lower race with substandard qualities and intellect, unfit to mix with the superior Nordic races. His racial theories exacerbated the ancient anti-semitism in Europe and gave Nazi Germany further racial justification for the “Final Solution”.

Madison Grant’s racial hygiene was endorsed by Hitler who once in power as Germany’s Chancellor expanded both eugenic research and a program of sterilization that became the first step towards racial experimentation and ultimately the murder of six million Jews. Author Michael Kohlman, in Madison Grant Publishes the Passing of the Great Race (2014), states: “After becoming Fuhrer, Hitler wrote to Grant thanking him for his momentous work, stating that the book was “his Bible.” Grant’s book was widely read in Germany by eugenicists who founded societies such as the Heinrich Himmler’s Lebensraum Society to Preserve Typical Nordic Genes.

Hitler’s policy of expansionism to find Lebensraum or living space for the Aryan race was based on Grant’s ideas of the proliferation of the “master race” which “embodied beauty, strength, and intelligence and was competing for survival with inferior races.” Since each race sought to expand, and since the space on the Earth was finite, the struggle for survival resulted naturally in violent conquest and military confrontation, hence war was a necessary part of nature and the human condition. Based on this premise, Hitler formulated the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor within the anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws based on his belief that assimilation of a member of one race into another culture or ethnic group was impossible because the original inherited traits could not change but they could only degenerate through so-called race-mixing. Therefore, Nazis conducted a perpetual purge of racial threats to the Aryan race through webs of organized terror to exterminate inferior races —including blacks, romanis, slavs, and others—which they believed it was their duty to do if the Aryan race was to survive and propagate.

The cult of racial purity at the total exclusion of other races, mainly Jews, was not common even among Britain, France, and Scandinavian countries who colonized Africa and Asia but did not plan to exterminate races like Nazi Germany, only to dominate them and extract their natural resources. Leon Poliakov, in The History of Anti-Semitism: From Voltaire to Wagner (1968) confirms that “None of the varieties of European nationalism —which were beginning to compete with each other at the time— assumed this biologically oriented form.” During his rise as Fuhrer, Hitler exponentially heightened this racial ideology through legislation that divided the world into inferior races and superior races. More than any other people, the Jews were Hitler’s major obsession. He did not view Jews as a religious community, but as an inferior race. The problem with labeling the Jewish people as a race is not that is a blatant fallacy, but that in his view a race could not be converted, expelled, or fixed, but only exterminated. Hitler’s “Jewish Question” —what to do with the Jews— was not like the medieval question about what to do with the Jewish religion because its solution entailed conversion or expulsion; it was not like the French Emancipation question about Jewish allegiance to French nationhood because its solution was to deny rights to disloyal citizens, not extermination. For Hitler, Jews were a race and there was only one “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”: total annihilation.

With the extermination of two-thirds of European Jewry, Hitler nearly succeeded where the European expulsions, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Eastern European pogroms had failed. Historian Yitzhak Arad in Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhardt Death Camps (1987) best describes Hitler’s mind set: “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe, is a Hitlerian euphemism for the extermination of the Jewish people through a legal, military, and bestial plan that started in 1933 and continued with growing extremism with labor camps where Jews were worked and starved to death; mass shootings for which Jews were forced to dig their own graves; and ultimately, with concentration camps where Jews of all ages were gassed until their death. Six million children, women, men, elderly, were killed by Hitler and the Nazis’ intense hatred towards the world’s most ancient scapegoat: the Jew.”

Even as the violence against the Jews in Nazi Germany before WWII escalated to extermination from street riots, boycotts of businesses, removal of Jews from professions, racial Nuremberg Laws and the concentration camps’ genocide, it did not provoke the international rage and intervention expected for such an outrageous event. Even Hitler gloated that “it is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them,” according to Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock —The Holocaust Averted: An Alternative History of American Jewry: 1938-1967 (published in 2015)—.

A major lesson learned from the Nazi’s genocide was that humanity cannot keep silent anymore. After the Holocaust, the term for apathetic people and nations was “Bystanders.” They earned it with their inaction and indifference towards millions of Nazi’s victims. Bystanders had a voice, but they were silent. Bystanders had the means to help, but they avoided its cost. Bystanders had personal or political power but they refused to use it. The one thing Bystanders had in common was excuses for their lack of action: worldwide depression, economic hardship, isolationism policies, fixed immigration quotas, and political uncompromising.

Americans will not be Bystanders, nor will they engage in disorderly conduct. Americans are sophisticated citizens and they know the difference between praising the great majority of police officers who daily risk their lives for our safety and peacefully protest the few officers who transgress the social contract of protecting and serving fellow citizens. In New York City, the Jewish communities walk the fine line between expressing their solidarity with Mr. Floyd’s family through prayers, speeches, and speakers —via Zoom— to bring our communities together, while also denouncing racism. The Jews gave the world one of the greatest principles from the Torah: G-d created man in his image. The founding fathers juxtaposed it in the US Constitution: All men are created equal. Today, Mr. Floyd has united us around these basic truths.

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).