The Nazis weren’t ‘white supremacists’ and why it matters

They wanted an Aryan race that was pure in blood, not white of skin. To not know this is to not understand the Holocaust
Determining eye color at the Racial Hygiene and Criminal Biology Research Center of the Reich Health Office (German Federal Archives via Wikicommons)
Determining eye color at the Racial Hygiene and Criminal Biology Research Center of the Reich Health Office (German Federal Archives via Wikicommons)

Godwin’s Law and the Argumentum ad Hitlerum (Argument from Hitler) are terms for the overuse of Hitler and Nazi analogies in discourse, particularly online. Never is the term “Nazi” thrown about more than when the Jewish State and/or Islamism are being debated. I thought it would be useful to examine a few myths about Nazism and the Holocaust and to explain why they are untrue and why the truth matters, starting with the myth that the Nazis were white supremacists.

Everyone knows that the Nazis were racists. And everyone knows that ‘white supremacist’ is a synonym for ‘racist.’ Right? Wrong. While the Nazis were racists, they weren’t white supremacists.

Racism is about seeing one ‘race’ as superior to another. White supremacy is about seeing the white race as superior. Race is understood nowadays by scientists (not political activists) as a fairly meaningless concept, but scientists in the 1920s and 30s thought it was real enough. But the Nazis didn’t classify race according to skin colour. In fact, Nazi race manuals saw skin colour as a misleading guide to racial origin. Instead, the Nazis were obsessed with “blood.” In an era strongly influenced by social Darwinism and eugenics, but before the discovery of DNA and modern genetics, this was a way of expressing the poorly understood ideas of heredity.

The Nazis wanted an Aryan race that was pure in blood, not white of skin. They focused on a range of what they saw as markers of “impure” blood, such as cranium size, nose shape and the presence or absence of ear lobes. Impure blood, as a notion, was all the more insidious for being largely invisible. That an Aryan could interact with a Jew without knowing it made the Nazis worry more, not less, about Jews than they did about people with more visible differences.

More importantly, the Aryan race which the Nazis consider the German people to exemplify, was not considered synonymous with some kind of “white race” by the Nazis, even though contemporary neo-Nazis do make such a connection.

The Nazis did not see their Aryan race as originating in Europe. They were very much aware that ‘Aryan’ is cognate to ‘Iranian’ and saw their race as originating in that part of Asia. The Nazis focused on the so-called Aryan race, a tiny subset of all the people who would be considered white today.

Almost all of the Nazis’ victims would be considered ‘white’ in the politics of the contemporary West, not just Ashkenazi Jews, but Poles and Slavs, “gypsies” (another inaccurate term, for Roma, Sinti and Lalleri peoples), the physically disabled and the mentally illhomosexuals and even prostitutes and congenital petty criminals. All were seen as not conforming to the “racial community” and potentially “contaminating” it if allowed to procreate as well as being seen in many cases to pose a more conventional military risk or drain on scarce resources. Anti-social behaviours such as petty crime, sex work or even alcoholism were seen as inherited and in need of removal from the racial community through “racial hygiene,” lest these traits spread at the expense of more desirable ones.

As a result people in all of these categories were penalised by the state, often imprisoned in concentration camps or enslaved and, in the case of Poles, Jews, the physically disabled and mentally ill and the Roma, Sinti and Lalleri, murdered en masse. In the case of Poles and Slavs, their states were destroyed. While the murder of the disabled and mentally ill might be considered eugenics or ablism today, it is difficult to know what else to term the murder of Poles, Jews and Roma, Sinti and Lalleri other than racism.

Why does it matter?

Aside from the fact that the truth matters for itself (not a popular opinion these days), race has become one of the key political issues of the age. In an age of competitive victimhood, whether Jews experience racism or not has become a proxy argument for whether Jews deserve empathy and their own state. Figures like Whoopi Goldberg and the British MP Diane Abbott argue (or goysplain) that Jews do not experience racism because we have no inherent visible marker on our bodies to attract the attention of racists. We can “pass.”

Ignoring the fact that many Jews do not have pale skin and that almost universally-practiced male circumcision provides half the Jewish population with a physical marker of identity, albeit not usually visible, this misunderstands the nature of the Holocaust. The Nazis utilised the apparatus of the modern bureaucratic state to identify and mark Jews, making Jews take the name Israel or Sarah on their identity papers and, later, to wear the yellow star. Where the Nazi bureaucratic state was not available, in countries where the Nazis invaded and/or did not have access to records, they enlisted local support in identifying and murdering Jews, including from puppet or Nazi-allied governments. It wasn’t necessary to be able to identify Jews on the street by sight; the state bureaucratic apparatus sought them out.

Contemporary identity politics views every racist crime through the prism of slavery and segregation in the US, a disastrous trend that has distorted our view about race and about a number of other subjects, such as the experience of ethnic minorities in Britain and Europe and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that the Holocaust did not occur in the way that racism could occur in the American South in the eras of Jim Crow, with black people taken off the streets and lynched, does not mean that the Holocaust was not racist or that Jews were not persecuted because of their supposed racial impurities. The Nazis saw the Jews as racially inferior and persecuted them as a result. The fact that their skins were often not noticeably darker than those of their persecutors does not make the crime any less racist.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly