A reader has written me about my last post:
It is extremely unlikely that “racism” is an attempt at translating something like Völkismus. Between Hitler’s preference for Rasse(race) over Völk and the fact that the Nazis drew on authors like Chamberlain (whose antisemitism would also tend towards privileging Rasse over Völk) and Gobineau (who wrote in French), there is no support to be found for a derivation that would make “racism” appear to be related to the less virulent of the two strains of German nationalism (the romantic-idealistic one which relished being able to point at linguistic differentiation – like Völk vs.populus/people/peuple – and speculating about vague semantic correlates thereof).
The simple fact of the matter is that “racism” is not any kind of translation but just a combination of a widely used term with a lexologically highly productive suffix. Critical use of “racism” basically starts in the 1920s with Théophile Simar. And Hirschfeld, whose book Racism secured wider currency for the term, clearly wanted to espouse an anthropological concept just as much as Boas et. al. did, although he didn’t offer any detailed discussion beyond his roundabout rejection of traditional ideas. BTW, Hirschfeld lectured in the U.S. in 1931. While he wrote his German manuscript in 1933/1934, he may well have employed the term “racism” years earlier.
The best authority on this subject is probably Pierre-André Taguieff, who seems to have read everything about racism, racialism, or colorism. He found that continuous use of the word “racism” began in the 1920s, initially in French and shortly after in English. There is little doubt about the historical context:
In a book published late in 1922, Relations between Germany and France, the Germanist historian Henri Lichtenberger introduced the adjective racist in order to characterize the “extremist,” “activist,” and “fanatical” elements in the circles of the German national and nationalist right as they had just recently been manifested by the assassination in Berlin, on June 24, 1922, of Walter Rathenau:
The right indignantly condemned Rathenau’s murder and denied any connection with the murderers. A campaign was even planned to expel from the Nationalist party the agitators of the extreme right known as “Germanists” or “racists,” a group (deutschvölkische) whose foremost leaders are Wulle, Henning and von Graefe, and whose secret inspirer is supposed to be Ludendorff.
[…] The context of the term’s appearance is significant: the description of the behavior of the “German nationals” and more precisely the “activist,” “extreme right” fraction. The adjective racist is clearly presented as a French equivalent of the German word völkische, and always placed in quotation marks. […] The term, having only just appeared, is already charged with criminalizing connotations.
In 1925, in his reference book L’Allemagne contemporaine, Edmond Vermeil expressly reintroduced the adjective racist to translate the “untranslatable” German term völkische and suggested the identification, which became trivial in the 1930s of (German) racism with nationalist anti-Semitism or with the anti-Jewish tendencies of the nationalist movement in Germany in the 1920s:
It is in this way that the National German Party has little by little split into two camps. The “racist” (völkische) extreme right has separated from the party. Racism claims to reinforce nationalism, to struggle on the inside against all that is not German and on the outside for all those who bear the name German. […] (Taguieff, 2001, pp. 88-89)
The term “racist” thus began as an awkward translation of the German völkische to describe ultranationalist parties. Initially, the noun “racism” did not exist, just as there was no corresponding noun in German. It first appeared in 1925, and in 1927 the French historian Marie de Roux used it to contrast his country’s nationalism, based on universal human rights, with radical German nationalism, which recognized no existence for human rights beyond that of the Völk that created them. “Racism […] is the most acute form of this subjective nationalism,” he wrote. The racist rejects universal principles. He does not seek to give the best of his culture to “the treasure of world culture.” Instead, the racist says: “The particular way of thinking in my country, the way of feeling that belongs to it, is the absolute truth, the universal truth, and I will not rest or pause before I have ordered the world by law, that of my birth place” (Taguieff, 2001, p. 91-94).
This was the original meaning of “racism,” and it may seem far removed from the current meaning. Or maybe not. No matter how we use the word, the Nazi connotation is always there, sometimes lingering in the background, sometimes in plain view.
The noun “racism” was derived in French from an awkward translation of the German adjective völkische. Unlike the original source word, however, it has always had negative and even criminal connotations. It encapsulated everything that was going wrong with German nationalism in a single word and, as such, aggravated a worsening political climate that ultimately led to the Second World War.
When that war ended, the word “racism” wasn’t decommissioned. It found a new use in a postwar context of decolonization, civil rights, and Cold War rivalry. Gradually, it took on a life of its own, convincing many people—even today—that the struggle against the Nazis never ended. They’re still out there!
It would be funny if the consequences weren’t so tragic. Our obsession with long-dead Nazis is blinding us to current realities. In Europe, there have been many cases of Jews being assaulted and murdered because they are Jews. These crimes are greeted with indignation about how Europe is returning to its bad ways, and yet in almost every case the assailant turns out to be of immigrant origin, usually North African or sub-Saharan African. At that point, nothing more is said. One can almost hear the mental confusion.
Frost, P. (2013). More thoughts. The evolution of a word, Evo and Proud, May 18
Taguieff, P-A. (2001). The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and its Doubles, University of Minnesota Press.