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Memorial service for Walter Rathenau (Wikicommons - German Federal Archives). His assassination introduced a new word into French and, shortly after, into English. Credit Wikimedia Commons
Memorial service for Walter Rathenau (Wikicommons - German Federal Archives). His assassination introduced a new word into French and, shortly after, into English. Credit Wikimedia Commons

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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.

Conclusion

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.

Reference

Frost, P. (2013). More thoughts. The evolution of a word, Evo and Proud, May 18
/pfrost/more-thoughts-evolution-of-word/

Taguieff, P-A. (2001). The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and its Doubles, University of Minnesota Press.
https://books.google.ca/books?id=AcOG6Y9XG40C&printsec=frontcover&hl=fr&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. So racism originally meant the use of race as a core idea in a political ideology. Hence in 1922, the Nazis could be said to be racist, while the Italians fascists or Russian communists probably weren’t.

    Today it is now used to imply any form of ethnocentric opinion, from opposing affirmative for ethnic minorities, to believing in racial differences in temperament and intelligence, to not wanting your offspring to marry someone of another race.

    Technically the modern European populist parties like the French National Front are racist, in the sense that they make opposition to non-white immigration a core policy. But this “racism” is largely a defensive reaction to aggressive anti-racism. The FN can hardly be said to be using Gallic ethnocentrism to mobilise the French population for an attack on another country.

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  2. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says:

    Words are birthed all the time.

    But why do some gain traction?

    That’s what really counts.

    It requires the support and cooperation of academia, media, and government. (And popular culture.)

    I can come up with a term like ‘homomania’ to characterize the current lunacy of worshiping all things homo. Americans are so deluded that poll after poll show that Americans think 25% of Americans are homo.

    But ‘homomania’ has no traction and isn’t used. Instead, we hear ‘homophobia, homophobia, homophobia’.

    Why? Because of who controls the media, academia, and government.

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  3. Stogumber says:

    Rathenau, the best 1900-pendant to a Jewish oligarch, had played an important part in the Emperor’s last government, but after the war publicly declared that the deeper sense of the war had been to get rid of the emperor. Which allowed him to play just as important a part in the revolutionary government after the war, but which made him a token for Jewish dishonesty and double-speaking. (In reality, he probably was too muddleheaded to be dishonest in a strict sense.)

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  4. Stogumber says:

    The correct French translation of “völkisch” would have been “éthnique” and “éthniciste”. But “Éthnicisme” would have been a neologism in French, even if not so in English (cf. NGram Viewer).

    But “éthnique” was rather a term for scientists whereas “race” was a popular term. We mustn’t forget that popular debates about “les races” had a long tradition in France and the use of “race juive” had already a peak in 1907. So the translation has a lot to do with the state of mind of the receiver, perhaps more than with the state of mind of the spender.

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  5. Stogumber says:

    The German concept of “Volk” was not easily translatable; neither “people/peuple” nor “folk” are very apt. The best translation is “ethny” which in fact had a shortlived popularity in mid-19th-century Britain and then again rose after 1960 (as did “éthnie” in French). Which may indicate a varying influence of German thinking, or rather a broader contact with the realities the Germans had discovered first.

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  6. Alsatian says:

    Just a lexical peeve: it is “Volk”, NOT “Völk”. The umlaut is applied to the root “volk” only in the plural form “Völker” and adjectival form “völkisch”. Otherwise very interesting. There are similar incongruencies between the English “race” and the Mexican understanding of the Spanish “la raza”, which possesses a range of connotations similar to “das Volk”, and is therefore not very accurately rendered as “race” in translation.

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  7. Sean says:

    Our obsession with long-dead Nazis is blinding us to current realities

    Well it cannot be denied that the Nazis did take power, but unless being a Nazi is the inherent tendency of all who are white the current concerns are ‘getting ready to fight the last war’ syndrome. The Nazis taking power (though only with a third of the vote) confirmed for liberals the masses were unfit to decide political issues . Over a century ago the Catholic church was being persecuted by liberals (in France and Germany) , they thought that was the biggest threat. Now they think it is nationalism.

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  8. “The Nazis taking power (though only with a third of the vote) confirmed for liberals the masses were unfit to decide political issues.”

    Liberal commitment to democracy has always been highly suspect. John Stuart Mill’s Representative Government, the most influential political book in British Commonwealth countries, is essentially a guide book on how to make sure the majority can’t yield significant power in a liberal democracy. It should have been titled “representative oligarchy in a pseudo democracy.”

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  9. backup says:

    When the war ended Germany was bombed flat, it had lost 10% of its population and an enormous amount of men were in Soviet captivity, all Germans were expelled from East-Europe, all German women in the east were raped. Germany had no economy to speak of and was suffering famine.

    In the summer of ’45 nobody in Germany or anywhere else in Europe believed a shred of the fascist theory of anti-pacifism [1] anymore. To fight fascism anywhere from 1946 on was a joke.

    [1] Mussolini described fascism as essentially the opposite of pacifism. While National-Socialism is not the same as fascism it shares this as essence: “Der totale Krieg” means whole nations, rather than their armies, fought wars. The complete devastation of Europe meant that everybody saw and experienced the consequences if this ideology.

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  10. Bruce says:

    Pat Moynihan’s A Dangerous Place claims the word ‘racism’ moved from French use, as a blend of national and ethnic feeling, into English by a translation from Trotsky’s History of The Russian Revolution. But obviously the white socialism that broke up the old British Empire’s class system ‘there are some things no one can do to a white man’, was first.

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  11. Rathenau was a threat to the angloamerican plans to pit Germany against the USSR. While individuals belonging to so called freecorps are supposed to have confirmed the murder and the motive, this is simply what to expect from a well organized assassination plot designed by the angloamericans.

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