Nazi Racial Theory

Chart explaining the complex racial purity stipulations enshrined in the Nuremberg laws

Chart explaining the complex racial purity stipulations enshrined in the Nuremberg laws

Nazi racial theory was based on the notion of racism, in which discrimination or hatred against another racial or ethnic group is condoned. For the Nazis, race was a fixed biological and metaphysical reality; each racial group had its own "essence" that was expressed through the fruits of its particular culture. Racial theorists under the Third Reich subscribed to a number of quasi-scientific theories that justified the regime's antisemitic and racist polices, particularly social Darwinism and eugenics.

Poster advertising Neues Volk, the official Nazi eugenics magazine. The text says, This genetically ill person will cost our people's community 60,000 marks over his lifetime. Citizens, that is your money. Read Neues Volk, the monthly of the racial policy office of the NSDAP.

Poster advertising Neues Volk, the official Nazi eugenics magazine. The text says, "This genetically ill person will cost our people's community 60,000 marks over his lifetime. Citizens, that is your money. Read Neues Volk, the monthly of the racial policy office of the NSDAP."

Social Darwinism is a philosophy that takes Charles Darwin’s ideas about “survival of the fittest” and natural selection and applies them to the political, social, and economic issues of human society. According to this philosophy, Northern European peoples (e.g., Germans, the English, Scandanavians) were considered to be the pinnacle of human evolution, whereas people from other races (e.g., Africans, Jews, Gypsies) were viewed as inferior. For the social Darwinist, there is no need to use resources to help the poor, the chronically ill, or the disabled, because they might spread their "tainted genes" to the next generation. Hence, disease, poverty, war, and discrimination were viewed favorably, since they eliminated the socially and biologically unfit.

Closely related to social Darwinism was the eugenics movement. It must be noted that enthusiasm for the eugenics movement was not confined to Germany. The United States was the first country to implement eugenics laws in the early twentieth century; the state of Indiana passed a law in 1907 that allowed for the forcible sterilization of those deemed "mentally ill and criminally insane." By the end of the 1930s, over 30,000 people in twenty-nine states had been sterilized, either unknowingly or against their will.

German racial scientists admired the work of their American counterparts. Not only were they impressed by the United States' compulsory sterilization laws, but also by Southern antimiscegenation laws and quotas that severely limited the number of Jewish, Slavic, and southern European immigrants (all groups deemed inferior by later Nazi racial theory). The field of German eugenics remained confined to the academy until 1933, when the Nazi regime implemented a program that was based on its American counterpart.

Nazi-era eugenics poster that purports to show the racial characteristics of each type of German face.

Nazi-era eugenics poster that
claims to show the racial characteristics of each type of German face.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

According to Nazi racial theory, the races were arranged in a strict hierarchy, with blond, blue-eyed Northern Europeans, known as "Aryans" or "Nordic types," at the top and the Jews at the bottom. Nazis believed that the Nordics were physically, mentally, and culturally superior to other races and were responsible for history's greatest accomplishments. In terms of appearance, Nordics were tall, fair-skinned, with light hair (blond, red, or light brown), eyes of a light color (blue, grey, or green), and a narrow skull. Jews were considered a mongrel race, spawned from inter-marriage between Africans, Asians, and Arabs, that was the eternal enemy of the Nordic people. Non-white races, such as Africans, indigenous peoples, Hispanics, and Asians were considered to be intellectually and culturally inferior to the Nordics, but were not believed to be intrinsically evil like Jews. Such people would be used as slave labor in the imagined Nazi world order.

1916 map that purports to show the migratory patterns of the Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean races.

1916 map that purports to show the migratory patterns of the Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean races

In addition to the Nordic type, Europeans were thought to belong to two other racial categories, the Alpine and the Mediterranean. Alpines were believed to be the most numerous of the three and were characterized as having brown hair and brown eyes with a round head and a shorter stature, relative to the Nordics. This group was considered to be hardworking and honest, but not particularly creative or well-versed in leadership skills, as were Nordics. People in the Mediterranean group were distinguished by their swarthy complexions, dark hair, and dark eyes. Nazi racial theorists considered Mediterraneans to be a degenerate race, and believed that their dark skin was the result of inter-racial marriage between Africans and/or Arabs.

It should be noted that most Germans did not fit the description of the Nordic type. Nazi leaders theorized that this was the result of "racial degeneration" due to the existence of groups like Jews, the Roma (alsso known as Gypsies), and German-Africans in the country. It was believed that the Nazi eugenics program would eventually "breed" more instances of the Nordic type, while eliminating members of other groups.

Works Cited

Burleigh, Michael and Wippermann, Wolfgang. The Racial State: German 1933-1945. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2006.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1988.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "The Biological State: Nazi Racial Hygiene: 1933-1939." The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Home Page. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007057 (accessed June 12, 2008).