- Blacks and Gypsies in Nazi Germany:the Limits of the 'Racial State'
What distinguishes National Socialism from other twentieth-century dictatorships is the systematic mass murder prosecuted against the Jews of Europe and rationalized in terms of 'race'. As Tim Mason was acutely aware, this poses a particular challenge to historical understanding: On the one hand, the fact of the genocide, its human and material costs and its moral weight demand our sustained attention and an explanation adequate to its ethical and quantitative dimensions. On the other hand, it eludes explanation in terms of any materialist account of system dynamics, or any general account of Nazism that is about anything except race. For those identified as 'racial enemies', class position offered no protection against persecution in peacetime, and the expenditure of resources on genocide in wartime was if anything counterproductive to national survival.
Since the 1980s historians have responded to this challenge by exploring in detail the ways that practices which Nazism instituted in the name of race built on or exceeded the forms of discipline and exclusion characteristic of 'normal' class societies. In the last twenty years the term 'racial state' has become a shorthand for the sense that there is some kind of coherence in what we now see as a multitude of histories of internment, labour exploitation, sterilization and murder-or-letting-die, such that systematic killing emerged out of a continuum of institutional dehumanization.1 There is authority for this in the intentions of Nazi policy-makers and the practice of legal, medical and social welfare agencies. The inherent unity of 'racial and eugenic policy', of policy towards those of 'alien blood' (Fremdblütige), like Jews, Blacks and Gypsies,2 on the one hand and those who were of 'German blood' (Deutschblütige) but genetically damaged or incorrigibly deviant on the other, was axiomatic for Hitler. The creation of a legislative framework that would realize this unity by preventing the birth of undesirables (through a radical reform of the institutions and principles of the public health system that promoted both positive and negative eugenic measures) and by enabling the exclusion of those already present (through changes to the laws governing citizenship, civil rights and civic status) was one of the earliest projects of the regime. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, [End Page 161] the first comprehensive measures against the Jews, characteristically addressed both the biological and the civic imperatives: Jews were excluded from citizenship and marriages and sexual relations between Jews and 'those of German or related blood' were banned.3
In adopting the vision of the 'racial state', however, historians have tended to picture as a fait accompli something that was never more than a work in progress. Close attention to the ways in which exclusionary and genocidal practices were devised, applied and experienced in everyday life throws up substantial evidence of incoherence. National Socialism aimed to subsume all forms of difference into a unitary hierarchy of race. This meant removing race from the realm of the experiential and interactive in which actual relations among social groups were constituted and breaking its intuitive association with perceptible difference. The 'desirable' as well as the 'undesirable', insiders and outsiders alike, might be called upon at any time to demonstrate their blood-line and thereby to make their 'race' legible, or to submit to being tested for invisible evidence of their genetic qualifications. The logic of the notion of deutschblütig (or its pseudo-historical equivalent Aryan) was thus to overturn structures of assumption about self and other that are characteristic of ordinary race-stratified societies. Accordingly, everyday constructions of alterity posed a challenge to the Nazi racial project. In the case of Blacks and Gypsies, recognizable as 'other' through their appearance, dress and habits of life, Nazi policies encountered pre-existing structures of expectation and prejudice, each with its own history. The traces of those histories continued to be apparent in the behaviour of both the raced objects of policy and those who made and enforced it.
What I want to do here is consider what happens if we follow those traces and pay attention to their consequences. One reason for the tenacity of...