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Vacher de Lapouge and the Rise of Nazi Science

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 61, Number 2, April 2000
pp. 285-304 | 10.1353/jhi.2000.0018

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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.2 (2000) 285-304

In the literature on the history of the Shoah the existence of a tradition of explicit anti-morality has been generally ignored. This article argues that the materialist anthropology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries waged a direct attack on morality, which was described as inherently linked to religion. Strict materialism also denied any human access to the eternal except through biological lineage, linking the past, present, and future. This concern with procreation, which culminated in a desire to change the racial content of the world, led anthropology to aim its attack on morality on restrictive sexual mores and the injunction not to kill. Still, anti-morality was not conjured up in order to further eugenics; it was an independent idea and an explicit response to the loss of God. The anthropologist who best illustrates this scientific anti-morality is Georges Vacher de Lapouge, the French inventor of "anthroposociology." The present article explicates Lapouge's anti-morality and establishes a connection between his racial theories and those of a coterie of German colleagues. Most notable among these German colleagues was Hans Günther, whose vision had a role in shaping Nazi racial policy, in particular the Nazi interest in head measurements. Scholars investigating the origins of German racism have discovered French influence but have focused on Gobineau and his almost anti-scientific literary racism. This article argues that Lapouge and his scientific racism were also important.

The relative significance of ideology in the "Final Solution" is the subject of some debate. This article seeks not to enter that debate but rather to reevaluate the nature of the ideology. It seems clear that whatever may have been the relative importance of ideas to, for instance, mundane careerism and conformity, the ideas did play a role. Within that context it will be demonstrated that Lapouge's anthroposociology helped to legitimate racialist utopianism. The scientific status of anthroposociology was deliberately engaged as propaganda for the regime, even after the specifics of its injunctions were no longer of much interest to the programmers of genocide.

Whatever made people enact and accept genocide as daily routine, the idea of it came from somewhere, and somehow "the moral sensitivities" of the people were dulled. Increasingly, historians stress that along with older forms of anti-Semitism, new scientific doctrines had a direct effect on events. There are a number of studies on the role of science in National Socialist doctrine, but they tend to be more about the role of doctors and the medical model of society than they are about anthropology. Those that do deal with anthropology tend to mention Lapouge as an interesting forerunner but consistently fail to recognize his direct influence on Nazi doctrine.

Lapouge's contribution to racism was a quantitative, well-written race theory that was replete with the language and tools of science. It was particularly appealing because it described a collection of human groups which sounded too scientific and clinical to be political. The value-laden descriptions of these clinical types (based on head shape) were easily transferred to known "racial" or social groups -- with the simple claim that this or that group tended to have this or that head shape. Lapougian race theory was convincing because it was alien and yet confirmed familiar suspicions. It was thus highly instrumental in vitalizing dormant or mild prejudice. These ideas (and the endless columns of measurements and descriptions of head shapes) have grown so foreign to present day beliefs that they have become somewhat invisible to our eyes. Because of this, historians have not fully appreciated one of the important factors contributing to the "respectability" and credibility of a genocidal doctrine.

In studying people who were guilty of unparalleled cruelty, historians expected to find moral agony and found instead a bureaucratic, mechanistic, banality. In considering scientific racism, on the other hand, historians tend to describe a rationalist objectification of humanity that simply gave no thought to the amoral nature of the schema. In the original texts, however, one finds evidence of the vague titillation, the existential terror, and the flirtation with horror that reappears in popular histories of the...



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