The proliferation of mail-in genetic testing services has brought genealogy to the masses, but discontent to racists. While proving one’s own pedigree might seem an essential step to take before crowing about the superiority of one race over another, testing has instead proven that the reality of human variation rarely fits racist aspirations. Nevertheless, racists have not been deterred. Following a study of thousands of posts on the neo-Nazi message board Stormfront, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan found that rather than retreating from their ideology of racial difference, posters who were confronted with testing results that proved the heterogeneity of the human genome would instead seek rationalizations online in order to affirm their assumed racial superiority. In turn, instead of rejecting members who did not fit their profile of racial purity, the other users sought to supply explanations and criticisms of genetic testing so as to massage away any dissonance which the results produced.
That they would do so defies the internal logic of their racism, but is also entirely unsurprising. Racism, by its nature, is an exercise in absurdity. Cribbing from Claude Levi-Strauss, Edward Said once summarized the human bias towards tribalism as being founded upon our most rudimentary system of classifying the world, in which the distinctions we draw between things are neither “predictably rational nor universal.” Consequently, the degree to which someone identifies with a particular group is often based on “a very unrigorous idea of what is ‘out there,’ beyond one’s own territory.” Racism is therefore an entirely negative construction. It depends not on what the racist thinks they are, but rather upon what they believe they are not.
Though racists may argue otherwise, the evidence lies in the fact that they are forever more able to articulate their hatred towards others than their pride in themselves. When pressed, the modern white racist can rarely do better than making vague allusions to “Western culture” when asked to justify their sense of superiority. It’s as true today as it was in the past, as when Gerhard Fricke of Göttingen declared that celebrating the ascension of Nazism in Germany meant standing against “democracy, liberalism, individualism and humanism, capitalism and communism.” Even in the wake of the Nazi revolution, he could not express his identity as a supposedly Aryan German as anything but the anti-thesis of what he reviled.
It is exactly that inability to precisely define race which doomed Nazism to failure, just as it similarly dooms any modern movement which harbors the same hatreds. Regardless of their defeat on the battlefield, the Nazis had already defined victory around an impossible task. Their ambition of building an ethno-state of pure Aryan Germans faltered from the start as contradictions and compromises accumulated behind an ideology which thought itself pure.
The fundamental characteristic of any racism is belief in an intrinsic, immutable superiority defined by heritage, and it was expressed by Nazism through the vocabulary of “blood and soil.” Their idea of Aryan ‘Germanness’ held that the German people were mystically bound to the land which they occupied. Blood and soil, land and people, each a facet of the other, lending strength to the other. Together those two ideas were the ethos which drove Nazism above all others, and they were premised upon the belief that Germans were a part of a uniquely worthy race which was nonetheless under threat of extinction, and that seizing the land of other inferior races was the only means by which Germans could struggle to protect the sanctity of their own people.
As the historian Timothy Snyder summarizes it, Hitler’s view was that “ecology was scarcity, and existence meant a struggle for land.” Races could either triumph by dominating new frontiers, or else starve and be extinguished. When he ordered his soldiers eastward against Poland, Hitler’s primary war goal was therefore the realization of a new living space where land would be cultivated to incubate new generations of German soldiers and mothers. In his vision there was room for neither a Polish state nor a Polish people. Well before the war began, he declared that Germany was not to approach the Poles “with the intention of wanting to one day make Germans out of them.” Instead, the only course was to “either to seal off these racially foreign elements, so as not to let the blood of our people once again be polluted, or … remove them and hand the liberated soil to [our] own racial comrades.”
The absurdity of his vision is that even a cursory examination exposes the foundational tenets of Nazism — ‘Aryan,’ ‘German,’ and even ‘blood’ — as ill-defined and self-defeating. Leaving aside even the expansionary facet of Nazism’s racism and the eventual defeat which it earned, even a purely internal purifying effort was doomed to fail. As Alon Confino writes, “there were two kinds of science in the Third Reich, connected but not identical.” There was that with which we are familiar, where experiments and hypotheses are created and tested in the spirit of honest inquiry, and then there was the other sort which “sought to prove Nazi racial ideas, conforming to its ideological imperatives. Racial experts read into the ‘evidence’ what they had already determined before their research had begun.” Consequently, the boundaries of race were defined more often as markers of spiritual belief, or as “a community of intellect,” than by any evidentiary basis.
Even by their own standards, the Nazis could not create a racially pure society because by their own standards they did not know what that was. Riddled as it was with irreconcilable contradictions, Nazi racial ideology remains nonsensical if treated as anything but an article of faith.
Take the Nuremberg race laws as an example. They were Nazism’s most visible attempt to express their dogma, and they were supposed to be the basis from which impure blood could be identified and expunged. The basic demarcation was that anyone who had three of four Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew. Already there is a problem, because if Nazism were actually holding true to the belief that the taint of Jewish ancestry was insurmountable, even one Jewish grandparent meant the continuation of Jewish blood posing a risk to the people’s community.
Furthermore, actual implementation of ill-thought laws demanded exceptions for fringe cases which again undermined the premise upon which the enterprise was founded. According to the determination of Nazi racial ‘scientists,’ a child born before 1935 to a union between a Jew and a German was classified as Mischling [partly belonging to the German race] whereas a child born to the same union after 1935 was considered fully Jewish. The dissonance which that distinction entails is an inherent consequence of trying to translate an ideology with a basically false premise (that Jews were readily definable and separable from German society) to practical application.
After all, why should a convert to Judaism be marked for death when the German wife of a Jewish man was not? In the language of blood, as the Nazis used it, both would be equally fouled. But, because of the inherent absurdity of Nazi ideology, they were treated differently.
And, as the historian Doris Bergen illustrates, the absurdity was endemic. She relates an example originating in Poland, where bureaucrats were tasked with the “Germanization” of the newly acquired territories. There, the Nazis “realized that even a massively increased birthrate could not produce enough children to achieve the rate of population growth they wanted.” Instead of admitting the fact, they instead “proposed taking ‘racially valuable’ children away from supposedly inferior parents in order to ‘Germanize’ them.” However, if the value of race is tied to blood there would be little sense in hoping the child of an inferior soul could produce a superior one. Such a program of integration is comprehensible only in the case that the value of an individual is in some way separate from their blood. The absurdity of Nazi racial ideology was that they, in separate arenas and at the same time, argued for both.
A particular example can be found in the case of two Polish women named Johanna and Danuta W. Their parents were “pure Polish,” but the sisters nevertheless applied for Germanization. As Doris Bergen relates, “in 1944 SS racial authorities in one city approved Johanna’s application and she became officially recognized as an ethnic German. A similar office elsewhere rejected Danuta. Meanwhile both women went to Germany to work as housemaids.” While there Danuta became pregnant by an SS man and when her “baby was born he received ethnic German status, but his mother was still classified as a Pole.” The reason given for this byzantine demarcation: Danuta “did not look so good.”
Yet another similar story is retold by Alon Confino. In a bizarre twist of fate, the ghettoization of German Jews markedly increased the status of Jewish archivists. Because ‘Germanness’ and ‘Aryan’ were never defined by anything other than what they weren’t, anyone seeking to prove Aryan ancestry would have to prove first that they weren’t Jewish. One SS man by the name of Kuh set out to prove his pedigree through consultation with the local archivist Rabbi Brilling in Breslau, but encountered the problem that his great-grandmother had converted to Christianity from Judaism in 1802. The cutoff date for such a conversion to be acceptable was 1800. Kuh, “considering his exciting future career and in appreciation of the good work of the archivist, asked Brilling to change the date [of conversion] to 1798.” So doing, he mystically changed his soul, his blood, his very essence from being unacceptable to acceptable. The difference two years makes.
Reporting of Aaron Panofsky and Joan Davidson’s study led with the story of Craig Cobb, a white supremacist whose genetic identity was revealed to include sub-Saharan markers on live television, as if it were a revelation that racists might also be hypocrites. In fact, hypocrisy is baked into their very being. Because of our common ancestry, hypocrisy is inherent to any enterprise which seeks to define the value of an individual by their birth. While the danger racists pose may never fade, neither will their absurdity.