Saturday, May 23, 2015

Birth of a word

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

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 Walther 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 Volk 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.


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.


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

Taguieff, P-A. (2001). The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and its Doubles, University of Minnesota Press.


W.LindsayWheeler said...

It is not enough to just quote a book anymore in my estimation. For example, Togliati wrote that President Ronald Reagan was a fascist. Okay. But then when you do research on Togliati you find that he was a committed Communist and that worked in the Spanish Civil War. Togliati called anybody that was not a doctrinaire communist, a fascist.

Now, who is Pierre-Andre Taguieff? Was he a communist? Liberal? Because communists and Leftists are not academics, but ideologues, they are about """"forming narratives"""" with words as weapons. What are his credentials? Was he a plain historian, or an ideologue that wished to push an agenda? Who Knows?

You can no longer just quote texts and authors as authoritative. Communists have been pushing agendas so what is the motivation behind Taguieff or Marie de Roux or in Vermeil? Which one are Jews? See, you are asking us to Trust the sources but can we really trust them? Maybe they are slanting their information. For instance the use of the term "extreme right" faction? Obviously, only the Left recognizes "rightists" and those hold "nationalist" views whereas the Left is against nationalism and is about building the Unity of Man.

If Marie de Roux was all into "Universal" principles, that tells me that person is a communist for International Socialism was about "Universal" principles.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

With my limited resources, The Oxford English Dictionary lists as 1936 the first use of the word "racism" in L. Dennis Coming American Fascism, pg 109, " be assumed that one of our values should be a type of racism which excludes certain races from citizenship, then the plan of execution should provide for the annihilation, deportation, or sterilization of the excluded races".

For the term "racialism" though the first use of the that term came in 1907 Daily Chron. 2 Jan 6/5. "The two principle planks in the party platform are opposition to all racialism and cooperation with the Government."

The next use of the term is 1910 Westminister Gazette 11 Apr 10/3. "What appears to me to be the greatest results of the Botha-Smuts Government is the abolition of Racialism and the construction of roads."

What is clear from the contexts of "racialism" is that way before German National Socialism ever appeared was a concerted effort of deracination, of de-nationalization. National Socialism is just a reaction against International Socialism that existed for at least 75 years before the beginnings of National Socialism. There has been a concerted campaign of deracination since the middle of the 19th century. It was only later that words were coined for the ideology. The term "racism" was coined as a pejorative for the new morality of Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevism; with a New Order, one must have a New Morality. With a Novus Ordo (Which is on the Seal of the United States of America), one must have a Nova Moralia.

Mr. Frost, I know that you seek to have a basis in science and work from science but people with the deracination ideology don't care one wit's end about science in this regard! It is about pushing the agenda, about implementing their theoretical imaginations as Adorno and Horkheimer posited. The lower classes are going to follow the braying of the narrative. They also don't care about science. You're talking to only a few who care and can understand and who have the gumption to buck the system of Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevism.

Sean said...

Sorry if what follows is a bit rambling.

German social 'Darwinists' were not actually Darwinists, here. And the most influential of them, Haeckel, was friendly towards Jews. See here.

I don't go alone with the idea that Germany's radical nationalism stemmed from any kind of racial theory or social Darwinism. "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). " John Gray is a great one for blaming the European Enlightenment for the Nazis and Communism. He says the Jacobins were the originals.

The French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic ones, can be seen as a single 20 year conflict paralleling WW1/Hitler's war. Of course the Revolutionary wars, in which the French armies attacked Germans states, were fought to bring Universal values to humanity. And the French Revolutionary armies' attacks succeeded because they were pressed home by ""extremist," "activist," and "fanatical" elements". The high tempo of attack was the reason for the success of Revolutionary French and Nazi armies.

Why Hitler came to power probably had a lot of elements. Racism did not seem to be a big part of his appeal though. biggerfactors were WW1 ending before Germany was a defeated country, territorial dismemberment and reparations contrary to the peace terms they thought they had capitulated on, a youth bulge, and the Marxist parties' strength in Germany. The external situation Germany was in the main part the reason for WW2 though. Mearsheimer is good on this he says in a certain situation states will go to war, their internal ideology does not make much of a difference. Nowadays Germany is surrounded by friendly countries and it is the most pacifistic major state. The need for a certain foreign policy affects domestic politics, not the other way about.

After the shock of WW1 France began social reforms and encouraging immigration. See here (It didn't work for WW2; they were outnumbered almost 2:1 in the call up class of 18-19 year olds.)

My feeling is that the current policies in Western countries are, if you step back and ignore ideological rationalisations, basically an attempt to make states stronger for the new terms of competition. Being 'competitive' is a mantra with globalisation/ immigration proponents. There is genuine hyper altruism in individual minds but not at the level of a state. Antiracism is seen as strengthening the state, and that is why attacks on Jews are used to intimidate and discourage that part of the population who are traditionally nationalistic, even though they are not the ones attacking Jews.

Anonymous said...

My feeling is that the current policies in Western countries are, if you step back and ignore ideological rationalisations, basically an attempt to make states stronger for the new terms of competition....Antiracism is seen as strengthening the state,

I don't see how you can conclude that these are attempts to strengthen states qua states. These policies are obviously weakening the state. They're benefiting certain people and non-state entities at the expense of the state.

Malcolm Smith said...

I was born in 1949, and I remember that first hearing the word, "racism" in the mid-1960s. Before that, the term was "racialism", but the new term quickly took over. I would accept that "racism" was used before that period, but it was not mainstream.

Sean said...

Yes "racism" only took over from "racialism" in Britain during the seventies, maybe because 'racist' conveys more of the connotation of 'fascist'. Marxism's modern form of Trotskyism seems always considered itself the great expert about fascism although Trotsky never predicted fascism. The failure of 30's German Marxists to win what was fully expected to be an inevitable victory traumatised Western intellectuals. They never really trusted the masses again.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The real question is not the "Birth of a word" but in the ideology that needed to coin the word.

The question to be asked is "Where and Why did the notion of Deracination" come into being. That is the question. For it is the ideology of deracination that needed the term "racism" in order to advance its goals. The term "Racism" is about Deracinating! It is about de-nationalizing people. It is a social conditioning device.

Peter Frost said...


Pierre-Andre Taguieff describes himself as a "liberal social conservative." He feels that the political left has abandoned its principles by embracing globalization and supporting the European Union. One might define him as left-wing, right-wing, both, or neither. For what it's worth, he associates with Jewish people and has many Jewish friends.

I could find out more about him, but I am satisfied with what I do know. Sometimes, it isn't necessary to know everything and say everything.


You're partly right. Social Darwinism was introduced into German nationalism at a relatively late stage. German nationalism developed after the Napoleonic Wars in reaction to French nationalism and its notions of universal principles. It was the antithesis to the thesis of French revolutionary ideas.


You're right. Before the 1960s it was a word confined to the far left (which itself wasn't very widespread). Even in the 1970s, it was not a word that older people readily understood.

Sean said...

France has never really reconciled itself to the existence of Germany "
MASTER-idea number one is “the primacy of foreign policy”. Every state – even an island-state such as ours – has to take its own security as its first concern, which means managing relations with allies and enemies and going to war for or against them. Not only does this trump domestic concerns; it also moulds domestic politics and the nature of government within the state. Therefore, the history of all European countries has to be written in an international, top-down way: it is the interactive “system” of states that comes first.

Master-idea number two is that in the European system, over the past half-millennium, the central role has always been played by Germany. (Or, at least, the German lands, broadly considered – for much of the time it was the Holy Roman Empire, a legal entity rather than a state, which extended to the Netherlands, Bohemia, Austria and elsewhere.) Germany had the pivotal place in what AJP Taylor called “the perpetual quadrille of the Balance of Power”; it supplied soldiers in huge quantities; and the coveted title of “Holy Roman Emperor” made it the constant target of ambitious rulers in other parts of Europe. "
(Simms says containment of German power was the real reason for the EU.)Anyway I think a big factor in the ideology of Revolutionary France, which spent much of its time knocking seven bells out of Austria, was basically a response to that Austrian part the German nation. The bickering German princely states developed a pan-German nationalist ideology in response to having France invading them yet again.

I have been reading a little about British scientists like Haldane who moved to the left and became antiracists in the 30s. Again it is striking how the eugenicists were often Lamarkians. I suppose that leftism could be seen as a convenient ideology for the British who were becoming worried about increasingly powerful Germany. The Danzig question in the 30's was talked about as a matter of race, and Haldane was very quick to debunk that. So statements about black Africans by scientists like Haldane and Huxley were really aimed at the foundations of German ideology.

Anonymous said...

Every state – even an island-state such as ours – has to take its own security as its first concern, which means managing relations with allies and enemies and going to war for or against them. Not only does this trump domestic concerns; it also moulds domestic politics and the nature of government within the state.

The foundation of the state is the population base. The European states are replacing their native populations with populations that don't make good farmers and soldiers. That is with populations that wouldn't even make pre-modern agrarian states competitive, let alone modern technological, industrial ones.

Anonymous said...

Small note: „Völk“ sounds rather alien to my german ears, it's „(das) Volk“, no umlaut. As for „Völkismus“, has about 149 for Volkismus, and 198 for Völkismus. It doesn't seem like a a term that's used much.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for double-posting, has 34 for Volkismus, and 63 for Völkismus. So the spelling that's more common in this case is Völkismus, but I have never heard anyone talk about „das Völk“.

Bruce said...

There’s a common claim on the far right that the word “racism” (or “racist”) was first used or at least popularized by Trotsky. Have you looked into this claim