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The master race ((German: die Herrenrasse, das Herrenvolk (help·info))) is a concept in Nazi ideology in which the Nordic race—a branch of what in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century taxonomy was called the Aryan race—represented an ideal and pure race. In Nazi ideology the Nordic race was the purest example of the original racial stock of those who were then called the Proto-Aryans, whom the Nazis believed to have prehistorically dwelt on the North German Plain and to have ultimately originated from the lost continent of Atlantis. The Nazis declared that the Nordics (nowadays referred to as the Germanic peoples), were the true Aryans because they were less racially mixed with "non-native" Indo-European peoples than other people of what were then called the Aryan peoples (now generally called the Indo-European peoples), such as the Slavic peoples, the Romance peoples and the Indo-Iranian peoples. Based on this claim that the Nordic peoples were superior to all other races, the Nazis believed they were entitled to expand territorially. This concept is known as Nordicism. The actual policy that was implemented by the Nazis resulted in the Aryan certificate, the one form of the official document that was required by the law for all citizens of the Reich was the "Lesser Aryan certificate" (Kleiner Ariernachweis) which could be obtained through an Ahnenpass which required the owner to trace their lineage through baptist or birth certificates or certified proof thereof that all grandparents were of "Aryan descent".
The overwhelming majority of the Slavic population according to the Nazi secret plan Generalplan Ost were to be removed through expulsion, enslavement and extermination from East-Central Europe. Nazis eventually decided to exterminate (largely by starvation) the Poles and most other Slavic people who, along with the Jews and Gypsies, were defined as untermenschen, and a danger to the "Aryan" or Germanic übermenschen master race. A small percentage of people living in Eastern Europe who were deemed by Nazis to be descendants of Germanic settlers, were seen as sufficient subjects for Germanisation.
The Übermensch (German) (English Overman or Superman) is a concept in the philosophy of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—he posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also Sprach Zarathustra). However, Nietzsche never developed the concept on racial grounds; the philosopher was not racist (nor an anti-semite). Instead, the Übermensch "seems to be the ideal aim of spiritual development more than a biological goal.". Nazism distorted the real meaning behind the concept to fit its 'master race' view.
Mendelian genetics was rediscovered in 1900, providing the basis of the genetic inheritance maps used by Nazi eugenicists to identify persons of the Jewish race. In relation to models of inheritance, race is treated by Nazi eugenicists not as a single gene inherited in a mendelian fashion, and is not based upon mendelian inheritance.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was posited that the Indo-Europeans (then generally also referred to as Aryans) made up the highest branch of humanity because their civilization was the most technologically advanced. This reasoning simultaneously intertwined with Nordicism which proclaimed the "Nordic race" as the "purest" form of said Aryan race. As such, this "Nordic race" came to be regarded by the right wing in Europe, Northern America, Southern South America and Australasia to be a "master race" because of its supposed innate leadership qualities and advancements in civilization. Today, this view is regarded as scientific racism because it contradicts racial equality by positing that one race is superior to other races.
Eugenics came to play a prominent role in this racial thought as a way to improve and maintain the "purity" of the Aryan master race. Eugenics was a concept adhered to by many thinkers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, such as Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Madison Grant, Émile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Linus Pauling and Sidney Webb. Aldous Huxley’s best-selling novel Brave New World, about a future society based on eugenics, was published in 1932. Human “dog and pony show” type events (organized by advocates of eugenics), where men and women appeared on stage in swimsuits in eugenic competitions (only Nordic Aryans were allowed to enter) to be evaluated for their physical and mental qualities as marriage partners were common throughout Europe and North America in the 1920s. The Nazis took this concept to a further extreme by establishing a program to systematically genetically enhance the Nordic Aryans themselves through a program of Nazi eugenics, based on the eugenics laws of the United States state of California, to create a super race.
The modern concept of the master race in general derives from 19th-century racial theory, which posited a hierarchy of races based on darkness of skin color. This 19th-century concept was largely initially developed by Count Joseph Arthur De Gobineau. Gobineau's basic concept, as further refined and developed in Nazism, places the black Aboriginal Australians and "African savages" at the bottom of the hierarchy, while the white Northern, Eastern and Western European Aryans (consisting of Germans, Swedish, Icelanders, Norwegians, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Danish, British, Irish, Dutch, French, etc.) were at the top; white olive-skinned Southern Europeans (consisting of the Spanish, Italians, Greeks and Portuguese, i.e. those of what is called the Mediterranean race, which was regarded as another subrace of the Caucasian race) in the upper middle ranks; and those of the olive-skinned Semitic race (another subrace of the Caucasian race) in the middle ranks (it was because the Jews, being Semites, were clever that they were so dangerous—they had their own plan for Jewish world domination, a conspiracy that had to be opposed by all thoughtful Aryans, declared the Nazis); and those of the yellow Mongoloid race (including its offshoots the brown Malayan race and the red American Indian race), the Dravidian race, the Hamitic race (regarded as another subrace of the Caucasian race), and mixed-race people such as Eurasians, the bronze Mestizos, Mulattos, Afro-Asians, and Zambos in the lower middle ranks.
In attempting to scientifically prove the racial inferiority of Slavs, German (and Austrian) racial scientists were forced to gloss over their findings which consistently found that Early Slavs were dolicocephalic and fair haired, i.e. "Nordic", whist the South Slavic "Dinaric" sub-race was often viewed favourable. The concept of a Slavic "Untermensch" was created by the Nazis to justify their political goals, and was particularly aimed at Poles and Russians, fueled particularly by the latter's link with Zionism, Communism and the East. Germany's ultimate goal was to realize their Drang nach Osten to conquer in Europe, Ukraine's "chernozem" (black earth) soil being a particularly desirable zone for colonization by the "herrenvolk" (master race).
In the United States, the concept of 'master race' arose within the context of master-slave race relations in the slavery-based society of historical America – particularly in the South in the mid-19th century. It was based upon both the experience of slavery and the pseudo-scientific justifications for racial slavery, but also on the relations between whites in the South and North, particularly during the American Civil War.
For these great ends hath Heaven’s supreme command
Brought the black savage from his native land,
Trains for each purpose his barbarian mind,
By slavery tamed, enlightened, and refined;
Instructs him, from a master-race, to draw
Wise modes of polity and forms of law,
Imbues his soul with faith, his heart with love,
Shapes all his life by dictates from above
where the phrase denotes the relation between the white masters and negro slaves. By 1860 Virginian author George Fitzhugh was using the "challenging phrase “master race”, which soon came to mean considerably more than the ordinary master-slave relationship". Fitzhugh, along with a number of southern writers, used the term to differentiate Southerners from Northerners, based on the dichotomy that Southerners were supposedly descendents of Normans / Cavaliers whereas Northerners were descendents of Anglo-Saxons / Puritans.
In 1861, the Southern press bragged that Northern soldiers would "encounter a master race" and knowledge of this fact would cause Northern soldiers' "knees to tremble". The Richmond Whig in 1862 proclaimed that "the master race of this continent is found in the southern states", and in 1863 the Richmond Examiner stated that "there are slave races born to serve, master races born to govern"
In the works of John H. Van Evrie, a Northern supporter of the Confederacy, the term was interchangeable with white supremacy, notably in White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, Or, Negroes a Subordinate Race and (so-called) slavery its normal condition (1861). In Subgeneation: the theory of the normal relations of the races; an answer to miscegenation (1864) Van Evrie created the words “subgen” to describe what he considered to be the "inferior races" and “subgeneation” to describe the ‘normal’ relation of such inferior races to whites, something which he considered to be the "very corner-stone of democracy"; but these words never entered the dictionary.
Following the defeat of the Confederacy the term master race immediately fell into disuse.
The origins of the Nazi version of the theory of the master race were in 19th-century racial theories of Count Joseph Arthur De Gobineau, who argued that cultures degenerated when distinct races mixed. It was believed at this time that Southern European peoples were racially mixed with non-European Moors from across the Mediterranean Sea, while Northern Europeans and Western Europeans remained pure. Proponents of Nordic theory further argued that Nordic peoples had developed innate toughness and determination due to the harsh, challenging climate in which they evolved.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the earliest proponents of a theory presenting a hierarchical racial model of history, attributing civilisational primacy to the "white races" who gained their sensitivity and intelligence by refinement in the rigorous north.
The highest civilisation and culture, apart from the ancient Indians and Egyptians, are found exclusively among the white races; and even with many dark peoples, the ruling caste or race is fairer in colour than the rest and has, therefore, evidently immigrated, for example, the Brahmins, the Incas, and the rulers of the South Sea Islands. All this is because necessity is the mother of invention because those tribes that emigrated early to the north and there gradually became white, had to develop all their intellectual powers and invent and perfect all the arts in their struggle with need, want and misery, which in their many forms were brought about by the climate. This they had to do in order to make up for the parsimony of nature and out of it all came their high civilisation.
Despite this, he was adamantly against differing treatment of races, was fervently anti-slavery, and supported the abolitionist movement in the United States. He describes the treatment of "[our] innocent black brothers whom force and injustice have delivered into [the slave-master's] devilish clutches" as "belonging to the blackest pages of mankind's criminal record".
The postulated superiority of these people was said to make them born leaders, or a "master race". Other authors included Guido von List and his associate Lanz von Liebenfels, and the British racial theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, all of whom felt that the white race and Germanic peoples were superior to others, and that given the purification of the white race and German people from the races who were "polluting" it, a new millenarian age of Aryan god-men would arrive.
Nazi policy stressed the superiority of the Germanic Ubermenschen (superhuman) Nordic race, a sub-race of the white Caucasian race European population defined by anthropometric models of racial difference. The Nordic race was said to comprise only the Germanic peoples: Scandinavians (Norwegians, Swedish, Danish, Icelanders, and Faroese), ethnic Germans (including Austrians, Banat Swabians, as well as Sudeten, Baltic and Volga Germans), Alemannic Swiss, Liechtensteiners, Luxembourgers, the Dutch, Flemings, Afrikaners, Frisians and the English.
Nazi racial theorist Hans F. K. Günther first defined "Nordic thought" in his programmatic book Der Nordische Gedanke unter den Deutschen. That Germans were not purely Nordic was indeed acknowledged by Günther in his book Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (1922) ("Racial Science of the German People"), where Günther recognized Germans as being composed of five Aryan subtype races: Nordic, Mediterranean, Dinaric, Alpine, and East Baltic, while asserting that the Nordics were the highest in a racial hierarchy of the five subtypes. Most official Nazi comments on the Nordic race were based on Günther's works, and Alfred Rosenberg presented Günther with a medal for his work in anthropology.
Although the physical ideal of these racial theorists was typically the tall, fair-haired and light-eyed Nordic individual, such theorists accepted that considerable variety of hair and eye colour existed within the racial categories they recognised. For example, the Nazis, contrary to popular urban legend, did not discriminate against individuals based on characteristics such as hair and eye colour. Adolf Hitler and many Nazi officials, for instance, had dark hair and were still considered to be members of the Aryan race under Nazi racial doctrine, as the determination of racial type depended on a preponderance of many characteristics in an individual rather than on one defining feature.
Giuseppe Sergi (1841–1936) was an Italian anthropologist of the early twentieth century, best known for his opposition to Nordicism in his books on the racial identity of ancient Mediterranean peoples. His concept of the Mediterranean race became important to the modelling of racial difference in the early twentieth century.
The term Aryan derives from the Sanskrit word (ā́rya), which derived from arya, the original Indo-Iranian autonym. Also, the word Iran is the Persian word for land/place of the Aryan (see also Iranian peoples).
Following the ideas of Gobineau and others, the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg determined that these people, who, he claimed, were originally from Atlantis, were a dynamic warrior people who dwelt in prehistoric times in northern climates on the North German Plain, from which they migrated riding their chariots southeast, eventually reaching Ukraine, Iran, and then India. They were supposed to be the ancestors of the ancient Germanic tribes, who shared their warrior values. Rosenberg claimed that Christianity was an alien Semitic slave-morality inappropriate to the warrior Aryan master race and thus supported a melange of aspects of Hindu Vedic and Zoroastrian teachings (both of these religions having been organised by Aryans), along with pre-Christian European Odinistic paganism, which he also considered to be distinctively Aryan in character.
In Nazi Germany, the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 forbid sexual relations and marriage between an "Aryan" and a "non-Aryan" in order to maintain the purity of the Aryan race. Such relations became a punishable crime as Rassenschande or "racial shame". The League of German Girls was particularly regarded as instructing girls to avoid Rassenschande, which was treated with particular importance for young females. Aryans found guilty could face incarceration in a concentration camp, while non-Aryans could face the death penalty. The Nazis recognized the Germanic people as the master race, several methods were made also to improve and maintain the Germanic-Nordic ubermenschen Aryan "master race", eugenics was practiced. In order to eliminate "defective" citizens, the T-4 Euthanasia Program was administered by Karl Brandt to rid the country of the intellectually disabled or those born with genetic deficiencies, as well as those deemed to be racially inferior. Additionally, a programme of compulsory sterilisation was undertaken which resulted in the forced operations of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Many of these policies are generally seen as being related to what eventually became known as the Holocaust.
The Nazis also took measures to increase the number of Nordics in Germany. The Lebensborn program was only open to German women who fitted the Nordic profile. During the Nazi-Soviet occupation of Poland, the Nazis took young Nordic-looking Polish children who were classified as being descended of ethnic German settlers to check whether or not they were "racially valuable", if they were the young children were taken back to these Lebensborn houses so they could be raised as Germans.
In Nazi Germany there existed an official document, which certified its owner to be Aryan, the so-called Aryan certificate that could be obtained by citizens of other countries. It states in the section Racial Tenet (Rassegrundsatz):
"In line with national socialist thinking which does full justice to all other peoples, there is never the expression of superior or inferior, but alien racial admixtures."
For the Greater Aryan certificate people had to prove that reaching back to January 1, 1800 "none of their paternal nor their maternal ancestors had Jewish or colored blood" (SS officers had to prove this reaching back to 1750).
The fact that the Mediterranean race is responsible for the most important of ancient western civilisations was a problem for the promoters of Nordic superiority. According to Giuseppe Sergi, the Mediterranean race was the "greatest race of the world" and was singularly responsible for the most accomplished civilisations of ancient times, including those of Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Phoenicia, Carthage, and Rome. The Mediterranean race was also a major influence to the outside world in the modern era, the most significant being Spain and Portugal when they became global empires, influencing most of the Americas. Spain is also responsible for being one of the first nations in discovering and colonising the Americas by its conquistadors.
C. G. Seligman also stated that "it must, I think, be recognised that the Mediterranean race has actually more achievements to its credit than any other race, since it is responsible for by far the greater part of Mediterranean civilisation, certainly before 1000 BC (and probably much later), and so shaped not only the Aegean cultures, but those of Western as well as the greater part of Eastern Mediterranean lands, while the culture of their near relatives, the Hamitic pre-dynastic Egyptians, formed the basis of that of Egypt."
The Nazis explained this away by claiming that the elite warriors of the aristocracy of Ancient Greece, of Ancient Rome, and of the Spanish Empire were Nordic Aryans who had migrated south. However, they did admit that those of the Mediterranean race in general and notably such geniuses of the Mediterranean race as Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, Andrea Palladio, Galileo Galilei, Enrico Fermi and Leonardo da Vinci tended to be more creative than Nordics.
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Aryan master race ideology was common throughout the educated and literate strata of the Western world until after World War II. Such theories were commonplace in early-20th century fantasy literature.
In the original 1920s and 1930s, Buck Rogers stories and newspaper cartoons, Buck Rogers, in his adventures in the 25th century that take place on Earth, fights for Aryan-Americans from the liberated zone around Niagara, New York, against the Red Mongol Empire, a Chinese empire of the future which rules most of North America.
In the 1930s, both educational and storybooks for children in Germany taught their readers about the master race. In the Sun Koh science fiction series where Koh says things like "My forefathers were Aryan". In a story about Atlantis, Koh says, "If our Atlantis once again rises out of the sea, then we will get from there the blond, steel-hard men with the pure blood and will create with them the master race, which will finally rule the earth." The German writer Michael Ende, who was born in 1929 and grew up with such books, in the 1950s, wrote his classic novel Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver as a way of opposing the Nazi propaganda he was taught. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writer Julia Voss wrote a book[note 1] on Jim Button, uncovering the Ende's many references to Nazi symbols. Voss shows how Ende upends the Nazi belief that Atlantis was the original home of the Aryan race by creating his own submerged city and making it rise, but not restore Aryan master-race rule over the earth, rather it becomes a multi-racial paradise with Jim Button, who is black, as its king.
In Doctor Who, the Doctor's frequent enemies, the Daleks, consider themselves a master race who must purge the universe of all others; Terry Nation explicitly modeled them on the Nazis. In the 2009 special The End of Time, when the Master transforms the entire human race into copies of himself, he claims that there is no human race, but only "the Master race".
In the Harry Potter series, while the parallels were not originally intentional, there is much similarity between Voldemort's Pureblood ideology and the Master Race ideology of the Nazis, with wizards being "pure" and anyone with Muggle (non-wizard) blood being considered "half-blood" or "mudblood", a word treated the way a racial slur would be treated in the real world (Neo-Nazis call non-white people mud people).