About a month ago, a powerful illustration in Washington Post Book World caught my eye. A reproduction of a 16th-century Spanish woodcut, it shows several conquistadors in the act of brutally murdering a group of native Peruvians. The defenseless prisoners are stripped naked and in chains as the Spaniards run them through with their swords. The hard lesson in the adjacent review headline: “The Luck of the Draw.”
Ah, yes: the end of ideology. No more good guys and bad. Post science writer David Brown’s accompanying review heaps praise on Jared Diamond’s new Guns, Germs and Steel for showing that “location, location, location” is the sole explanation for the woodcut’s bloody scene. Europeans simply got lucky: Their continent runs east-west, facilitating the flow of all kinds of innovations over the centuries. Also, Europe happened to get a disproportionate amount of those wild grasses that work best for agricultural cultivation. Cultivation led to higher levels of technology and social organization; a few millennia of that kind of good fortune, and presto! The King’s men find themselves in America lopping off Indians’ heads, rather than the other way around. “It’s nice to know,” writes Brown, “that forces beyond us explain the most important differences between us….It’s just what happened.”
Yeah, maybe. But that’s not the view of Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, who has recently published two first-rate books on the sources of European racist thought and exterminationist practices. Last year’s Exterminate All the Brutes is an ambitious, original mix of African travelogue, literary probe into the historical source Conrad drew on for Heart of Darkness (hence the title quotation), and most of all, a dig into the morass of pseudo-intellectual self-justification and bad science that Europe developed to justify its enslavement and extermination of people native to its colonies. The Skull Measurer’s Mistake covers much the same ground; however, its emphasis is on the orthodoxies, both here and in Europe. Lindqvist is a courageous, subtle thinker and a dogged researcher; his conclusion in these two books could be summed up, “Ideology matters.”
In Exterminate All the Brutes, Lindqvist immediately gets our attention with a bold thesis: that the Holocaust, the Germans’ attempted extermination of European Jews and other “non-Aryans,” was simply a modern example, on European soil, of long-held European racist ideologies. To prove it, he digs up a fascinating, largely repressed body of European racial literature.
Europeans, he points out, didn’t always disparage Africans. Common Europeans in the 16th through 18th centuries who met Africans as traders seldom expressed racial prejudice; systematic racism appeared only in the 19th century, as a defense of slavery. In 1799, Charles White published An Account of the Regular Graduations in Man, in which he (who had never been to Africa) declared that Africans have smaller skulls (supposedly a sign of lower intelligence) than Europeans, don’t sweat, are insensitive to pain, and “in respects in which animals surpass human beings…also surpass the European.” All complete nonsense, of course, but White served a need: At a time when slavery was a pillar of the imperial economy, his “science” showed that Africans were born to be beasts of burden. Though crude, White’s book demonstrates the essence of a racist ideology: a set of ideas created to allow the violent exploitation of another group of people.
Things really took off with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. As Darwin himself had foreseen, his theory was immediately distorted to justify the assertion that the white “race” would soon, by inescapable natural law, exterminate the “lower races” throughout the world. Those distortions quickly became dogma and, Lindqvist shows, thoroughly pervaded both European and American thought into the early 20th century. The great liberal English philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote at midcentury, “The forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness…exterminate such sections of mankind as get in their way.” Shortly after Queen Victoria celebrated her jubilee year in 1897, her prime minister declared that “[o]ne can roughly divide the globe into the living and the dying nations.” Sadly, even Darwin himself fell into line: In 1871, he published The Descent of Man, in which he wrote, “At some future period not distant…the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races.” (Another disheartening example of the power of prevailing ideology is Alexis de Tocqueville, who after critically noting in Democracy in America that American Indians and African-Americans were entirely excluded from U.S. democracy, returned to France and became Minister for Colonies—and presided over the massacres of thousands of Africans.)
Germany didn’t form a national union until 1870, so it missed out on the colonizing and slavery that enriched the other European powers. It was thus also late in developing its own ideology of oppression. (Indeed, in the early 18th century it was often German scientists who refuted the corrupt, racist science coming out of America, England, and France.) But after 1870, a desire for empire—just like the big boys’—fueled a home-grown industry in racism. Friedrich Ratzel, a favorite of Hitler, coined the term Lebensraum to describe the German need for imperial elbowroom, and he and others made the case for “border colonization”: With all of America and Africa already taken, the Germans would have to find their colonies in Eastern Europe and Russia. German racist propaganda, Lindqvist shows, therefore focused on the inhabitants of those territories, whom Germans wished to displace: Slavs, Russians—and Jews. The first group of people to be gassed at Auschwitz was Russian.
Thus, Lindqvist argues, the Holocaust and the Germans’ attempts at territorial expansion in Europe were simply a continuation of an old European ideology of racism and extermination. “Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European domination had long since rested,” he writes. That understanding, he further alleges, has been almost completely repressed, “even by the Germans, who have been made sole scapegoats for ideas of extermination that are actually common European heritage.”
If Lindqvist is correct, an obvious and uncomfortable question looms for those who would argue that the earlier exterminations of non-“white” people like Africans, Indians, and Pacific Islanders were natural and inevitable: Were the Jews, too, just unlucky? Were they simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
No. The massacres and exterminations of none of these people was naturally ordained. “Guns, germs, and steel” played a significant, but only instrumental, role in the demise of so many. The brains of the operation—the most powerful weapon of all—was an ideology of empire that (as Lindqvist paraphrases Hannah Arendt) “necessitated racism as the only possible excuse for its deeds.”
One leaves Exterminate All the Brutes fearfully impressed with the power of such ideologies, and so all the more respectful of the score of men and women in The Skull Measurer’s Mistake who saw through the lies of their time, spoke up, and acted. Most are obscure figures—they dared to challenge the winning team—but Benjamin Franklin was one: He once faced down a lynch mob intent on murdering an Indian family. Franklin bravely (and with some accuracy) shamed the mob out of its intent by declaring, “These Indians…would have been safer anywhere in the world than among the savages of Pennsylvania.” The lynchers went home.
Helen Hunt Jackson was another; in 1881, she published a scathing and detailed report on the United States’ history of signing and violating agreements with its Indians; she drew Theodore Roosevelt’s famous, contemptuous remark that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.” Thomas Winterbottom, a doctor who had experience in Africa, read White’s work, and wrote a reasoned, point-by-point rebuttal. It was mostly ignored in favor of White’s sheer fabrications.
The need for such courage and contrariness has not, unfortunately, disappeared. All serious readers of The Bell Curve a couple of years ago recognized it as racist trash, but that didn’t prevent the New Republic from showcasing it on its cover, or ABC News from making author Charles Murray virtually a staff commentator during the time of the book’s notoriety. Today, politicians talk with straight faces of welfare “reform”—which would seem to be an unbeatable example of racist double-talk designed to revictimize ghettoized blacks for the poverty their enforced ghettoization created in the first place. It just may be that the systems of oppression outlined with such subtlety and force in Lindqvist’s work continue to have meaning even today.CP