One thing that is abundantly clear from Nazi actions, propaganda, and literature is that they were obsessed with concepts like race, racial purity, and “racial hygiene.” Among the central tenets of Naziism were the beliefs in a pure Aryan race and in the innately inferior, and even insidious, nature of the blood of other races, especially that of the Jews. These ideas, like all ideas, have a genealogy, and what is perhaps most remarkable about these ideas is that very genealogy. The Nazi obsession with race and the uniquely Nazis twists on and responses to that idea are the product of a kind of “perfect storm,” a chance collision of a variety of otherwise unrelated ideas and events which led to catastrophic consequences. Foremost among these disparate concepts, as well as most important for an examination of why this Nazi obsession with race developed in the first place, are the European heritages of anti-Judaism and the scientific outlook that emerged from the Enlightenment.
Anti-Judaism, which must be distinguished from Antisemitism as a separate but related historical antecedent, began very early in European antiquity. The Greek conquerors and overlords of Judea in the fourth through second centuries BCE viewed the Jews, with their unique ritual and social practices such as circumcision and their insistence upon religious exclusiveness, with a great measure of suspicion and skepticism. While most were willing to tolerate and even protect the Jews as an exceptional people, some rulers, such as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted, however unsuccessfully, to force the Jews to Hellenize and renounce their unique religious practices and beliefs.1
The Greek distrust and dislike of the Jews was continued among the Romans, who conquered both the Greeks and the Jews in the second and first centuries BCE. While the Romans were willing to accept and make exceptions for unique Jewish beliefs and practices and large numbers of Jews emigrated throughout the Roman Empire, Jews were consistently mocked and looked down upon by Romans, who saw practices like circumcision as barbaric and the exclusive Jewish monotheism as potentially seditious.2 This negative view of Judaism continued, and was even strengthened in many ways, when the Roman Empire gradually became Christianized beginning in the fourth century CE.
Christianity had emerged from a particularly unpleasant split with Judaism in the first century CE. Christians were viewed by the Jews as treacherous and heretical and, as a result, often suffered persecution and expulsion from the synagogues. This hostility on the part of mainstream Jews toward the Christians in their midst precipitated a final split between Judaism and Christianity. It also led to a great deal of vociferously hostile words making their way into the mainstreams of both Jewish and Christian literature and thought about the other. When Christians began to assume power in the Roman Empire several centuries later, these ideas about the Jews combined with the popular Roman prejudices to strengthen Roman anti-Jewish attitudes.3 These anti-Jewish attitudes, a combination of the Greco-Roman prejudices and Christian theological and historical disagreements, became the predominant view of Judaism throughout Europe for many centuries.
It is notable in all of this that none of these prejudices revolve around Judaism or Jews as a race or ethnicity, but as a specific religious group which one can join and leave by changing belief and custom. This began to change, however, in the early modern period. One element of the Reconquista in Spain was the forced conversion or expulsion of the Jewish population.4 When given the option of converting to Christianity or leaving, many Spanish Jews chose to convert. These conversos, as they were called, came to be viewed with a great deal of envy and suspicion by their Christian neighbors. Many suspected that because they had converted under duress that their conversion had only been affected for appearances and that they secretly continued to practice Judaism. In addition, many whose families had been Christians for centuries viewed with envy the children and grandchildren of conversos who were able to attain to important spots in government and in the the Church. As a result, the name of converso came to be applied, however improperly, even to those whose grandparents had converted to Christianity and the stigma of sedition attributed to the Jews continued to be attached to these conversos even after generations as Christians. What had been a difference in religion was coming to be viewed as a difference in race.
With the era of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans came to focus more attention and importance on science than on religion. Whereas the emphasis of the Middle Ages had been a primarily religious emphasis, which the denizens of the Enlightenment saw as superstitious, the emphasis of the Enlightenment was one of science and rationality. Rather than actually shucking superstition, however, many instead simply adopted a new set of superstitions or rephrased old superstitions in the new, more acceptable terminology.
This can be seen especially in the rise of Antisemitism from anti-Judaism, as constructed by people like Wilhelm Marr. “Marr” was among the first of those who “assigned to Jews the attributes of a race” and was the first, in 1873, to use the term “anti-Semitism” to describe this position.5 While an intellectual living in the wake of the Enlightenment could not take religious differences seriously, or, at least, as seriously as they had been taken previously, he could take supposedly scientific ideas like race seriously; Judaism, then, became no longer a religion, but a race, and all of the same superstitions and conspiracies which had formerly surrounded the Jewish religion were transferred to the new Jewish race.
One of the greatest ironies of the Nazi obsession with race is that they, while taking up this “scientific” view on Judaism as a race, re-translated it into religious terms. For the Nazis, race became a religious concept. As one Nazi ideologist, Arthur Rosenberg, wrote in his The Myth of the 20th Century: “A new faith is awakening today: The faith that blood will defend the divine essence of man; the faith, supported by pure science, that Nordic blood embodies the new mystery which will supplant the outworn sacrament.”6 The Greek incredulity at what they saw as the bizarre customs of the Jews, the Roman suspicions toward Jewish exclusivity, and the Christian theological and historical differences with Judaism, all of which had been matters of religious and cultural opposition, became, for the Nazis, attributed to an insidiousness inherent in Jewish blood. This was contrasted with the inherent superiority and goodness of pure Aryan blood. The Nazis took up a heritage of anti-Judaism and a pseudoscience of race to create their own unique racial religiosity which lay at the heart of their entire philosophy and practice.