Book Review: Toward the Final Solution

Mosse, George L. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. Second Edition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. xxx + 277 pages.

Among twentieth century historians, George L. Mosse looms justifiably large. Over his long career, he was remarkable in his ability to repeatedly see, or perhaps define, the direction in which scholarship would go over the coming decades. For example, Mosse’s classic Nationalism and Sexuality heralded a new literature on the relationship between images of sexual normalcy, fertility and the national group. Similarly, The Nationalization of the Masses (1975) and Fallen Soldiers presented arguments which showed the importance of monuments, memory and festivals to national identity--important fields which, while growing, have much room for further study. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism is yet another important, though not flawless, Mosse text.

At the heart of Mosse’s Toward the Final Solution is one of the twentieth century's greatest questions: how was it possible for ordinary German people to allow and even condone the murder of 6 million European Jews in a frighteningly organized manner? For Mosse, the answer to this question centers on the intellectual development of European racism beginning in the eighteenth century and moving forward toward the Final Solution. Mosse writes: "Any book concerned with the European experience of race must start with the end and not with the beginning: 6 million Jews killed by the heirs of European civilization, by a bureaucracy which took time out from efficiently running the state to exterminate the Jews equally efficiently and impersonally." How could this come to pass (xxv)? While this question is hardly original to Mosse, his approach is more novel. Rather than look specifically at the German Sonderweg, claim that the German people simply did not know, or declare Germans to be somehow "bad," Mosse sees the Holocaust's origins as a broader intellectual question. Only by understanding where racism comes from is it possible to understand how Hitler was able to mold Germany into a truly racial state.

Before he can begin his history, Mosse must first distinguish racism from earlier xenophobias. Mosse writes in the preface to the 1985 reprinting: "Racism was a visual ideology based upon stereotypes. That was one of its main strengths. Racism classified men and women: this gave it clarity and simplicity essential to success. But in addition racism, as an emotion-laden ideology, took advantage of the reaction that set it against the Enlightenment..."(xii). Prior to the addition of the new prologue, Mosse was somewhat less clear, writing that the horrifying fact basic to all racism is that "Myth accepted as reality became the reality" (xxviii)--a brilliantly pithy, if somewhat unspecific statement. Either way, Mosse is clear that racism is a product of the eighteenth century, though he writes that it also existed in a modern sense in sixteenth century Spain. He claims that this earlier incarnation of modern racism (directed toward "Jewish Christians") faded with time "and did not constitute a viable precedent for the rest of Europe" (xxix). Of course, this idea begs the question: why did this earlier racism fade away? Indeed, where did it come from, if not from a similar intellectual trajectory as the one Mosse is setting out to describe? I will come back to this issue later in this review.

Having positioned his study in time and provided a working definition of the ideology about which he is writing, Mosse then begins to piece together the history of racism. The story of racism begins, he tells us, with the Enlightenment and the coterminous religious revival and Pietist movements. On the one hand, the Enlightenment saw the development of "science" and a new system of aesthetics which sought out an ideal of beauty--the two quickly becoming interrelated through a desire to place man in nature. On the other hand, Pietism and religion brought people together into tighter communities and provided a means of linking man to the natural world.

More specifically, the Enlightenment saw the development of early anthropology, which attempted to place man in nature by studying behavior, measurements, and making comparisons of groups of men to animals. It did not prove difficult for anthropology to quickly become tied with phrenology (reading the skull) and physiognomy (reading the face), pseudosciences which attempted to learn about mankind by aesthetic means alone. By judging men on their appearance and comparing groups living in less modernized ways to animals, early racial thinking was able to adopt a scientific validity. Very quickly, "The ideal-type symbolized by a classical beauty and proper morals determined attitudes toward all men" (12). Groups which fell outside of this accepted range, especially blacks, were viewed as sub-human and morally undeveloped and wild.

Mosse makes it clear very early in his book that it was not a lack of contact which bred fear of the unknown, but precisely the opposite. As contact between black, white, and Jew increased through the Colonial experience and Jewish emancipation, the increasing visibility of minority groups played directly to racial fears. Suddenly those groups who had been scientifically shown to be less-than-human were present in rapidly growing numbers.

After establishing these early developments, Mosse shifts his focus toward anti-Semitic racism in the mid nineteenth century. While Jews had not borne the brunt of the first racial theories, that began to change during this period. At least some of the change began when Sir William Jones, not himself a racist, suggested that there was a connection between Egypt, India, Greece, and Italy long before they had settled into a common territory. This thesis gave Friedrich Schlegel the fodder for his argument of common Aryan origins as demonstrated through "organic languages" (41). Common Aryan roots placed the Aryans in direct opposition to the Semites and on a racially superior plain. The increasing intolerance of nationalism was then set against showing who had common roots and who did not. Jews were thus placed in opposition to the nation. Once this had happened, it was not long before racist intellectuals began trying to determine more specific differences between all national groups--however contrived the comparisons needed to be.

As noted before, early anthropology sought to compare men with beasts. Those groups falling outside of the accepted range were thus characterized as closer to animals, unable to control their passions (especially sexually) and in many cases they were declared vermin. It is from this that racism draws its frequent animal references--Jews as rats, blacks as monkeys, and so forth. Eugenics soon developed from this line of thinking. After all, why not attempt to breed better humans, eliminating those groups which did not meet the standard?

Moving into the twentieth century, the nineteenth-century heritage of racial thought had created two important legacies: a "mystical idea of race, which extended the ever present subjectivity of racial thought until it left any pretense of science behind" and a tradition which "sought scientific and academic respectability for racial classification" (77). These nineteenth century developments acquired a greater urgency as the pace of urbanization, population growth, and modernization increased. Who was and was not a member of one’s specific community truly mattered and racial hygiene seemed even more important. The earlier eugenics movement developed into racial biology. Meanwhile, the mystery of race became ever more connected to national origins. When the newly created ethnic idea of ‘nation’ was combined with the growing spiritualism which descended on Europe and the growing need for national unity brought on by increasing class strife (95), racism became an important part of a new national religion.

According to Mosse, "The mystery of race transformed the Jew into an evil principle" (113). Earlier myths such as the wandering Jew, ritual murder of Christian children, the uniquely Jewish smell, and the Jewish conspiracy against the Gentiles became reality. As Mosse puts it, "These legends, whether the blood libel or that of the wandering Jew, offered explanation and coherence in a world of industrialization, instability, and bewildering social change, just as they had earlier been used as explanation for famines, sickness, and all manner of natural catastrophes" (115).

Another important ingredient of this racial mix was a widespread acceptance of these arguments by religious houses. Racialism began to become an element of weekly Sunday service. The Jewish stereotypes were embedded in the Christian world view.

The final critical element which made Hitler's racial policies possible was the First World War. Mosse notes that the Great War brought Europeans face-to-face with previously unimaginable horrors. Hinting at the direction he would take in later writings, Mosse argues that the war brought a development of mass politics and a large increase in nationalist feelings. Because the Jews had already been placed in opposition to the nation, it was not surprising that much of this new nationalist sentiment was soon directed at them. Mosse writes "Political participation was defined by acting out a political liturgy in mass movements or in the streets and by seeking security through national myths and symbols which left little or no room for those who were different. The war had transformed politics into a drama built on shared emotions. Racism all too easily provided unity to this drama..." (191).

When Hitler began contemplating his rise to power and planning the Final Solution, he drew upon the fruits of this long development. That the Jews had been made visible during the First World War through the "Jew Count" only made his job easier. Upon taking power, Mosse argues, Hitler carefully pushed his racial policy, a little at a time, gradually getting the Germans ready for Hitler's planned Final Solution. While racism in France became a literary movement, Hitler skillfully brought German racism from theory into practice. Eugenics provided a dress rehearsal. When this policy proved unpopular, Hitler pulled back. Hitler allowed his officials to push racial policy, but again, he pulled them back when the German people balked at Kristallnacht. "Adolf Hitler himself thus becomes the key to Nazi racist policy as the true prophet of race, who drove the theory to its logical conclusion" (204). The results are obvious.

In the end, Mosse has written a brilliant intellectual history, but it is not without weak points. My first concern lies in the fact that this book is primarily an intellectual history. While Mosse does integrate some of his ideas about the impact of the First World War, the development of mass politics and of a secular liturgy, the reader is led to believe that racial thinking already enjoyed a broad following. He writes that the theory of racism "had already penetrated important groups and made its impact upon the popular consciousness" (171). While it makes sense that racism could easily infiltrate important groups of intellectuals, the church for example, this does not entirely explain how it entered the popular consciousness. Certainly some would have read racialist books, others will have been impacted by church sermons, but how broad would this penetration have been? A more expanded discussion of the depth of penetration by racial thinking and a precise explanation of exactly how this occurred prior to the First World War would be helpful.

My second concern deals with the existence of modern racism in sixteenth century Spain. Mosse notes that Spanish activities during the sixteenth century constitute modern racism, but that it disappeared and thus could not be a precursor to the racism he is discussing. The problem with this thesis is fairly simple. If modern racism appeared in Spain prior to the period which Mosse is describing, where did it come from? Was there a similar intellectual tradition from which it developed or was it more organic (by which I mean: bottom-up)? Given the earlier precedent, it seems reasonable to argue that there were sentiments percolating among the masses with roots much further back in history. The myths (wandering Jew, ritual sacrifice, etc.) could easily be used to explain the problems which were cropping up all over Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Given that the masses seemed to have produced a viable explanation for society’s problems, intellectuals began asking the questions which Mosse outlines in his book. Soon, this interplay between the masses and the elites produced the modern "scientific" racism which was at the heart of the Final Solution. While there was little difference between the racism in Spain and that in modern Germany, the Spanish incarnation lacked a written justification because the Enlightenment and Pietist movements were not present to push intellectuals to create one. This lack of permanence allowed it to drift into distant memory, but it did not change the fact that the ideas central to modern racism were already present and circulating.

Mosse actually addresses my final objection in the preface to the 1985 reprinting, which is the incredible planning Mosse sees behind the Final Solution. While Hitler deserves to be vilified, I strongly question his ability to be so able to plan his specific actions years in advance. While I am certain that Hitler viewed the "Jewish Question" as an overwhelming problem which he wished to solve by ridding Germany of the Jews, this does not mean that he had a coherent plan of action in mind as Mosse seems to believe. Hitler was adept at “playing a crowd” with great effectiveness, but being adept at communicating with the masses does not necessarily equate with brilliance. Ronald Reagan, for example, was clearly a "great communicator," yet even his close friend Margaret Thatcher admitted that he was not particularly intelligent or visionary. While one could explain the halting nature of the development of Hitler's Jewish policy as one of careful political timing, it seems more likely to me that it was a result of a fundamental lack of direction.

In the end, Mosse's book is well worth reading. As with all of his amazing 26 books, Toward the Final Solution is a crisply written and exceptionally knowledgeable work. While the book is not perfect, it provides an indispensable account of the intellectual currents which led toward the Final Solution.