Aryan myth, one of our saddest science mistakes

Sometimes, we are not talking about Fun Museums, but about Sad Museums, or better said Serious Museums. In this article, I decided to share my small research about a topic that had intrigued me for a long. I will talk about the Aryan myth.

We are approaching one of the most emotional anniversaries we can have – 27th of January, the day on which the most terrible concentration camp, Auschwitz, was finally liberated, after about 17 million people were killed either there or in other death camps. Although most people know about the Holocaust as a genocide against the Jews, the origins of that whole thing were a bit different. To sum it all up, I made a small research and I shared some basic takes from it.

As I noticed, there are no many informal blog articles about this particular topic, the origins of the Holocaust. Therefore, I hope mine will help bringing some new perspectives. Let’s start.

18th century: Democracy and social change

Many of you are familiar with social changes that happened through the second half of 18th and the first half of 19th century. In fact, these few events were incredibly new for the humankind back then. The American revolution resulted in the first modern democracy. After that, the French revolution followed as the first attempt to end those old-school absolutist monarchies.

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty leading the People, 1830, oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris. This painting is one of the most memorable symbols of the social change happening in the 19th century.

Let’s play with etymologies, one of my favourite topics. Monarchy is the word that describes a country that has one ruler, mostly followed by his son or other relative after his death. Not surprisingly, that word comes from Greek μόνο [mono] = only + αρχηγός [archigos] = ruler. Above all, there is only one ruler is a traditional monarchy.

Let’s see what democracy means. In Greek, δήμος [dimos/demos] equals people and κράτος [kratos] means rule or state. Simple as that, democracy is the rule of the people, as opposed to aristocracy, with άριστος [aristos] meaning excellent, and kratos, again, the rule. That being said, aristocracy was supposed to be a rule of an upper class, while democracy was the rule of all the people.

What was the meaning of that whole shift? In fact, both events stimulated a social change towards equal rights for all the citizens.

Read also: Greek etymologies for politics and more

Who were the aristocrats?

On the other hand, the ruling class of royalists and other aristocrats didn’t like that process. Who were they? Didn’t we study at school that they were mostly religious leaders and noblemen? Yes, true. The important thing is, they were feeling threatened by the change. The whole history has a lot of nuances, and we can’t see it just as a fight between good and evil, like the movies and books like to illustrate.

After all, people were told different thing from their childhood years. Imagine being born in a rich, privileged French family in the early 19th century, with your father being disconnected from the power due to the loss of monarchy? You were like afraid of all that change that was happening.

One of these guys was Arthur de Gobineau.

Artur de Gobineau: "Aryan Race"

After reading about him, I don’t think he was a particularly evil person. It is better to say that he was just an extremely sad person. In fact, he spent most of his life feeling threatened from things he couldn’t understand. Most importantly, he didn’t want to see the world he knew changing so much. The sad thing is, that fear conquered his being and made him engage in all kind of pseudoscientific beliefs, with tons of biases on his way.

The worst thing is, he became an influencer of the 19th century. Many contemporaries admired his courage to say thing that “no one dared to say.” As a result, he was an influencer for bad, long before being influencer became a profession.

“The natural inequality” and “Aryan race”

Above all, that sad Frenchman genuinely believed that there was a natural difference between the “races”. In the same vein, he proclaimed that different classes of people have different “natural roles”.

At the end of this article, I put a link to a page where a digitalised book of his was uploaded. You can notice that the book title has the word “diversity” in it, and that is the origin of all the struggles related to the term. Nowadays when we say “diversity” we mean having as diverse teams and groups represented as possible, but in the past there was an idea of “natural diversity” that cannot be equal.

Joseph Deniker, "Racial mapping", "Aryan race", etc.
Deniker’s “Races de l’Europe” from 1899, listing as “principal races”.
Jospeh Deniker, who was born in Russian Empire and lived in France most of his life was another scientist busy with “racial mapping”.

Subsequently, de Gobineau was the one who created the term Aryan race. But what was it all about, what does Aryan mean?

The term Aryan can be tracked back to the earliest Indo-European populations of the Middle East. In fact, the term Aryan is the origin of the country name Iran. Following some awkward mental process, de Gobineau and a few other authors assumed that ancient Persians originated from the Northern Europe and therefore they are Aryans. Above all, it was a misunderstanding that caused so much suffering for so many people.

So according to him, the earliest ancestors of all the Indo-European people were some people of a “Nordic race”, with blue eyes, bright skin, and blonde hair. In any case, he believed in what we call white supremacy today. He just believed it was also something that distinguished pure, naturally privileged “Aryan” aristocrats from some commoners who are destined to be underprivileged for a lifetime.

The obsession with the skin colour

It is no secret that people have been obsessed with skin colour since the ancient times. For some reason, ancient writers were obsessed with blond people with very bright tones of their skin and hair. So, the concept of “race” as well as racism are as old as the humanity.

Let me share some of my context. I am an extremely white person. My skin has a white to pink natural tone, my eyes are blue, and my hair is light brown. On the other hand, Croatian and other Slavic people like me usually fall under the “inferior” lists too. Isn’t that labeling conundrum just fully absurd? Still, I occasionally receive compliments for my looks from people who have some racist beauty standards, believing that such a bright skin is “aristocratic” and “the only beautiful”. They even explained me their reasoning for these compliments, that is why I know what they mean.

It is not difficult to understand the reasons for that kind of thinking. The royalty, at least on the portraits, usually looks incredible pale, just look at this photo bellow…

Habsburg Dynasty: Maria Theresa with the Family.
Maria Theresa with her family, 1754, by Martin van Meytens. Schonbrunn Palace collection.

In fact, many of these admirers of de Gobineau also believed that ancients Greeks and Romans were actually blonde, “beautiful”, Aryan, and that they only got spoiled after Slavic, Arabic, and Turkish “invasions” that made them “impure”. The 19th century was full of intellectuals with that kind of opinions, and one of them was the great musician Richard Wagner.

How did the hate for the Jews happen?

Richard Wagner befriended de Gobineau and admired his work. In the same vein, he wrote his own essay in which he openly criticised the Jewish culture. But, it didn’t come all of a sudden. It resulted from a long history of antisemitism across Europe, the sentiment of hatred towards the Jews.

First, Jews were considered guilty for condemning Jesus Christ to death, so Christian morals were already hateful towards them. Second, medieval feudalists blamed Jews for almost everything bad that happen in order to mask their own wrongdoings. There are some detailed stories about it in the Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose. Finally, there were some common ideas that there are “huge natural differences” preventing any kind of inclusion or tolerance.

In fact, the term Jewish question started as a kind of a “think tank” about the better integration of Jewish population, rather than their extinction. However, the aristocratic, royalist, and rising nationalist beliefs from the 19th century writers such as de Gobineau had other plans. They believed Jews were so “different” that no integration is possible. As a result, the national ideas in Germany became clearly anti-Jewish in a way that they sincerely believed Jews were the enemy to their pure, “Aryan” homeland.

At the end of this article, I put a link to a good Wikipedia article about the Jewish question.

Let’s just treat it as a mistake.

Photo by Daniela Holzer on Unsplash

To conclude this article, I will bring a few of my personal opinions. Nowadays in 2021, some conservative people still believe that differences are “important” in the way that people are not all equal as nature (or God as they say sometimes) “wanted” different roles for different races, genders, classes etc. Obviously, it is an excuse to exclude some groups from certain opportunities.

In fact, most of the intolerances originate in the fear of the different. Privileged class is afraid of losing their privilege, while locals are afraid of being surrounded by unfamiliar, foreign faces. The 19th century showed all the cruelty of ideas, from eugenics so pseudo-scientific racism, while 20th century unfortunately made some these ideas happen.

Finally, who was one of the first authors who spoke about cultural differences? In the bottom of this article, in the sources, you can find a link to a short text from Hippocrates, the father of medicine. He wrote that paragraph with his own views about different people he found. However, that is a kind of content we should take lightly, and not as a “divine law” that “justifies” intolerance and exclusion.

Read also:

Discovering Nikkolas Smith, the artivist

Pandemic and Poetics, a Jewish Dictionary of struggle

LGTBQIA+ diversity in museums – how it was and how is it going?

Some sources for further reading

Moral and intellectual diversity of races, by Arthur de Gobineau, retrieved on January 25, 2021

Quora answer from the historian Daniel Baker, retrieved on January 25, 2021

Jewish Question explained on Wikipedia, retrieved on January 25, 2021

Hippocrates paragraph about cultural differences, retrieved on January 26, 2021

Auschwitz Memorial Official Website, retrieved on January 26, 2021

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