Racial “Science” and its Connection With Nazi Ideology

The term anthropometry (meaning “human measure”) refers to the study of physical human measurements ranging from the physical size and shape of the body, such as the average height and weight among populations, anatomical proportions, and craniofacial morphology, as well as measurements involving physical and mental capacities, such as grip strength, processing speed, and reaction time. At its inception, it was primarily used in studies within the subdiscipline of physical anthropology as an instrument to measure human variation within and between extant populations and, later, in archaic hominid ancestors. Sir Francis Galton, an anthropologist and a cousin of Charles Darwin, established one of the first anthropometric laboratories in 1884 during London’s International Health Exhibition. In total, Galton received 9,337 participants that were measured in 17 categories, creating a substantial database for future anthropometric research.

In the same century, physical anthropologists developed an interest in comparing the craniofacial features among existing people. Specifically, they were keen in examining the cranial capacities amongst the different racial categories of the time, which were generally separated into caucasians, negroids, and mongoloids, in an attempt to justify contemporary racial theories that placed caucasians (particularly European descendants) at the top of the intelligence hierarchy. Perhaps the earliest attempt in linking a facial characteristic to intelligence was made by the anatomist Pieter Camper, in which he developed a measure of the “facial angle” that was used to determine intelligence. At the same time, facial angle (known as prognathism) was also used as a taxonomic human trait, with people of African descent having prominent prognathism, and Europeans having, typically, none at all — however, no correlation between prognathism and intelligence has ever been established. The American anthropologist Samuel Morton collected data through a large sample of skulls from around the world to affirm the idea that Europeans were intellectually superior by virtue of a larger cranial capacity on average; based on the premise that larger skulls held larger brains, and that larger brains were directly linked with intellectual capacity, he concluded that Europeans were indeed the most intelligent and further expounded on this theory in his book, Crania Americana.

Eventually, as the field of anthropometry became more refined in its methods, the “three race” model, while useful, was deemed to be overly simplistic. It was clear that among the peoples of Europe there was no one racial “type” and endeavours were made to categorize Europeans into specific subgroups based on physical characteristics, with emphasis on cranial size and shape. Three subraces were identified by William Z. Ripley in his 1889 work, The Races of Europe by correlating anthropometric data from the cephalic index (determined by measuring the length and width of the skull) with geographical data to establish racial boundaries between European populations. Ripley’s system classified Europeans into the Teutonic subrace, which was characterized by dolichocephalic (long) skulls, tall stature, and light skin, hair and eyes; the Mediterranean race, characterized by dolichocephalic skulls similar to the Teutonic race, shorter stature, with dark hair, eyes, and skin; and the Alpine race, exhibiting brachycephalic (rounded) skulls, a short and stocky physique, and hair, skin, and eye color that was intermediate between the Teutonic and Mediterranean races. Ripley’s classification system was particularly influential on Madison Grant, an American eugenicist and anthropologist who would rename the Teutonic race as the Nordic race and promote it as superior to the other European subtypes in his infamous book, The Passing of the Great Race. Written in 1916, Grant proposed the idea that the Nordic race was ultimately the driving force behind the highest forms of civilization, and was therefore innately superior to all other races. In addition, he believed that the modern Nordic population was endangered and under threat of extinction through race mixing, and he suggested that the future of the Nordics could be protected through a series of anti-miscegenation laws and the forcible sterilization of “undesirables”. 

Although Grant’s book was unpopular, especially in America, its concepts and conclusions had a substantial influence on the racial philosophy and resulting policies of the Nazi Regime, and Adolf Hitler supposedly referred to the book as “[his} Bible” in a personal letter to Grant. Under the Nazi regime, the Aryan master race, or Herrenvolk, consisted of the Germanic peoples, encompassing Germans, Scandinavians, and the English. The untermenschen, a group composed of all peoples designated as non-Aryans, encompassed ethnic Slavs, Jews, and Romani gypsies, but also applied to people of African ancestry and certain Asian ethnicities. It was under this racial system that Nazi Germany would justify its invasion into Eastern Europe with the policy of Lebensraum, or “living space” for the expansion and growth of the Aryan population. With indigenous Central and Eastern Europeans conveniently labeled as non-Aryans, Hitler mobilized his regime for the realization of Generalplan Ost in the belief that it was the right of the German people to colonize the Eastern countries — by whatever means were necessary. After conquering most of the East, the plan aimed to exterminate an estimated 45 million people, with another 14 million being captured for slave labor. However, certain percentages within some populations were to be considered for Germanization, or incorporation into the German state as citizens, because it was thought that small amounts of Aryans still resided in some Eastern countries. Under the Lebensborn program, foreign children that were deemed racially desirable were targeted for kidnapping and underwent a series of tests to determine if they were of sufficient German stock. Some of these tests involved anthropometric measurements, particularly of the head and nose, to class the children as either Aryan or non-Aryan. Those that passed were either adopted by families in the Lebensborn program to be raised as Germans, or placed into German boarding schools. The children that were deemed racially unfit, or who rebelled against the Germanization process, were taken to concentration camps.

Today, the subfield of anthropometry has strayed far from Nazi ideology. Although it was never intended to be used outside of the purpose of measuring human variation, it serves as an example of how science can be coopted and used to bolster and give false intellectual prestige to political ideologies, as untruthful and inhumane as they might be. Perhaps as a response to the outdated racial narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries, the American Anthropology Association has submitted their own formal statement on the biological concept of race: “Historical research has shown that the idea of ‘race’ has always carried more meanings than mere physical differences; indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.”

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