Nazi eugenics poster entitled "Feeble-mindedness in related families in four neighboring towns." Germany, 1935.

Nazi Racism: An Overview

Racism fueled Nazi ideology and policies. The Nazis viewed the world as being divided up into competing inferior and superior races, each struggling for survival and dominance. They believed the Jews were not a religious denomination, but a dangerous non-European “race.” Nazi racism would produce murder on an unprecedented scale.

Key Facts

  • 1

    Racists believe that innate, inherited characteristics biologically determine human behavior. In the early twentieth-century, such views on race were widely accepted in many parts of the world. In fact, race is not biologically based, it is a cultural classification of groups.

  • 2

    According to Nazi theories of race, Germans and other Europeans had perceived superior physical and mental traits. They considered European peoples to be “Aryans,” descended from the ancient Indo-Europeans who settled throughout the European continent as well as in Iran and India.

  • 3

    Racial antisemitism is the prejudice against or hatred of Jews based on false scientific theories. This aspect of racism was always an integral part of Nazism.

Racists are people who believe that innate, inherited characteristics biologically determine human behavior.

The doctrine of racism asserts that blood determines national-ethnic identity. Within a racist framework, the value of a human being is not determined by his or her individuality, but instead by membership in a so-called "racial collective nation." Many intellectuals, including scientists, have lent pseudoscientific support to racist thinking. Nineteenth century racist thinkers, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, exerted a significant influence on many in Adolf Hitler's generation.

Racism, including racial antisemitism (prejudice against or hatred of Jews based on false biological theories), was always an integral part of German National Socialism (Nazism).

An antisemitic illustration from a Nazi film strip.The Nazis perceived all of human history as the history of a biologically determined struggle among people of different races. The Nazis held that political movements such as Marxism, communism, pacifism, and internationalism were anti-nationalist and reflected a dangerous, racially based Jewish intellectualism.

In 1931, the SS (Schutzstaffel; the elite guard of the Nazi state) established a Race and Settlement Office to conduct race "research" and to determine the suitability of potential spouses for members of the SS. After the Nazis came to power, they passed the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, which codified a supposedly biological definition of Jewishness.

Helene Melanie LebelNazi racists viewed the mentally and physically ill as blemishes upon the genetic landscape of the so-called master race and, when they reproduced, as a biological danger to the purity of the Aryan race. After careful planning and data collection during the last six months of 1939, German physicians began to murder disabled residents of institutions throughout Germany in an operation that they euphemistically called "euthanasia".

According to Nazi theories of race, Germans and other northern Europeans were "Aryans," a superior race. During World War II, Nazi physicians conducted bogus medical experiments seeking to identify physical evidence of Aryan superiority and non-Aryan inferiority. Despite killing countless non-Aryan prisoners in the course of these experiments, the Nazis could not find any evidence for their theories of biological racial differences among human beings.

Once in power, the Nazis implemented racial laws and policies that deprived Jews, blacks, and Roma (Gypsies) of their rights. During World War II, the Nazi leadership set about what they referred to as an "ethnic housecleaning" in the occupied Eastern territories of Poland and the Soviet Union. This policy included the murder and annihilation of so-called enemy "races," including the genocide of European Jews and the destruction of the leadership of the Slavic peoples.

Nazi racism produced murder on an unprecedented scale.


Critical Thinking Questions

  • Despite overwhelming scientific data to the contrary, many people still believe in the superiority of certain races. Why might individuals hold onto a belief that has been discredited?
  • How can racism keep a party or political group in power?

Further Reading

Back, Les, and John Solomos, editors. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2000.

Burleigh, Michael, and Wolfgang Wippermann. The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hutton, Christopher M. Race and the Third Reich: Linguistics, Racial Anthropology, and Genetics in the Dialectic of Volk. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

Mosse, George L. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Wistrich, Robert S. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. London: Thames Methuen, 1991.