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Hitler’s Ethnic Nationalism: Where Does the Notion of ‘The Other’ Come From?

Written by: Sanjna Menon

As arguably the most infamous right wing nationalist leader of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler is widely criticized. Particularly interesting is his rejection of civic nationalism in favour of ethnic nationalism. So what was Hitler’s notion of the nation? Put simply: it’s racist. 

Rather than the idea of a nation being people of common culture, language etc, Hitler espouses that, “what makes a people, or, to be more correct, a race is not language, but blood.” This results in ethnic nationalism being more exclusionary than civic nationalism. In fact he directly challenges civil nationalism saying it’s, “inconceivable how such a mistake could be made as to think that a N****r or a Chinaman will become a German because he has learned the German language and is willing to speak German for the future and even to cast his vote for a German political party.” 

The existence of an ethnie, or a group with myths of common ancestry, shared history, commonalities in culture, language etc is elevated with Hitler’s embracing of the idea of the German Volk. The Volk combines ethnocentric, national and racial connotations to unite the nation around the core of the Aryan, ‘pure breed’ of German, against internal and external threats. Therefore the state only existed to safeguard “the racial characteristics of mankind,” since “the state is not an economic organization; it is a ‘volkic’ organism.” The volkisch concept created a hierarchy in race. It was on these foundations Hitler began the discourse of ‘us versus them’ or ‘the Other’ which is a key concept in all forms of nationalism, but specifically in ethnic nationalism. 

So where does the idea of ‘the other’ come from? 

Let’s compare the ideas found in historian Winthrop Jordan’s book White over Black with the German situation. Jordan’s data shows that European Caucasians, upon encountering those of african descent, projected threatening characteristics they were attempting to suppress in themselves. By doing this they purified the image of themselves by placing more undesirable characteristics onto the ‘blacks.’ “Every white will have its blacke. Every sweete it’s sowre.”  From here all aspects of culture and social structure were altered to support and perpetuate these false beliefs which aggrandized Caucasians and denigrated Africans. Hitler can be seen speaking similarly about the Jews when he states, “if the jews were the only people in the world they would be wallowing in filth and more and would exploit one another and try to exterminate another in a bitter struggle. ” By framing the Jewish people this way and identifying them as the leaders of social democracy, he links them to, what he sees as, the biological decay of the German Volk, and the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic. Here, Hitler creates an image of a Jew that is fundamentally anti-German, rootless and materialistic, further propping up his view of their inferiority.  

The comparison between the two works can be drawn again with the immediate descriptions of physical differences. Jordan notes that Englishmen immediately described Africans as ‘black’ indicating that their complexion had a powerful impact on their perceptions. Hitler notes the stereotypical Jewish features of larger facial profiles, and brown hair versus the blonde haired, blue eyed ‘purity’ of the aryan race. He even compared the Jews to Africans saying that since Jews had frizzy hair, ‘wolf’ lips and dark eyes they must have a large amount of African blood, simultaneously degrading both races in one swoop. This development of body image, representations of body parts and processes, constitute the earliest impressions and provide the foundation for future encounters. 

The phenomenon of ‘White over Black’ or ‘Aryan over Jew’ is just one example of how people with more power and resources give a lower value to and oppress people with less power and resources. Historically, humans have simply replaced one repressive system with another that continues to promote one and demean the other. For the most part, the same parts and processes are aggrandizers and the same ones degraded by society as a whole. Upper aspects of social culture are assigned more worth, privilege, resources and power while the lower parts go neglected. These values are projected into all perception of products, ideas, and the social structure we have created. 

Sociology expert, MD C. Pinderhughes, deems our creation “of societies in the image of our bodies” as an unconscious tendency. The differential value that we associate with different body parts is projected into our perception and into the creation of social structures could be related to the origins of racism, and plays a large role in forming the concept of ‘the other.’

The dichotomous nature of body functions spills over into our mental capacities stimulating the desire to dichotomize. Whether it be male or female, front or back, free or bound, right or wrong, in or out, near or far, new or old, white or black, or me and not me, one is accepted and one rejected in primitive mental life.

This division of the body into opposing functions leads to opposing patterns in the mind. Early in life we start to define the good and the bad in the body, mind and world. This puts people on the path to find and promote the ‘good” objects, ideas, feelings, and people, and subsequently repress the ‘bad.’ Thus, there becomes a desire to form affectionate bonds with one’s interjections and aggressive bonds with one’s projections. Redefinition and subsequently, re-education, were crucial parts in Hitler’s nationalist machine. He stated, “no boy or girl should leave school without having attained a clear insight into the meaning of racial purity and the importance of maintaining the racial blood unadulterated.” By educating children on these values in school, especially during these crucial, formative years of life and thinking, “a day would come when a nation of citizens would arise which would be welded together through a common love and a common pride that would be invincible and indestructible forever.”

The drive to divide builds conflict in mental functions, which isn’t always a bad thing and it goes beyond those primitive mental functions. It allows us to make modifications to what we assign as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and continued development in the way we deal with the world making complexity and individuality possible. But groups, such as this, tend to discourage individuality and reinforce conformity. Doing this reinforces those primitive mechanisms.  This is a common basis for group formation as they associate affectionate bonds with ‘good’ and one’s own, while projecting the evil and aggressive bonds towards outsiders. This type of thinking is clear in Hitler’s nationalist rhetoric. He plays on the sense of victimhood and fuelled the distaste for neighboring countries by discussing the German losses in World War I, and the failings of the Weimar Republic. These messages appealed to people’s sense of national pride and their fear of “the Other.” By concentrating on these failures he was able to convince many that he could restore German glory with his version of a strong state. 

Hitler’s version of nationalism strictly dictated that the German social order was threatened by communists, Jews, and the powers of Versailles. Generally, the specific beliefs of one group are determined by the culture and area of the group itself. But the principles which they are based on seem so universal to the people it’s taught to that it becomes considered a natural part of man. When these principles are in conflict, the dominant one wins out. If you have an object you identify with you will favor it even if it is far away from you because the identification principle dominates the distance one. eg. ‘An American in a distant land continues to be aggrandized and favored though distant.’ Likewise something perceived as higher will also be aggrandized regardless of distance because hierarchy takes precedence over distance. Although humans have the ability to vary these capacities in order to change attachments, strong attachments rarely do so. What defines a strong attachment is generally linked to identity, sense of integrity, emotions and physiology of the individual, which Hitler utilized very well in order to sway so many to his cause. 

Thus, by crafting his version of ‘the other,’ Hitler was able to propagate that the state must only be populated by the German Volk and all others needed to be annihilated. This ideology translated into a political reality which glorified a perpetual state of war over peacetime, conformity over individualism, and authoritarianism over democracy. Ethnic nationalism is certainly not the only ideology which encapsulated Hitler’s political beliefs. However, it can be considered the foundation to which he perpetrated his views of facism, Social Darwinism, nativism and militarism that thickened his personal ideology.

Edited by: Meryem Kucuk

Image Credit: “Poster: ‘Students/Be the Führer’s propagandists.’With militant appeals to nationalism, freedom, and self-sacrifice, the Nazi Party successfully recruited students disenchanted with German democracy and their current student organizations.

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