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Whoopi Goldberg has been suspended for two weeks from The View for saying fairly uninformed things about the Holocaust. I’m not sure her ignorance merits punishment, but the brouhaha offers me an opportunity to explain why Goldberg is so confused. In her mind, German Nazis and Europe’s Jews were both white and therefore the basis of their conflict could not have been racial in nature.

It’s easy to see why she’s making this mistake because she spelled it out in an interview with Stephen Colbert.

“If the Klan is coming down the street, and I’m standing with a Jewish friend — well, I’m going to run. But if my friend decides not to run, they’ll get passed by most times because you can’t tell who is Jewish. You don’t — it’s not something people say, ‘Oh, that person is Jewish or this person is Jewish.’”

Goldberg actually self-identifies as Jewish, and obviously adopted a Jewish stage name, so that adds an extra wrinkle to this controversy. It’s clear that she sees racism through the prism of skin color, and that’s understandable in the American context, especially as a black woman. When she thinks about racial terrorism she summons the Klan. Of course, the Klan doesn’t like Jews and doesn’t like Catholics, but they’re best known for committing violence against blacks. Blacks are obviously easy to identify, but Jews have some phenotypical tendencies too, and certainly circumcision is an identifier that was quite useful to the Nazis. Southern Europeans, who trend Catholic, have darker skin than Northern Europeans. All white people don’t look the same.

So, even by Goldberg’s Klan example, her point isn’t great. But the real problem is that she’s not getting the underpinnings of white supremacy. It’s best to go to the source on this, so I’m going to quote from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Hitler had some crackpot ideas about race, genetics, eugenics and history, although they weren’t as rare at the time as we might wish to believe. Here we see the basic ideas that there are gradations of race and that humans should strive to breed themselves for improvement:

Every animal mates only with a member of the same species. … Any crossing of two beings not at exactly the same level produces a medium between the level of the two parents. This means: the offspring will probably stand higher than the racially lower parent, but not as high as the higher one. Consequently, it will later succumb in the struggle against the higher level. Such mating is contrary to the will of Nature for a higher breeding of all life. The precondition for this does not lie in associating superior and inferior, but in the total victory of the former. The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker. … And struggle is always a means for improving a species’ health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher development.

Superior races should not breed with other races because it will weaken them and prevent advancement.

No more than Nature desires the mating of weaker with stronger individuals, even less does she desire the blending of a higher with a lower race…. The result of all racial crossing is therefore in brief always the following: a) Lowering the level of the higher race; b) Physical and intellectual regression and hence the beginning of a slowly but surely progressing sickness. To bring about such a development is, then, nothing else but to sin against the will of the eternal creator.

Of course, they had to have some criteria for determining which race is the best. Unsurprisingly, this is the Aryan race, an ill-defined category that in Nazi usage boiled down to a narrow grouping of “white” people.

The Untermensch concept included Jews, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), and Slavic peoples such as Poles, Serbs and Russians. Slavs were regarded as Untermenschen, barely fit for exploitation as slaves. Hitler and Goebbels compared them to the “rabbit family” or to “stolid animals” that were “idle” and “disorganized” and spread like a “wave of filth”.

Insofar as these distinctions had any justification at all, it was based primarily on cultural and technological achievement.

Everything we admire on this earth today—science and art, technology and inventions— is only the creative product of a few peoples and originally perhaps of one race. … All great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative race died out from blood poisoning.

Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.

All the human culture, all the results of art, science, and technology that we see before us today, are almost exclusively the product of the Aryan. … If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group. From him originate the foundations and walls of all human creation.

At a time when Western European powers were colonizing every continent through the superior force of their weapons, inventions and economic power, it wasn’t overly controversial that their culture was more advanced, and racial explanations for this were widespread. In this context, the Nazi’s were merely taking things several steps further by introducing ideas like “purity of blood” and the goal of breeding for a more advanced race of humans.

… Hence it is no accident that the first cultures arose in places where the Aryan, in his encounters with lower peoples, subjected them and bent them to his will. … As soon as the subjected people began to raise themselves up and probably approached the conqueror in language, the sharp dividing wall between master and servant fell. The Aryan gave up the purity of his blood, and … lost his cultural capacity, until at last, not only mentally but also physically, he began to resemble the subjected aborigines more than his own ancestors.

Therefore, a central goal of the Holocaust was to prevent interbreeding between Aryans and Untermenschen. Such interbreeding would not only prevent the advancement of man but actually cause a regression: “Blood mixture and the resultant drop in racial level is the sole cause of the dying out of old cultures.”

This explains why the Nazis targeted not only Jews, Gypsies and Slavs, but also those with mental or physical disabilities and homosexuals. The ideology was determined by racial/genetic/hereditary considerations. It was essentially a breeding program where undesirable traits would be weeded out.

You can see the problem with Goldberg’s characterization of the Holocaust.

“The [Nazis] had issues with ethnicity, not with race,” Goldberg continued, “because most of the Nazis were white people and most [of] the people they were attacking were white people. So, to me, I’m thinking, how can you say it’s about race if you are fighting each other?”

This can get bogged down in semantic confusion. The Nazis considered themselves a part of a Master Race, but this was a race from which most whites were excluded. They didn’t have too much trouble identifying who didn’t belong to their group even if Goldberg might have found that task challenging.

I don’t think Goldberg should be too strongly faulted for not understanding the arbitrary and demented racial theories of the Nazis. I don’t believe she was trying to be offensive and I definitely think there are too many people today who are too eager to take offense. But I do think she should understand Nazi ideology so she get better understand American racism.

When we hear conservatives talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition or Anglo-Saxon heritage, these are variations on the white supremacy that Hitler employed in a German context. Fortunately, the American version wants to use immigration policy rather than death camps and foreign conquest to maintain the superiority of the white race, but we shouldn’t get complacent. Ideologies based on racial or cultural supremacy are inherently prone to extreme violence. The Nazi example shows that things can go sideways very quickly, and that there are more potential fault lines we can fight over than just skin color.

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