Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950)

Chapter Six : Race-Thinking Before Racism

i: A “Race” of Aristocrats Against a “Nation” of Citizens

A steadily rising interest in the most different, strange, and even savage peoples was characteristic of France during the eighteenth century. This was the time when Chinese paintings were admired and imitated, when one of the most famous works of the century was named Lettres Persanes, and when travellers’ reports were the favourite reading of society. The honesty and simplicity of savage and uncivilized peoples were opposed to the sophistication and frivolity of culture. Long before the nineteenth century with its tremendously enlarged opportunities for travel brought the non-European world into the home of every average citizen, eighteenth-century French society had tried to grasp spiritually the content of cultures and countries that lay far beyond European boundaries. A great enthusiasm for “new specimens of mankind” (Herder) filled the hearts of the heroes of the French Revolution who together with the French nation liberated every people of every colour under the French flag. This enthusiasm for strange and foreign countries culminated in the message of fraternity, because it was inspired by the desire to prove in every new and surprising “specimen of mankind” the old saying of La Bruyere: “La raison est de tous les climats.”

Yet it is this nation-creating century and humanity-loving country to which we must trace the germs of what later proved to become the nation destroying and humanity-annihilating power of racism. It is a remarkable fact that the first author who assumed the coexistence of different peoples with different origins in France, was at the same time the first to elaborate definite class-thinking. The Comte de Boulainvillicrs, a French nobleman who wrote at the beginning of the eighteenth century and whose works were published after his death, interpreted the history of France as the history of two different nations of which the one, of Germanic origin, had conquered the older inhabitants, the “Gaules,” had imposed its laws upon them, had taken their lands, and had settled down as the ruling class, the “peerage” whose supreme rights rested upon the “right of conquest” and the “necessity of obedience always due to the strongest.” Engaged chiefly in finding arguments against the rising political power of the Tiers Etat and their spokesmen, the “nouveau corps” formed by “gens de lettres et de lois,” Boulainvillicrs had to fight the monarchy too because the French king wanted no longer to represent the peerage as primus inter pares but the nation as a whole; in him, for a while, the new rising class found its most powerful protector. In order to regain uncontested primacy for the nobility, Boulainvillicrs proposed that his fellow-noblemen deny a common origin with the French people, break up the unity of the nation, and claim an original and therefore eternal distinction. Much bolder than most of the later defenders of nobility, Boulainvillicrs denied any predestined connection with the soil; he conceded that the “Gaules” had been in France longer, that the “Francs” were strangers and barbarians. He based his doctrine solely on the eternal right of conquest and found no difficulty in asserting that “Friesland . . . has been the true cradle of the French nation.” Centuries before the actual development of imperialistic racism, following only the inherent logic of his concept, he considered the original inhabitants of France natives in the modern sense, or in his own terms “subjects” — not of the king — but of all those whose advantage was descent from the conquering people, who by right of birth were to be called “Frenchmen.”

Boulainvilliers was deeply influenced by the seventeenth-century might-right doctrines and he certainly was one of the most consistent contemporary disciples of Spinoza, whose Ethics he translated and whose Traite theologico-politique he analysed. In his reception and application of Spinoza’s political ideas, might was changed into conquest and conquest acted as a kind of unique judgment on the natural qualities and human privileges of men and nations. In this we may detect the first traces of later naturalistic transformations the might-right doctrine was to go through. This view is really corroborated by the fact that Boulainvilliers was one of the outstanding freethinkers of his time, and that his attacks on the Christian Church were hardly motivated by anticlericalism alone.

Boulainvilliers’ theory, however, still deals with peoples and not with races; it bases the right of the superior people on a historical deed, conquest, and not on a physical fact — although the historical deed already has a certain influence on the natural qualities of the conquered people. It invents two different peoples within France in order to counteract the new national idea, represented as it was to a certain extent by the absolute monarchy in alliance with the Tiers Etat. Boulainvilliers is anti-national at a time when the idea of nationhood was felt to be new and revolutionary, but had not yet shown, as it did in the French Revolution, how closely it was connected with a democratic form of government. Boulainvilliers prepared his country for civil war without knowing what civil war meant. He is representative of many of the nobles who did not regard themselves as representative of the nation, but as a separate ruling caste which might have much more in common with a foreign people of the “same society and condition” than with its compatriots. It has been, indeed, these anti-national trends that exercised their influence in the milieu of the emigres and finally were absorbed by new and outspoken racial doctrines late in the nineteenth century.

Not until the actual outbreak of the Revolution forced great numbers of the French nobility to seek refuge in Germany and England did Boulainvilliers’ ideas show their usefulness as a political weapon. In the meantime, his influence upon the French aristocracy was kept alive, as can be seen in the works of another Comte, the Comte Dubuat-Nangay, who wanted to tie French nobility even closer to its continental brothers. On the eve of the Revolution, this spokesman of French feudalism felt so insecure that he hoped for “the creation of a kind of Internationale of aristocracy of barbarian origin,” and since the German nobility was the only one whose help could eventually be expected, here too the true origin of the French nation was supposed to be identical with that of the Germans and the French lower classes, though no longer slaves, were not free by birth but by “affranchisscment,” by grace of those who were free by birth, of the nobility. A few years later the French exiles actually tried to form an internationale of aristocrats in order to stave off the revolt of those they considered to be a foreign enslaved people. And although the more practical side of these attempts suffered the spectacular disaster of Valmy, emigres like Charles Francois Dominique de Villiers, who about 1800 opposed the “Gallo-Romains” to the Germanics, or like William Alter who a decade later dreamed of a federation of all Germanic peoples, did not admit defeat. It probably never occurred to them that they were actually traitors, so firmly were they convinced that the French Revolution was a “war between foreign peoples” — as Francois Guizot much later put it.

While Boulainvilliers, with the calm fairness of a less disturbed time, based the rights of nobility solely on the rights of conquest without directly depreciating the very nature of the other conquered nation, the Comte de Montlosier, one of the rather dubious personages among the French exiles, openly expressed his contempt for this “new people risen from slaves . . . (a mixture) of all races and all times.” Times obviously had changed and noblemen who no longer belonged to an unconquered race also had to change. They gave up the old idea, so dear to Boulainvilliers and even to Montesquieu, that conquest alone, fortune des armes, determined the destinies of men. The Valmy of noble ideologies came when the Abbe Sieyes in his famous pamphlet told the Tiers Etat to “send back into the forests of Franconia all those families who preserve the absurd pretension of being descended from the conquering race and of having succeeded to their rights.”

It is rather curious that from these early times when French noblemen in their class struggle against the bourgeoisie discovered that they belonged to another nation, had another genealogical origin, and were more closely tied to an international caste than to the soil of France, all French racial theories have supported the Germanism or at least the superiority of the Nordic peoples as against their own countrymen. For if the men of the French Revolution identified themselves mentally with Rome, it was not because they opposed to the “Germanism” of their nobility a “Latinism” of the Tiers Etat, but because they felt they were the spiritual heirs of Roman Republicans. This historical claim, in contrast to the tribal identification of the nobility, might have been among the causes that prevented “Latinism” from emerging as a racial doctrine of its own. In any event, paradoxical as it sounds, the fact is that Frenchmen were to insist earlier than Germans or Englishmen on this idee fixe of Germanic superiority. Nor did the birth of German racial consciousness after the Prussian defeat of 1806, directed as it was against the French, change the course of racial ideologies in France. In the forties of the last century, Augustin Thierry still adhered to the identification of classes and races and distinguished between a “Germanic nobility” and a “Celtic bourgeoisie,” and again a nobleman, the Comte de Remusat, proclaimed the Germanic origin of the European aristocracy. Finally, the Comte de Gobineau developed an opinion already generally accepted among the French nobility into a full-fledged historical doctrine, claiming to have detected the secret law of the fall of civilizations and to have exalted history to the dignity of a natural science. With him race-thinking completed its first stage, and began its second stage whose influences were to be felt until the twenties of our century.