Never Forget That World War I Was Also Racist

It wasn’t just nationalism that fueled the 20th century’s first great tragedy.

A French propaganda poster during World War I. (AFP/Getty Images)
A French propaganda poster during World War I. (AFP/Getty Images)

It is no secret that French President Emmanuel Macron, who sees the Elysée less as a bully pulpit than a university lectern, saw the centenary of Armistice Day as a teaching moment. With one eye fixed on the several dozen heads of state he has invited to Paris—the other eye, of course, is fixed on his tanking poll numbers—Macron sought to recall one of the causes and consequences of World War I, what he had called “the leprosy of nationalism.”

Years from now, historians will tell us whether U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exchanged notes or smirks during this particular lesson. What historians can tell us now, though, is that nationalism was not the only ism that hatched World War I and hastened World War II. Racism was an equally important, though mostly ignored, ideological malady tied to the war to end all wars. Given the current spasm of ethno-nationalism now convulsing the Western world, the role played by racism in the events of 1914 to 1918 is a question of more than historical interest.

In the case of France, racism took both expected and unexpected shapes. Consider Macron’s visit last week—one of his stops during his tour of French battle sites—to Reims. The northeastern city famed for its cathedral—the traditional site for the crowning of French kings that was devastated by German shelling—Reims just became the site of another tradition of France: imperialism. The city inaugurated a statue, one that replaced an earlier statue destroyed by the Germans in 1940, honoring the memory of those 200,000 African soldiers who fought and 30,000 who died pour la patrie. At the ceremony, Macron’s guest, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali, spoke while he stood silently at his side.

Meant as a gesture of respect toward the Malian president, Macron’s silence unintentionally echoed the long and shameful silence, at least in the corridors of state, over the treatment of these colonial troops. The patrie that frequently coerced these men into the ranks also systematically denied them the privileges enjoyed by their fellow infantrymen. Just as the racist worldview of French military leaders portrayed these men, in particular those from West Africa, as “naturally warlike,” it also portrayed them as naturally incapable of being anything more than the subjects of French law. In fact, the American historian Richard Fogarty, in his 2008 award-winning book, reveals that French military leaders frequently prevented African soldiers from winning merited promotions.

But a less expected form of wartime racism gives reason for equal pause today. It focused not on those from the other side of the Mediterranean but instead on those from the other side of the Rhine. After 1914, anti-German sentiment in France, present since the Franco-Prussian War, became rife. Yet the epidemic of Germanophobia was spread not just by the government, but also by leading intellectuals, who eagerly supplied pseudoscientific arguments for the good cause. From the moment war was declared, Sigmund Freud wrote, scientists prostituted their reputation for passionless objectivity: “Anthropologists feel driven to declare [the enemy] inferior and degenerate, psychiatrists issue a diagnosis of his disease of mind or spirit.”

While this was also true for German thinkers, who were especially revolting in their remarks about France’s “colored auxiliaries,” their French peers proved particularly subtle in the suborning of science for racist ends. Indeed, the use of the very term “race” becomes commonplace during the war. The Germans, one French intellectual declared, were a “dreadful, dreadful race.” That they are an inferior race, he continued, could not be doubted because they “have a peculiar, powerful odor which we cannot escape from, living as we are on the front lines.” Not surprisingly, it turns out the German race even had “special lice: the famous big lice of the Iron Cross.”

The particular odor of Germans was also invoked as the reason why the population of Alsace-Lorraine always resisted “Germanic assimilation.” The psychologist Edgar Bérillon claimed in 1917 that it had to do with “racial odor.” The German race, he announced, “always produced very unpleasant sensations on the olfactory function of our compatriots in Alsace-Lorraine.” Fellow intellectuals linked the German helmets topped by spikes and felt caps adorned with skulls with practices among “the half-savage tribes of central Africa and Congo.”

Like their odor, headgear, and even lice, German barbarism was, quite simply, deemed a matter of race. The world-renowned philosopher Henri Bergson, who led the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, announced matter-of-factly that he and his colleagues were fulfilling their scientific duty in their diagnosis of Germany’s inevitable “regression to a state of savagery.” Gustave Le Bon, the author of the enormously influential (and often invidious) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, seconded Bergson’s assertion: “While social constraints often disguise the ancestral barbarism of certain peoples, it reappears as soon as those constraints loosen.”

Of course, these false views on human nature were not limited to French intellectuals. Once the United States entered the war, many American thinkers committed the same intellectual evils. For example, the influential medievalist James Westfall Thompson suggested that the imperialism he perceived in German politics from the Middle Ages to the present showed “the persistence of a racial trait across the centuries.” But when it came to distilling a bracing brew of racism, French intellectuals were masters. As the contemporary French historian Pierre-André Taguieff concluded, his predecessors during World War I had reduced humankind into two types: “One is either a man or a German.”

World War I was thus seen not merely as a war between civilizations, but also as a war between races. As the historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker argue, it was thought that the differences between the French and Germans “could and should be drawn from a biological standpoint, since race was identified with the nation.” This distinction, as a result, made for a dramatic difference, one whose consequences proved calamitous. Whereas civilization is a slow but stubborn shape-shifter, which human beings can deliberately shape for better (or, of course, for worse), race was understood as a brute datum constant across time and impervious to change. For this reason, though the French believed Germans might succeed in passing as men from time to time, when push comes to shove, they would revert to being Germans.

French intellectuals pounded out this message with the same mind-numbing regularity of shells fired from the French 75s. As a result, racism informed the draconian character of the guilt and reparation clauses in the Treaty of Versailles just as it infested interwar culture and politics. In fact, it is not too much of a stretch to cast the Maginot Line, the famous series of forts and gun emplacements built along France’s eastern frontier, as something more than a simple barrier against the next German invasion. Instead, think of it as “le mur, grand et beau”—the big, beautiful wall that Trump wants to build against a very different kind of invasion. Both were meant to keep out the barbaric hordes seen as posing a racial threat to the peoples hunkered behind the walls.

A visit to what remains of the Maginot Line, much less to the sculpture of black soldiers in Reims, does not figure in Trump’s itinerary. But he might find the time for a tour of the Army Museum in Paris. Not only will the president have the chance to savor the guns and uniforms on display, but he will also have the chance to gaze on another consequence of ethno-nationalism: photos of the gueules cassées—“broken faces”—who were the French infantrymen, white and black, whose faces were forever disfigured in a war fueled by the excesses of nationalism and lies of racism.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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