Toward the Final Solution

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

George L. Mosse’s Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism is an important book which illustrates the author’s formidable analytical ability and acute sensitivity to the many shadings and intricacies of the complex montage of European racism. Additionally, Mosse traces the manner in which racism was deposited, layer by layer, from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, upon the European intellect and in the thought processes of the masses of the European people. Planted in a fertile soil of fear of modernism, religious hatred, bigoted mysticism, corrupted science, and prejudiced social sciences and nurtured by the fanatic insanity of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, racism bore the tragic fruit of the Holocaust. This is the story that Mosse presents in his book.

The terrible event for which many post-World War II scholars have sought an explanation is the Destruction of the European Jews by the Nazis. The question of how it could have happened involves numerous scholarly studies of the nature of anti-Semitism, the persecution of the Jews from 1933 to 1941, the destruction of the Jews from 1941 to 1945, the problem of Jewish Resistance to the Nazis, the living hell of the prison and death camps, the Nazi bureaucracy of destruction, the indifference of the world to the destruction of the Jews, and other such matters that describe these horrendous and incredible events of the 1930’s and World War II. The historical literature is voluminous and historiographically complex. The inexplicable question that scholars have yet to answer satisfactorily is why the Holocaust happened.

Even before World War II had ended, an effort was made by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to supply a “why” to the Holocaust. For these writers the Nazi barbarism of the 1930’s and World War II was a legacy of the Enlightenment and the misuse of its methods. This interpretation provides the general orientation of George Mosse’s Toward the Final Solution. For Mosse, the Holocaust was the implementation in practice of the theories of racism. Racism, in turn, “had its foundations in the period of the Enlightenment” and was, in part, a “product of the preoccupation with a rational universe, nature, and aesthetics.” It was also partially a product of eighteenth century religious fervor and revivalism. Mosse attempts to explain the Holocaust as the eventual outcome of the Enlightenment and revivalism and to describe the lengthy and complex history of racism as a gradual development from the ideas of the eighteenth century. By the twentieth century, racism had been built, block by block, into a world view that provided an explanation for world and national problems, a final solution to those problems, and a foundation on which to build a future society based on “an ordered, healthy, and happy world.”

In developing his picture of the Enlightenment, Mosse focuses attention on the efforts of the Enlightenment thinkers to elucidate the “great chain of being” which sought to organize all life in a hierarchical continuum that stretched from the earth to God and was characterized by unity and harmony. Unity and harmony of the laws of nature convinced philosophes of the Enlightenment to believe that man’s inner qualities were reflected in his physical characteristics. Physiognomy, phrenology, and other pseudosciences developed out of this view and reinforced a willingness to arrange men of differing physiological characteristics into “races” along the chain of being. Such a classification system supported the Enlightenment aesthetic ideal of classical beauty by ascribing superiority to the race that came closest to classical beauty and degrees of inferiority as races differed from the classical concept of beauty. Therefore, a standard of racial superiority and inferiority was established and a group of sciences and/or pseudosciences emerged to support, elaborate, and develop this racial view of the nature of man.

While one side of the period of the Enlightenment was developing racial categories, the other side—revivalism—was constructing ideas that would mix with and support the first. The abstract ideas of the Enlightenment left many people anxious and lonely in an increasingly impersonal world. The pietism of the great revival movements that swept Europe and North America in the eighteenth century sought to reestablish through religion a sense of meaning in life and Christian community. The appeal of religion was directly to the emotions and that emotionalism was expressed in concrete symbols, such as the nation and the flag. According to Mosse, “A world of myth and symbol was created within which racial thought was to take root.” The emotion attached to the nation invested this symbol with a unique history decreed by God and a Divine purpose. This Divine purpose mandated for the nation state could only be fulfilled by a superior people uniquely selected to carry out God’s wishes. The inner directive of such a people had to reflect itself outwardly in the classical ideal. Hence, nationalism clearly supported the racial notions of the Enlightenment.

These racial concepts easily hardened into stereotypes with the aid of anthropology. While Antoine de Lamarck (1744-1829) and Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788) argued in behalf of environmental theories of racial classification, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a founder of anthropology, stressed the nation as a determining factor in racial and facial configuration. Facial configuration was soon supported by the idea of “facial angle.” The classical face became the norm for this measurement. Physiognomy and phrenology were also employed to support the classical view of beauty which was soon spoken of as “Aryan,” “Caucasian,” or “Anglo-Saxon,” whichever the classifier believed that he represented. Given these developments, Jewish characteristics, such as the “Jewish nose,” were regarded by intellectuals as indicating inferiority and at the level of popular culture were mercilessly caricatured by the many painters and illustrators of the eighteenth century. Therefore, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stereotypical thinking about race had begun to permeate European society.

Sterotypical thinking was also strengthened by linguistic and...

(The entire section is 2623 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, September 1, 1978, p. 995.

Library Journal. CIII, October 15, 1978, p. 2111.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, September 4, 1978, p. 110.