A long-overdue excavation of the book that Hitler called his “bible,” and the man who wrote it
By Adam Serwer | The Atlantic | April 2019
Robert bowers wanted everyone to know why he did it.
“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he posted on the social-media network Gab shortly before allegedly entering the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27 and gunning down 11 worshippers. He “wanted all Jews to die,” he declared while he was being treated for his wounds. Invoking the specter of white Americans facing “genocide,” he singled out HIAS, a Jewish American refugee-support group, and accused it of bringing “invaders in that kill our people.” Then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announcing that Bowers would face federal charges, was unequivocal in his condemnation: “These alleged crimes are incomprehensibly evil and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation.”
The pogrom in Pittsburgh, occurring just days before the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, seemed fundamentally un-American to many. Sessions’s denunciation spoke to the reality that most Jews have found a welcome home in the United States. His message also echoed what has become an insistent refrain in the Donald Trump era. Americans want to believe that the surge in white-supremacist violence and recruitment—the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us”; the hate crimes whose perpetrators invoke the president’s name as a battle cry—has no roots in U.S. soil, that it is racist zealotry with a foreign pedigree and marginal allure.The president’s rhetoric about “shithole countries” invites dismissal as crude talk, but behind it lie ideas whose power should not be underestimated.
Warnings from conservative pundits on Fox News about the existential threat facing a country overrun by immigrants meet with a similar response. “Massive demographic changes,” Laura Ingraham has proclaimed, mean that “the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” in much of the country: Surely this kind of rhetoric reflects mere ignorance. Or it’s just a symptom of partisan anxiety about what those changes may portend for Republicans’ electoral prospects. As for the views and utterances of someone like Congressman Steve King (“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”), such sentiments are treated as outlandish extremism, best ignored as much as possible.
The concept of “white genocide”—extinction under an onslaught of genetically or culturally inferior nonwhite interlopers—may indeed seem like a fringe conspiracy theory with an alien lineage, the province of neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers. In popular memory, it’s a vestige of a racist ideology that the Greatest Generation did its best to scour from the Earth. History, though, tells a different story. King’s recent question, posed in a New York Times interview, may be appalling: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” But it is apt. “That language” has an American past in need of excavation. Without such an effort, we may fail to appreciate the tenacity of the dogma it expresses, and the difficulty of eradicating it. The president’s rhetoric about “shithole countries” and “invasion” by immigrants invites dismissal as crude talk, but behind it lie ideas whose power should not be underestimated.
The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. Perhaps the most important among them was a blue blood with a very impressive mustache, Madison Grant. He was the author of a 1916 book called The Passing of the Great Race, which spread the doctrine of race purity all over the globe.
Grant’s purportedly scientific argument that the exalted “Nordic” race that had founded America was in peril, and all of modern society’s accomplishments along with it, helped catalyze nativist legislators in Congress to pass comprehensive restrictionist immigration policies in the early 1920s. His book went on to become Adolf Hitler’s “bible,” as the führer wrote to tell him. Grant’s doctrine has since been rejuvenated and rebranded by his ideological descendants as “white genocide” (the term genocide hadn’t yet been coined in Grant’s day). In an introduction to the 2013 edition of another of Grant’s works, the white nationalist Richard Spencer warns that “one possible outcome of the ongoing demographic transformation is a thoroughly miscegenated, and thus homogeneous and ‘assimilated,’ nation, which would have little resemblance to the White America that came before it.” This language is vintage Grant.
Most Americans, however, quickly forgot who Grant was—but not because the country had grappled with his vision’s dangerous appeal and implications. Reflexive recoil was more like it: When Nazism reflected back that vision in grotesque form, wartime denial set in. Jonathan Peter Spiro, a historian and the author of Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (2009), described the backlash to me this way: “Even though the Germans had been directly influenced by Madison Grant and the American eugenics movement, when we fought Germany, because Germany was racist, racism became unacceptable in America. Our enemy was racist; therefore we adopted antiracism as our creed.” Ever since, a strange kind of historical amnesia has obscured the American lineage of this white-nationalist ideology.
Madison grant came from old money. Born in Manhattan seven months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, he attended Yale and then Columbia Law School. He was an outdoorsman and a conservationist, knowledgeable about wildlife and interested in the dangers of extinction, expertise that he soon became intent on applying to humanity. When he opened a law practice on Wall Street in the early 1890s, the wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe was nearing its height. “As he was jostled by Greek ragpickers, Armenian bootblacks, and Jewish carp vendors, it was distressingly obvious to him that the new arrivals did not know this nation’s history or understand its republican form of government,” Spiro writes in his biography.
Jews troubled Grant the most. “The man of the old stock,” he later wrote in The Passing of the Great Race, is being “driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.” But as the title of his 1916 work indicated, Grant’s fear of dispossession ran wide and deep:
These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name, and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.
Grant was not the first proponent of “race science.” In 1853, across the Atlantic, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, a French count, first identified the “Aryan” race as “great, noble, and fruitful in the works of man on this earth.” Half a century later, as the eugenics movement gathered force in the U.S., “experts” began dividing white people into distinct races. In 1899, William Z. Ripley, an economist, concluded that Europeans consisted of “three races”: the brave, beautiful, blond “Teutons”; the stocky “Alpines”; and the swarthy “Mediterraneans.” Another leading academic contributor to race science in turn-of-the-century America was a statistician named Francis Walker, who argued in The Atlantic that the new immigrants lacked the pioneer spirit of their predecessors; they were made up of “beaten men from beaten races,” whose offspring were crowding out the fine “native” stock of white people. In 1901 the sociologist Edward A. Ross, who similarly described the new immigrants as “masses of fecund but beaten humanity from the hovels of far Lombardy and Galicia,” coined the term race suicide.Grant blended Nordic boosterism with fearmongering, and supplied a scholarly veneer for notions many white citizens already wanted to believe.
But it was Grant who synthesized these separate strands of thought into one pseudo-scholarly work that changed the course of the nation’s history. In a nod to wartime politics, he referred to Ripley’s “Teutons” as “Nordics,” thereby denying America’s hated World War I rivals exclusive claim to descent from t