Commentary: 'Social Darwinism: The Radical Racial Ideology that Caused Two World Wars and Continues to Kill' by Camillus
What inspires young men to slaughter innocent people? Terrorists from Norway to New Zealand have latched onto an apocalyptic vision of racial struggle. These extremists may become radicalized through hate sites and social media, but the core of their dangerous ideology is far older.
While ethnic conflicts have existed since the dawn of time, the 19th century development of nationalism and the biological sciences changed how these conflicts were understood. Nationalists applied the pseudoscience of Eugenics to “prove” their racial superiority. They also misappropriated Darwin’s theories, understanding “survival of the fittest” (a phrase not even used by Darwin) as an eternal struggle for racial supremacy. In a vicious, zero-sum world, peoples must fight for their existence or face extinction. In the early 20th century, such Social Darwinist beliefs were widespread. Their jingoistic believers would plunge their nations into unparalleled misery and death.
When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, Moltke seized the opportunity to begin this racial war, declaring “we shall never again strike as well as we do now.” Germany pressed her Austro-Hungarian ally to attack Serbia, leading Russia to defend her “Slavic little brother.” In St. Petersburg, leaders showed the same ethnic chauvinism that prevailed in Berlin. In mobilizing his armies, Tsar Nicholas considered it his “historic mission” to defend Slavdom.
Four years later, over 20 million were dead. The Kaiser had lost his throne and the Tsar, his life.
A War Against the Jews
The bloodletting of WWI should have proven the destructiveness of Social Darwinist ideologies. Instead, the Nazis doubled-down on violent ethno-nationalism, promising to restore German greatness. Years before he took power, Hitler revealed his vision for an existential race war against the Soviet Union and the Jews in Mein Kampf. Nazi propaganda spread the message that the Aryan race must fight for survival and that living space, lebensraum,was essential to that survival. As Hitler declared, expansion was vital “to secure the space necessary to the life of our people.”
By 1945, the Nazis had slaughtered six million Jews and millions of other non-combatants.
After WWII, in the wake of unprecedented human destruction, Social Darwinism was rightly discredited. Yet recently, European populism, Russian nationalism, and Trumpism have adopted aspects of Social Darwinism. These movements have helped mainstream and legitimize extremist groups.
However absurd and intellectually disreputable their views, we cannot ignore them. Internet cesspools are rife with violent and dangerous ideas that appeal to disaffected young men around the world. These men are radicalized inside an echo chamber of anger and fear. Their worldview becomes dominated by the animalistic imperative: “kill or be killed.”
Similarly, the New Zealand terrorist considered himself a foot soldier in an apocalyptic war for white survival. His manifesto raged against “Muslim invaders” who are perpetrating a “white genocide.” The rants of these disturbed men reveal a violent, terrifying world that demands extreme action. They are true fanatics, willing to perpetrate any evil to serve their dark ideology.
When political leaders use the racial language of Social Darwinism, they are playing with fire. We need only to look at history to see what happens when that fire spreads.
Editor's note: This article was originally published at the Daily Kos, which specifies that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."
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