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"Present Distribution of the European Races" — Grant's vision of the status quo, with the Nordics in red, the Alpines in green, and the Mediterraneans in yellow.
The Passing of The Great Race; or, The racial basis of European history was an influential book of scientific racism written by the American eugenicist, lawyer, and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant in 1916. The book was very influential in United States during the interwar period, going through many reprintings and selling 1,600,000 copies in the United States alone by 1937. The book put forward Grant's theory of "Nordic superiority" and argued for a strong eugenics program in order to save the waning "Nordics" from inundation of other race types. Grant's propositions to create a strong eugenics program and for the "Nordic" population to be masters of the other races were controversial at the time and now considered extremely unethical and dangerous.


Grant organized the book into two sections. The first section dealt with the basis of race as well as Grant's own stances on political issues of the day. These centered around the growing problem of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, areas that were underdeveloped and a source of racial stocks unqualified for the Nordic political structure erected in the US. Grant was also interested in the impact of the expansion of America's Negro population into the urban areas of the North.

Grant outlined his claim that the upper, middle and lower classes of native American Protestant society who could trace their ancestry back to Colonial times whether poor or rich, were being out-bred by immigrant and inferior racial stocks. Grant reasoned that America has always been a Nordic country, consisting of Nordic immigrants from England, Scotland, and the Netherlands in Colonial times and of Nordic immigrants from Ireland and Germany in later times.

Following his research, surveys, and social behavioral scientific analysis, Grant reasoned that the new immigrants were of different races and were creating separate societies within America including ethnic lobby groups, criminal syndicates, and political machines which were undermining the socio-political structure of the country and in turn the traditional Anglo-Saxon colonial stocks, as well as all Nordic stocks. His careful construction of population studies, economic utility factors, labor supply, etc purported to show that the consequence of this subversion was evident in the decreasing quality of life, lower birth-rates, and corruption of the native American society. He reasoned that the Nordic races would become extinct and America as it is known will cease to exist being replaced by a balkanized country or corrupt caricature of itself.

The second part of the book dealt with the history of the three European races: Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean, as well as their physical and mental characteristics. This history was a broad survey of the historical rise and fall, expansion and retraction, and spread of the European races from their homelands. This aspect of the book tied together strands of thinking regarding Aryan migration theory, ethnology, anthropology, and history into a holistic fabric which melded the history of America with that of Europe, especially its Nordic nations.

Nordic theory

"Maximum Expansion of Alpines" — Map from '"Passing of the Great Race showing the "essentially peasant" Alpine migrations into Europe.

"Expansion of the Pre-Teutonic Nordics" — Early Nordic influence spreading over the continent.

Grant's book was an elaborate work of racial hygiene detailing the "racial history" of the world. There had been hundreds of books, studies, and pamphlets on this new aspect academic research. New methods of statistical analysis and scientific empiricism, advances in physiology and biology, new schools on behavior and psychology, and discoveries in archeology, and the scientific theory of Darwinism had caused an explosion in scientific racism, eugenics, sociology, and statistics and in turn an optimistic expectation in the formation of a new philosophy which would bring the various advances into a codified whole.

Grant's work appeared to meet this expectation. However, changes in Western political movements, the spiritual and emotional effects of World War One, the economic disaster of the Great Depression, and most importantly the rise and expansion of Communism which presented itself as a competitive philosophical and scientific explanation of human development resulted in a decline of interest in the subject matter. Many academic departments under the influence of the Soviet Union and the Socialist movements in Europe turned against the subject matter.

However, the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany and a parallel spread of Fascism caused a new interest in the studies of scientific racism. Thus, although Grant's work was an early racialist work espousing Nordic theory his codification of the various disciplines involved in the work under a governing philosophy brought it immediately to the interest of the Nazi German government despite the plethora of other similar authors. Consequently, Grant's was the first non-German book ordered to be reprinted by the Nazis when they took power in Germany, and Adolf Hitler wrote to Grant, "The book is my Bible".

In summary the book elaborated Grant's interpretation of contemporary anthropology and history, which he saw as revolving chiefly around the idea of "race" rather than class or economics as pushed by the communists. He specifically promoted the idea of the Nordic race as a key social group responsible for human development; thus the subtitle of the book was The racial basis of European history. Grant also was an avid eugenicist, advocating separation, quarantine and eventual collapse of "undesirable" traits and "worthless race types" from the human gene pool and the promotion, spread, and eventual restoration of desirable "traits" and "worthwhile race types" conducive to Nordic society:

A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit — in other words social failures — would solve the whole question in one hundred years, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals, and insane asylums. The individual himself can be nourished, educated and protected by the community during his lifetime, but the state through sterilization must see to it that his line stops with him, or else future generations will be cursed with an ever increasing load of misguided sentimentalism. This is a practical, merciful, and inevitable solution of the whole problem, and can be applied to an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane, and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.

"Expansion of the Teutonic Nordics and Slavic Alpines" — Further Nordic expansion, as well as the Alpines.

Other messages in his work include recommendations to install civil organizations through the public health system to establish quasi-dictatorships in their particular fields with the administrative powers to segregate unfavorable races in ghettos. He also mentioned that the expansion of non-Nordic race types in the Nordic system of freedom would actually mean a slavery to desires, passions, and base behaviors. In turn, this corruption of society would lead to the subjection of the Nordic community to "inferior" races who would in turn long to be dominated and instructed by "superior" ones utilizing authoritarian powers. The result would be the submergence of the indigenous Nordic races under a corrupt and infeebled system dominated by inferior races and both in turn would be subjected by a new ruling race class. Thus, the free Nordic system in a multi-racial society would lead to dictatorship and "Banana Republicanism." The book was immensely popular and went through multiple printings in the United States, and was translated into a number of other languages, notably German in 1925. By 1937 the book had sold 1,600,000 copies in the United States alone.

Nordic theory, in Grant's formulation, was similar to many 19th-century racial philosophies in that it divided the human species into primarily three distinct races: Caucasoids (based in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia), Negroids (based in Sub-Saharan Africa), and Mongoloids (based in Central and Eastern Asia). Nordic theory, however, further subdivided Caucasoids into three groups: Nordics (who inhabited Scandinavia, northern Germany, Austria-Hungary, parts of England, Scotland and Ireland, Holland, Flanders, parts of northern France, parts of Russia, and northern Poland), Alpines (whose territory stretched from central Europe, parts of northern Italy, southern Poland to the Balkans/Southeastern Europe, central/southern Russia, Turkey and even into Central Asia), and Mediterraneans (who inhabited southern France, the Iberian peninsula, southern Italy, Greece, Wales, parts of England, Ireland and Scotland, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East).

"Present Distribution of the European Races" — Grant's vision of the status quo, with the Nordics in red, the Alpines in green, and the Mediterraneans in yellow.

In Grant's view, Nordics probably evolved in a climate which "must have been such as to impose a rigid elimination of defectives through the agency of hard winters and the necessity of industry and foresight in providing the year's food, clothing, and shelter during the short summer. Such demands on energy, if long continued, would produce a strong, virile, and self-contained race which would inevitably overwhelm in battle nations whose weaker elements had not been purged by the conditions of an equally severe environment." The "Proto-Nordic" human, Grant reasoned, probably evolved in eastern Germany, Poland, and Russia, before migrating northward to Scandinavia.

The Nordic, in his theory, was "Homo europaeus, the white man par excellence. It is everywhere characterized by certain unique specializations, namely, wavy brown or blond hair and blue, gray or light brown eyes, fair skin, high, narrow and straight nose, which are associated with great stature, and a long skull, as well as with abundant head and body hair." Grant categorized the Alpines as being the lowest of the three European races, with the Nordics as the pinnacle of civilization.

The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats in sharp contrast to the essentially peasant character of the Alpines. Chivalry and knighthood, and their still surviving but greatly impaired counterparts, are peculiarly Nordic traits, and feudalism, class distinctions, and race pride among Europeans are traceable for the most part to the north.

Grant while aware of the "Nordic Migration Theory" into the Mediterranean appears to reject this theory as an explanation for the high civilization features of the Greco-Roman world.

The mental characteristics of the Mediterranean race are well known, and this race, while inferior in bodily stamina to both the Nordic and the Alpine, is probably the superior of both, certainly of the Alpines, in intellectual attainments. In the field of art its superiority to both the other European races is unquestioned.

Yet, while Grant allowed Mediterraneans to have abilities in art, as quoted above, later in the text in a sop to Nordic Migration Theorists, he remarked that true Mediterranean achievements were only through admixture with Nordics:

This is the race that gave the world the great civilizations of Egypt, of Crete, of Phoenicia including Carthage, of Etruria and of Mycensean Greece. It gave us, when mixed and invigorated with Nordic elements, the most splendid of all civilizations, that of ancientHellas, and the most enduring of political organizations, the Roman State.

To what extent the Mediterranean race entered into the blood and civilization of Rome, it is now difficult to say, but the traditions of the Eternal City, its love of organization, of law and military efficiency, as well as the Roman ideals of family life, loyalty, and truth, point clearly to a Nordic rather than to a Mediterranean origin.

In this manner, Grant appeared to be studiously following scientific theory, though, accordingly to which, while historical analysis revealed a certain correlation between the Mediterranean, and especially Greco-Roman, worlds with that of the Nordic worlds, the genetic, linguistic, ethnological, and anthropological discoveries had not yet been made that would support such theories with certainty. But in the passage above, it can be seen how unscientific his circular reasoning really was: the desirable characteristics of a people – "family life, loyalty, and truth" in the present example – were claimed to be exclusive products of the "Nordic race". Thus, whenever such traits were found in a non-Nordic culture, they could, by this definition, be presented as "proof" of a Nordic influence or admixture, rather than (as would be the proper scientific method) casting doubt on their supposed exclusive Nordic origin. Indeed, the mores of the Roman Republic are nowadays accepted as indigenous achievements, originating from the Italic people ("Mediterraneans" in Grant's terminology) as well as the Etruscanmarker (which were not even Indoeuropean, and in Grant's theory probably would be "Alpines").

Ultimately, Grant and other racial scientists of the era intellectualized ideas of Nordic and Caucasian superiority by basing it upon the theory of Darwinism. This methodology came to be called Social Darwinism. It was a popular philosophy at the time that claimed that the fittest humans would enhance and perfect their genes through selective breeding conditioned by socio-economic conditions while the unfit would fail to successfully produce over several generations thus allowing the further evolution of the species. Originally conceived by the Englishman Herbert Spencer, this built on Darwin's theory of evolution, which included acknowledgment of differences in intelligence between individual humans as well as the different human races. Grant, as well as others, claimed that the Caucasian races, in addition to their obvious cultural superiority, represent the highest pinnacle of evolution and are superior in intelligence as well. However, there remained the need to prove underlying reasons which would explain this evolution in a scientific manner. Until the development of specialized academic research in sociology, behaviorism, statistics, economics, and most importantly anthropology and its attendant groups, this remained a matter of conjecture. Consequently, with the rise of these disciplines Grant and others began the research to prove not only the theory of Social Darwinsim, but their theory of Nordic racialism.

According to Grant, Nordics were in a dire state in the modern world, where due to their abandonment of cultural values rooted in religious or superstitious proto-racialism, they were close to committing "race suicide" by being miscegenated with and out-bred by more inferior stock who were taking advantage of the transition. Nordic theory was strongly embraced by the racial hygiene movement in Germany in the early 1920s and 1930s; however, they typically used the term "Aryan" instead of "Nordic", though the principal Nazi ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg, preferred "Aryo-Nordic" or "Nordic-Atlantean". Stephen Jay Gould described The Passing of the Great Race as "The most influential tract of American scientific racism."

Ultimately the thrust of this scientific research was furiously countered by the efforts of Marxist leaning scientists, particularly those whose ethnicity under Nordic Racial Theory called into question their fitness within the Nordic society. Thus, he was involved in many debates over the discipline of anthropology against the anthropologist Franz Boas, who advocated cultural anthropology in contrast to Grant's "hereditarian" branch of physical anthropology. Eventually Grant came to conclude that Boas was both a poor researcher and one who was overtly and covertly politicized to the point that he would suppress any discoveries favoring hereditarian anthropology which came to be called scientific racialism. By the time both Grant and Boas served on the National Research Council Committee on Anthropology after the First World War Grant reputably would not shake hands with Boas on account of the latter's Communism and anti-racialism. Grant represented the "hereditarian" branch of physical anthropology and was staunchly opposed to and by Boas himself (and the latter's students), who advocated cultural anthropology and eventually succeeded in driving hereditarian research and scientific racialism from most of the premier universities in the United States.

Grant advocated restricted immigration to the United States through limiting immigration from East Asia and Southern Europe; he also advocated efforts to purify the American population though selective breeding. He served as the vice president of the Immigration Restriction League from 1922 to his death. Acting as an expert on world racial data, Grant also provided statistics for the Immigration Act of 1924 to set the quotas on immigrants from certain European countries. Even after passing the statute, Grant continued to be irked that even a smattering of non-Nordics were allowed to immigrate to the country each year. He also assisted in the passing and prosecution of several anti-miscegenation laws, notably the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in the state of Virginiamarker, where he sought to codify his particular version of the "one-drop rule" into law.

Reception and influence

Grant became a part of popular culture in 1920s America, especially in New York. Grant's conservationism and fascination with zoological natural history made him very influential among the New York elite who agreed with his cause, most notably Theodore Roosevelt. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald featured a reference to Grant in The Great Gatsby. Tom Buchanan was reading a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires by "this man Goddard", a combination of Passing of the Great Race (Grant) and his colleague Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (Stoddard; Grant wrote the introduction to Stoddard's book). "Everybody ought to read it", the character explained, "The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved."

However, Nordic theory received a large boost during the 1930s by the racialist influence of the Nazi party. Grant's book and the genre in general received significant support among the German public. The Nazi Party used Grant's ideas about eugenics to justify compulsory sterilization, and used his ideas about Nordic superiority to justify programs such as Heinrich Himmler's Lebensborn Society, which existed to preserve typical Nordic genes, such as blond hair and blue eyes, by sheltering blond, blue-eyed women and subjecting them to breeding programs. All this was related to Grant's claim that the "Nordic" is in danger of being out-bred by inferior racial stocks.


Further References

  • Guterl, Matthew Press. The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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