London's new Holocaust Memorial should not ignore the roots of racism shared with slave trade

Nazism had its roots in white supremacy, propagated by the West through colonialism and the slave trade.

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As the government names the architects tasked with building an estimated £50m Holocaust memorial next to parliament, the challenge faced by Sir David Adjaye and his team – who will shape its design – goes beyond representing the magnitude and inhumanity of the atrocity.

While no memorial can represent the enormity of the annihilation of the Jews under the Nazis, the new site will be a powerful statement in the UK’s response to the Holocaust. It will respect the victims, recognise Britain’s role in rescue and liberation and remind us of the perils of antisemitism, against which we should be ever vigilant.

No one would wish to detract from the courage of those who helped to defeat fascism – but it would be all too easy to portray Britain as being solely on the right side of history. When modern-day Nazis are emboldened to march with swastikas on the streets of the most powerful democracy on earth, some introspection is required.

Excavation is planned to house a subterranean learning centre in the planned memorial. This could be a metaphor for the need to dig deeper for a complex understanding of how Europe came to commit unprecedented mass murder of its Jewish, Roma and Slavic communities.

Former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor noted it’s not Britain’s strength “to look at the difficult bits”. But an area adjacent to the proposed memorial site, within Victoria Tower Gardens, gives the opportunity to do just that. The Buxton Memorial, which celebrates British parliamentarians who brought an end to the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, and who emancipated slaves in British dominions in 1834, is situated there.

Honest examination of the past marked by the two memorials may help visitors understand a challenge faced in the 21st century: transatlantic slavery and the Holocaust were deeply fed by the same root of white supremacism.

Though the transatlantic slave trade ended in economic terms, a belief in racial superiority endured in Britain and other western countries. It was a central influence on the ideology that led to the Holocaust.

Colonial empires grew through the 19th century. So did racial theories to justify European control of other peoples’ lands, such as the 1848 Inequality of the Races by French writer Arthur de Gobineau who put forward the Aryan theory.

Fifty years after the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire and five years before the birth of Adolf Hitler, Otto von Bismarck, the first German Chancellor, called European powers to a gathering in his Palace on Wilhelmstrasse, Germany’s equivalent of Whitehall.

Fourteen states attended the Berlin Conference in 1884 with an agenda to divide Africa between the colonial powers in an orderly manner. It was of particular importance to the British, French, Belgians, Dutch, Italians and Portuguese.

Only a white supremacist mindset could have led European nations to believe they had a right to rule other people.

Twenty years later, Germany committed the first genocide of the 20th century, in German Southwest Africa, exterminating 80 per cent of the rebellious Herero population. Bismarck had appointed Heinrich Goring the first governor in 1885. Though Heinrich was not in the colony by the time of the genocide, his son Herman was 11 years old in 1904, living in a home with detailed knowledge of how a race of people were eliminated for a political end. He would later become the most powerful Nazi leader next to Hitler, instructing Reinhard Heydrich in 1941 to prepare the Final Solution.

Back in the land of the Herero and Namaqua, Franz Ritter von Epp, a company commander responsible for the mass murder of the African tribes in 1904, wrote home from what is modern day Namibia:

“This world is being redistributed. With time we will inevitably need more space. Only by the sword will be able to get it.”

Von Epp later became head of the Nazi Party’s Military Political Office.

At the turn of the 20th century, influential British philosophers, scientists and sociologists were at the forefront of the racial fake sciences. They were not peripheral nut jobs, but establishment figures. Herbert Spencer advanced ideas of social Darwinism. In 1883, Sir Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” as the science of improving racial stock. In 1894, Benjamin Kidd asserted that “the weaker races disappear before the stronger” in reference to British colonialism.

In 1901, Galton’s protégé Karl Pearson wrote, with survival of the fittest and British South Africa in mind, that, “the nation organised for the struggle must not be a mixture of superior and inferior races”.

Twenty-four years later, Pearson warned in the first edition of the Journal of Eugenics – which he founded in London – that Jewish immigrants “will develop into a parasitic race. [...] this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population”.

British-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century is regarded by many as a prequel to Mein Kampf. It was first published in Munich in 1899, some 26 years before the same publishing house accepted Hitler’s infamous manuscript. 

HS Chamberlain was an influential bridge between colonial racist thinking and the Nazi worldview. He believed the 20th century would see a war for domination between Aryan people and Jews, Asians, and black people. He congratulated Kaiser Wilhelm for the extermination of the Herero and Namaqua, as an example of what Aryans should do with “n*****s”.

Riven with virulent antisemitism, Foundations sold 250,000 copies worldwide and earned warm reviews in the UK, including in The Spectator and Fabian News. Chamberlain married Richard Wagner’s only daughter and became a mentor to numerous German ultra-nationalist leaders, including Hitler, Goebbels and Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg.

German “racial hygienists” Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz thus viewed themselves as part of a respected international scientific community. This included anthropologists obsessed with measuring noses, faces and skull shapes in Africa in pursuit of proving the inequality of races.

In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis were divided, setting in motion myths that would contribute to the genocide of Tutsis in our time. When Fischer, a professor of medicine, studied offspring of Boer and Herero in German Southwest Africa in 1906, he declared the “Mischling” (“mixed blood” in German) to be of “lesser racial equality”.

His recommendation to prohibit mixed race marriages in German colonies was implemented in 1912 – a precursor of the Nuremberg racial laws banning intermarriage between “Aryan” Germans and Jews.

In 1921, Fischer and Lenz co-authored Principals of Race Hygiene. Hitler read it while in prison and integrated their ideas into Mein Kampf. That was a year after American historian, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, wrote The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, in which he expressed concern about the collapse of colonialism. He advocated restricting non-white immigration to America to preserve the dominant white order.

Stoddard’s subsequent Rise Against Civilisation: The Menace of the Under Man, published in 1922, three years before Mein Kampf, gave rise to the German term “Untermensch”, to define Slavic people.

In 1927, Fischer and Lenz went on to found the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. Financial support came from the American Rockefeller Foundation. In 1937-8, Fischer undertook a study into the offspring of French-African soldiers who had occupied German Rhineland after WWI. At least 600 mixed race children were sterilised to avoid them causing “racial degeneration”.

Fischer, who undertook his early fieldwork in the racist killing fields of Africa, was part of a large body of respected scientists who helped imagine and legitimise mass murder of Jews in Europe. By no means as virulent an antisemite as some of his colleagues, and not a Nazi party member until 1940, Fischer argued after the outbreak of WWII that “inferior peoples” should be protected “only for so long as they were of use to us”.

By 1941 he would advocate that Jews be exterminated through forced labour.

European genocide was trialed in Africa, before being unleashed in Europe. The Nazi regime was an imperial enterprise inspired in no small part by works of popular French, British and American racial theorists. Nazi antisemitism derived its potency for all-out destruction of Jews from white supremacist racial beliefs – the same white supremacism that underpinned transatlantic slavery.

While the UK Holocaust Memorial and the Buxton Memorial recall distinct events, together they convey how racial beliefs that developed in colonial times have divided and destroyed entire communities – including Jews, Roma and Slavs in Europe. These same pervasive white supremacist ideas are growing and even inform policy in the White House today.

As the co-founder of the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, I am conscious that the field of Holocaust education has not done enough to teach the origins and consequences of racial supremacism – and this needs correcting.

The team building the new landmark Holocaust Memorial can do more than acknowledge the presence of the Buxton Memorial. Landscape design, and content in the proposed learning centre, should properly connect these histories.

It will in no way diminish the unprecedented tragedy of the Holocaust, but rather give visitors more insight into it. This will help the UK Holocaust Memorial to shine a light on a menace that is a continual cause of injustice, grievance and hate in the present day.

Dr James M. Smith is Co-Founder and President of the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire and CEO of the Aegis Trust